Along for the Rye’d
The Chain Letter
By Annabel Monaghan
I opted for the stigma of being the person who broke the chain. Some things just have to be stopped.
In the late 70s, I approached the mailbox with some trepidation. Most of the time whatever was addressed to me would be harmless — a birthday party invitation, an issue of Highlights magazine. But a few times a year, I’d receive a chain letter, and the next 24 hours would no longer be my own. I am fairly sure that, when I was 9, a chain letter addressed to me prompted my first spontaneous use of a curse word. And for good reason.
As you will recall, a chain letter was a typed document that included a specific set of instructions and consequences. You must copy the document ten times and send to ten friends within 24 hours to assure yourself an influx of outrageous fortune. If you fail to do so, you will suffer seven years of bad luck. And, for perspective, when you’re 9 years old, seven years is a really long time.
I’d sigh, resign to my fate, and get to work. The clock was ticking. Technology being what it was, copying that letter was not so easy. I had no printer/scanner situation, no mimeograph machine. So, I’d pull out my mom’s manual typewriter and hunt and peck my way through ten letters. With my hands covered in Liquid Paper, I shoved them in envelopes and scribbled the addresses. I didn’t care who I sent them to; I just needed to get them out of my house.
As soon as email was invented, chain letters went online. These are easier to deal with and the stakes are more emotional than concrete: Don’t let us down by being the person to break the chain. They begin, “My friends and I thought it would be fun to exchange [INSERT ITEM or CONCEPT] among friends. Please send your [ITEM or CONCEPT] to the person at the top of the list and move your name to the second position and forward to ten friends…” I always expect that sentence to end with “…friends who presumably have nothing to do or with whom you’d like to break ties.” The item or concept requested is usually a favorite recipe or an inspirational quote, though I once received one of these emails asking me to mail a new pair of underpants to the person in the first position. In return, I would receive ten pairs of underpants from strangers. In that case, I opted for the stigma of being the person who broke the chain. Some things just have to be stopped.
Chain letters have now morphed into social media challenges, often requests for you to do something unpleasant to raise awareness about something. Notably, I think I was asked 50 times to dunk ice water on my head. You can ask me a thousand different ways if I feel like dumping ice water on my head, and the answer will always be no. But then I think of the stakes: these friends are going to think I don’t care about their cause. Worse than a chain breaker, they are going to think I am a bad person. In order to restore myself to goodness in their eyes, I must suffer physical discomfort and humiliation and then post about it. Extra credit: Tag more people and ask them to do the same. It’s a chain of agony.
In the past few weeks I’ve been challenged by two of my all-time favorite friends to post a photo of a favorite book on Facebook every day for seven days, with no explanation as to why it’s a favorite. It’s unclear what we’re raising awareness about, beside the fact that I don’t read Russian novels. I pick my top seven and hesitate. Nearly every book I love requires an explanation, nay a term paper, as to why it matters. I cannot post this romance-heavy list of books and face the repercussions of not having included “Lincoln in the Bardo”. As I start to search my bookshelves for great literary works that I can pretend I enjoyed, I remember I have another option. And so, I’ve broken another chain.