Crossing Into the Abyss
On Elm Street in Somerville, 39-year-old entrepreneur Johnny Monsarrat’s newest scheme is a public oasis for contemplation and counsel. He calls it “Cross into the Abyss.”
Resembling a quirky science fair project, it’s an interactive advice center where visitors can anonymously seek Monsarrat’s guidance. A novice at life counseling, Monsarrat is also the founder and CEO of Hard Data Factory, a Somerville-based company launched in 2006 that sells event listings and competitive information to businesses. He dreamed up this philosophy garden as a way of sharing his belief that people must actively create their own happiness—a notion that helped him shed 125 lbs. and ditch distressing relationships.
The project is rooted in overcoming fear. Fear, Monsarrat says, keeps people from changing their lives and moving forward. And in his garden he invites us to confront and conquer it. In three weeks, the garden has drawn 90 people to his yard. That’s 90 secrets, confessions and fears and 90 minutes per day that Monsarrat spends responding to notes like, “What is my life work, my soul’s purpose?”; “What age will I die at?”; and “I have court and do not know if I’m going to prison.” He vows encouragement and empathy in three days. His idea is as strange as it is wonderful.
As I mosey down Elm Street on a rainy Wednesday, a “Do Not Enter” sign bordering house number 123 couldn’t be more of a contradiction to a shorter wooden post inviting visitors to “cross into the Abyss.” I walk a stoned path that leads to a mud-stained marble deck, and feel like a crook snooping around this guy’s yard, but I continue ahead. The next thing I see is a wooden, phone booth-sized stall, and inside it, a cylinder hung on a chain that has tacked to it multi-colored index cards. These cards are the questions awaiting Monsarrat’s answers.
Penciled on one card is, “I’m am so lonely I can barely breathe.” On the back is Monsarrat’s encouragement, doodled with asterisks, hearts, and smiley faces. One lipstick-red card asks, “Why is it that boys don’t find me attractive?” Bordered by hearts and a smiley face, Monsarrat’s advice says, “It’s funny, the more it worries you the more it undermines your confidence. Pledge to take a total break from dating and worry for one month. Use this month to do more of what makes you happy and back away from things or people who drag you down. Building confidence is attractive and you’ll discover you’ve been beautiful the whole time and didn’t know!”
As I peruse cards revealing loneliness after nine years without sex, distrust in the federal government, and a declaration of bisexuality, I wonder whether Monsarrat has tapped into some bank of supreme happiness that has cleansed him of his own troubles and somehow qualifies him to play neighborhood therapist. He would later say he started the project because he wanted to share his philosophy: that one needs to claim their well-being rather than wait for it. People clearly seem to respond to it. On my card I write, “Everyone, even the keeper of the abyss, could use some advice. What would you scribble on your card?”
Three days pass and I return. All but one line of Monsarrat’s response is portioned into three and four-word rows. “Is trying to change the world going to bring me love or just exhaustion?” “Love,” slightly left of center, stands alone.