As atrocities go it was pretty minor, but I can still say with confidence that in my 47 years on the planet it remains the worst thing I have ever done.
I was a freshman in college, at a fancy school in a big city. I was exchanging letters with a young woman from my hometown. Though we had known one another tangentially for some years, it was only in the last weeks of summer that we had made any kind of connection, and in a light way we seemed to be drifting toward something more compelling. When we left for school in the fall, the connection shifted to letters, a popular interactive medium at the time, and we exchanged accounts of life on our separate campuses, nothing very deep or memorable.
Which was where the trouble started. Midway through the year I received a letter from her filled with accounts of typical campus stuff, late-night drinking excursions ending at some greasy-spoon smorgasbord. I was doing the same stuff myself, of course, but the fact that she chose to record it and send it off struck me at the time as intolerable.
In a spasm of cruelty I crafted a reply. It began innocuously enough, with accounts of recent events, but gradually devolved into increasingly meaningless and unimportant details, culminating finally in a complete inventory of the contents of the mini-fridge in my dorm room.
If it would lessen my sentence I would cop a plea and implicate my roommate, who read the letter, laughed, and gave me the green light to send it.
Her reply was swift and succinct, a sentiment capable of being expressed fully in only seven letters. My mortified letter of apology went unanswered, and for 20 years afterward the memory occupied the number one spot of my hit parade of shame.
I can’t pretend that my initial motive for resurrecting this fiasco was entirely noble. I was pillaging my past, looking for something with enough emotional charge to turn into some kind of personal essay. My initial idea was to contact her and, if she was willing, to make a sort of public apology, including her account of how one remembers an offense over time. I never got far with this plan because every time I imagined her reading this letter, the stench of my ulterior motives was so offensive to my own nostrils that I couldn’t bring myself to actually consider writing it.
No, it quickly became clear that if this incident was still capable of stirring such shame after all these years, then I owed it to myself to bring some resolution to the matter in as straight a way as possible, and that precluded requests for anything except forgiveness.
Several challenges presented themselves when I sat down at the computer. First I had to seriously consider whether my letter would do anything for her besides reopen an old wound. I also had to consider the opposite possibility, that my letter would strike her as delusionally arrogant — that I was important enough to have mattered for longer than the speck of time it her took to dispatch me. But I was willing to take that hit if need be. Weighing both possibilities, I guessed that the chances were good that she had shrugged off the blow and gotten over it long before I had.
But she was not the only wounded party in this affair. I felt a a strong obligation to myself, to somehow lighten the sting of this memory. The filing and retrieval system on my shame system is acute. And while I know it can’t be true, sometimes it feels as if I can remember and recreate, with vivid emotional intensity, every moment of shame in my life. This moment of shame had served its socially adaptive function. While I have stepped on my share of feet over the years, I never again achieved that level of cruelty. The burning served no additional purpose and I could let go of it without feeling I was letting myself off easy. I had done my time.
When I sat down to compose the letter, I realized that I still didn’t understand why I had done what I had done. After stewing in it for a while, I was able to remember my insecurity of the time: surrounded by overachievers, unsure of my worth, weighing myself against my peers, my professors, and the line of the great minds in whose work I was immersing myself. I had considerable contempt for the gloryless, mundane reality of my own existence. When she revealed hers so nakedly, I lashed out. And with the endorsement of a similarly deluded, insecure ally, I was able to suspend my clarity long enough to get the letter in a mailbox. This all felt true to me, and I felt she could hear it without feeling judged anew.
After all those years I didn’t have much of a lead on where she was living, so I contacted the alumni association from her college. The woman who answered the phone agreed to forward my letter to the address they had on file.
What came of it? The truth is, I have no idea. I never heard back. It would make for a tidier story if I’d received a definitive reply, some note of forgiveness — spiced, ideally, with some good-natured barbs from her, laughter smoothing over the rough edges of memory. I would have thought that my sincerity would have roused something in her, enough for her to reply in anger, if nothing else. My best guess is that the message never reached her, perhaps forwarded to some old address and left to wither in some dead end. And that was all I could do about it. To resend it, or to pursue an answer any more aggressively, would have been to overstep the thin sliver of authority that I had granted myself.
In the end I’m not sure how much it mattered. If my apology was a true offering, then like any other true offering it would not come with strings: she would have to be free to accept or to toss it. As for me, the process of investigation had brought enough clarity that the memory no longer burned for me, and I could put the whole incident to rest, along with Dostoyevsky and Nietzche and all the other important minds I may or may not ever read again.
Larry Gallagher has written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Discover, and other publications; he lives in San Francisco.