Who among us has not been lovelorn? Who, in other words, can fail to identify with the man whose interview with Ira Glass kicks off this week’s This American Life—a 76-year-old widower who plans to fly across the country to propose, at long last, to his high school crush, despite little indication that she feels the same way?
Love can heighten our perceptual acuity. In fragments of music, rain glistening on the pavement, and the faces of strangers we pass in the street, we find reasons, however tenuous, to reflect on the person we adore. But love also wrecks our cognitive faculties. We seize every excuse to insist to ourselves that the person on which we’re fixated does, or does not, return our feelings. We misinterpret every gesture, over-read every text message.
This episode’s inquiry into unrequited love manages to be both amusing and deeply affecting. Let me start by describing the episode’s middle act, which features stand-up comedian Elsa Waithe. In November 2014, Waithe is in Times Square protesting the failure to indict Darren Wilson. She’s shaken by an inconvenient crush—on the policewoman who arrests her.
Waithe spots “an angelic face” just before the policewoman pulls her face mask down. Wrested into handcuffs, she sighs: “her hands are soft.” Waithe gets giddy when the officer presses her fingers into ink for fingerprints: “our first piece of artwork together!” Waithe’s segment shows how desire can amusingly disrupt our political commitments.
The episode’s last act tells the story of a woman living in Los Angeles who gets dumped on Skype chat (not even Skype video!) by her boyfriend who lived in England. That same evening she impulsively books a one-way ticket to England. She convinces herself that if her now ex-boyfriend would just see her, he’d remember they were perfect for each other.
She starts crying in the customs line (as she should have done anyway—the UK’s border control officers can’t match the TSA for rudeness, but for cool condescension, they’re unparalleled). She gets detained, and her rom-com fantasy unravels.
These last two acts offer some necessary levity after the first act, which is, simply, a doozy. Act one introduces us to Jesse, whom producer Shankar Vedantam describes as a “sweet, soft-spoken man with fake plastic aviator glasses.” Jesse is one of more than 30,000 men who was conned by a man named Don Lowry.
Lowry set up a mail scheme that preyed on lonely men by inviting them to join a pen-pal club where, in exchange for a small fee, they could receive love letters. Jesse started receiving letters in 1985. At that time, he was in his 30s, overweight, taking care of his sick father while working at a restaurant. He’d never had a serious girlfriend and had always lived with his parents.
Jesse’s pen pal was a woman named Pamala. After coming home from work, Jesse would take her letters into his room, lie on his bed, and read them. “Dear Jesse,” Pamala wrote, “Deep down you know as well as I do that you could be a lot better off than you are if you only had someone on your side—someone who would help you, encourage you, work with you, and stick with you even when things get bad.”
But Pamala, of course, was a fiction. The letters were mass-produced by Lowry. (For those wondering, there is no apparent connection between the mail fraud and Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel Pamela, which is composed largely of letters written by the titular heroine: Pamala was the real name of one of Lowry’s associates.)
Lowry called the women who wrote the letters “angels”: Angel Linda, Angel Pamala, and so on. He purchased stock photos of models and included catalogs with photographs and bios. Each angel had a distinct personality. Some men sold everything to give money to their angels; one man, Vedantam reports, lived out of his car and forwarded his angel his Social Security checks.
What strikes one about Lowry’s angel fraud is just how homosocial the arrangement is. Men write letters, unknowingly, to another man; the women they believe they’re addressing are fantasies created by men, for men. Real women enter into the situation only as models, the physical veneer of an entirely male-constructed interaction.
Lowry invites Jesse to a gathering in Moline, Illinois, where he gets the chance to meet Pamala. Jesse is disconcerted, though, by the fact that a dozen other men have also showed up. Each believes he’s in a personal relationship with Pamala.
But instead of bonding with the angels, Jesse recalls, the men ended up talking with each other “about the troubles we had.”
“They were just like me and everything,” Jesse says. The men stayed in touch after the gathering with letters and phone calls. They offered one another, in a non-romantic form, the personal and emotional support they had sought in Pamala’s letters.
A common understanding of love is that it’s idiosyncratic and inextricably attached to a particular person. You cannot give or receive love in the abstract. You always love and are loved by a particular person. Love’s particularity—the fact that the person you adore might move far away, become ill, die, or cease to love you—produces some of human life’s greatest private dramas.
Lowry’s mail fraud points us to a slightly different understanding of what love is and why we require it. The lonely men Lowry preyed on had a therapeutic need for affirmation and support. To a large extent, it didn’t seem to matter whether the source of that support was authentic. At Lowry’s trial, we learn, Jesse—and a number of other men—testified on the con man’s behalf. They said that the letters, though fabricated, were a critical and beautiful part of their lives. Jesse, now in his 60s, single, and suffering from diabetes complications, still uses Pamala’s words to inspire him.
The kind of love Lowry provided these men was only superficially particular, in addition to being artificial: the words supposedly emanated from a specific angel, but the letters were mass-produced and not tailored to individual customers. What sort of love might such letters offer?
The answer, I think, is a love rooted in practical care, a love that gave men a modicum of social connection and some validation of their worth. Despite my distaste for Lowry’s deceit and his financial predation on vulnerable men, I feel convinced that for some of his customers, the false letters provided psychological care necessary for survival. Love is one of our grandest subjects—propelling epics and tragedies of sublime scale, from the Iliad to Wuthering Heights. But love is also, unavoidably, quotidian: a requirement not only for a life lived large, but also, I suspect, for a life lived at all.
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