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Letter to an Arsonist

It’s been nine days since you set fire to my husband’s barbershop. And yeah, I’ve spent a good chunk of that time wondering who you are.

Let me cut to the chase and answer your most urgent question: we don’t know who you are, and I doubt we ever will.

But we’ve wondered. And we’ve boiled it down to two theories.

  • Theory #1: You picked Joe’s shop for a personal reason. Maybe my husband, who’s got a big and sometimes rough-edged personality, raised his voice to you one day. It happens. Maybe you hate gay people. Or flat tops. Maybe you’re the dude who sent me a bunch of software-anonymized emails last summer, full of venom and veiled threats, demanding that I cancel my upcoming wedding. Which – maybe you noticed – I didn’t do.
  • Or Theory #2: You’re just a random pyro. As Alfred put it to Batman (sorry for the pop culture reference, but I’m a man of the times): Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The pyro theory seems more likely, if only because I distrust the drama factor raised by theory #1. Targeted. So dramatic. Like Batman.

But if this were a movie you’d get unmasked. We’d discover your motive. We wouldn’t be left with this dumb open wound, peering into the faces of the good people around us and wondering, “Could it be you?” Cause in real life, bad guys don’t wear clown paint.

Of course if you’re a random pyro you’re not reading this letter. Us writerly types would call this a literary device. It’s contrived and a little pretentious. But it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to a face-to-face, so just humor me. Or, if you’d rather, just tell me who you are. I’d really, really enjoy that.

This week I ran into a friend who, several years ago, got beaten to the edge of death by a bunch of kids. They pulled him apart on a dark city street and left him there. And they never got caught.

My friend left that city and moved to a remote town, on a river, and spent the next couple of years putting himself back together. He had time to wonder about those kids. Who they were. Why they’d done it. Time to consider another crazy-making motive – that they’d been hired.

I asked him how he’d dealt with the not-knowing. “I lost a year of my life,” he told me, “Asking myself the question ‘why?’”

There’s this saying that’s been floating around the rooms of the 12-step meetings where I still spend time: “Why is not a spiritual question,” usually spoken with this smug, I-read-The-Power-of-Now-and-have-attained-enlightenment tone that invariably makes a lot of other people in the room nod in sage agreement.

And oh God, how I want to rip them apart.

That maxim fills me with rage. It appears nowhere in the official 12-step literature. It’s just one of those fads that waft through our meetings and the culture at large. Like “living in the present moment.”  Or that whole inner-child crap from the early 90’s.

Screw those blinkers. Spiritual growth doesn’t come from not asking why. The point isn’t protecting yourself from the pain of uncertainty. It comes after you’ve asked why as many times as you can stand, knowing you won’t get an answer.

At least that’s my guess. I don’t know. I’m just saying that nine days after the fire I’m still asking why, and fuck anyone’s advice, I’m entitled to that question.

And on the slim chance that you’re not some random pyro, and that you targeted Joe for a reason, it’s probably what you want. The nervous, corrosive wondering. The bunker-building. The doubting of good people’s intentions. The thoughts of cutting our losses and moving to the damn desert.

But it’s hard to stay in a bunker when a few hundred people come pull you out. They offered Joe help and money and more than a few kind words. Someone made us corned beef and cabbage. Dear arsonist, when the shit hits your fan, who’s going to make you corned beef and cabbage?

Joe’s ready to stop asking why. But he’s a tougher cookie than me, and it’s one of the many reasons I stick with him. Watching him, I learn how to face things like critics and arsonists and mortgage lenders. He’s already building what you tried to burn down.

Was your act evil? On my more generous days I believe that we’re all capable of any crime. I’ve acted selfishly. I’ve failed people. I’ve hurt them too, more recently than I’d care to admit. And so asking why, of myself, seems like a crucial question. Why did I act that way? And how will I act better next time?

I’ll probably never get the answer to why you lit that match. But at least I can turn the question on myself. If I’m capable of burning something down – and I am – why have I never done it?

I think about you breaking into the shop, 3 a.m., and skulking down to the basement in shadows. Fueled by compulsion or bitterness. Slipping out in the dark, the smoke and the flames rising behind you. Hurrying down the street towards cover. Like that dude last summer with his venemous emails, cowering behind software, unable to show his face. Maybe you hid nearby to watch your work.

And when you got back to the metaphorical mother’s basement of your life, maybe you showered and scrubbed your hands. But you’re carrying something now that you don’t get to put down.

And that’s why I haven’t done what you’ve done. I wouldn’t want to carry that thing around. I wouldn’t want your life.

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