The Box

Written By: Julie Burroughs Erdman

At age fifteen, I was troubled. With undiagnosed, flagrant bipolar disorder, I masked my distractedness with contempt. For anything or anyone who challenged me. I lived my life onstage. No one could make me go to class. No one could make me sit. No amount of in-school suspension, could make me behave. I was not aggressive. I was kind, even. I made friends with people who didn’t easily make friends, and got them to skip class with me. Thus, at fifteen years of age, the district named me a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) and the court ordered me to attend a special school for the emotionally disturbed.

This was an all-expenses-paid with a New-York-dime school hidden in Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It had another name but we called it the Big House. A faded beauty that had been a hotel in the 1800’s, the ceilings were high, the halls draughty, and the expansive, finished basement creepy. The girl giving me the tour told me tearfully that her best friend had committed suicide by hanging herself, showing me the beam, the year before. This wasn’t a scare tactic, I found out. This was a place that put girls in danger of having their tears sucked dry. I was young and already had my share of traumatic experience. Nevertheless, this place stands out as the bleakest, ugliest, coldest place I have ever lived.

Within hours, not days or weeks, I felt suffocated by a lack of privacy at the Big House. We were not permitted to open the front door, stand in another person’s room, or go for walks. There was no escape from other people other than the stalls of the bathroom. Even the showers were communal, with a film of flimsy plastic separating one girl from the other at bath time. Four or five staff persons could be seen in the common areas at any given time of day not doing much of anything but milling around and watching us.

The only place I ever went in community while at the Big House was to the laundromat. Students came from all over the nation and there were differences of race, culture, class, and religion that would be difficult to find anywhere else. Some students had been in lock-up. One of my roommates had earned money for drugs by prostituting herself at age fifteen. Another girl had dropped out of school at age fourteen and ran away from her working class family to live with a man twice her age. One girl, who was permitted only a plastic spoon as her eating utensil, had spent a significant chunk of her adolescence locked in a psych ward. Nevertheless, sharing in common that we were all banished from a society that failed to accept or support us was a powerful bond.

On my second day in the Big House, during my after-dinner group therapy initiation, I was one of ten students subjected to the graphic details of how a girl had left her used tampon on the floor near her bed. That the girls jeered and laughed at her was no surprise. Worse, by far, was the tone of satisfaction the staff person took as she read off the dirty details.

A tiny black girl in a tattered burgundy sweater curled up in the corner of couch, sobbing into her hands. Most of us quieted except for two or three girls, high on cruelty, who became louder, their laughs shriller. Then, the tiny, bashful girl erupted. She shrieked the nonsensical scream of a trapped animal. Raw, primal anguish escaped from a lung cavity that did not seem as if it had ever fully formed. She ran up the stairs with the baiting staff person in hot pursuit.

I heard a series of running footsteps, shouts, and chair legs screeching on the wood floor above. We followed, and once upstairs, the scene to me had the shock value of a car accident. The little girl was face down, her concave abdomen flattened to floor, her jutted hipbones and bony pelvis grinding into the floor with the weight of a staff person, more than twice her size, leaning his weight on her midsection, while three other staff persons held down her arms and legs. I saw that she could still breathe, as her head was turned to one side, facing me. Her cheek was flattened to the floor, and her vulnerability—how easily her spirit and even life could be squashed—was exposed for all of us to see. She let out a blood-curdling scream, ensuring that she would remain that way just for a little while longer.

When I walked back to group therapy, the topic of conversation shifted quickly to a complaint about the earlier dinner. I interrupted to ask about what happened and was told that it was a “take down” and that, “they happen all the time.” When I pointed out that the person they took down couldn’t have weighed more than eighty or ninety pounds, I was met with shrugs and worse war stories.

The subduing reality of where I was came to me. It was a place, just like a prison, where people were sent for rehabilitation and reform, and where the fear of punishment was constant motivator for conformity. Some caved in. They earned the ability to go into town and to the library, but their souls were somewhere lost in their own darkness, or, even worse, left behind at the Big House.

Those who fought, of which I was one, ran away. We were always caught. For my punishment, I and my partner in crime were sent upstairs to a third floor room and were made to sit in chairs, facing cheap, laminate paneling for twelve hours a day, and the other twelve on cots, with meal and bathroom breaks. We were not permitted to talk, and, having done so, we faced another day in this room that they named critical care.

People talked in whispers. The black, the white, and brown, the straight, gay and Bi, were unified. The authorities sensed the change and had to do something to demonstrate dominance. They had to create a punishment that would hurt.

Maintenance had built a plywood box in the basement the size of small room. Running alongside the interior of the box, they built in dugout-style benches made of the same plywood material. It was the sweet scent of pine. There was talk of the purpose of the box. Some thought it might be a student lounge. No one could guess at its purpose.

Six students made it out together. Six students ran and six students returned. Once caught, they were locked inside of the box all day and night, and corralled up the basement stairs in one group several times a day to use the facilities. The set up was very convenient for staff because they could sit comfortably on a couch instead of at a desk, as they had in Critical Care. Students grew anxious when the group did not emerge from the box, the usual maximum punishment.

The authorities had gone too far, weakening the entire system. No one noticed when an inconspicuous, good student stole the key and unlocked the box. After a brief period of panic when the runaway six couldn’t be located, once rounded up, they were put back in the box and order was swiftly restored. The student who freed them, who once enjoyed long, unrestricted walks into town and good food she was able to cook herself, was put on a long restriction.

I wrote a long and consolidated list of grievances that I shared with other students. We whispered when we knew no one was but us was listening. We seethed, “Do they really think we were that stupid?” We knew we were right and they were wrong. We were ready.

On a Monday at 10:00 AM, each student walked out of the school house and marched back to the big house with staff following and shouting at us from behind. Some of the teachers stayed way behind. They were on our sides. Every student stood in the auditorium. We took turns speaking, sharing our outrage to a bewildered staff body.
“I couldn’t help it!” said the girl who freed the runaway six. “They were in there for days. Someone had to do something!”

We earned our moment, seized in justice, and then it was over. The authorities regained the upper hand and we were subdued. We did earn one, and not small, victory.

They took the box down.