The Last Goodbye

by Matt Potter

Cover image

Publisher: Silvertail
Copyright: 2014-2016
Printing: 2016
ISBN: 1-909269-42-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 308

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In the contested space between the interested amateur and the trained expert lies the enthusiast. A topic has, for often inexplicable reasons, caught fire in their thoughts and become a mild obsession. They may not have formal training or systematic conceptual grounding beneath their interest, but they partly make up for that lack with sustained fascination. They research widely and obscurely about their particular focus, develop novel theories, see distinctions and classifications that few others would bother to investigate, and present their discoveries to anyone who will stand still long enough. And occasionally, when that interest happens to coincide with writing skill, they produce some surprisingly excellent essays or books.

Matt Potter's enthusiasm is resignation letters.

Every damaging resignation letter, every cornered truth attack, every out-of-control speech by a former friend, is more than just an inconvenience, to be countered with positive spin and internal memos: it's an open challenge to the official version of the story, the perfectly controlled brand. They are breaks in an otherwise perfectly planned, smoothly executed narrative of the powerful. Holes in the program code. A rare, irresistible chance to hack into history's shiny, unstoppable operation.

The Last Goodbye: A History of the World in Resignation Letters is not, in truth, a history of the world. It is, first and foremost, a taxonomy, because there are types of resignation letters. The opening chapter, the truth bomb, is the type that one would expect upon discovering that someone wrote a book on the topic (that wasn't advice on how to write a good one). But there are other types, less heavy on the fireworks but just as fascinating. The unquotable expert construction. The knife in the back. The incoherent scream of rage. But also the surprisingly gentle and graceful conclusion.

It is the question that the letters themselves try in vain to answer, over and over again — even as they explain, analyse, protest and bear witness to a million other details.

The question is: Why?

All the forces in the universe stack up against unburdening ourselves in a resignation letter. Professionally, it can be suicide. In practical terms, it is often self-defeating. Self-help books coach against unleashing its force; colleagues and confidantes urge caution, self-restraint. And yet we do it, and damn the consequences. We have no choice but to speak — in sorrow, love, grief, cold anger, thirst for revenge, wounded pride, the pain of injustice, loyalty, pangs of regret, throes of vengeful madness, deluded righteousness, panic, black distress, isolation, ecstasies of martyrdom, and a million other shades of human extremity — we need to say our piece even as we leave the stage.

The risk of the enthusiast's book is that the lack of structural grounding can leave the conclusions unsupported. A fair critique of this book is that it contains a lot of amateur sociology. Potter has a journalist's eye for motive and narrative, but some of his conclusions may not be warranted. But he compensates for the lack of rigor with, well, enthusiasm. Potter is fascinated by resignation letters and the insight they offer, and that fascination is irresistibly contagious.

It's probably obvious that the chapters on truth bombs, fuck yous, and knives in the back have visceral appeal. The resignation letter as a force of truth-telling, as the revenge of a disregarded peon, as a crack in the alliance between the powerful that may let some truth shine through, is what got me to buy this book. And Potter doesn't disappoint; he quotes from both famous and nearly unknown examples, dissects the writing and the intent, and gives us a ringside seat to a few effective acts of revenge.

That's not the best part of this book, though. The chapter that I will remember the longest is Potter's dissection of the constructed resignation letter. The carefully drafted public relations statement, the bland formality, the attempt to make a news story disappear. The conversation-ender.

It's a truism that any area of human endeavor involves more expertise than those who have only observed it from the outside will realize, but I had never thought to apply that principle to the ghost-written resignation letter. The careful non-apology, the declaration that one has "become a distraction," the tell-tale phrasing of "spending more time with my family" is offensive in its bland dishonesty. But Potter shows that the blandness is expertly constructed to destroy quotability. Those statements are nearly impossible to remember or report on because they have been built that way: nouns carefully separated from verbs, all force dissipated by circuities and modifiers, and subtle grammatical errors introduced to discourage written news from including direct quotes.

Potter's journalism background shines here because he can describe the effect on news reporting. He walks the reader through the construction to reveal that the writing is not incompetent but instead is skillfully bad in a way that causes one's attention to skitter off of it. The letter vanishes into its own vagueness. The goal is to smother the story in such mediocrity that it becomes forgettable. And it works.

I've written several resignation letters of my own. Somewhat unusually, I've even sent several of them, although (as Potter says is typical) fewer than I've written. I've even written (and sent) the sort of resignation letter that every career advisor will say to never send. Potter's discussion of the motives and thought process behind those letters rang true for me. It's a raw and very human moment, one is never in as much control of it as one wishes, the cracks and emotions break through in the writing, and often those letters are trying to do far too many things at the same time. But it's also a moment in which one can say something important and have others listen, which can be weirdly challenging to do in the normal course of a job.

Potter ends this book beautifully by looking at resignation letters that break or transcend the mold of most of the others he's examined: letters where the author seems to have found some peace and internal understanding and expresses that simply and straightforwardly. I found this surprisingly touching after the emotional roller-coaster of the rest of the book, and a lovely note on which to end.

This is a great book. Potter has a good eye for language and the emotion encoded in it, a bracing preference for the common worker or employee over the manager or politician, and the skill to produce some memorable turns of phrase. Most importantly, he has the enthusiast's love of the topic. Even if you don't care about resignation letters going in, it will be hard to avoid some fascination with them by the end of this book. Recommended.

This book was originally published as F*ck You and Goodbye in the UK.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-04-25

Last modified and spun 2020-04-26