Letter writers beware: Words may haunt you
By Mary Schmich
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
August 5, 2007
In one of her poems, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska refers to dropping letters in the mail as "a whim of foolish youth."
You can bet that Hillary Clinton and a lot of the rest of us didn't understand the potential folly of that youthful whim.
Where are your old letters? Do you know? Can you really trust the friends to whom you poured out your callow soul with the exuberance of a bartender dispensing beer?
Do these questions make you at least a little nervous? If you've ever posted letters, they should.
Let this also be a warning to those of you too young to have ever licked a stamp, but who e-mail the contents of your heart without a second thought: Unlike you, your words may never die. But they may lurk out there in the universe to haunt you until you do.
This reminder came recently when some of Sen. Clinton's letters surfaced in the New York Times, thanks to a "friend" from her high school days in Park Ridge with whom she corresponded when they went off to college.
I put "friend" in quotes because in my cosmos, a friend who serves your letters to the world is about as friendly as a viper.
According to the story, John Peavoy, who now teaches at Scripps College in California, first shared Hillary's letters with the author Gail Sheehy. After that, Clinton, with whom he has had little contact since they were collegiate pen pals, wrote him and asked for copies.
"For all I know," the Times quotes Peavoy as saying, "she's mad at me for keeping the letters."
Keeping the letters is not likely to be the kind of thing that would make the letter-writer mad. That could be construed as a compliment.
The problem is sharing them with strangers. That's more like a taunt.
Luckily for Clinton, it doesn't seem she has any significant reason to be embarrassed by what she wrote to Peavoy while she was a Wellesley College student. Though it was the mid- to late 1960s—the first great wave of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll—her letters are conspicuously short on that trio of pleasures.
She comes across as thoughtful, sometimes a little sad or frustrated, sometimes lofty, sometimes condescending, sometimes sweet or silly. She comes across as 19, a smart 19.
No crimes are on display, unless earnestness counts as a felony.
Even so, there's something unsavory and cautionary about the spectacle of personal letters offered up for public consumption. Most of us aren't front-page news, but all of us who have ever scribbled our souls out are vulnerable to such treachery.
Writing a personal letter, especially when you're young, tends to be like dancing in the mirror. You fling yourself into the enterprise with a mix of vanity and abandon.
Your letter may be directed with deep affection at some friend or soulmate, but it's a solo act aimed in large part at figuring out who you are and what you think. It's journal-writing with an audience.
"I still have your old letters, you know," a boyfriend of high school and college vintage announced a few years ago. His chortle made me shiver. Since then, I've learned there are others out there holding my old letters hostage.
Which raises the obvious question: What kind of weirdo hoards old letters? Why?
"It's part of my mental attic," explains one weirdo, a friend who keeps old letters in a file drawer, a way of keeping old friends and times at hand, even if he never looks in the file.
To be honest, I keep that stuff in my mental attic too, meaning on a high shelf in a guest bedroom.
Marge, Steve, Rusty, Tom, Dave, Bart and a few others had better think twice before they run for office.
Mary Schmich's column appears in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and online at chicagotribune.com/schmich.