Once in a while, at least in a life where you know a few people for a long time and have developed the trust to share confidences, a letter from hell arrives. It usually begins with a prelude apologizing for the burden, explaining that it can’t be borne alone, that the writer didn’t know what else to do. At wits’ end, the writer of the letter from hell writes because everything else is a far worse thought.
Setting the story down at least gives a momentary impression that the unspeakable can be made intelligible, put at arm’s length, even if the arm is only as long as a Barbie doll’s arm. The unbearable story then pours out, the details unimaginably hellish. A novelist would be a brutal bastard indeed to invent these details.
“The Devil is in them details,” he winks, eyes glinting merrily, taking another slug of his honey colored drink. The Devil is in the details and in, truly, not really giving that much of a damn. Many people, we realize, have only a limited ability to fully consider another person’s pain, keep comparing it to their own and finding it so much less compelling.
It’s kind of a tic in our celebrity culture, not being able to listen empathetically. We are not a listening culture, we’re a bit of a narcissistic one [he opined, on his self-published weblog– ed.]. I suspect the harshness of that failure to be listened to comes into play each time a celebrity gets divorced, or commits suicide, or acts out badly enough to get sent to jail. It goes as well for everyone who is not a celebrity, or very wealthy, or some kind of star. We are not taught to listen very well, if you know what I’m saying. We’d rather be entertained, even if our entertainers are often fairly tortured souls.
If you care for the writer of the letter from hell, you carefully read the terrible stories, interlocking like so many pythons, and, even if you care a lot, you may find yourself at a loss for what to say. “I feel your pain,” once a perfectly decent thing to say at such times, has been ruined by everyone imitating Bill Clinton saying it, the phrase has become a joke, a politician’s parrot line that means the opposite, get it? Your voice will become croaky, cartoony, Elmer Fuddish, Bubba-toned as you say the words. This will happen if you are me, anyway.
In recent years I’ve learned to say “I’m sorry for your loss,” but that is for the children and mates of recently dead people, usually at funerals. “Yikes,” is often the best I can do after I read such a letter, and assuring the person that I am around to listen.
The best we can give many times is some sign we have read the letter from hell, taken in all the details, were witnesses and sympathetic. It is also about the least we can do. It’s kind of good, if you think about it, that the least we can do is sometimes also the best.
It is true that we often play a major role in bringing on some of our most hellish trials, though it does nothing to diminish the hellishness. In fact, it probably enhances the torment. We don’t check the reflex to get the last word when we know the other person will be infuriated by yet one more bon mot. We are more witty, perhaps, a maddening bit quicker on the draw. Or, since we can take a punch, we pretend the shot in the face was nothing. “That was nice,” we say sarcastically, nose unbroken, “what shall we do now? Movie?”
“I’m in the details, asswipe,” says the Devil, finishing one honey colored drink and pouring himself another. “You’ll have to do better, nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.”
“You’ve heard of the Repetition Compulsion, Debbil?” I ask. The Devil, who is a master at not listening, just smirks a bit as he swallows his drink. “It’s the neurotic need to play out some early life trauma over and over with people you meet over the course of your life. These people stand in for the original abuser you never worked things out with.”
“You’re a putz,” says the Devil, absently swirling rocks in his glass.
“Yes. So, anyway, I knew a guy whose repetition compulsion was a regular three act play. In fact, it was so consistent, and I noted it so many times, that I could predict exactly where we were in the play at any given time. The guy sent me a letter at one point saying he refused to be my lab rat anymore. I wrote back thanking him for the excellent laugh– a letter of resignation from a lab rat! Priceless. Anyway, I watched the mangey white fucker in his cage year after year reliving the same story over and over like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, but without the redeeming Hollywood plot line.”
“Here’s the particular drama he kept running over and over. He’d meet somebody who was the coolest person he’d ever met, brilliant, hilarious and nonchalant. He’d describe in highly idealized terms this cool, funny, talented, generous, non-egotistical genius who was his newest friend. Act one would feature his spirited singing about this great person.”
“Who gives a lab rat’s ass?” says the Devil, reaching for another dusty bottle.
“Anyway, act two would be the beginning of the realization that the person maybe had a few faults. This was always a troubling discovery, and led to complications. Not all dramatic complications are good, and these act two complications were always ominous. The unhappy ending they foreshadowed was inevitable each time. After I’d heard these stories year after year I would know exactly when the curtain for Act three was about to go up and how the dramatic betrayal would unfold.”
“‘The curtain for fucking act three’, do you even fucking listen to yourself?” asks the Devil without a hint of kindness.
“Yeah, so I’d ask him, I’d say, wait, did he rip you off, curse you out, trash your place or physically assault you? And this would make him furious each time. ‘Can’t I finish telling you the goddamned story? I just want to tell the goddamned story, Mr. Smart Guy, can you let me tell the goddamned story?’ I would relent, put my pipe back in my mouth, I’d cross my legs, prop my notebook on my lap, blow a puff of smoke, nod for him to continue. He’d be furious as he sputtered about this interruption of his aggravating story.”
“I can dig it,” says the Devil.
“I’d let him continue and he’d say ‘he physically assaulted me’ and I would try not to smile or show any satisfaction at all. ‘Fucking bastard…’ I would usually say, though it was hard to sound convincing after about the fiftieth identical tale. The guy had no insight into his role in making people ‘betray’ him.”
“Fascinating, truly,” says the Devil, scratching his hindquarters and rolling his terrible red-rimmed eyes.
“Well, these stories may seem funny to you, Old Scratch, but I assure you, to the person going through them they are hellish indeed,” I say.
“Hey, that guy with the Repetition Compulsion was your lab rat,” the Devil says.
“Fucking bastard….” I think as I walk off into the stinking night.