Alcatraz was supposed to be inescapable, but that’s not how Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers saw it. Where others saw only a fog of impassable security measures, the Morris gang saw precise details: a vacuum cleaner motor that could be converted into a drill; an air shaft grille whose rivets could be replaced with soap; a life-raft that could be fashioned from plywood and oilskins. They assembled these details into a comprehensive escape plan as intricate as a Swiss watch that ultimately led them into the murky waters of San Francisco Bay.

And there they died, giving the lie to the notion that Alcatraz could be breached.

Or did they? Morris and the Anglin brothers may not have been seen again, but they may have been heard from again. The day after the breakout, a man claiming to be Frank Morris telephoned a lawyer in San Francisco. On learning of his caller’s purported identity, the lawyer hung up. Only at that point did Morris and the Anglin brothers truly disappear. A subsequent inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigations concluded that the phone call was a hoax, but the FBI’s own lack of confidence in this verdict can be gauged by the fact that the case wasn’t closed until 1979—seventeen years after the event and, perhaps not co-incidentally, soon after the release of Escape from Alcatraz. A 2003 recreation of the escape attempt by the TV show Mythbusters confirmed that a makeshift raft could be used to get from the Rock to the mainland. As late as 2009 the US Marshals Service was still receiving leads on the whereabouts of the Morris gang; that’s pretty good going for three men who ostensibly drowned in 1962.

Morris and the Anglin brothers broke out of Alcatraz by studying their surroundings in minute detail. They spent months observing their situation, noting the time of roll calls, the pattern of guards’ rounds; the sweep of floodlights. They must have realised early on that their cells’ ventilation shafts were their only chance of escape, and that a drill was needed to enlarge them. How long did it take them to think of a vacuum cleaner motor? Clearly, Morris and the Anglin brothers had both patience and perseverance. But more, much more than this, they had the ability—to use a much devalued phrase—to think outside the box: to look at a vacuum cleaner and see an electric drill is a brilliant piece of lateral thinking. Although many elements—the drill, the soap rivets, the plaster casts of their heads, the makeshift raft—all had to work together for the Morris gang’s attempt to succeed, the cunningly improvised drill was the breakthrough element of their plan.

One must learn the landscape of Sexcatraz, study the floor plan and absorb the rhythms and rules of life inside this invisible prison, this sexual purgatory

The same approach is required with Sexcatraz. One must learn its landscape, study the floor plan and absorb the rhythms and rules of life inside this invisible prison, this sexual purgatory. Like Morris and the Anglin brothers as they prepared their escape attempt, one must see through the blinding fog of the sheer variety of human sexual dysfunction to isolate the precise physical and psychological responses that are common and consistent among the inmates of Sexcatraz, and from those responses extrapolate the underlying mechanics, searching for the same kind of game-changing insight that allowed the Morris gang to convert a vacuum cleaner into a power drill.

To some extent we have already done this. Part I of Sexcatraz examined the trinity of sexual boundary, violation and reaction. We saw how this stemmed from a deep sense of shame around human sexuality and how individual boundaries aggregated at the communal level into sexual covenants that, historically, have been brutally enforced. We saw how people who struggled with these societal boundaries suffered in physical, mental and emotional terms, often causing significant harm to those around them. But these are only the outward signs of Sexcatraz, the silhouette of Alcatraz glimpsed across the dusky waters of San Francisco Bay. Part II goes deeper into the mechanics of sexual shame, starting with David Lynch’s dark masterpiece Blue Velvet.

Next: Blue Velvet

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