Take today, for example, when I read a letter from a reader named Molly (not her real name). Maybe I just wasn't ready to deal with this total stranger who seems to have taken a keen but rather unpleasant interest in me. Maybe I just hadn't had my coffee yet, and my mind was like a dozen unmade beds and half-baked ideas and I wasn't standing firm enough not to be blown over by the sheer force of this person's meanness.
At that moment, the high road was looking mighty unappealing.
I thought immediately of this file a friend e-mailed me as a joke. It's called "Swollen," and features a montage of medical photos in which the unfortunate participants are shot from the waist down and suffering from acute enlargements of their reproductive organs.
Point. Click. Revenge. That letter writer, who so conveniently left out any gender pronouns but was clearly female, who was so cowardly as to insult me anonymously (she had to give us her name as a condition for publication but requested it be withheld) would experience what I had experienced. She would open her e-mail with the terrible feeling that someone out there hates her and she doesn't know why.
When this angry fantasy passed, it left a residue of understanding.
Molly, anger is something you and I have in common. Instead of using mine as a catalyst to lash out, blame and moralize, I'm choosing to use it as a tool for self-reflection, or at least I'm trying.
When I sat with my anger for awhile, I realized that your letter is really a compliment of sorts. It means I'm doing my job. I'm provoking thought. Yes, there's a part of me that wants to be loved by everyone. In the end, however, I'm more committed to telling the truth as I see it. My honesty must have poked at a part of you that really hurts. The column you mentioned about my mother (which didn't offend her, by the way) really pushed your Mother Button and it's a powerful one for most of us.
I was in no way prescribing a way of acting. I was merely sharing my own experience. Sometimes, an intense loving relationship can also be challenging and complex, at least in my world. Why that's so threatening and unsettling to you is something only you can understand, Molly.
It is my sincere hope that you'll stop wasting your time and energy worrying about me. Ultimately, I'm really not that important to you, but maybe the feelings I bring up are.
As for me, when I told friends how peeved I was about your letter, they were shocked. "Don't you get tons of fan mail?" they asked.
That's when I realized how much the rare letter like yours tends to obscure all the praise. And that, Molly, is my problem -- one that you've helped me to see more clearly. Instead of keeping all those nice letters in a big steel box in my closet, I should keep them closer to my heart, where they belong.
Your letter has also given me the opportunity to address two issues I feel are pressing.
Firstly, the question of whether or not I'm Jewish enough, or Jewish in the right way, or Jewish enough for you. A friend of mine, a columnist who is Black, gets similar letters about how she isn't Black enough. This is a part of almost every minority group. We internalize the oppression we get from the dominant culture and turn it against each other, and it breaks my heart as much as it confounds me.
I could try to defend my Jewishness, tell you how I carry it with me wherever I go, in my decisions and actions, in my work, in the life I try to lead, but I don't need to justify myself here. There's only one true judge, and Molly, it ain't you. My writing isn't that of a rabbinic scholar, but there are volumes of such work available and I encourage you to explore it if that's what you find meaningful. I'm simply offering another perspective.
Secondly, you played the "narcissism" card. Isn't it interesting that men who tell their stories are never called narcissists? They are considered charming storytellers, sensitive and open in their ability to present autobiographical material. I'm sure you can relate, Molly, being young and female yourself. We're often made to feel that our voices and our experiences don't count. They do. Narcissist is a just word in this case, a stick and stone rolled into one, and it doesn't scare me and I hope it doesn't hold you back, either.
There's a Yiddish saying, "If someone throws stones at you, throw back bread." Maybe I've only thrown you a stale bialy, but I've done my best. You really helped me learn something and I hope I returned the favor. Believe me, it's better than "Swollen."
Teresa Strasser is a 20-something who writes for The Jewish Journal. She recently received an Emmy nomination for her writing on "Win Ben Stein's Money."