Who is Jeff?

Jeff was a subject in a dangerous experiment, but Jeff was also human. He found himself caring for other people as humans despite there past. He was able to escape the system, though it was a harsh way he was now free.

Acknowledgement Paradox

In the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders, the illusion of choice within the piece, is present in Jeff’s use of the word, “Acknowledge.” Jeff and the other test subjects are required to address the drugs to being administered to them before Abnesti and Verlaine are allowed to do so. However, it is not exactly as if they have any choice in the first place. We see the outcome of this when Jeff refuses to let Abnesti administer Darkenfloxx, the most pain inducing drug, into Rachel. Abnesti immediately wants to give Jeff adore of Docilryde, a drug to make him follow all his orders, to make him acknowledge the administering of Darkenfloxx into Rachel. When Verlaine states “‘There’s Docilryde in every MobiPack,”‘(75) It connotes that even though a waiver would need to be signed, Jeff can be very easily manipulated with that drug. Thus the illusion of decision is made present if the scientists went without signing a waiver. They would very easily have the ability to use the Docilryde to make him approve of its usage in the first place. That being said, with no cooperation from Jeff needed to, “Acknowledge,” then there is no choice to begin with. Both Abnesti, Verlaine, and the rest of those operating within Spiderhead, have total control over their subjects. Concluding that Jeff’s words and wishes are meaningless, and he is merely a puppet to their science.

Emotions Are a Drug

In the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders, Jeff faces the realities of emotional connections in his modern prison. Jeff, a criminal, goes through his imprisoned life being administered drugs that can twist his emotions in the blink of an eye. With a simple “Acknowledge”, Jeff’s MobiPak™ releases a drug fit to the experiment being performed. In the most recent experiment, Jeff is given a drug that makes him fall madly in love with two different girls as quickly as he falls out of it. Not only does Jeff realize the reality of his situation, but he begins to question his so called “emotions”. “I was sad that love was not real?…I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone” (55). I think that Saunders writes Jeff feeling the same way the reader would be, along with having the same realizations. When Jeff finally takes initiative and begins to think for himself, it leads to even greater character development later on in the story.

Darkenfloxx Dreaming

In a world where prisoners are guinea pigs and love quite literally is a drug, George Saunders explores the daunting realities of life, death, and the ultimate sacrifice.

As Saunder’s story concludes, we are met with a bittersweet end to Jeff’s life, that reveals much more than his mortality. When Jeff decides to release the Darkenfloxx, a deadly, mind-altering drug into his system, his intentions are actually driven by life, not death. Jeff realizes the systematic manipulation and corruption he has fallen into at the hands of “scientist” and “family man” Abnesti. He now understands that the only way to save fellow inmate Rachel, and others from a deadly fate, is by sacrificing his life. We see Jeff’s immediate regret as his, “arm was about a miles down the heat vent,” where he hurled the remote that activated the Darkenfloxx. Jeff indeed had a will to live, but his will to protect others was ultimately stronger.

Deserved Punishment or Criminal Behavior?

In the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders, Jeff, a convicted criminal, is forced to take drugs and engage in sexual activity as a test subject in a research facility. He must do these things as punishment for his criminal background, however as the story progresses it becomes more and more clear that the people in charge of running the facility are acting in similar ways as the “bad guys”.

In the story, the people in charge gave a test subject Darkenfloxx, a drug which makes you want to kill yourself. She had killed people in her past which had wound her up in the facility, however it begs the question of why they would risk her life just because of her past. Yes she had killed people, however testing this drug on her when it was unnecessary (and against her will) and killing her only makes the administrators murderer too. Punishment should be put in place for violent crime however the severity of the punishment dehumanizes the criminal. Jeff was dehumanized to a point where only in death did he finally experience true human emotion, stating: “no. This is all me now” (80). In the real world, the criminal justice system is very much like this. Of course in different cases different forms of punishment must be put in place, but by dehumanizing these people it is making them believe that they can be nothing more than what they were in their past.

Escaping Life with Birds

In the magnificent short story written by George Saunders the main character, Jeff, ultimately decides to kill himself. “My MobiPak™ whirred. The Darkenfloxx™ flowed. Then came the horror: worse than I’d ever imagined” (page 78). Later on in the story as Jeff is dying of intoxication, he is describing an actual escape. I believe George Saunders did this to appeal to the reader and not share the gory details of the pain Jeff is feeling. The reason why I find this so interesting is because Saunders has been extremely descriptive leading up to the main characters death. Saunders also included the description of birds as a way for the reader to believe Jeff had redeemed himself in the end by choosing to sacrifice himself instead of allowing Rachel to die. “From across the woods, as if by common accord, birds left their trees and darted upward. I joined them, flew among them, they did not recognize me as something apart from them, and I was happy so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed and never would” (page 81).

Did Jeff’s Actions Actually Change Anything?

In the end of the story Jeff gets his escape by killing himself because he believes it is the only way to save Rachel. He then is freed and he floats up out of Spiderhead. At first glance this seems like a selfless act to make sure another human does not die. What will happen to the prisoners after this? It seems likely that this act had almost no effect on the people imprisoned in Spiderhead. Nobody will get in trouble for Jeff’s death as when Heather dies nobody cares and they move on to the next person. Jeff was only even there because he had the best descriptions so they will just bring in Rogan or Keith and get one slightly less descriptive observer. In a short time Jeff will be replaced as it is clear that many people want to become part of the experiment instead of staying in prison.

Overall, this intense ending will likely mean nothing for the rest of the people in the story. As the only person Jeff even knows is Abnesti, who does not care about Jeff at all and only uses their “friendship” to guilt Jeff into doing things he does not want to. This is shown when he says “Am I a monster… Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Rexall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?” (68). He only reminds him of what he has done for his when he wants Jeff to let him give Darkenfloxx to Heather. Abnesti also makes it obvious that he does not see these people as human as he uses their crimes as reason to experiment on them and let them die. This is shown when he uses someone’s confidential case file to convince Jeff that it is okay to give her Darkenfloxx. So, while it was significant to Jeff that he took his own life in an act of mutual recognition to save Rachel and did help him escape from this awful scenario. This will not end up helping the other people forced to be in this experiment. In fact Jeff might have taken away their only hope at someone who could try to do something to get them out of there as he showed he was willing to go to great lengths to make sure people were not treated this way.

Killer Intent

The short story Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders ends on a rather ambiguous note with the words “I had not killed, and never would.” The beauty of this line lies in the fact that it can be interpreted many ways. For example, one could assume Jeff is referring to his successful avoidance of having to watch Rachel be Darkenfloxxed and his consequent feelings of responsibility and guilt following her likely death. Conversely, one could argue that these words are wishful thinking – a falsity – seeing as Jeff did in fact kill himself to escape ‘killing’ Rachel. Thus begs the question: Is Jeff’s act of Darkenfloxxing himself considered a heroic self-sacrifice or suicide? On the one hand, Jeff reasons, “If I wasn’t here to describe it, they wouldn’t do it.” In this case, the only reason Jeff committed his act was because there was no other way – he couldn’t run or hide, so he needed to die. On the other hand, Jeff responds to the voice asking if he wanted to live by saying, “No thanks, I’ve had enough.” These are words of a dying man giving up. Given this, it can be argued that at this point, his intent to save Rachel transformed into an intent to die. Therefore, even if he didn’t kill Rachel, he did kill himself, and his words were a lie.

Good Guys

Toward the end of the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, The main character Jeff was forced to watch Heather take her own life. Before the same thing was about to happen to Rachel, Jeff thought to himself, “It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was sit there and wait,” (76). After this Jeff saved Rachel by switching the Darkenfloxx into his own MobiPak. Although Jeff and Rachel were prisoners who had done very bad things, Jeff still had the humanity to not want to see someone die. By societies standards Jeff was the ‘bad guy’ for what he had done in the past, while the ‘good guy’ was Abnesti who forced this upon them. With no regard for either of there lives Abnesti was the one to make them endure everything as he looked down upon them. He had no respect for what he thought was beneath him all the while he tried to convince the prisoners that he was the ‘good guy’. Abnesti could not view the prisoners as humans which ultimately put him in the wrong.

The significance of “acknowledge”

Throughout the story, “escape from spiderhead”, acknowledge is used to force Jeff to cooperate with the experiment and it’s consequences. All of the test subjects are made to be a part of the experiment and to administer the trial themselves, through the word “acknowledge”. The most important moment in the story was when Jeff refuses to say acknowledge. It this moment, Abnesti still makes Jeff allow him to give Rachel Darkenfloxx.

“I did not say “acknowledge.” Enough, Abnesti said. Verlaine, what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it? Docilryde. Is their Docilryde in his Mobipak? Abnesti said. Theres Docilryde in every Mobipak, Verliane said.” (75) In this scene, it connotes that Jeff is not making his own decisions, but he is made to believe he is. If every pack has Docilryde, how do we know Jeff’s action have been his own at any point in the story? The word “acknowledge” is a representation of the illusion of choice. If Abnesti can make Jeff do what he wants anyway, acknowledge’s only purpose is to Jeff feel to the impact of “his” decisions and believe they are his, but maybe it was Abnesti all along?

Mutual Recognition

In the story “Escape From Spider Head”, the characters judge each other based off of their own life experiences. This explains why Absteni has the power for most of the story, and all of the subjects see each other as criminals, because they are all there for a crime they did. Absteni see’s himself as the big man in charge in the spider head, because he has the power to tell people what to do. Everybody plays their role. Although, as the story unfolds Jeff begins to see the other characters as people, instead of a criminal, boss, or whatever he thought of them as. He realizes that Absteni is like Rogan’s tattoo, “a rat with a knife in its back, stabbing another rat that just looked clueless”, and he “thought it was a little funny that” he’d “loved” Heather after hearing her crime, but still “didn’t want to kill her”. Additionally, when Jeff killed himself, the birds he flew with “did not recognize” him “as something apart from them”.

Saying this, I believe this story was written to show people to not judge a person based on your life, but to recognize they have a different situation that requires different actions. Therefore everyone should be treated as a person instead of preconceived ideas.

Spiderhead and Our World

Escape from Spiderhead is presented as a story far removed from the norms of our world. We’re shown testing facilities complete with made-up drugs, snarky scientists, and prisoners of experiments who have lost their right to decide their fate. While the story may seem extremely unrealistic, I wonder, is this where we’re headed? I hadn’t really connected the dots until I read this small line,

“In his defense, Abnesti was not in such great shape himself: breathing hard, cheeks candy red, as he tapped the screen of his iMac nonstop with a pen, something he did when stressed,”

This line, while pointing out Abnesti’s declining state of health, also reveals that Apple is an existing company in this universe. Among made up devices and compounds, Darkenfloxx, Verbaleuce, Vivistif, Mobipak, there is an iMac, a recognizable device from our world. While Escape from Spiderhead surrounds us with its own terminology, this iMac is here to remind us that the events of this world our still happening in a version of our world, a world not totally impossible via the means of science. How do we end up on this dystopian path, where prisoners are slaves to research, and where chemical weapons become emotional weapons? What can we do to stop it?

How are they trapped in the spiderhead?

While reading the story “Escape from spiderhead” I was truly shocked while reading the story. The whole idea that they were stuck in a science experiment because they were criminals or did wrong in their life was interesting. For example, Jeff was a criminal and he told the story about his crime ” Nearby was a brick. I grabbed it, glanced Mike in the head with it”(77). We also never knew exactly what were all the crimes each person committed. There were a lot of questions about the story that we did not get the answer too. Like how long they would be in this experiment ? Does jail even exist anymore? But having all these unanswered questions made you think about the story more when you were done reading the story. But I love a good ending where all the ties are wrapped together and I get all my questions answered.

The Cyborg in the Spiderhead

The horizon of technology has plagued humanity throughout all modernity. Though the idea of human augmentation is a multifaceted one, it can be useful to think of it as a spectrum; on the one end, the helpful, empowering, and often even life saving augmentations of Pacemakers, Cochlear Implants, or Insulin Pumps, on the other end, the abhorrent practices of genomic editing, human breeding, and other eugenic techniques. As long as this spectrum has existed, authors of the western cannon have employed their artistry to warn against moving too far with technology that alters what it means to be human.

George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” is no different — it offers a broad condemnation of chemical influence on human consciousness. While this commentary is not quite literal — Saunders does not at all make it seem like he is commenting on modern society’s use of augmentation — it is still a running battle between morality and the “pursuit of science” that defines “Spiderhead.” Saunders paints the world of chemical augmentation as corporatized, such as through the use of trademark symbols by chemical names (as in 45, 46, 54, 55, etc.). He also has his characters follow a blind, almost comical “pursuit of science” over morality, as when Absenti — the story’s main protagonist — insists that the tortures experiment on which the story centers was in the name of “the mandates of science” (74).

While this condemnation might be a useful thought experiment about human morality, it poorly reflects the possibilities of human existence. As long as medical science has existed, bio-ethical standards, practices, and procedures have been shaped with the finest precision to make medicine as morally acceptable to broader members of society as possible. For example, in contrast to the story, not only is human chemical augmentation carefully controlled in modern society, it is also useful and even possibly life saving for people with severe mental health conditions. While it is obvious that Saunders is not trying to comment on a world that currently exists per say, Saunders is still making a commentary on the ability of technology to shape human morals in a way that, as outlined above, has never been reflective of reality.

The decades to come will be filled with medical advances — bionic suits, AI, mental chemical enhancements, etc. — that will bring what it means to be human up for debate. How we understand both ourselves and the rest of humanity will evolve, and so will our sense of morality. However, these changes will happen under public scrutiny, and guided by the strict scruples that define western scientific development. Therefore, while it can be appealing to let fiction play out various though experiments on the intersection of science and morality, we should not let this preclude discovering new horizons of medicine and science that revolutionize what it means to be human.

The Bird Passage

On page 80 of the reading I thought that the second paragraph on the page regarding the birds singing was particularly interesting. As Jeff’s body begins to ascend, he talks about how the birds “were manifesting as the earth’s bright-colored nerve endings, the sun’s descent urging them into activity…”. The imagery in this line is very intense and is an interesting animal to chose in a seemingly futuristic world. I’m also curious about the significance of this passage to the overall meaning of the story. I think that the bird’s are a symbol for parts of the reading when Abnesti is able to manipulate the participants feelings. At the end of the passage when it says “that bird’s distinctive song… an accident of brain chemistry” is a connection between the drugs that they administer and the feelings it produces similar to that of a bird and it’s song.

New kind of prison

Escape from Spiderhead had many new and interesting concepts, but the one that stood out to me was this idea of the new kind of jail that Jeff was in. Jeff, as well as Heather and Rachel, were all criminals and instead of being in a regular prison, they were placed in here. All three of them were convicted of murder as well as other crimes. In this new kind of prison, scientists use these criminals as test subjects to test new drugs and study human emotions. What I found most interesting about this was how they ended up there. On page 68, Jeff says, “The trial almost killed her. She’d spent her savings to get me out of real jail and in here.” His trial was very hard on his mom, she went through many changes and challenges. What was more intriguing was that she paid for her son to go to this new prison instead of “real jail.” Was this better than real jail? Was being a test subject better than spending time in jail? As to why this new place was better than real jail was left unsaid, but I think that was the point. Let us imagine what it was like and why it was better.

“Escape from the pain”

“I used it, dropped it down the heat vent, in case I changed my mind, then stood there like: I can’t believe I just did that (78).” In “Escape from Spiderhead” Jeff was required to watch Heather receive an excessive amount of Darkenfloxx in order for him to prove he had no feelings towards her. After the test came back, it was proven that he did not have any. The test also resulted in a lifeless Heather. The Darkenfloxx proved to be much too powerful and led to Heather smashing her head against the wall repeatedly to the point of death. Jeff had to watch all of this unravel. Even after all of this, Abnesti wanted to also Darkenfloxx Rachel to see if Jeff’s results would differ for her. Jeff, however, did not want the guilt of being partially responsible for someones death again. So he decided not to “Acknowledge” when Abnesti asked for his drip to be on. Permission needs to be given in order for an action to take place. While Abnesti was looking for a waiver that would force Jeff to take Docilryde (a drug that makes someone do whatever is asked of them without hesitation) Jeff decides to shoot himself up instead. Jeff recognizes that it is more important for him to endure the drug than to allow someone else to suffer. Jeff would end up hitting his head on a desk to avoid feeling more of the agonizing pain the drug had caused him to feel, and died.

Consent in Escape from Spiderhead

In Escape from Spiderhead, the administrators ask the subjects for consent before administering the mind altering drugs. Subjects will say “acknowledge” in response to being asked “drip on” by the administrator. This makes sense as the drugs can influence how one thinks and acts. However, when the subject refuses to give consent, the administrators are willing to forcibly make the subject agree to take the drugs. This is revealed near the end of the story. “…what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?…What good’s an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?” (75). If Abnesti is willing to bypass the requirement of consent, it’s almost pointless to ask in the first place. As Jeff continues to refuse to consent, Abnesti and Verlaine go through the procedure to obtain the waiver that allows them to give Jeff the obedience drug, Docilryde. During this time Jeff kills himself, but had he still been alive when they returned, they would have given him the Docilryde and continued the experiment without having gotten legitimate consent.

Another time consent is more or less forced is when Jeff meets Heather and Rachel. Considering they were put under the influence of ED556 which lowers shame level to the point where it’s almost non-existent and presumably also lowers inhibitions, consent was not legitimately obtained before they had sex. This is further evident by the fact that they both saw each other as “average” or “normal” before being drugged. Also judging by how determined Abnesti and Verlaine are to complete the experiments, it is clear that consent is not really their top priority.

Do Our Stories Accurately Represent Us?

An event that happened in your past can determine your future. It can shape and change how you present yourself to the world and your personality. But, do the stories of one’s past reveal a window into their true characteristics and more importantly their humanity. The George Saunders story, “Escape From Spiderhead”, provides insight on how our rhetoric and the stories we tell reflect on us.

George Saunders, in “Escape From Spiderhead”, creates a vivid world that explores power dynamics and how the backstories of characters are curated to feed into these dynamics. In the short story, Abnesti, a warden-like character, has drilled a handful of stories of his life into the mind of the protagonist, Jeff.

Jeff knows that Abnesti has children and he knows the names of his children. Abnesti provides these details to show the audience he is not a bad person. He even asks Jeff the rhetorical question, “Am I a monster?” (68). Abnesti has created a three dimensional portrayal of himself to Jeff. He is a good guy, a father, but this is his job.

While Abnesti has created a humane image of himself, he goes out of his way to selectively chose bad stories that he tells about the “criminals” in Spiderhead. An example of this is when he gives Jeff a file of Rachel’s criminal acts. These acts include going “to jail for drugs”(74) among other crimes. This strips Rachel of her humanity. The backstories used for Abnesti versus Rachel illuminate the power Abnesti holds over her and the other “criminals”. This causes Abnesti to seem like a real human while those under him aren’t. Backstories can lift up those in control while degrading the powerless.

The Map of Morality

George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead” explores science, emotions, experiments, crime, freedom etc. The characters are divided into the scientists and the test subjects.

The scientists are in charge of the experiments and they test the emotions that the patients feel after each session. The role of the scientists resides in the characters Abnesti and Verlaine. Their goal is to prove that the medication called ED289/290 can bring love and then take it away. The scientists would use torture to prove their medication was fool-proof.

While it is undeniable that the actions of Abnesti and Verlaine are morally wrong, does it make them bad people?

Abnesti is willing to sacrifice a life to prove that his medication is real. But throughout the story he shows acts of care towards his patients. During a conversation with Jeff, Abnesti reminds, “Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Recall and pick up the cream, paying for it with his own personal money?” (pg. 68). While Abnesti toys with Jeff’s emotion he also supports him in different acts. He remembers Jeff’s birthday and provides him medicine. Saunder’s story writes a man who is devoted to a ethically evil job but some of Abnesti’s actions prove that morals do not completely coincide to good or evil.