Simulating My Own Garret: A Privileged Attempt to Recreate Harriet Jacobs’ Escape

The space I chose to use as my garret was actually already constructed. My sister’s room (for whatever reason) has a Coroline-esque door which leads to a small, enclosed room. The door itself can’t be more than a foot and a half tall. The ceiling is slanted, and I can’t fully straighten my back out on my knees without brushing my head into the ceiling. The room itself is wider than the garret, but is furnished with bookcases that make the perimeter smaller than the original dimensions. If I were to guess, the open space is probably 4 feet by 4 feet. As I mentioned, the walls are lined with bookshelves, but other than that, the space is pretty barren. There is a small window on the opposite wall of the door, which I chose to cover up with a blanket. This room is quite hot, as it is situated over the laundry room which is notoriously the hottest room in our house. I would argue this room, which no one really considers a room due to its size, is actually hotter (heat rises!). For whatever reason, this room always smells like old people. Maybe that is the scent of mold or dust, but there is a certain muskiness to the room that hasn’t ever gone away.

When I first entered the tiny room, I felt a little cramped already. To enter I had to crawl, which immediately made me feel restricted. From that moment forward I remained seated, initially on my knees but eventually on my butt (enabling me to stretch my legs). The door was a foot or two away from me at all times. I noted multiple sounds throughout my time in the “garret,” as I could hear my stepmom and dad walking around downstairs, the squeaking of the floorboards and the soft whisper of their indistinguishable conversations. The first feeling I began to notice was boredom. Then I began to really feel warm. My house is normally freezing, so I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and long pants. It was at this point that I began to question my wardrobe choices. About 20 minutes (I’m guessing) in is when I began to feel emotionally restricted. I was left alone with my thoughts and no form of distraction. There was no phone for me to check and receive a rush of adrenaline. There was no ice for me to chew (one of my favorite pastimes). There was no music to listen to. I began to realize that this exercise might be a lot more mentally draining than I had previously considered. This is probably around where I started to sweat. I began to focus on the smells and how my body felt, as there was nothing else for me to do. My legs fell asleep pretty early on and I had switched positions in order to stretch them out. I felt the feeling of my legs on the floor and the floor holding up my legs. I smelled the usual mustiness, now heightened by the smell of my own sweat. When the alarm finally rang, I felt such a feeling of joy. I was so excited to get out of the hot, musty room. I wiggled my feet and fingers like at the end of yoga class. I did a body scan and found that my back and neck were really hurting. As I began to move my body again, multiple joints cracked. I slowly crawled out through the door. Upon standing up, I still felt tense.

Although I was able to recreate the feeling of sitting in an enclosed space, there are still many things about Harriet Jacobs’ experience that I will never be able to understand due to my privileged life. For starters, I stayed in the small room for 40 minutes. That is such a small fraction of the time that Jacobs spent in her garret, it’s almost pathetic. However, more than the amount of time spent in the enclosed space, I will never understand the stakes that this escape plan had for Jacobs. For her, this was life or death. Making the smallest noise must have been the most frightening thing. Although I did start to feel trapped, I did not have any real anxiety associated with my 40 minutes in my “garret.” Further, I knew I would see my family again in a short amount of time. Jacobs did not have this comfort, which I assume was even harder for her as a mother.

I grew up thinking that the necessities of life are food, water, and shelter. After my experience, I wonder if that is really the case. Don’t we need more than this (access to nature, society, etc) to live a full life? Further, my mother always reminds me that this generation is the generation of instant gratification. Would it be harder for people of my generation to hermit themselves in a small space like Jacobs, or is this practice equally inhumane and intolerable no matter someone’s upbringing and life-style?

1 Comment

  1. It’s really fascinating what questions this experience brought up, especially that this generation is one that needs instant gratification. As a generation, we are so used to being alone but not digitally alone. In other words, when we find ourselves feeling lonely, we go to social media platforms to have some sort of connection. To answer your second question, I do think it would be harder, mentally, for our generation to hermit themselves because of the fact that we are not used to being alone and not constantly stimulated by digital media.
    I also think that this experience does attempt to put you in the physical perspective of Harriet Jacobs, but as you mentioned that you knew you were going to see your family after, it is difficult to simulate Harriet’s emotional perspective when she was hiding in the garret.

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