Passion By Proxy
Out Of Touch With Your Emotions? Buy Someone Else's. A User's Guide To The Sentiment Market
By Ellen Barry
NOVEMBER 3, 1997: It isn't always easy to say what you feel. I tried it once, and it turned out badly; human interaction carries with it multiple risks, among them stage fright, misdirected spittle, and the terrible possibility of rejection. And there's always the danger that your feelings are not the correct ones -- who knows, really, until the dishes are already flying? Celebrities don't have to deal with this. When Bill Clinton has an upwelling of sentiment, do you think he sits up all night trying to verbalize? Forget about it. He calls a speechwriter. Someone gets him rewrite. The really famous people don't even have to write their own memoirs.
And neither, dear reader, should you. The same inventive nation that brought us the EZ-CD(TM) CD opener and the Taco-Prop(TM) offers a range of reasonably priced proxies -- professional writers trained to express feelings that are ready-to-use and guaranteed appropriate. Our research has unearthed an encyclopedia of proxy options: ready-made poison pen letters, a Somerville couple who market themselves as complainers-for-hire, and a book of 850 letters prewritten for a variety of obscure interpersonal situations. Then there's Hallmark, compensating for emotional sclerosis since 1910. If you won't do it for yourself, consider your audience; do you really think they want to peer into your amateur soul? What follows is a user's guide to letter-writing services. No assembly required.
Sometimes I wonderThat's just an excerpt. "A manager of one of our card lines once put it this way to me, and I've never forgotten it," says Rachel Bolton, a Hallmark spokeswoman. "'The more difficult a situation is, the more people turn to Hallmark for the words.'"
That explains the success of the "Between You and Me" line, which could more accurately be known as "Between You and Me and the Paid Professional Who Wrote This Letter." This line is to the traditional greeting card what couples therapy is to the dinner date, and reflects what Bolton calls "one of the major trends that we're seeing in cards": namely, the substitution of casual speech for formalized verses. From a greeting-card standpoint, it's all part of the march of history.
"Something happened historically in our society, if you're aware," she says. "Back in the '70s there was an upheaval. There was a free speech movement -- burn your bra, don't trust anyone over 30. And really, when you come down to it, that was about breaking down communication barriers. A new value has been placed on open communication."
So now, instead of "Thinking of You," you send a card that says "Son, I find myself wondering if you're lonely, or tired, or getting enough to eat," or "We haven't been able to coordinate our schedules and actually get together for a while now, and I just wanted you to know that I really miss seeing you." The seven-year-old "Between You and Me" line has anticipated 130 different emotional contingencies, and Bolton has come to the conclusion -- which can be seen as either uplifting or depressing -- that "when it comes down to the crunch, we're all very much alike." Nevertheless, some of the cards anticipate extraordinarily complex relationship situations:
I knowApart from the mesmerizing possibilities for abuse (say, for instance, you received this card from your father) is the dilemma of what to write at the bottom of this card, besides your name. "I know/you aren't really my child,/but sometimes/I don't think/I could love you any more --/or be any prouder of you --/even if you were./You're really a great person/and someone very dear to me,/someone I feel closer and closer/to all the time./You're such/an important part/of the family,/such a special part/of my life" really says it all.
Dear Betty,Perhaps the most disturbing entries are notes of condolence, including one expressing sympathy for the simultaneous death of a son and loss of a business in a tornado. Meyer -- who, his biography says, has had a "lifelong passion for words and the shades of meaning they convey" -- handles it this way: "We'll gladly extend any length of credit necessary. Will you let us do that much for you?"
Mr. Meyer helpfully warns the writer not to "burden the grief-stricken with more grief or long explanations of unrelated matters," and recommends, somewhat paradoxically, that the letters "be written from the heart." Among the heartfelt letters prewritten for your convenience are "Sympathy for Birth Defect," "Condolence for Personal Reverses" and "Condolence for Unnamed Tragedy," which is horrifying in its lack of specificity.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Alder,Reading this well-phrased letter, one cannot help wondering: what state could "Jim" be in to inspire this frightening, analgesic note? Equally creepy is the possibility that at some point, in the distant past or unthinkable future, one of these letters will be addressed to you. The "Condolence for Personal Reverses," maybe?
Dear Ben,How could you respond except in kind?
From their apartment in Somerville, where they have founded the world's first-ever freelance complaint service, entrepreneurs Gary and Sandy Rattigan are ready to be the tools of your anger. For $25, they'll take your grievance to its fullest nonlitigative conclusion.
"We'll throw a tantrum for you," says Gary Rattigan, who came up with the concept through a combination of careful study and -- predictably -- pent-up consumer outrage brought on by the early collapse of a step machine. Among other things.
"This sounds small," says Sandy Rattigan, "but you know when you're in the supermarket and you just sat there for 20 minutes picking out some nice, good fruit, and there it goes, thrown on the other end of the cart?"
"You get your fruit bashed, or you get your chips bashed," continues her husband. "I always go through all the chips and say 'That's a good bag, that's not a good bag,' and then they go bang! bang! They keep them separate, so they can put it in its own bag, and then they'll throw it against that plastic screen. So by the end, they've hit it three times. Now, that's not $25 worth of chips, but over time, it adds up, and at some point you've gotta go, 'Look, I have to get another bag of chips now,' and you ask to see the manager. And you're made to look like the bad guy."
It's this kind of attention to detail that qualifies the Rattigans -- who work, when they're not complaining, as an artist and a collections agent -- to complain in your place. Complain to Us, which opened for business in late September, works this way: once you make your demand clear, Gary and Sandy will find the right person to write to, then draft their specially formulated letter -- irate enough to compel response without culminating in a restraining order. Once the Rattigans take on a case, Complain to Us guarantees results.
Even if you decide not to commit the $25, Complain to Us advises strongly against the undisciplined complaint, which tends to dissolve into an endless series of mania-inducing phone transfers. Sandy Rattigan knows what's happening on the other end of that phone, and it will confirm every paranoid suspicion you ever had: just when you think the phone on the big desk is ringing, the agents of corporate deflection take their last, most brutally efficient step.
"There are lines that don't connect to anything. There's no phone ringing there. They just call it 'space,' " says Sandy Rattigan. "They'll say, 'Send 'em to space.' "
The above suggests -- and the Postal Inspection Service will confirm -- that this type of epistolary self-expression is illegal, pursuant to statute 18, chapter 3714 of the US Criminal Code. Merely using a false name and address for malicious purposes can get you a maximum sentence of five years per letter, which, if you began to test the limits of Mr. Wade's book, could mean some serious time.
With that said, Poison Pen Letters contains some truly spellbinding sabotage options, with intended results that range from mild discomfort to scorched earth. One letter -- which is to be forwarded to local news or TV stations and widely publicized -- has a bookstore (the mark) pledging extravagant donations of merchandise to a literacy fund. Another -- supposedly from a campus newspaper (the mark) -- asks highly-placed administrative officials to respond to an extensive questionnaire for an investigative article about the health hazards of chalk.
Then there's this one, which targets a minister:
Mr. Mark Coreless VIFelony or no, Poison Pen Letters is a work of dark genius. Consider the long-term implications of this, which the author recommends as the most perfect poison pen letter ever devised. It's signed with the name of a recently dead man.
Mrs. Terry NewtonThe power of this letter, as Wade points out, is that no one in the world could disbelieve it. You could savor the havoc from your holding cell, which, though Spartan, is the ideal place to catch up on your correspondence. Worth it? Almost.
Ellen Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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