On Thursday, the Chicago Housing Authority agreed to pay US$2.1-million to the family of a five-year-old boy who had been dropped to his death from a vacant apartment by two older boys. According to the Associated Press, the authority's spokesman said he hoped this would provide some "closure" for the family of the murdered child.
Every era brings popular words that no one quite understands, or -- worse -- everyone understands differently. Closure has been such a word for 10 or 15 years. It describes something that is highly desirable but also quite vague. Those in emotional pain are said to need it, and many hope to achieve it if they can figure out what it is and how to get it. Some people apparently think that just mentioning it is consoling, as if the word itself had magic properties. At the very least, discussing it demonstrates that someone's distress is being taken seriously.
Around 1910, the Gestalt school of therapy in Germany brought the term closure into psychology to describe the way scattered and troubling feelings can resolve themselves in coherent and stable mental patterns. Today, it means much more -- coming to terms emotionally with tragedy, or rapidly ending the misery caused by grievous loss.
People recovering from love affairs also sometimes yearn for closure -- and some find it on the Internet. One place to go is www.geocities.com/Athens/Cyprus/3199/, where the first page says "Get Closure! Store your emotional baggage with us!" You write an account of your broken relationship, explain what you learned from it, and include a final message for your former beloved. The message will be delivered to his or her e-mail address, with musical accompaniment chosen by the sender from a list that includes I Am a Rock and I Can See Clearly Now.
To provide vicarious succour for others, the contributor's story appears anonymously on the site. Currently, one closure-seeker explains what her heartbreaking relationship taught her ("Never trust a man") and sends a hate-mail to her ex: "I hope you never have a moment's peace. I hope you'll call and want to get back together again and I'll have the guts to tell you to..." The sound track plays You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.
To the Chicago Housing Authority, closure means something like comfort. To the woman quoted, it means something like revenge. Its many meanings now fill the air around us. I didn't realize how omnipresent it had become till the other night, when I heard the chairman of a public meeting say that after the question period, "we will be looking for closure around 9:30." He had heard it so often he was using it to mean simply "end."
In Canada closure as a parliamentary term had its burst of national fame in the mid-1950s. The Liberal government was pushing through a bill to create a natural gas pipeline from Alberta to central Canada. Because the opposition was determined to resist as long as possible, the Liberals cut off debate by invoking the legal but unusual tactic of closure. This was considered, in all but Liberal circles, dictatorial. A Globe and Mail cartoon showed a guillotine attached to the Peace Tower, descending on the House to decapitate democracy.
That was a different kind of closure, but not entirely different. C.D. Howe, the Cabinet minister responsible, wanted the pipeline bill passed by the end of that Parliamentary session. In phrases that weren't yet popular, he wanted to "get over it" and "move on." The voters moved on, too: The fury aroused by closure helped defeat the Liberals in the 1957 election.
In the 1990s, closure became part of American legal discourse, most notably in the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. When he was convicted, a Texas paper ran a headline, "Verdict brings sense of closure for families." That easy assumption has always struck me as nonsense. Everyone wants a mass murderer caught, especially the relatives of those murdered, but the idea that a conviction will restore the spirits of the afflicted is dubious. "Closure" was the reason for allowing hundreds of survivors to watch McVeigh put to death. Attorney-General John Ashcroft said it would help those who had lost relatives to "close this chapter in their lives." Perhaps, or perhaps it rendered the experience, in long-term memory, even more hideous.
Those who think we can manage our feelings about tragedy are usually deceiving themselves. The idea seems to be based on a belief that we can sort our feelings into separate chapters that won't leak into each other. Nothing in human experience supports that notion. Consciously seeking "closure" is a way of trying to shorten the length of time it normally takes to soften the edges of grief. Everyone can sympathize with this desire without believing that the techniques clustered around the term closure will help.
In 1930, the young Morley Callaghan wrote a novel, It's Never Over, about a man who is being hanged for murder and the way that event reaches endlessly into the lives of people connected with him. A woman who lost a relative in Oklahoma City gave a reporter a response that made good sense to me. "There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing," she said. "The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket."