Personal Space is the Ultimate Privilege

Even the matching trashcan is a luxury.

Having a personal, undisturbed, and dedicated space of one’s own is the ultimate privilege. People who are shocked or disagree with that statement have unknowingly enjoyed constant, untouched personal space to the point they don’t know what a pure treasure it is.

Space is a prized asset. Realtors are solely in business to sell it to you. Hotels provide it as a requirement of vacations and business travel. Television networks are dedicated to showing us how to arrange and decorate it. Owners of multi-million dollar mansions indulge themselves with it. Celebrities hire teams of security people to safeguard it. Governments enact laws and use armed forces to protect it. There is a whole industry that literally rents it to those of us who can’t access it on our own.

Americans love our space so much that its deprivation is an integral part of punishment. We lock adults, children, and animals in jail cells and cages when they don’t behave the way we think they should — merited or not. The most evocative visuals from the Trump administration were the photographs of children imprisoned in cages at border facilities and a rioter seated in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with his foot on her desk. Deprivation and infringement of space aroused fervent emotions from all political sides.

My career has allowed me to tour prisons, jails, and other detention facilities where I’ve seen the living conditions of sex offenders, death row inmates, murderers, and other criminals. All of their living situations have one punitive detail in common: undefined, close range, communal space to eat, sleep, and live. This is a space that anyone or anything can invade at any time for whatever reason or no reason at all.

I have acute awareness of space (or lack thereof) because of my crowded upbringing. I’m one of four children, and we lived in a 1,636 square foot house with three bedrooms and one galley bathroom. Personal, designated space wasn’t a mere commodity; it was rare and valuable. My father’s papers took up every flat surface in the house. End tables, the dining room table, the kitchen table, counterspace, and furniture had piled papers of all sizes on them: receipts, post-its, contracts, bills, checks, business cards, junk mail, letters, postcards, and blueprints. Even outlet covers in the kitchen and bathroom had small pieces of paper tucked behind them. Leaving toiletries, food, homework, pens, shoes or books unattended meant risking their permanent disappearance. From a deck of cards to hairbrushes, I lost count of how many of my possessions went missing throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The refrigerator and other concealed areas weren’t safe either. By the time I was a teenager, I had a job so I could buy my own groceries. Despite being tucked away in a corner with my name on them, my brother felt entitled to eat my very expensive cheese, eggnog, Mexican Coke, and chocolate with no remorse and no effort to hide what he’d done. My siblings found my tiny hiding space in a closet and devoured my cereal, fancy crackers, and European cookies. As my mother tried to calm me down, I explained that I was furious at the invasion of what I’d clearly defined as my individual space to store my possessions that I worked hard to earn.

The unauthorized invasion of one’s personal and physical space is the ultimate violation of the soul. Such an infringement cuts deeper than a physical punch or verbal insult, making designated, untouched space the ultimate luxury.

Just ask my science project that has been missing since 1989.

Feminist. Published in the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, Scary Mommy, and Ms. Magazine. All opinions are my own.