The stories we tell ourselves
A fake letter-writing service matching men with "angels" reveals how we value lies over truth and to never underestimate the power of human longing.
As usual, I'm late getting on the podcast bandwagon but I have listened intermittently to NPR over the years so that must count for something. The stuff on Hidden Brain is high quality but the Lonely Hearts episode is Stephen Curry break-the-Matrix-type-of-good. *SPOILER ALERT* If you listen to podcasts, I suggest listening to it first before reading. If there's little to no chance of you tuning in, read on.
In Lonely Hearts, Shankar Vendatam narrates the story of Jesse who developed a romantic correspondence relationship spanning a decade with Pamala.
Or who he thinks Pamala.
Rather, it was a chain-smoking, middle-aged, snake oil salesman in Moline, Illinois named Don Lowry. And unbeknownst to Jesse, Lowry was sending copies of the exact same letters Jesse received to men all across the country. The amazing thing wasn't that Lowry was so incrediby skilled as to pull this off; the amazing thing is that men bought into it. Even after the fraud was exposed.
In the early 1980s, Don started a subscription letter service where men would pay $10 a month to have a correspondence relationship with "angels". For those of you under thirty years old, "correspondence" means exchanging snail mail. Pamala was "Angel Pamala". For each wave, Don would produce typed copies of a generic letter - the only distinguishable difference in each one being the name of the recipient, enabled by a simple "find and replace" function. Angel Pamala would write about the mundane details of her everyday life - going to the bank, getting upset because the grocery line was too long, etc. There were other "angels" as well but the letters were all the same.
In response, Jesse wrote hundreds of letters back to Angel Pamala. And her letters never referenced anything he wrote. Instead, she might write something like "I know you're lonely. . ." or "I know life is hard right now" - something that would have been true for every man Don was writing to.
Don was a master manipulator. He would make up accidents and injuries for his angels. He would ask the angels' pen pals to send funds to help cover the hospital costs. He would send cheesy tokens of remembrance and hope. Don once mass mailed little wooden replicas of a lighthouse accompanied by letters that had something incredibly cheesy like "May this be a beacon that I am looking out for you".
While I was listening to this story, I thought in disbelief: How does someone fall for this?
And yet the portrait of Jesse was pretty compelling. In the 1980's, Jesse was single guy living with his parents. He was overweight and by his own admission, physically unattractive. His mom passed away. He had to stay home and care for his ailing dad, all the while toiling at his parents' restaurant. He had few opportunities to meet people and it must be have terribly lonely.
So I went from disbelief to pity. Here's a pathetic guy who is in a bad situation and I can see why he would need this. After all, Pamala's letters gave Jesse purpose, meaning, hope, and a sense of fulfillment. He would come home after a long day of work and unwind by laying on his bed and reading her letters.
But then things got even crazier. After some incredible events, Don finally got caught in his scheme. He and "Pamala" were arrested and charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. There really was a "Pamala", her name was actually Pamala, and she was one of Don's employees but never wrote letters to any of the men.
Jesse heard about the trial and was one of the men who testified IN DEFENSE of Don Lowry and Pamala. Even though he knew Angel Pamala was a lie, he still felt compelled to stand up and defend her. This is where my view of Jesse began to change. I went from pity to outrage. I could not understand how Jesse could still keep up this facade even after everything came crashing down.
At the end of the interview, years after the trial, a producer asks Jesse what gets him up in the morning. Jesse responds that it's Pamala's words - they have power and it doesn't matter who wrote them. Jesse's belief in Pamala's words over the years had produced a tangible, undeniable, positive result in his life. He could not deny this evidence any more than he could deny his own existence.
It was around this time I finally reached a point of compassion and empathy for Jesse because I realized he and I are not so different. It got me thinking. Do I have any relationships that give me meaning, hope, purpose, and fulfillment but might not be based on reality?
Of course I do. My relationship with God. The slipper fits quite well actually. People in crisis find religion. They begin correspondence with an invisible being and receive words that are never precisely specific to their situation. They send money. They receive big promises. There is a lot of symbolism. There are differences though - God doesn't promise an exclusive relationship with us, quite the contrary. But in a real sense, religion may be the greatest correspondence relationship con ever.
The big question is if it were possible to expose God as a lie, would I still believe?
I don't know.
Although truth is precious, I am likely to continue believing the lie because so much of my life is invested in the idea of God. After all, seeing God as a lie would wreak havoc with my world view, relationships, and lastly but not insignificantly, my job.
I can only think of one person who is willing to pursue truth at any cost. He is a good friend who used to be a Christian but became an atheist during seminary. He knocked the screen over and discovered the Wizard of Oz is just an old man from Omaha. The journey towards truth has been costly for him and his quest continues but I'm not sure I could pay that price. I also still believe the Wizard has magic. The power of the myth points to something true.
How much do we ultimately value truth? Some of you will feel uncomfortable at this point with this line of thinking. You may question whether I'm a Christian to explore these kinds of questions. I get that. I believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead but I'm not averse to imagining it was a hoax. I doubt, therefore I am. I also believe, and therefore I am.
So before you judge Jesse and me, please recognize we're hardly alone in being tempted by lie over truth. We all have stories we tell ourselves. And those stories wield power over us. God may indeed be the greatest lie ever but He certainly doesn't have a monopoly on fiction. And in case you're wondering, yes, Jesse still has the wooden lighthouse on top of his bedroom dresser.