I owe you an apology.
I owe you a thank you.
I owe you an explanation.
I owe you the truth.
I owe you respect.
Can you help me?
I love you.
I miss you.
Why did you leave me?
And so I’m writing to you.
There are so many different kinds of letters that I’ve written and received over the years. I remember running to the mailbox as a child and as a teenager, glancing quickly through the stack to find my name, immediately turning the envelope to identify the sender—a girlfriend, boyfriend, crush, or my twelve-years-older brother who often lived elsewhere—and then running to a quiet place where I could read and re-read my letter in private. As I got older, I delighted in reading the epistolary exchanges between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Ernest Hemingway and Georgia O’Keefe, and the letters of Antonin Artaud and Albert Camus. I enjoyed learning from Peggy Penn about the therapeutic benefits of letter-writing, and from the Hindu priest Dandapani about how writing by hand imbues letters with one’s personality.
Though the inbox has mostly replaced the mailbox, letters remain an essential part of my life. I have always loved receiving them, knowing that I exist in the inner life and the memories of others. I have written many letters: long ones, short ones, some oozing with love and kindness, others, absolutely mean. I have five boxes of letters tucked away in my library closet, organized by year and by author. They have traveled with me from Belgium to Israel to Boston and to New York. Every few years when I reorganize, I stumble upon a bundle from a particular friend and spend hours reading and remembering.
In lieu of a diary, which I never could master, I have these letters: those that I received, those that I wrote and photocopied before stuffing in an envelope, and my folder of unsent letters to my friends, husband, parents, and former employers. And, of course, I have every email and letter my kids have sent me from summer camp and their travels. And yes, if I deem an email to have a letterly identity, it gets moved to its own “Letters” folder, which is further divided into sub-folders: one for each family member, one for friends, and another for the many strangers who email me long accounts of their relationships.
That last batch of letters falls into what’s often referred to as “therapeutic writing,” and it’s a fundamental aspect of my work. Before I meet any new patient, I ask them to write me a letter describing the situation that brings them to seek help, what they would like to accomplish, what they are prepared to do to accomplish their goal, and what they expect from me, their therapist. And throughout therapy, I often coach people through the process of writing letters that will help them navigate their most challenging relational dilemmas. These letters—to a deceased or estranged parent, sibling, or friend; an influential teacher; an ex; someone who sexually molested them; someone they wish to thank; someone to whom they owe an apology; someone they’ve fantasized about getting revenge on for years; the one that got away—allow for a deeply private space for reflection and, if appropriate for sending, potential communication.
The trick is knowing the difference between what we should keep for only ourselves and what should be sent—and being able to manage what we open up in ourselves and in others if and when we decide to reach out.
Letter Writing is Varied
We all know the feeling of hitting send too soon, or of discovering a letter we sent years ago and reading in horror as we realize just how naive, vulnerable, or even wrong we were. We know how amazing it can be to reestablish contact with a long lost friend and pick up where we left off. We have experienced the fear of sending a letter that we know may not deserve a reply—the letter of apology, accountability, and hopeful absolution. And who doesn’t know the sting of not getting a reply to a letter we were so sure deserved a response?
Letters that are just for us give us space to rehearse a new script. Sometimes, it’s with the lost or exiled parts of ourselves, our invasive inner-critic, or our self-love. It’s a dialogue with the voices that comprise our identity. At other times, it’s a chance for us to talk to people without them ever knowing what we are saying, that we love them, hate them, or that we will never talk to them again.
Letters that really need to be sent usually follow a few drafts that end up in the trash can before hitting send. I especially like to coach people who need to write letters of accountability to partners, family, or friends. These are letters in which we take responsibility for what we’re bringing and not bringing into the relationship, in which we finally tell someone how much we love them and how have been remiss in telling them. This is where we can take all the space on the page to tell them how we know that we’ve been missing in action and it’s time to show up. It’s the letter where we toll the bells before it’s too late, where we promise to try harder.
And then there is the letter of closure, where we say that we will not try anymore. For example: “I have decided to stay with my partner. I cannot continue this. I want you to know that everything I said when I said it—that we would meet, that we would go and be together, that I loved you—all of this was real. But I can't destroy my family, or I can't leave my country, or I can't come and be with you. I know that this is not at all what you expected. It was not what I expected either. And I know it will hurt you and it hurts me that I have to hurt you, but I know that if I don't do it, I will drag this out further and that would be even less respectful. Nothing pains me more than to see you go. I will remember you. I will treasure you. What we lived, it will always stay with me.”
This letter, more than any other, tends to serve as a relic, a reminder of the realness of our experiences. Ultimately, all letters are about saying what you haven't said that you need to.
Practice Courageous Letter Writing
Example: I don’t like the way you kiss. Use this example and adjust it for your own difficult conversation and make it yours.
This is hard for me to say in person and might be hard for you to hear. So I am writing you a letter. If you feel shocked by this, know that I would feel no different if you were doing this to me. But I believe in us and I believe that we can do better. We have the capacity to be more honest with each other. I want to say this in utter respect and love for you, because there's so many things I adore about you. I love the way you touch me, I love the way you hold me, and I love the way you open the door for me. I love the way you put your hands in my hair.
Yet there's something that I would love to love, and I don't. And that is the way we kiss. It's not about how you kiss, because you could kiss another woman or man, and they may be perfectly fine with that. But you kiss me, and there's something I don't like. I would like something softer, and I don't know how to say this to you because I'm not sure you will accept this or be offended by it. So I'm writing this so you can take it in. You're welcome to answer or not. But I felt I really needed to say this for us because I think that 'us' is stronger than my fears.
Love, from me