This Is the End

Language and how we use it.
Feb. 13 1997 3:30 AM

This Is the End

Why do we long so for closure?

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A few weeks ago, on his public-radio program A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor spent several minutes conversing with the occasional character Larry, his fictional twin brother, who lives beneath the stage and harbors resentments about a show-business career that slipped away. "Larry, you can't live in the past," Keillor said at one point. "It does no good to hold a grudge. You've got to move on, Larry. You've got to find closure."

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A Prairie Home Companion does not rely for its comedic grammar on concepts accessible mainly to an overinformed urban elite, so when certain words and phrases crop up on that program, you can be pretty sure the underlying meanings have been suffused through the middle-range ZIP codes. Such is the case with closure, in the sense of bringing an emotional process to its natural conclusion. The term has so rapidly evolved from restricted jargon into mainstream patois--it is hardly more "technical" now than the words du jour after soup on a truck-stop menu--that A Prairie Home Companion cannot only use it safely, but can even give it a knowing, ironic twist.

Closure has familiar applications in the realm of personal relationships. In the movie Heat, to cite just one instance, Diane Venora says to her ex-husband, Al Pacino: "I may be stoned on grass and Prozac, but you've been walking through our life dead. And now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you." But the word turns up in any sort of story where "finis" is being written. Patients who served as unwitting subjects of 1950s radiation experiments described their recent settlement with the government as bringing "a sense of closure," using the word in its by-now standard noun-phrase setting. (Closure on its own sometimes seems too final.) The makers of a $450 doll that bears the features of a young Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attributed the doll's popularity to the public's "unresolved feelings about Jackie": Buying a doll "gives them a sense of closure." In contrast, the rambling valedictory press conference last fall of Notre Dame's football coach, Lou Holtz, was criticized by one sportswriter for its "absence of any real sense of closure."

Closure is nowadays most often encountered in contexts involving death. Newspaper and broadcast accounts routinely describe the return of a serviceman's long-lost remains from the Pacific, Korea, or Vietnam as bringing a sense of closure. Late last year, the Los Angeles Times profiled a local undertaker named Roberto Garcia: "While the profits are nice, Garcia says the most fulfilling part of his job is helping families establish a sense of closure." Now that executions are once again a normal part of American life--someone is executed in the United States once a week, on average--they, too, reliably bring on that clausural feeling. "What I'm hoping is that everyone will have a sense of closure from this," a police officer told a reporter after an execution was carried out last month in Arizona, 18 years after the crimes had been committed. Commenting on a documentary in which parents witnessed the execution of the killer of two of their children, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist wrote: "Watching him die gave them a sense of closure." The relatives of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman did not witness anything so dramatic, but according to the New York Times, closure was what they, too, had sought in their recent lawsuit against O.J. Simpson. The $33.5 million award was not the issue, they told the Times: "Rather ... they were looking for closure--'justice,' some called it--to the worst thing that had ever happened to them."

The origins of closure are hardly obscure. It is derived from the Latin verb clausere, meaning "to close," which also gives us the enclosed architectural space cloister, the enclosed syntactical space clause, and the fear of enclosed space altogether, claustrophobia.

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I n a political sense, closure, now most commonly invoked in its Gallic variant, cloture, refers to the ending of debate in a legislative body and dates back to the late 19th century. In literary criticism, closure refers to the manner in which a poem (or any text) achieves thematic and structural finality. In the psychological jargon of Gestalt theory ("Gestalt" being German for "pattern" or "form"), closure refers to the propensity of the human mind to impose or perceive order despite gaps or asymmetry. This meaning of closure helps to explain ___ most people have no ________ at all in figuring out the missing ______ in this sentence. Fill-in-the-blanks exercises have been fashioned into what are known as cloze tests, which are designed to test passages for readability and readers for comprehension. The Gestalt term closure has an application in the world of, where it refers to the way the reader mentally imagines what has happened between panels.

The impulse behind the real-life quest for a sense of closure--the impulse, that is, to discern meaning, to impose coherence, to tie up loose ends--is no doubt as timeless as sentience itself. But how did it come to be so closely bound up with a specific word? One factor is the psychologizing of everyday life, a development that scarcely needs documentation. When we require words to describe personal motivation and other interior processes, the most likely source today is psychology. The lexicon so derived is large and growing: co-dependency, recovery, denial, self-esteem, self-help. As it has been noted, there are no longer sins, only syndromes.

Asecond factor is the news media, in particular local television news, which is built on abbreviated human stories with a recognizable beginning, middle, and end: A violent crime. A daring rescue. A belated discovery. A sudden disaster. Psychotherapeutic templates are easy to apply. The words "a sense of closure" have by now been uttered so often on camera--along with the companion phrase "the healing process," which is what observers hope will occur after the scab of closure has formed--that they have joined the off-the-rack vocabulary of stock phrases that ordinary Americans can pick from when a camera appears in front of them.

How much more deeply a sense of closure will penetrate is impossible to say--but that it will go deeper is without question. I won't be surprised to learn someday that wedding vows are being exchanged in which the union is set to last "until a sense of closure do us part." And surely, "A Sense of Closure" will be the headline above the news analysis in the New York Times the morning before the asteroid hits.

At least we won't have to read "The Healing Process" on the editorial page the following day.