John Templeton Lucas, The Letter Writer, 1877.
As a teenager, I wrote letters to strangers. I was trying to write my way out of my parent’s house, where I was psychically trapped. Like an alien seeking contact, I started by doing research. I went to the Bethesda Library, where they had phone books from all over the country. I remember being surprised by the number of well-known names one could find in a New York phone book in the 1976–1978 time period: Art Garfunkel, Mikhail Baryshnikov—those are just two I recall, but I know there were dozens.
My inability to leave home, my separation anxiety, was all-encompassing. It wasn’t just about leaving my mother, though that would have been enough. It was about house and home—family—in the largest most literal sense. If I left the house, something might happen. It might not be there when I got back. This soul-crushing sense of impending doom was crippling. It started in nursery school, when my mother would drop me off at the little house at the top of the hill. They’d have to hold me back while my mother drove away, never looking in her rearview mirror at her sobbing child. I didn’t write to strangers because they were famous. I didn’t want an autographed eight-by-ten. I wanted to tell them about my life, my day at school. I wanted to drive a wedge between my childhood and the larger world that I hoped I might join one day. I wanted a way out.
I wrote to Pete Townshend of the Who; I wrote to John Sayles, the writer and filmmaker; I wrote to Rita Mae Brown, who wrote back, “Thanks for your letter, but I’m afraid the post isn’t the best way to make new friends.” The men I wrote to were more willing to correspond. I’ve equated that with a primal internal sense of safety; they don’t feel as vulnerable in the world as women. When I stop and think about it in our #MeToo moment, I realize any number of my correspondents could have taken advantage of me—but they didn’t. Pete Townshend and I exchanged multiple letters about his music and my writing. I remember the last letter he sent, just after Keith Moon died in 1978, about his need to take some time and collect himself. John Sayles was my pen pal all the way through college. We exchanged long letters about work, life, his difficulty in making and financing independent films, my difficulty finding my independence in general. Sometime in high school, I wrote to Quentin Crisp, who was performing at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. When he called me one afternoon after school, my brother answered the phone. As he handed me the receiver, he rolled his eyes. “I hope you’re not running up the long-distance,” he said, with regard to the English accent on the other end.
My separation anxiety continued all through elementary school. I was forever in the school office, sitting on the weird vinyl sofa and waiting for my mother to come because I had a sore throat, an earache, or some other manufactured symptom to make her come retrieve me. Later, often, I just wouldn’t even leave the house. It turned into a knock-down, drag-out daily war. Sometimes I would barricade myself in my bedroom, wedge my body between the bookcase and the door, and we’d go five-to-ten rounds of huff, puff, and try to blow the door down. I had the strange strength of a chemical surge, of adolescence, the kind of stuff that allows mothers to lift cars off their children. My parents had the ill wind of late parenthood, of middle age, and of just not knowing what to do. The situation escalated. In college, at American University, a short fifteen minutes from home, I was invited to take the graduate-level creative writing classes, which was lovely except I was so self-conscious that I couldn’t actually enter the classroom. I spent the semester sitting on the floor just outside the class, even when my own story was workshopped.
It took the better part of three years before I could gather the courage to go away to school. I opted to transfer to Sarah Lawrence as a junior because they would take all my assorted credits from the five previous schools (all within twenty miles from home). But then, on the first day of my senior year, as I was driving myself from D.C. to New York, on a stretch of road somewhere between the Delaware Bridge and the George Washington Bridge, I entirely left my body; I abandoned myself. Whatever was happening was psychically excruciating, and I was sure I was about to die. My mother had to fly to New York and come get me that night to bring me home. For the entire next year, I commuted from D.C. to New York twice a week. I’d take the six A.M. train, have the Bronxville cab meet me at Penn Station, get driven to Sarah Lawrence, go to class, meet with my professors, then do the reverse, arriving back at my parents house by nine P.M. My family suggested I just drop out, but I wasn’t going to give up. I went to see an anxiety specialist. My favorite part was the survey questionnaire: Was I afraid of vacuum cleaners? Or being seen naked? I actually love the sound of a vacuum cleaner; its droning hum as it saws along the carpet is deeply comforting. And as for being naked, I am by nature already so psychically naked, exposed, that whether or not I am actually wearing what others would call clothing is largely irrelevant.
The anxiety specialist gave me “tools” to use to manage my anxiety. I had Valium in my pocket, half a yellow for each part of the ride. I had a journal where every entry started like this: “I’m freaking out, I’m really freaking out. I think I’m going to die.”
Slowly, things changed. How many train rides does it take for you to realize you’re not likely to die between D.C. and New York? I still take this train to visit my mother. I’ve been doing it for more than thirty years, and I see familiar faces, redcaps I’ve known since I was in my twenties. I can’t say I mastered my anxiety. I did spend about ten years going to an exceptionally warm and lovely therapist, who talked to me ten thousand times outside of our sessions and peeled me off a thousand ceilings. And still there are days it sweeps in, an unexpected tidal wave, taking me out. One thing I learned is that I’m not alone: I am surrounded by others equally or more anxious. And I learned that in this world of strangers, many people are looking for connection. Once, my cousin, also a writer, said to me, “There are people you don’t know, people you’ve never met, who love you. Don’t forget it.” I don’t know where he got that idea, which one could say was a message from a deluded ego, but I like to believe it’s true. I like to believe that we are all connected and that although we may not know each other in a daily way, we know each other as humans.
Do I still write letters to strangers? That changed too. As I became known, I became self-conscious. And so I stopped. But then I started to get mail; from each book I wrote, I got a different kind of letter. From my first novel, Jack, I got confessions from young people who wanted to tell me that they were gay and no one else knew. From The Safety of Objects, I got letters from young men, graduate students in math. I liked that there was this deeply specific subset of fans who liked both number theory and my short stories. From In A Country of Mothers, I got letters from all parts of the adoption triangle: adoptees, birth mothers, adoptive parents. And from The End of Alice, I got letters from jail, sometimes sent directly to my house. And then, after 9/11, there was no more mail. In September 2001, just after the attack on the World Trade Center, letters containing anthrax were mailed to news outlets around the country. Many magazines and publishing companies stopped opening mail. As the transition to electronic communication was already happening, it just seemed a more efficient, less dangerous way of doing business. But it was also the end of author mail—or at least for me. Gone were the days of “I’m writing to you because I think you’ll understand.” Gone were the days of longhand scrawl, the art of correspondence, like an ancient call-and-response. I started collecting the letters of others, mostly postcards, from strangers, picked up at yard sales. My favorite ones: From 1924, “Will come down on Thursday, don’t know yet for sure. Mama is lame, she fell out the barn door.” And from 1919, “Returned home on Thursday in the rain. Hope to see you again.” Is letter writing a lost art? I don’t think so. We are all in more communication with each other than ever before: email, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. But when you think about communicating, think about reaching beyond what is familiar. You can reach into the lives of others. You can reach into the heart of the world.
A. M. Homes is the author, most recently, of Days of Awe.
Last / Next Article