I am married to a librarian and every now and then she dips into whatever bag of tricks librarians have and produces just the right observation. That happened last weekend and I want to tell you about it.
Telling you about it is the doorway to the movie I have been thinking about ever since then. It is called The Last Word  and it stars Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried.
MacLaine’s character, Harriet Lawler, is a thoroughly unpleasant person. She has no respect at all for personal boundaries and respects no one at all—including her former husband and a woman who could probably be best characterized as her former daughter. She is very bright, very aggressive, and very rich so there isn’t a lot she can’t do just by wanting to.
But, of course, one thing she can’t do by wanting to is to have lived a different life than she has lived. So when it occurs to her that the only way to control what her obituary says is to get it written in time for her to approve it, she sets off to find a compliant writer of obituaries and she finds one in Amanda Seyfried’s character, Anne Sherman. Anne is the perfect foil for Harriet. Harriet is sure of herself, willing to take risks, and has no regard at all for any values other than her own. Anne is unsure of herself, is terrified of making mistakes, and is fits herself whenever possible into the values of others.
When Harriet realizes that she can’t have the kind of obituary she wants without a stupendously successful last chapter to her life, she sets out to accomplish that and takes Anne along to watch how it is done. Part of the re-make of Harriet’s life is to do some good thing for a poor child. She chooses Brenda, a foul-mouthed nine-year black-old girl who takes one look at Harriet and accuses her of being there as a form of “community service.” Why else, thinks the very street smart Brenda, would an old, rich, controlling woman wind up at a center for underprivileged black kids?
Brenda, in her nine-year-old way, is a good bit like Harriet. When we first
see her, she is in trouble with the local librarian because she has rearranged all the books in the library “in alphabetical order.” Her response to being scolded for having done that is “Letters with decimals are for losers.”  She doesn’t understand the notion underlying the Dewey Decimal System, so her rejection of it is naturally broad. Losers?
OK, so then the story happens and Harriet finally dies and at her intricately choreographed memorial service, she leaves Brenda a library full of books which will be organized alphabetically only. And not only that, but she repeats, as part of her last will and testament, which the minister is reading to the assembly, the rationale that Brenda gave to the teacher who was scolding her. “Decimal points with letters and for losers.”
I was horrified. Partly in sympathy with my librarian wife. But she took it better than I did. She said, thoughtfully, “Well, they would all have to be fiction.” Yeah. In this great and overfunded library, no histories, no biographies, not even any political science. And all that because” letters with decimals are for losers.”
For me, that illustrates what is wrong with Harriet Lawler’s makeover. She does something for a little black girl, sure, but she does it is the same way she abused people during her whole life of unremitting aggression.
Now I would like to say what is right with Harriet’s approach and to do that, I want to step back a little and talk about the Bible. There are people who think of the Bible as a kind of rule book, every piece of which means whatever the King James Version says it means and every piece of which is applicable to me. There is so much wrong with that approach that it is hard to confine myself to just one criticism. But I will.
Scriptures can be seen as food, which is nourishing, or medicine, which is therapeutic. Everyone can use nourishment, although different readers find different things nourishing. But scripture as therapy depends very much on how sick you are and sick of what. There are a lot of medicines that will make your condition worse. If Amanda were a Bible reader (no evidence that she is) and happened across Paul’s advice to the Philippians, she would think it is wonderful. For her, it would only make everything worse because it is a prescription for a disease she does not have. Paul says, in Philippians 2:2,3
3 Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind everyone should give preference to others, 4 everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.
When you see the movie, and I hope you do, you will see that that is not food for Anne and as medicine, it is awful.
Harriet Lawler’s approach to life is medicine, masquerading as food and the awful effect that can have are illustrated clearly in Brenda’s library.
On the other hand, Harriet’s effect on Anne Sherman, the principal beneficiary of Harriet’s work, is magical and beautiful. Anne is sick with the disease for which Harriet’s approach to life is therapeutic. Harriet is the right medicine for the disease Anne has.
Anne is severely risk averse. She want’s to be a writer, but the very limited range of life experiences she has chosen confine her writing to that of an idealistic little girl. She has chosen a safe little occupation to support her while she “becomes a writer.” She withholds her heart from life-changing romantic involvements for the same reason. She has never gone to Andalusia, here dream vacation, for the same reason.
Later, after Harriet’s life and death have worked their magic, Anne describes her old self as “dead.” And when she hands in her resignation—to general acclaim—she begins it by saying, “This is not a resignation. This is an obituary. The person who worked here is dead and I am leaving her behind as I go.” (Apologies, again, for the inexact quotation. One viewing only, remember.)
So Harriet brought Anne to life. What Harriet proclaimed as TRUTH—analogous to “food,” was really only medicine, but it was exactly the right medicine for Anne, and for her, it was TRUE.
 I really like the name. You can say that something is “the last word in convenience,” meaning that it is more convenient that its competitors. You can say “you always want to have the last word,” meaning that you want to be the person who decisively manages the issue. This particular “last word” in an obituary. That is not an expression anyone uses to describe obituaries, but it is obviously appropriate.
 That’s the way I remember the line. I have seen the movie only once so far and by this point in the movie, I didn’t even know I was going to like it.
I can imagine a cranky Shirley MacLaine. She does it well.