“Of course I’ve thought about taking my life,” she watches him calmly across the formica desk. ‘Which sane person hasn’t?’
His hand automatically moves away from his clipboard towards the pages on the table. His guidance pack leaves no doubt as to what he needs to do next: if an inmate expresses suicidal ideation at any stage during the interview, the case-worker must refer them using the form attached in Appendix E. The suicide cells are safe, he knows. No ligature points, tear-proof blankets, fire-proof mattresses, and constant video surveillance. She can’t come to any harm in there.
“Do you think you might act on these thoughts?” as per his training, he proceeds with the interview.
She doesn’t respond immediately. Instead she sits absolutely immobile, her hands resting on her thighs and her back not touching the back of the chair. Her eyes are fixed on his. He thinks maybe she hasn’t heard him and is about to repeat the question when she very slowly starts to close her eyes. Fascinated, he watches the lids descend over the intense stare. The small flaps of skin gradually sever the communication between them. He realises he has lost his place on the questionnaire.
She remains unmoving and silent. The silence grows longer, and he can feel his ears straining for any sound. Eventually he detects a distant throb. Cars on the motorway, he assumes.
“‘I’m not afraid to die,” her voice is low but in the silence it seems almost like a shout, her eyes are still closed.
He is unsure if this is an answer to his question, but he chooses to continue with the next question. But as he opens his mouth, she speaks again.
“Why should I not kill myself?”
“Well,” he starts, then glances down, seeking inspiration from his interview form. “What about all the aspects of your life that make it worth living?”
Her voice is low, “We both know that my life has value only for me.”
“What if you have value for me? What if I don’t want you to kill yourself.”
Suddenly she opens her eyes and stares straight into him. The pupils are overly large, like dark portals opening onto an infinite void. He feels himself falling.
“I understand,” she does not smile, “Yes, I can understand why you wouldn’t want that.”
“Thirteen years? You mean she hasn’t spoken to anyone in thirteen years?”, Dr. Hofstadter raises his eyebrow as he speaks. His attention is on the screen of the closed circuit television in Sophie’s room. On screen, she can be seen eating her breakfast: a cup of coffee and two pieces of peanut-buttered toast.
“That’s right Doctor.’ the nurse answers. A small woman with a badly cut fringe and bottle-end glasses. ‘She was giving an interview to a psychologist and she just stopped talking. She hasn’t said anything since. Does everything else, but she doesn’t talk.”
Hofstadter is thinking. He had a case once where a patient said he felt he was watching his own life. It was as if he could see it happening on a screen, he said. The patient had stopped caring what happened to him and had descended into an animal-like existence: eating, sleeping and not much else. Hofstadter can’t remember what exactly triggered the psychosis. Perhaps cannabis, he thinks. The mole-like nurse places Sophie’s chart down noisily and Hofstadter loses his train of thought.
Later, in his office, the doctor is watching the recording of Sophie’s final spoken interview. The camera resolution isn’t great but Hofstadter doesn’t need visuals to hear the psychologist losing control of the interview. He watches Sophie close her eyes and even though it is a grainy video something in the motion is disconcerting. When we deliberately close our eyes Hofstadter thinks, it’s because we no longer wish to see what is before us. But why would she not want to see anymore? Why also, would she then open them again just minutes later? What changed?
In her file it says she was originally arrested for public nudity. Apparently she was found wandering naked in the city park. The copy of the police report states she was lucid and co-operated with officers; giving her first name and answering questions. However, when she was asked about where she came from and why she was naked she had responded cryptically: “I am not who you think I am, nor whom you would like me to be.” The policewoman who had written this down had also taken the liberty of adding several questions marks on the next line. The police had not known what to do with her and so had sent her to Cherry Brook for evaluation. At Cherry Brook they had conducted the usual psychiatric evaluation, which Hofstadter had on film, and then Sophie had never spoken again. Given that her last spoken words revealed a suicidal inclination they had, quite rightly, followed protocol and put her in a safe room. They don’t know her exact age, but the original evaluation recorded her as being approximately twenty two. If that’s true, Hofstadter thinks, she has now spent more than half her life in this hospital. Her world has become a twelve by ten foot room.
Hofstadter is sitting opposite her. His chair feels uncomfortable, like the legs are too long and his legs have to dangle to touch the floor. The temperature of the room is slightly off too, so his collar feels tight. Sophie is awake, and sits serenely in her chair. She is wearing the standard baggy hospital jumpsuit but it is so big its creases have an almost robe-like effect. She is perfectly still.
“Do you know where you are?”, his voice sounds curiously muffled.
She looks unwaveringly at him, but does not speak.
“My name is Doctor Hofstadter, I think I know why you aren’t speaking, and I’d like to help,” his words fall like sprayed insects; waning quickly.
She remains still.
“I’d like to talk to you about your life before this place,” it must be the cork hidden behind the canvas on the walls, he thinks.
He recounts to her what he knows from the file, hoping that it will trigger a memory and she will reflexively attempt to fill in a gap or error. Catharsis is powerful, and he knows that if he can get even one word out of her it is likely it will all flow out as a torrent. However, she remains utterly motionless; to the point where he has to question if he has even seen her blinking. If he hadn’t seen her eat breakfast and a few hours ago he would be on the verge of diagnosing catalepsy. Unprompted, a memory springs into his mind; it wasn’t cannabis, it was trauma.
“What about dreams?,” he asks, “Do you dream?”
“I dream all the time,” A colleague had warned him that after a long period of non-use the muscles in the larynx would be atrophied. As such, he had been prepared for her voice to be croaky and disjoint, instead it carries in the room better than his does. It has a deep resonant quality, rich and low for a woman, less like a bell and more like a gong.
“What do you dream about?” although his pulse is racing he forces himself not to show surprise. Jumping around the room at this stage could be irreversibly damaging.
“All the time,” she repeats.
“Do you mean you dream while you’re awake?”
“I dream about this,” she gives an all encompassing gesture with her arm. Another breakthrough. “You, this room, this building. All of it.”
“And what happens in these dreams?” he can scarcely contain himself. It doesn’t matter what she says, the important thing is to keep her talking.
“Of course you can’t understand,” she says. “You’re in it.”
“In what? In your dream?”
There is a very subtle shift in her posture, a slight straightening perhaps.
“Tell me Dr. Hofstader. How do you know you are real?”
“Errrr…., “ he wasn’t prepared for this. “I can see things, touch things, smell things. I have memories of things, that makes me real doesn’t it?” he somehow remembers to end on a question.
“You think you see things, you think you touch things, and you think you smell things. Basically you think you’re real because you think you experience things.”
“Errrr… yes. Isn’t that enough?” if only it wasn’t so hot in here.
“No,” she says. “It’s not.”
“So how can I know I’m real then?” this is very atypical he thinks. Elective mutes generally speak endlessly about inconsequential subjects once their mutism is ended. It doesn’t matter, he reasons, as long as she is talking.
“What? Why not?”
“You can’t know you’re real, because you’re not real. You only exist here.”
“Of course I exist here. This is where everyone exists, this is reality.”
“It may be your reality, but this is a dream.”
“Alright. Let’s say this is a dream for you.” Always a tricky decision: co-operate with the delusion or confront it. There will be time enough for confronting later, he thinks. “If this is a dream for you, you’re obviously aware that you’re in it. Am I right?”
“Yes. I’m aware that I am dreaming.”
“And if you’re aware that you’re dreaming, then you must be lucid dreaming. Do you know what a lucid dream is?”, he undoes the top button on his shirt and loosens his tie.
“Yes. I know what a lucid dream is, and yes, this is what you would refer to as a lucid dream.”
“But if this is a lucid dream, then you should be able to control it. When dreaming lucidly people are not only aware that they are in a dream, but they are able to control their dreams as well.”
“You can what? Do you mean you can control your ‘dream’?” he avoids the annoying physical gesture of speech marks, but his inflexion on the word is clear.
“So why don’t you leave this room?” he had been about to say ‘cell’ but caught himself just in time.
“Sometimes I do”.
“You leave this room?” He knows it’s secure, and no-one has ever escaped from a safe room unaided.
“Why don’t you leave now? To prove to me that you can?”
“You forget whose dream this is. I am not leaving because I currently choose to be here. I don’t need to prove anything to you. You exist for my benefit, not the other way round.”
“But if you could prove to me that you’re not...”, he searches for an acceptable word, “...ill. Then I could have you released.”
She sighs a little and for the first time he notices the size of her pupils. They occupy almost her entire eye and her irises are also dark. The effect is chimera-like. He meets her gaze but feels oddly giddy.
“You are boring me now. I tell you again that I am not here because you haven’t released me. I am here because I choose to be.”
The vertigo increases as he attempts to match her stare. He feels himself falling.
“Goodbye Dr. Hofstader.”, the words float between them then sink, unhurried, to the floor. Darkness swims towards him and he sways forward, toppling slowly into the opening void. As blackness envelops him her eyelids descend and suddenly he is back on his chair, alone in a padded room. He can see her still sitting there across the desk, but she is inert, like a realistic wax doll. The room is cold. She does not speak again.