I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
I recently received an email that was about me, but wasn’t for me; I’d been cc’d by accident. This is one of the hazards of email, reason 697 why the Internet is Bad—the apocalyptic consequence of hitting REPLY ALL instead of REPLY.
I had rented a herd of goats for reasons that aren’t relevant here, and had sent out a mass email with attached photographs of my goats to illustrate that (a) I had goats and (b) having goats was good. There turns out to be something primally satisfying about possessing livestock: a man wants to boast of his herd. Most respondents expressed appropriate admiration and envy of my goats, but the email in question, from my agent, was intended as a forward to some of her coworkers, sighing over the frivolous expenditures on which I was frittering away my advance. The word Oof was used.
I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical anarchic mind could devise would not be on the government, the military, or the financial sector, but simply to simultaneously make every email and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from
the universe: the fabric of society would instantly disintegrate, every marriage, friendship, and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions, and benign lies, would self-destruct in a universal holocaust of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces, bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds and litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets, and lingering ill will.
This particular email was, in itself, no big deal. Tone is notoriously easy to misinterpret online, and you could’ve read my friend’s message as affectionate headshaking rather than a contemptuous eye roll. It’s frankly hard to parse the word oof. And to be fair, I am terrible with money, unable to distinguish between any amounts other than $8.00 and $0.00: I always seem to have the former until suddenly and without warning it turns into the latter. But I like to think of this as an endearing foible, or at least no one else’s business, rather than imagine that it might be annoying—or, worse, boring—for my friends to have to listen to me bitch about the moribund state of the publishing industry and the digitization of literature while also watching me blow my advance on linen suits and livestock.
What was surprisingly wounding wasn’t that the email was insulting but simply that it was unsympathetic. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they will—making allowances, assuming good intentions, always on your side. There’s something existentially scary about finding out how little room you occupy, and how little allegiance you command, in other people’s hearts.
This experience is not a novelty of the Information Age; it’s always been available to us through the analog technology of eavesdropping. Those moments when you overhear others describing you without censoring themselves for your benefit are like catching
a glimpse of yourself in a mirror without having first combed your hair and correctly arranged your face, or seeing a candid photo of yourself online, not smiling or posing but just looking the way you apparently always do, oblivious and mush-faced with your mouth open. I’ve written essays about friends that I felt were generous and empathetic but that they experienced as devastating. I’ve also been written about, in ways I had no factual quarrel with but that nonetheless made me wince to read. It is simply not pleasant to be objectively observed. It’s proof that you are visible, that you are seen, in all your naked silliness and stupidity.
Needless to say, this makes us embarrassed and angry and damn the people who’ve thus betrayed us as vicious two-faced hypocrites. Which in fact everyone is. Gossiping and making fun of each other are among the most ancient and enjoyable of human amusements. And we should really know better than to confuse this with true cruelty. Of course we make fun of the people we love: they are ridiculous. Anyone worth knowing is inevitably also going to be complicated, difficult, and exasperating—making the same obvious mistakes over and over, squandering their money, dating imbeciles, endlessly relapsing into dumb addictions and self-defeating habits, blind to their own hilarious flaws and blatant contradictions and fiercely devoted to whatever keeps them miserable. (And those people about whom there is nothing ridiculous are the most ridiculous of all.) It is necessary to make fun of them in order to take them as seriously as we do. Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, that you’ve got his number, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring each other that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.
Although sometimes—let’s admit it—we’re just being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had. And not just
because of the hurt she’d inflicted, but because of what it forced her to see about herself: that she made fun of people all the time—people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy—just to make herself seem funny or cool or to ingratiate herself with other girls.
A friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of twelve-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this at first sounds suspiciously like nonsense: obviously what other people think of you is your business; it’s your main job in life to try to micromanage everyone’s perceptions of you and do tireless PR and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you. The ones who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected—above all, taken seriously! Those who mocked you will rue the day!
The problem is that this is insane—the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure total, unquestioning loyalty. Eventually a mob is going to topple your statues. The operative fallacy here is that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, whereas it really means pretty much the opposite. (In the story “Rebecca,” about a woman with green skin, Donald Barthelme writes: “Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”) We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves—the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.
I finally had a talk with my agent about the Oof faux pas, in which, as so rarely happens, we actually got down to the real tension underlying our tiff. As usual, it had less to do with me than I’d imagined. It is, after all, my agent’s job to make money for me, but
because I am as oblivious and self-absorbed as most people, the possibility that she might’ve interpreted my recreational complaining as a reproach had never occurred to me. That accidental glimpse of unguarded feeling had clarified and deepened our friendship. In the end, all parties apologized, reiterated their mutual affection and respect, and formally acknowledged the environmental and economic benefits of goats over mowing. It may be that it’s less exchanged favors or compliments than hurt feelings and fights that turns us into intimates. Months later I sent her a photo of myself at the Museum of Modern Art, glowering next to Ed Ruscha’s painting of the word OOF.
A friend of mine once had a dream about a strange and terrible device: a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said first before you could get to the best things said about you, at the very bottom. This wasn’t even my dream, and my friend told me about it over a quarter century ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. There is no way I would make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but the dream-metaphor is clear enough: if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.