The impossible letter, I understand now, is any letter written to influence somebody who has unquestioning, unreasoning belief. The greatest letter you can conceive will not change deeply held beliefs, unless the heart of the recipient is already inclined toward what you have to say. It’s natural to suspect a nefarious motive when you receive an attempt to persuade you of something you’re not inclined to accept, coming from someone you’ve been warned against. A charming, personal letter from Hitler, no matter how beautifully written, would have little chance of changing my mind about anything.
Impossible letter number two was written to my only two living blood relatives, my niece and nephew. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to have no response from either of them. The back story is long and complicated, though also simple and straightforward.
The roots of this insoluble impasse to-the-death, like most things of a deadly emotional nature, are in long-ago childhood. I have avoided writing directly about this particular tangled emotional web but at this point my need to set things out is greater than my need to be senselessly discreet. When you’re forbidden to talk about things, and they continue to bother you, the most obvious option, for those who sit down every day to write, is to write them out. To me clarity is a much better option than blind emotional commitment to a strong, unreasoning feeling. If you’re like me, the impossible letter eventually begins to take shape in your head, you imagine the clear telling that will set everything straight, in a perfect world.
In the home my sister and I grew up in, our father dominated our mother. Dad “won”, mom “lost” — she always compromised, he almost never did. Our mother was smart, quick on her feet, funny, competent, sociable, a better driver than our father, adroit at solving mysteries, but she always deferred to her strong-willed husband during the hollering matches we had with our dinner almost every night. She bent to whatever he needed, always took his side, out of love, loyalty, sympathy, knowing how badly he needed to be right, fear, weakness, conditioning, lack of confidence, variable self-esteem, a housewife’s expected fealty to her husband in the 1960s, some combination of all of the above. Our father was upset almost every evening, exhausted by working two jobs and the monstrous ingratitude of his two spoiled, mean-spirited children. He flew into a rage easily and in his rage was never without righteousness on his side. He was rightfully known as the DU, The Dreaded Unit, my sister’s perfect name for him.
My sister paid me a great compliment once, when we were young adults. We were sitting in a Dunkin’ Donuts in south Florida. She asked me why I wasn’t like either one of our parents. I told her that if those were the only two options in life, to become one of our deeply damaged parents, I’d have long ago snuffed myself. I asked her why she thought those were the only two choices. I had no understanding then of how inexorably our childhood had marked my sister’s life, limiting her choices to modeling herself after a winner or a loser, righteous dominance or humiliating submission.
“I’m the DU,” she told me somberly, shortly after her second child was born. She fixed me with a terribly poignant look that shook me as much as her statement.
“No, wait, that can’t be, you can’t… you have to do something about that. You need to talk to somebody, you need to do some work, you can’t replicate what was done to us. You don’t want to inflict that kind of damage on your children. You can’t do that to them, come on, they’re totally innocent. What are you going to do? You’ve got to nip this shit in the bud.”
“Being the DU means you can’t do anything about it,” she said.
Decades later I understand that if you are damaged enough to see the world as black and white, win or lose, pride or crushing shame, with nothing in between (compromise is weakness) you believe, in your core, that there is nothing you can do about it but get up every day and fight anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. My father always argued that people cannot change on any fundamental level.
I understand now, only very recently, that it was a true statement for him. Being the DU means you feel utterly powerless against your dreaded nature. If you acknowledge that others can work and change some of the worst things about themselves, how humiliating that would be. It’s almost like you’re choosing to be too weak to face whatever makes you live in a black and white world.
(part 2 to follow)