Love Letters, written by ghosts

By Hannah Moore

“My marriage is in crisis and I’m looking for help in writing a long and detailed love letter/story to be presented to my wife with hopes to add to the healing process,” reads a job advert on www.freelancer.com. “This is an urgent project that I need to have started ASAP. Serious inquiries only.”

Writing a love letter is a serious endeavor, indeed. “More than kisses, letters mingle souls,” the poet John Donne wrote in the 17th century. His words still reflect the way many of us think of letters today — as intimate, honest exchanges that tell of affections we struggle to convey face-to-face. Perhaps that’s why 88 percent of the more than 800 people the sociologist Michelle Janning surveyed for her book, Love Letters: Saving Romance in the Digital Age, said that they keep the love notes they have received as special mementos.

Donne could hardly have foreseen a day when people would pay strangers online to pour out their hearts for them. Ten writers replied to the www.freelancer.com request, offering to help save the desperate husband from divorce for fees ranging from $250 to $750. “I know how to take the human emotion and translate that into heartfelt writing,” promised user dwal77. “I can assure you of my timeliness, quality and experience,” boasted user desource2012. Letters mingle souls: The husband, the wife, and sometimes, the ghostwriter.

For Janning, a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, the idea of paying for a love letter shows that people feel pressure to ‘prove’ their romantic worth to society. “When you hire somebody to write a love letter for you, you’re putting yourself into the romantic marketplace. It’s the same as buying a box of chocolates or a gift card,” she said. “There are societal expectations about how well- written a letter should be and when someone employs a ghostwriter to do it for them, they’re basically admitting, ‘I can’t do this thing that’s so valued in society.’

But some mediators — and the people whose letters they write — resist being part of the marketplace. Artists have offered to write letters on behalf of others for free, acknowledging the pain and confusion that can often stop us writing for ourselves. David Geselson and Jana Leo de Blas, for example, have run arts projects in New York in which they sat face-to-face with members of the public, and listened to what they needed to say. Unlike many online ghostwriters, they hope to provide a deeply personal exchange, and to shape the stories they hear into the basis of their shows. They perform and display the letters publicly to give their audiences a sense of catharsis too. That’s the letter I want to write, we realize.

Geselon put out a call online for participants ahead of his performance Unwritten Letters at FIAF last month: “If you’ve ever wanted to write a letter to someone dear to you but never did because you didn’t dare, didn’t know how, couldn’t, or couldn’t make it through, tell me about it and I’ll write it for you.” Over the course of two days, he met with New Yorkers who needed to write to long-distance lovers in other lonely cities; to parents who had caused them pain many decades before; to the deceased. “I’m not a therapist,” he was quick to add. “We’re not curing anything here. My job is to connect with the people. The first aim is to write a letter that is close enough to what I’ve been told, so that people can leave with the letter. To do that I have to have compassion, really deeply listening to their voice and the way they talk.” Sometimes he includes phrases they have used, but more often he interprets.

For her 2005 project Writing Love Letters, de Blas paired strangers she found in Times Square with professional letter writers. For an hour or so in her studio they had chance to talk in depth about the people they love. “I think what was really different in this case [compared to hiring a ghostwriter] is that there was a real exchange, person-to-person, looking at each other,” said de Blas. “The people going there didn’t know how to write a letter. Then they had this person writing for them, and things they thought weren’t going to happen, happened.” What she saw convinced her that it isn’t cheating to get someone to write letters for you that are supposed to be written from the heart. “I think it can be authentic,” de Blas said.

“The fact that you are released from the action of actually writing allows your brain to go more wild,” she added, differing from Geselson on the writer’s potentially therapeutic role. “The letter itself is a mediator, like sending a voicemail or writing a text. Instead of talking to the person directly, you have something in-between, in this case a piece of paper. You have to go through something indirect to tackle emotions that are difficult. The letter itself is a mediator, and the person writing is a second mediator who in a way is acting as a psychologist.”

Geselson agrees that having a mediator can help bring out feelings you may not consciously be aware of. “I think one of the reasons people don’t write letters is because they have too much time to think about it, and change the words,” Geselson explained. “It’s slower to write a letter, it takes much more time than talking, and because you know there’ll be a trace of it, you weigh the words.” Writing a letter can be frightening, he added, because we don’t know how the receiver will respond. “It’s probably a bigger risk to write a letter than to talk, because you send it out to the unknown. You can destroy someone with words. Like Sartre said, ‘words are loaded pistols’.”

Unwritten Letters, then, operates as a safe shooting range. The letters Geselson writes are not sent. He makes each story anonymous and reads it out to audiences at his performances, only if the interviewee is satisfied with what he has written. Unlike a ghostwriter, who remains hidden, Geselson performs his missives on stage, fully visible. Still, like a ghostwriter, his job is to clarify what his interviewees want to say. To sound just like them, on a really eloquent day. “Most people are happy to hear their story,” he said. Though not all. “I have had a few bad reactions [from interviewees], saying, “you’re transforming what I said,” so I didn’t use their letter. One woman I spoke to came to see the show; she said I was using people.”

He recognizes that his work is based on a system of exchange. So he sets clear ethical boundaries. “I manage not to build any relationship with the people I write for. They give me something [their story], so I give them something [a letter]. The exchange is neutral. They don’t owe me anything, I don’t owe them anything.”

De Blas presents the letters she collects not in a performance, but in an exhibition on her website. They tell the kind of remarkable stories many of us have in our lives. In one, a middle-aged man writes to his ex-wife, just as their son, Eric, is leaving home for college. He says how proud he is that they have remained friends over the years. And then he reveals what he thought he wouldn’t: he is still in love with her. “I will never in my life not regret that we didn’t work things out. I will never let go. I don’t want to,” his ghostwriter writes.

The letters in Geseleson’s piece also express both particular and universal experiences. He has been performing the show in his home country, France, since 2016, and over the last two years he has banked up more than 65 letters to use in his performances. But he has written many more. “I have always wondered about people, how they are when they’re alone in their room, at 11 in the evening before they go to sleep,” he said. “We all have things we regret, lost loves, things we never said to our parents, beautiful things. I offer the people to stop pretending, to share with other people their feelings.” The reactions of audience members at his recent FIAF show, to a wittily scathing letter from a husband to his estranged wife bear out the power of shared experience in Geselson’s work. “I send you all of my loathing with a very acidic and very profound joy,” he read, as around him people wiped away tears of laughter.

Geselson’s show ends on the story of Laurent and Lucie, childhood lovers who have been separated forever by his suicide. “It’s a letter of regret,” he said, adding that his interviewee was crying for the full 35 minutes they sat talking through her story. “She wanted to be forgiven, because she felt responsible. It was the most difficult letter I have ever had to write, because she moved me and I wanted to cry through the whole interview.”

Through performing his letters Geselson carries something of the interviewee’s spirit — a spirit that can’t be as easily conjured by a writer employed through freelancer.com. “Family members of Laurent’s were there in the audience the first time we performed it,” he recalled. “I felt it was like a second burial, where Lucie finally told him what she wanted to say. Even till today when we perform it I have this feeling that Laurent hears us.” More, perhaps, than letters shared only between two people, Geselson’s show mingles souls — even those that have gone from the world.