Escape From Emotion

George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” approaches the idea of artificial emotions. With this in mind, as our world has evolved, emotions have become more standardized. There are feelings we are supposed to feel in different situations, rather it be the mourning at a funeral opposed to a celebration of life among other examples.

Our minds are programmed to feel emotions that are reasonable in a situation. The real issues come when ones emotions are unable to correspond with the present situation.

Saunders continues his artificial experimentation with emotion by displaying a human weakness regarding emotion. The inability to afflict pain on an innocent being. In the story this trait has to be deciphered from affection in order to test the effectiveness of the drug, but still with the deactivation of the drug, human compassion remains intact.

Does “Escape from Spiderhead” Prove Free Will Exists?

There is no universal definition for what “free will” is. However, most people would define it as our capacity to act independently of the influences of our external environment. In theory, free will is what drives all of our decisions — like our morality or sense of self.

Free will doesn’t exist under the lens of hard determinism. Hard determinists essentially believe that everything that happens in our universe is capable of being predicted — that nothing is truly random, but instead has a concrete cause, no matter how tiny. Because everything has a direct cause, the human consciousness and decision-making are merely physical reactions to physical stimuli, internal and external. There is no “free will”, just tiny reactions.

“Escape from Spiderhead” is frequently said to be a literary proof of free will — a demonstration that consciousness couldn’t possibly be limited to the reaction of chemicals, specifically using the example of pharmaceuticals, in our brain. But it fails to account for the fact that Jeff’s decisions and feelings are still the result of reactions to stimuli. To Saunders, Jeff might feel that he loves the women but not “really” love them like one would typically define love because of his “free will”. He might have been a murderer, but he is no longer that due to his “free will”. Yet he fails to demonstrate that these realities are not each the result of a pre-existing stimulus.

Abnesti’s Prison

Abnesti’s interactions with the patients provided another layer of complexity in Escape from Spider Head. Throughout the story when speaking with his patients Abnesti highlights his acts of kindness, especially when he is committing an act that seems inhumane and heartless. It can be concluded that for Jeff, Spiderhead represents his mental prison of guilt. For Abnesti, I think that Spiderhead represents his mental prison which stems from his inability to sympathize with others. On page 72, in regards to Heather’s death, Abnesti says, “I hated it. I’m a person. I have feelings.” Then later on page 73, he contradicts this statement with an emotionless and factual response to Jeff when Jeff asks if Rachel could die. Abnesti says, “Is it possible that the Darkenfloxx will kill Rachel? Sure. We have the Heather precedent.” This juxtaposition is used often in the story, and it emphasizes Abnesti’s use of manipulation to cover up his emotional downfalls. He is trapped in his commitment to “the mandates of science”(74). Abnesti cannot see the prisoners as people because of his own mental prison within Spider Head.

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.

Power Structure in Spiderhead

The power structure in the drug testing experimental home, as Abnesti resides as the main scientist who tries to justify his actions. Which is seen most clearly when talking to Jeff, “a few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel, years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks.” This justification followed by his need to get these answers for science, while he takes the blame of himself and saying he wasn’t a bad person. This oppression and deception forces Jeff to say “Acknowleadge,” to become part of a inhumane experiment. As this reading goes on Jeff does have aprehensions about Abnesti as he does these horrible things. Justifying those bad actions because of their past to say everyone is bad and he deserves it. Moreover he hides behind science to create a non emoitional response to the experiment so as to collect his data. This system of opression and deception rages on until Jeff uses it against all of them breaking free.