Freedom feels scary, feels too big and every time I think about what I might do I stop being able to think about anything.
In existentialist philosophy, freedom might be the very point of our humanity, but also the exact thing that makes it hard to be human. In Marlee Jane Ward’s debut novella, Welcome to Orphancorp, Mirii is on the verge of freedom. She has spent most of her life in an industrial orphanage. She has had to work to the bone for privileges like schooling and fruit. She has been denied adult love and guidance, as well as the privilege of tears. She is punished harshly – shackles, tasers, gags, solitary confinement (referred to as ‘Time Out’) – for minor infractions.
Mirii considers Orphancorp to be hellish. And yet, she grows to like most of the other kids in the same system. And yet, in the seven days leading up to her eighteenth birthday – and her release – she has made no solid plans for life on the outside. She doesn’t want to think about that life.
With freedom arises responsibility and consequently anxiety. The fear of fucking up. When we are free, we step out of acceptance of the inevitability of what is, and instead think about what should be. We become angry at injustice. No longer powerless to change things, we can start trying. The burden is a privilege but it is absolutely burdensome.
It is an exaggerated version of starting life outside the confines of high school. All of a sudden, there is nobody to tell you what to do, which puts you in danger of doing nothing. If the consequences of your actions (or inactions) suck, then there is nobody to blame but yourself. It’s the sudden, frightful feeling of waking up from a dream in the middle of night. You are tired and cold needles prickle your face.
This was how I felt when I realised that there was only $3.89 in my Everyday Access bank account. It is how I felt on my first bed, a lumpy one, away from home. I lived alone and was unable to get up, pulled down with the combined sickness of a hangover, over-exertion, and a possible head cold.
It has been almost eight years since I completed my final high school exams and embarked on my life as a ‘free person’. At the time, it didn’t feel like a big deal because everybody does it too. But looking back, despite the panic and the stressful decision-making and all the life lessons learned the hard way, I can admire my ingenuity and resourcefulness. I have been undertaking a project for the last eight years of designing my own life. It hasn’t always been easier than what came before, but every little problem solved feels so much more fulfilling.
This is what I would tell Mirii, if I could, but she is unreachable to all those on the outside until the day she joins their ranks. And in the book, in the days of captivity, her existence is unremarkable.
As a reader, I felt alarmed at the severe neglect and abuse that is piled upon children. The horrendousness of the reality is obvious for outsiders, but if you aren’t free your perception is caught up in the present moment. The eyes of your captor conflate with your own.
Ward deftly shows us the psychological reality of a person who has been denied freedom for as long as they remember. Despite Mirii’s strengths – she is a tough girl, she has self-esteem, she knows what she likes, she marvels when she does a good job – the injustice of her situation is never seriously discussed. She uses words like ‘torture’ to describe her treatment, yet finds humour in her shackles and gags. She describes the food in ways that don’t exactly leave you hungry and yet she eats it.
There is a real sense of making the best out of a bad situation. When physical contact is not allowed, and the warm loving embrace of family is unavailable, ‘cuddle parties’ can be sustaining. Held in the bathrooms, where video surveillance doesn’t reach, a group of kids will lie down together and touch one another. ‘Sometimes it’s just-touchies or everything-but-pants. Sometimes… it’s anything goes.’
Physical contact, and sex, can generally be used as pain relief. ‘Sometimes here the hurt and the good feelings get all mixed up. Sometimes they become the same thing. And sometimes you gotta feel your way out of the pain in the brain.’ Mirii seems comfortable in her own sexuality, as well as in her body.
Even if it is a coping strategy, her confidence is heartening to see in a young female narrator. Indeed Mirii, in her tough vernacular, her sly humour, and her willingness towards pleasure, is whole and lively. I struggle to think of a story I have empathised with more.
As Mirii gets closer to her release date, she has a growing awareness that things outside may be different to inside. She grabs a girl by the throat, fully aware that she’s not simply mad at the girl for her present infraction: ‘I don’t just have her by the throat, I’ve got every fucking Uncle and Auntie [Orphancorp’s euphemism for ‘guards’] and sick-fuck older kid, all the Overseers and the district managers…’ She soon lets go because the girl has been through the same things.
I am left to wonder how Mirii will cope when she wakes up fully to the extent of the travesty that is her childhood. The rage might devour her, it could be turned inwards in the form of depression. The rage might also be looking for a new victim, someone else. A new girl to strangle in the place of those heartless bureaucrats who truly deserve it. Or she might find another way through with compassion and empowerment and positive steps forward. Mirii seems better placed than average for this latter eventuality. She taught herself tattoo artistry, and out of the pain of this process comes something meaningful and real – a trail of pictures which maps out where she has come.
Of course, postulating about Mirii’s future seems odd given that she is a fictional character in a world removed from our own. To me though, it feels closer than mere fiction. Like somehow her future is wrapped up in mine.
It is hard to talk about cruelty, because of the cruelty itself. The person with the power over you tells you that your lot in life isn’t so bad, that your whinging is offensive, you should apologise for the rage and disappointment behind it. And certainly, I don’t consider what I went through growing up to be that bad. It was no Orphancorp, and it’s true that plenty kids have it much worse. Still, it was like being in a dream where the internal logic all makes sense, but as soon as you step outside and into a different world, it’s lost. It went from being matter-of-fact and inevitable to being strange and wrong.
On the precipice of freedom, how things might change on the outside is vague. All Mirii knows is that she wants to meet Vu, a girl she has a blossoming relationship with, at the steps of Sydney Town Hall. It is one clear thing.
After a few years of freedom, the one clear thing helps you to build and to sustain. Freedom doesn’t undo suffering, but it provides new platforms and possibilities to imagine how the suffering can take on a constructive force. But only if you so choose, and that’s the struggle.