September 17, 1998
Please Forgive My Bad Review
By Teresa Strasser
If it makes you feel any better, I've been racked with guilt ever since my review of your book ran back in 1995. Maybe not all the time, but, occasionally, when I can't sleep or when I'm driving a long stretch or when I least expect it, I think of you, and it makes me feel just a little bit nauseous.
I realize you might not even remember me, the young journalist who interviewed you back in San Francisco. You were such a nice man, with your soft, nurturing Berkeley therapist voice and your woolly turtleneck sweater. But something about the title of your book struck me funny, and instead of giving the work a serious review -- probably the only review you would receive for your small-press book -- I mocked you. Just for a few cheap laughs. Maybe your publisher lost faith in you; maybe some of your counseling clients read the review and starting scanning the Yellow Pages for a new shrink; maybe you've never written again. I just didn't think, Stan. I was flip and young, and I just thought slamming your New Age-y tome would be amusing.
Why do I bring this up now, so many years later? Well, last weekend, I went home to San Francisco, where I spent an evening smoking cigars and drinking brandy with my father and brother, as is our custom. We sat out on the stoop and talked. For some reason, we were discussing the movie "Flatliners." Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon play medical students who experiment with flatlining, hoping to experience death and be revived. As each student approaches the end, they are haunted with scenes of the most egregious sins they committed in life. Puffing on my cigar, I asked my dad if he's ever done anything he feels really guilty about.
"On the third date with your mom, she took me to some Bulgarian folk-music concert. You know, where the singers sounded like" -- at this point, he launched into a high yodeling not unlike an Eastern Bloc Jewel -- "I kept making fun of the music until your mother started to cry. I was such an [at this point, he used a term I can't repeat here]. I made fun of something that was important to her. I still feel bad."
"Why did she marry you, Dad?" I asked. "I mean, not to be rude, but that's not a real auspicious beginning."
"She was desperate," he answered, with not a hint of irony. Apparently, that's not a great basis for a relationship. The marriage lasted about 12 minutes, but the guilt has really stood the test of time.
That's when my brother, a man incapable of lying, one of the most moral people I know, began to shake his head. "I can't even tell you mine. It's so bad."
Like we were going to let him get away with that one.
As it happens, in a fit of misplaced honesty, my brother included in his list of grievances cataloged in a recent breakup speech, his ex-girlfriend's weight. "I told her she was too fat. I can't believe I did that."
"How do you live with yourself?" I asked, smugly sipping at my Hennessy.
That's when it was my turn. That's when I remembered you, Stan, the long commute you took into the city for our interview, the excitement on your face, the hours I spent interviewing you as though I was actually going to treat your work with respect. When I finished telling the story, my dad and brother looked at me as if I were a leper.
"I wish you hadn't told me that," said my brother, the blood drained from his face. "Now I'm depressed." He looked away wistfully and asked, "What ever happened to Stan Taubman?"
"He probably killed himself," said my dad, only half joking.
"Thanks, guys," I responded. "Why don't you two just go out and make some women cry?"
We sat there for a while, just soaking in a sludgy pool of our own guilt. That's when we started talking about forgiveness, an apt topic for this time of year, for the beginning of the Days of Awe, Judaism's prescribed period of self-examination and repentance.
Does an apology have any value, I wondered, other than assuaging the guilt of the wrongdoer? And is it good enough to be sorry in our hearts, or do we have to actually reconcile with the wronged party? I hit the books.
According to Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, who wrote, "To Be a Jew," atonement is not achieved until the "grieved party is pacified and forgives."
That's why you got that weird message on your machine, Stan. I looked you up and gave you a call. Too embarrassed to leave the whole sordid story on your answering machine, I left a vague message that you probably assumed was some disgruntled patient or the phone company calling to find out why you switched long-distance carriers. It was me. I hope you call me back, but if you don't, I'm really sorry. Technically, I know I should have sought forgiveness years ago, but it took me awhile to realize I may have hurt your feelings.
By the way, I also found a little loophole: "The person whose forgiveness is sought is, however, duty-bound to forgive wholeheartedly." How about that? I don't know if I agree with the premise, but it is the law. I didn't write it, Stan; I'm just passing it along.
I'm also struck by the fact that, in an admittedly small statistical sampling of three, all of our transgressions were relatively mild in the grand scope of sins. Still, those are the transgressions that first came to mind, small things really, silly, thoughtless mistakes that coat our souls with a sticky film of lingering guilt.
Even though it makes us cringe, looking at our stupidest moments with merciless candor is likely to make us think twice before repeating a similar blunder, even if it's just a rude comment or a hurtful review.
Anyway, you being in the mental health profession, Stan, I'm sure you understand all of this already. I'm sure you've known for years what I'm just figuring out: that guilt is information. It's a wake-up call. And if guilt is a wake-up call, forgiveness is a brisk cup of coffee and new day ahead. What do you say?
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.