On the morning of January 12, 2010, Susan Barnett and Greg Delisle said goodbye to their three dogs, closed the door of their Cape Cod–style farmhouse in rural upstate New York, and got in their car to go to jobs twenty-five miles away in Ithaca. Susan was a copy editor at Cornell University Press, Greg was a website manager for an academic department. A big snowstorm was scheduled to arrive that afternoon and they anticipated their return might be difficult. What they didn’t know was that in the ceiling of their kitchen, faulty wiring was sparking against the rafters.
At two o’clock, a neighbor called them to say their house was on fire. Susan rushed home through the snowstorm. She was stopped by the police down the road from her house, and from that spot she could see blazing curtains fluttering out of the second-floor window. Fire crews from three towns battled the blaze late into the night.
The result, in insurance parlance, was a burnout. The next day, Greg buried the dogs, who had been trapped in the living room. He and Susan had made a mental list of items that he should try to find. A computer hard drive. Passports. Jewelry. And Dave’s letters—Susan wanted Greg to look for those, too.
Did it seem like an odd priority, I asked Greg, to want to save these letters?
“It’s not an odd priority, if you know Susan,” Greg replied.
I did know Susan. We were undergraduates together at Williams College in the late eighties. Susan was pale, blond, with chipmunk cheeks, and she’d dress in fur muffs one day, straight from Doctor Zhivago, and the next day in pigtails and a gingham dress, à la Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the next in a Boy George black wide-brimmed hat and thick eyeshadow. At the time, she seemed to be trying too hard, but now she seems like one of those low-key counterculture heroines who knew everyone, had been everywhere, influenced everything. She treated us as if we were Andy Warhol’s Factory, documenting the silly mayhem of our class with a camera, even though we made a sad version of a counterculture.
Once, perhaps in a dining hall or at a party, Susan turned to me and flawlessly recited the first paragraph of Lolita. Why Lolita? I can’t recall. At the time it made sense because, hey, that’s Susan, but it was still impressive, an ordinary act of memory that my own memory inflated in prodigiousness.
A year later, when I was living in an Asian country where English books were far and few between, I found Lolita on a fellow expat’s shelf, and I wrote to Susan. Decades later, Susan rediscovered that letter (the only one I ever wrote her) in a box, which prompted her to reach out on Facebook, where we’d reconnected a few years back. Did I tell you the story about David Foster Wallace? she wrote.
Though what follows is Susan’s story, she told me the story because she knew I’d write it, and she’s read the final product. What I thought would be a piece about the cultural demise of letter-writing became instead the story of a strange friendship, a catastrophic fire, and how one woman dealt with the remains.
In 1997, Susan was a grad student in library school at Indiana University. Rather than writing term papers, she was devouring Wallace’s new novel, Infinite Jest. A year into sobriety from alcohol herself, Susan found Wallace’s expansive self-worrying familiar: it was the same voice she had in her head, too. The first letter she sent him was a piece of fan mail. To her surprise, he replied, praising her “extremely interesting note, which was moving and candid and generous—also very funny.” So she sent another.
That’s how it happened.
Dave (Susan always calls him “Dave”) sent his letters on quaint holiday cards, gag postcards, legal-pad pages. Some are dashed off, others more considered, maybe even drafted; some handwritten, others typed. They range across a lifetime of moods. If you’ve read any of Wallace’s other writing, he’s fully recognizable in these letters, guilty about being late and unfailingly polite in his Midwestern way. He sent handwritten thank-you cards (over the years, Susan sent him two quilts, a rug, some books, a pebble) and promised “my own version of prayers” after one of Susan’s dogs died. He was funny, charming, and clever, and he let her into his life in remarkable ways. She knew when he was quitting smoking; she knew about the death of his dog, Jeeves; she knew he didn’t know the meaning of erstwhile. They swapped dog pictures and tales of visits to the vet. At its most banal, it’s a canine-obsessed literary correspondence, but it’s extraordinary all the same: some unknown young poet’s decade-long literary relationship with a highly regarded American writer.
When Susan and Dave began writing letters to each other, he was in Illinois and she was in Indiana, which theoretically made a road trip possible, but she says she didn’t want to risk their rapport with a one-off sexual encounter— and she was married to Greg, though not very comfortably. In the letters, you get a sense of Wallace’s personal sins, mainly his affairs with women, which he details to her. In one letter, he gives her his phone number to pass along to a friend Susan has described from work, whom he admits to having a crush on, and in another he closes by asking whether she and Greg are “happily married,” a question whose tone is clear from the fact that the word “happily” is in quotes. But most of the letters are not like this. In another, he sends her pages from his undergraduate thesis. “My adenoids have adenoids,” he writes about his allergies, then he praises the beagle in a photo she’s sent. Or is it a “(mini-beagle? beagle pup? or an esoteric breed that mimics the beagle for evolutionary gain?)” he quips.
Eventually Wallace tells Susan that Karen, his wife since 2004, has asked him about their correspondence. Dave writes Susan a letter that is a list of questions (“How many other people do you correspond with?” is one of them). Susan mentions a power imbalance between them in one letter, which he denies in the next. “I do not feel good about your perception of a ‘vast power imbalance’ between us, though, nor about your thinking you somehow ‘owe’ me ‘over-sharing’ because I am a ‘public figure.’ For my part, I perceive no such imbalance.” (This letter was handwritten with a Magic Marker on the back of two photocopied pages of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the part where Freud discussed the superego and the origin of guilt.) Dave reassures Susan that Karen isn’t a jealous person. “She hasn’t objected to opposite-gender friendships,” Dave explains. “It’s more that she isn’t used to my having postal friendships, especially with women.”
But in his next letter, dated February 17, 2007, he abruptly cuts off the correspondence. “For complicated reasons that have nothing to do with you or anything you’ve done, I have to stop corresponding with you,” he writes. “This makes me sad; I have enjoyed your letters/cards/excerpts/drawings a lot, and I’m grateful to you for them.”
Whipsawed, Susan was inconsolable. “My best woman friend, in trying to console me, said, ‘Doesn’t he understand that she’s just his wife for right now but you’re his forever pen pal?’ ”
She never found out why Dave had to stop writing, though it coincided with the moment when he stopped taking medication to control his depression and began to withdraw. But she never probed Dave. She expected they would, at some point in the future, pick up the correspondence where they’d left off.
“Obviously, that became impossible,” Susan told me.
When Wallace killed himself on September 12, 2008, they hadn’t been in touch for over a year. She felt hurt, almost offended, that he’d never shared the extent of his mental illness with her. In an instance of misplaced guilt, she’s still convinced that she could have helped him. All those years, she was writing three letters for his one. For years, her letters were her only creative outlet. She developed proprietary feelings for Wallace and mimicked some of his stylistic tics, such as the Lester Bangsism of the Capitalized Phrase. But he seemed to like writing to her, too. “You give good letter,” he wrote once. “I find your letters, and the ‘you’ represented therein, interesting and worthwhile,” he wrote in another.
Even though the letters were from David Foster Wallace, Susan says that the letters as physical objects didn’t seem particularly special at the beginning. When the correspondence started, they’d been pieces of paper containing messages, lying around the house, along with other pieces of mail that came and went, as we all used to treat letters. Even after his death, she didn’t view the letters as valuable. When Susan and Greg moved into the farmhouse in 2008, the letters and postcards, about half a dozen of them, were gathered in the drawer of an old oak desk on the second floor.
Several days after the fire, Greg entered the house, which reeked of smoke and was laced with ice and soot. Every surface, every object, was charred. To reach the second floor, he clambered up a destroyed staircase, past a hole in the roof. On a bed, Greg peeled back a charred blanket to reveal a less damaged one, and beneath it another one bright with colors, untouched by fire.
“There were things like furniture and electronics that were, poof, gone,” Greg said. “But other things, in a cabinet or in a cedar chest, or a desk, if they were contained, they survived.”
The letters were soaked by water and singed by smoke, but they were intact. When Greg delivered them to Susan, she wept. “For them to have burned would have felt like Dave dying all over again,” she said.
The relatively banal letters now took on the halo of the holy. After the fire, Susan stored them in a new, fireproof safe, which was moved into a new house built on the same spot, thanks to ample insurance coverage.
But because they’d survived the fire, the letters now felt doubly haunted to her. They’d survived, while so much that felt more precious, like her three dogs and the thousands of books in her library, had perished. Dave’s letters represented things about her old life that she saw more clearly now as escapes and crutches. She’d been writing to him when she should have been writing her own poems. She’d been writing about her discontents with her husband when she should have left him.
“When the correspondence was going on, it was my most treasured means of escape from being who I was,” she said. Now she wanted to be herself, unencumbered.
The idea to sell the letters came to her on the anniversary of Wallace’s death in 2013. She was googling for remembrances and came across the news that Alice Elman had sold twenty letters and one postcard from Wallace to her deceased husband, University of Arizona writing professor Richard Elman, for $125,000. Became of his suicide, “I no longer felt any obligation to David to keep those letters private,” she told me. She felt that he’d broken a contract with her.
She lit her next fire by writing to Sotheby’s explaining the materials she had, and they invited her to come to New York City. She went by bus, carrying the letters and postcards in a brown manila accordion file and the copy of Wallace’s undergraduate thesis in another. As she rode, she contemplated the negative publicity that might result from what she was doing. She had good reason to expect it; a piece in The Awl made the strong case that another Wallace friend from his M.F.A. days who sold his letters was “cashing in on the late writer’s legacy.”
At the Sotheby’s office, turning the letters over was, she said, “anticlimactic.” There were no reading gloves, no loupes. Instead, she waited in a gallery, then met the head of Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department, Richard Austin, and an assistant in a conference room. Austin read the letters in front of her. He expressed surprise that Wallace had been so interested in Susan’s life. Susan gave a bemused grimace, and stopped herself from blurting out, Man, you have no idea. I am fucking fascinating. Austin then offered her a contract, which Susan signed. A few weeks before the auction, she returned to New York to see the letters in the showroom where they were on display, bringing some friends to go see them. When she left the room, she said goodbye. The claim she had on the letters—and the claim they had on her—had finally been severed.
Sotheby’s sent me digitized versions of Wallace’s letters so that I could write this piece. It wasn’t the piece Susan would have written, but then she didn’t want to write anything.
By now, we condemn the ways digital communication estranges us from one another as easily as we take a breath. No longer can an ordinary person, a poet manqué in grad school, strike up a personal correspondence with a famous person and then sell the pieces of paper many years later. “I think we were the last cohort of the epistolary age,” Susan told me—or rather, wrote to me, of course in an email, referring to her and Dave and me. And then she sent me a scanned version of my typewritten letter remembering her Nabokov recitation, which had also, like Dave’s letters, survived the fire.
On December 5, 2013, twenty pages of letters and postcards from a ten-year correspondence between Susan and Wallace, originally valued at $20,000 to $30,000, were auctioned. Susan monitored the auction itself online. The letters sold to an unnamed buyer for $75,000. As the Sotheby’s catalogue described the correspondence, “Subject matter varies from the personal (expounding on the nature of addiction, infidelity, infatuation, and companionship) to the professional (thoughts on writing, publishing, philosophy, and mathematics).”
I thought: Selling the letters—that didn’t seem like Susan.
When you go through something as devastating as a house fire, it gives you a taste for dramatic change. You begin to look for other things to add to the pyre. A marriage, for instance. A few years after the fire that devoured all their books and other belongings, Greg and Susan separated and then divorced. You also add aspirations that once defined you. Friendships. And a correspondence that comprised bits of all those things. Selling Dave’s letters was her offering to the gods. You turn to your personal life and claim it as more fuel for the absolution.
Yes, there was money involved. From one perspective the final price was an ample payday for a financial outlay of about five bucks in postage over ten years. “Did you keep the whole seventy-five thousand?” I asked her. Subtract $15,000 for a buyer’s premium, which the auction house charges to cover costs, then subtract a commission, the amount of which she wasn’t supposed to specify. The result was “not a life-changing amount of money,” she said. The amount allowed her to pay bills and make a down payment on a new car. It also gave her the freedom to begin untangling herself from her marriage.
Susan sold the letters seeking another bright-line event to mark befores and afters. But their sale wasn’t life-changing, either. No Wallace fans showed up to criticize her mercenary motives. Even if they did catch wind of the sale, the full story wasn’t contained there. Sotheby’s hadn’t indicated in its descriptions of the letters the source of their smoke and water damage. “They all had the smoke smell and had been soaked and dried out,” Susan said. “Of course I felt like I was whoring out my tragedy as well as his, by selling them, but if you’re going to be a whore you want to be a successful one, and I thought that the story of the fire was a crucial aspect of all those letters.”
The fire has never left her; how could it? Susan marks her life according to January 12. Even now, when she’s driving back home, she always notes the spot on the road where she saw the blazing curtains through the snow. “I will never be the person I was the day before that happened,” she said. After the fire, Susan took a turn for the mystical and the shamanic. Astrological symbols and ideas about reincarnation come up often in our conversations. When she talks about how to care for the dead, I half believe she’s talking about the dead, half believe she’s talking about her old self, the one before the fire, the one that can’t be forgotten. The ancestor who made her who she is. She used to believe in secrets and firewalls of the self to protect the isolated parts, but the fire taught her that all containers are vulnerable, and the things in them, no matter how secure you think they are, can be destroyed with a swiftness that will take your breath away.
Michael Erard is the author of Um … : Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.