Couples need it AFTER a fight. College seniors want it at graduation, even if they don't know it. And laid-off employees could probably do with some of it on top of severance packages.
"It" is closure, and recently it's been on the lips of not only psychologists, but also talk-show hosts, columnists, and politicians. Victims of sexual abuse by priests, millions of Americans who have thronged ground zero, and families of victims who watched Timothy McVeigh's execution were all said to be looking for a concept that first dropped into Americans' daily discourse some 10 to 20 years ago and has been making steady gains since.
It was the title of an "X-Files" episode and the one thing Rachel on the show "Friends" said she needed to get over Ross. There's even a young band in Tampa, Fla. called "Closure."
Lexicographers are taking note. The Oxford English Dictionary is drafting a new entry for the popular meaning of the word, which suggests not merely an ending, but a kind of emotional resolution.
Some say closure is overused psychobabble. Others say the concept serves an important purpose after Sept. 11, helping the nation talk about tragedy.
But given Americans' penchant for turning their backs on the past since the Pilgrims faced the Atlantic, closure may be headed the way of "midlife crisis" staple vocabulary for any American keeping a journal. "It's no surprise this word has infiltrated our world," says Robert Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University.
Donna Jo Napoli flinches when people slip into self-help speak. She places talk of closure alongside phrases like "Thank you for sharing your concerns."
"It's a kind of [language] that's aimed at handling people," says Ms. Napoli, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa. "I find it totally obnoxious." Still, she understands its appeal. Living in an extremely litigious society, Napoli explains, has caused Americans to fear confrontation and cling to indirect language. She might prefer "straight talk," but she recognizes a practical necessity in words like closure.
It's not that simple, say others who think closure does more harm than good, parading as a false panacea that can sometimes cloak revenge.
While closure appears nowhere in legal codes, the rise of victims' rights has more talk of closure for victims in court.
But Robert Barton, a retired Boston superior court judge, knows better. During his two decades on the bench, Judge Barton presided over some 150 murder cases. "It's obvious to me, without being a psychologist, that victims look forward to seeing whoever did their loved one in being brought to justice."
Yet he adds that these feelings are often visceral, involving a desire to see someone carted off in handcuffs or, in the case of Mr. McVeigh, executed. Once the case is over, Barton says, victims are hit with the reality of their loss. Ultimately, the trial is a brief diversion, leaving them far from any closure. "With human beings, it's never the end," he says.
But most mental-health experts say closure is no new holy grail, only rendered so by people seeking facile solutions to complex problems. Paula Danzinger, a counselor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., has seen many people who need closure: "I've had clients 15, 20 years after their divorce, they're still talking about it."
The problem, according to Dr. Danzinger, is that many Americans are impatient, imposing a timetable on themselves. Commemorating the terrorist attacks just six months after the event is an example, she says, of trying to rush closure.
Moreover, the thinking goes, closure is not an end to pain, but simply a way to shelve it temporarily. When a victim of sexual abuse runs into the abusive relative at a family gathering years later and relives the trauma, that's not a failure to reach closure, says Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatry professor at Georgetown University. "That's just the nature of trauma."
In this vein, closure is more of a convenience at some point therapy has to end. In fact, many believe the current use of closure is borrowed from this idea in psychoanalysis. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word appeared often in psychiatric journals in the 1970s.
Its precise origins are unknown, however, according to Abigail Zitin, an OED editor. Although many signs point to psychology, other linguists trace the word to literary criticism. When Dickens's style of wrapping up loose ends at the end of a story became less fashionable, writers pulled out other tricks to let readers feel that a novel had ended properly. This change led to theories of closure.
Still some point out that the concept of moving on after a tragedy is much older than Freud or Dickens. Characters in Greek epics were pining for it, with at least one major difference: The ancients may have relied on ritual, whereas today we might be inclined to count on a few hours of talking it through.
Joseph Pickett, executive editor in the Dictionary Department at Houghton Mifflin Company, even believes people in Shakespeare's day had their own name for it: "Closure," he suggests, may be the term "we've just happened to glom onto."
That's partly true, according to Professor Thompson, who thinks closure's popularity is anything but an accident. First, he says, "the idea of destroying history has been a central American theme." What was manifest destiny if not a mandate to start over, to forget the past? More important, adds Thompson, self-reinvention and US capitalism go hand in hand. In other words, Americans need not despair for ways to obtain closure: a new wardrobe, a new car, or simply a postcard with pictures of the twin towers will often do.
Which is one reason why, Thompson says, closure is not something two intellectuals in a Russian or French cafe are likely to be talking about.