The Line of Death (or, The Art of the Punitive Essay)

Today’s post is in honor of my brother Brian’s 40th birthday.

Once upon a time–specifically, three decades ago, around the time American aircraft were crossing Muammar Gaddafi’s “Line of Death” into the Gulf of Sidra in a willful act of antagonism because Ronald Reagan had gotten sick of his smack talk and was itching to call him on it–my brother and I got into a kerfuffle of our own.

The cause of the domestic conflict is believed by most historians to be the unauthorized appropriation of a garment by the younger sibling from the elder. (As I recall, I wore my brother’s jean jacket without asking–and I was going to return it.) Unlike in Libya, there were no fatalities. However, the exchange of hostilities involved unpleasant shouting and hitting, as a result of which the combatants were sent to their rooms by their mother and made to write punitive essays. Each was required to compose 100 words on four different themes intended to sharpen their empathy and skills of diplomacy.

Here is one of Brian’s:

BAS on Sharing-001
Note that Brian’s essay on sharing is exactly 100 words long, as a matter of principle.

There are many things to admire about my brother’s rhetorical efforts. I see it as a subtle masterpiece of verbal irony. The author–i.e. the eleven-year-old kid who did not wish to share his jacket with his little sister–would seem to be in a position analogous to Libya, a.k.a. the “loser country” that did not wish to share international water. The jacket is perhaps not exactly analogous to the Gulf of Sidra, being definitively the property of the author, who was no doubt keenly aware of this fact, and yet, he panders to the authority figure (Mom) who wishes to hear him assert that sharing is a virtuous thing to do. He thus condemns selfishness as the province of despots. But meanwhile, he undermines the very assumption that sharing is inherently virtuous with his reference to “forced sharing,” which clearly smacks of tyranny. Moreover, the inclusion of the idiotic coinage “unmean” (not a real word) in the list of synonyms describing people who share is a thinly veiled expression of contempt for this exercise. And yet, there is a stroke of sincerity in the final line that begs the reader’s sympathy for his position. Indeed, it is not always easy to share. Anyone who says otherwise is hopelessly naive.

While Brian was writing this (or, initially, refusing to write this) masterpiece, I was busy dashing off my own four essays. As I recall, I got out of my room much more quickly than Brian did. I was Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, happily scratching away.

The fruits of my labor are all the more horrifying for the fact that I actually enjoyed writing them. Consider:

LIS on Shouting
Sheer sass.

My self-defensive argument comes off as completely unrepentant, reflecting my determination not to capitulate entirely to authority. However, the fact that I also exceeded the minimum word requirement by eight words with my needless verbosity (I mean, “help or assistance”??) reflects the fact that I was, simultaneously, eager to please. This tension may be one of my defining personal qualities, to this day.

However, I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote the following.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 5.16.22 PM
ESP?? Blue jays?? No further comment on this utter inanity.

While the internecine shouting and hitting did not end in 1986, there’s probably a reason my mother never gave us this particular punishment again. Whether it seemed too cruel and unusual, or just too wildly ineffective at curbing our bad behavior, that was the first and last time we ever had to write punitive essays.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t a kernel or two of wisdom in what we wrote that day. Maybe we did learn something about diplomacy–or at least rhetoric–if not empathy. And for the record, Brian and I get along just fine now. In fact, as a token of good will and the esteem in which I hold him, I’m willing to let my brother have the last word today.

BAS on Kindness-001
For the record: I never stole anyone’s coat, or BORROWED Brian’s jean jacket again.

2 thoughts on “The Line of Death (or, The Art of the Punitive Essay)

  1. This has the makings of a scene in a somewhat Franzenish comic novel or memoir about a 1980s childhood. I love that you kept the punishment-essays and have subjected them to some insightful analysis nineteen years later. I agree with your verdict that Brian’s is a ‘subtle masterpiece of verbal irony’.

  2. It ain’t easy. I think I went over the 100 words on my Kindness essay, my count just now was 109. (which beats your 108, Sis). So, could you cross out 9 words? Whichever ones, no matter. I definitely had some issues with being forced to do things, still do. Reverse psychology is the way to go if you want me to do something. (Also, I have no memory of the incident or punishment. Love you Laura)

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