Readers Write In #152: The maddening need for closure

Posted on March 30, 2020


(by Adhithya K R)

Sometimes we want to know what could happen. Sometimes we want to know what happens next.

When a friend recommended Spoorloos to me, he narrated a scene from the movie to me. A man stands at the edge of a building and thinks whether he should jump or not. Any sane man would not jump and step back, but this man follows a perverse line of reasoning: To go against what is predetermined, he must jump. The absurdity of that act got me interested and I expected the movie to be an existential story dealing with philosophical questions.

It wasn’t. Spoorloos (The Vanishing) deals with the story of a man named Rex searching for his missing wife Saskia. It looks like something sinister is about to happen when their car breaks down in a tunnel but nothing does. Later, Saskia actually goes missing in the middle of a crowded intersection. There is no trace of her.

The movie’s narrative is very closely associated with the point of view of Rex who is still searching for her three years later. We see what he sees and understand his frustration in not knowing Saskia’s fate. It becomes an obsession for him to find out what happened to his wife, even at the cost of normal life or his own safety. The philosophical act that opened this article is only a small line that shapes the character of the abductor.

To find out what happened to Saskia, you would have to see the movie. There’s something else that got me thinking though. If Saskia had gone missing for a couple of days and returned, not providing any explanation for her absence, what would Rex’s reaction have been then? Wouldn’t he have been furious? It’s very similar to how anxious parents turn angry when their child lifts the phone only on the seventh try.

This idea was explored in the story “Kunicki” in the book Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. The beginning is very similar to how Spoorloos starts out – Kunicki’s wife and child go missing when they stop for a roadside break. He raises hell in searching for them and fails to find them, plunging him into despair.

But his wife and kid return. The rest of the story deals with Kunicki’s demand for an explanation. His wife’s vague claims that they just passed out on the roadside and spent a couple of days taking shelter in a nearby stone hut do not convince him. There is no change in her demeanour or her activities after the incident, but the lack of closure is maddening to Kunicki.

He tries to ‘discover’ what actually happened by looking for clues in her belongings and latching on to words, like John Nash from ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ He tries to get his child hypnotised to hear his version of events. He drives his wife crazy by following her around and eventually this leads to their separation. He doesn’t relent though. The story ends with him leaving in search of answers, whatever they may be.

Kunicki and Rex are not unique in their need for closure. Some people who cannot read a book completely at least skip to its last page and find out how it ends. The most depressing experience for them would definitely be that of a power cut just as a movie is about to end. In fact, movies that end in a tragic manner are sometimes tolerated but ones that leave questions unanswered are often hated. The psychological need for closure is a strong one.

Different people react to a lack of closure differently though. Some people have a strong need for closure whereas others can deal with ambiguity. In fact, there is a scale to measure this inclination called the “Need For Closure scale”. People who measure high on this scale prefer closure, definite answers and order. They favour political conservatism. They pick facts to reinforce their world-view. The ones who measure low on this scale, on the other hand, deal with ambiguity better and look for views that challenge their world view. In fact, they exhibit a tendency to avoid closure. They would rather prolong the ‘good experience’ and avoid negative consequences than put things to an end.

This phenomenon can explain a lot of things when it comes to content consumers – Why some love open endings whereas others hate it. Why some fear the end of their favourite series and space it out at a few episodes a day, whereas others binge watch it because they have to “know how it ends.” Why some prefer explicit narratives whereas others don’t want to be “spoon-fed.” In fact, creators might themselves do better if they stick to a certain kind of narrative. Stephen King’s books are ‘well-designed’ and everyone knows how they’re going to build up to a terrific payoff. G.R.R Martin’s series, on the other hand, thrived on its unpredictable turns in a show that seemed to go on forever. He might have done better to even abandon the series and leave behind a legacy of fond remembrance and fan-fiction. A rushed ending did not give the closure that he probably avoided himself.

Conventional thrillers and linear narratives satiate the ones who look for closure. They revel in the execution of a good story even if they know the good guy is going to win in the end. The other group is the one that gets bored with plot and looks for variations in form. Just knowing that a certain kind of book or movie exists could excite the imagination of its members, though they may never get to read it (like the fictional titles mentioned in the books by Borges). There’s a very interesting book called “If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller” where a reader goes in search of the continuation of a novel, but he only keeps finding the first chapters of different books. Every alternate chapter is a promising start to an exciting story that goes nowhere. The book would have been possible only if the man in the book was someone with a strong need for closure, but the book can be read only by someone who is able to handle ambiguity.

I guess the yin-yang interplay of both types of creators is needed to sustain life in the arts. The balance between these two sides – the romantic and the classical – a search for unifying Quality is what the narrator of “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” goes in search of, but as he finds out in the end –

Tell you what, if your need for closure is strong enough, you’ll find out.