February 10th, 2010
I write this essay in remembrance of Jane. That’s not her real name – for reasons that will soon become obvious, I wish to preserve her anonymity. Jane committed suicide some months ago. I never go to funerals because I don’t think I can do the deceased any good and I don’t need to expunge my grief. I do, however, seek to learn whatever lessons I can from the death of a person I knew.
The lessons that Jane’s death has to teach are harsh and sad. First, I’ll present the simple narrative; after that, I’ll talk about Jane herself. I first met her when we hired her for housesitting while we were away on a long trip. She performed this task quite well both times we used her services. About six months after her last gig with us, she called me one evening in tears. She was so terribly lonely – would I listen to her for a little while? I have always been a softie, and I couldn’t turn her down. That was one of the worst mistakes of my life.
She bent my ear for nearly two hours, going on and on about her troubles and the many people who had done her ill. I did a good job listening, chiming in occasionally with a sympathetic noise. When I finally begged off because it was my bedtime, she asked if she could call me again if she had another crisis. How could I say no? So she called me again just a few nights later. The calls kept coming in, then she started asking if she could come over to my house to visit. Of course, I relented with each step, digging myself deeper into the hole.
Pretty soon I was functioning as an informal psychotherapist, listening to her talk endlessly about her father, her mother, and all the bad experiences in her life. Then, at her suggestion, we started doing anger exercises in which she bashed a bag hanging from a high roof. She had a lot of anger. By this time she was consuming about 4 hours of my time each week, and I simply couldn’t afford to devote that much time to taking care of her. My wife Kathy got angry at me for being a doormat and demanded that I terminate the psychotherapeutic aspect of our relationship. I heartily agreed, but I was such a coward that I had great reluctance to doing what I knew was necessary.
But Jane handled the new restriction well; she understood and asked in return only that I promise never to abandon her. I didn’t like the sound of that, but she played the "you’re dumping me" card very well and so I agreed. We would be friends only: we would meet for lunch occasionally, talk on the phone occasionally, and so forth. She backed off for a few months, then resumed the long evening phone calls. I particularly remember one ghastly call during which she was agonizing over whether to purchase a new dishwasher. She demanded that I tell her "You deserve a new dishwasher". When I complied, she demanded that I say it over and over, and mean it. That was truly disgusting.
She used me for lots of other things: helping her move from place to place; giving her an old computer and setting it up to work for her; even doing some repairs for her. She was rather obstreperous and frequently tried to lay guilt trips on me. I always handled them with good cheer, smiling but never feeling cowed. During one phone call that got under her skin and she snapped something nasty at me. I didn’t return her anger; I just made a nothingburger comment and left it at that. She hung up and stewed. To show her displeasure with me, she didn’t call me, providing me with inadvertent positive feedback. Weeks passed, and it was a huge relief not having to deal with Jane.
Then one night she called me in a fury. "Why haven’t you called me?" she demanded. "Well, you could have called me at any time. Why didn’t you call me?" I shot back at her. She barged right past that and kept up with her assault. I had promised not to abandon her and yet now I was failing to call her. I was a miserable friend, an evil person, and lots of other things. I had broken my solemn promise to never abandon her. I just listened quietly, never fighting back. She somehow managed to get herself worked up to a real fury, during which she offered some final insult and hung up. I realized that I was making progress in shaking free of Jane.
The same thing was repeated a few months later. She had the same story: I hadn’t called her, and I was therefore an unfaithful friend. Same angry accusations met with the same polite silence. Same angry hangup. There was one difference, though: she mentioned that she was moving to a town about a hundred miles away. I was elated; Jane would never bother me again.
Two years passed with no Jane. Then, while I was away on a lecture trip, I called home to learn that I had received a letter from Jane. I asked Kathy to open it up and read it. She started reading and then stopped. "It’s just a bunch of insults and anger. There’s nothing substantive in it; you don’t need to hear this junk." OK, I said. When I got home and asked to see the letter, Kathy said that it was so nasty that it upset her and she threw it into the fire. A few days later, I got a call from a lady who identified herself as one of Jane’s friends. Jane had killed herself. Did I want to attend the funeral? "I’m so sorry, but I’ll be in Portland that day." I don’t attend funerals, and certainly not Jane’s.
Now it’s time to learn some lessons from Jane’s life and death. Jane was a complete narcissist: she was emotionally aware of only herself and expected the universe to revolve around her. When things didn’t work out to her liking, she got mad at somebody. She was a complete user, and knew how to manipulate people even though she really didn’t understand other people. She lived on social security and disability (she claimed to have debilitating migraine headaches). She was very clever about weaseling gifts and favors from others. She tried to get me to assist her in a scheme to deceive the IRS about an inheritance she received, and when I refused to commit a crime, she got mad at me. She was also a generally obnoxious person. During a two year period she had to find a new place to live every six months or so because she kept getting kicked out of her residence, always because she had infuriated the owner or manager.
Jane didn’t care about anybody but herself. Once, during one of her crying spells, she moaned to me, "Why doesn’t anybody love me? I need somebody to love me!" Using the most circuitous verbiage I could, I elliptically insinuated that being loved requires one to give love. She didn’t hear me – she was too absorbed in her own misery to pay any attention to what I was saying.
I will end my characterization of Jane with two positive notes. Jane had a cat whom she truly did love. And she was a very intelligent, educated person. She spent a lot of time in the library keeping up on science and history. Some of our lunchtime discussions were truly interesting.
I think that the central moral of Jane’s life is that giving love is the most important part of happiness. Jane gave none, and her misery drove her to suicide.