July 11, 2010
Coming Clean: My Letter-Writing Journey
Book Offers Courageous Healing Through Letter-Writing
Sarah Dean has written a surprisingly honest and introspective look at herself in the process of making amends to people through letters. “Coming Clean” is her effort to make peace with people and situations in her life where she feels there is unfinished business or words that need to be spoken to heal her past and the pasts of those previously and currently in her life. When she first set out to write these letters, she did not conceive of writing a book; however, she later decided to publish the letters in hopes she would inspire others to make similar journeys toward healing.
What strikes the reader immediately is the honesty of the letters. Sarah Dean writes with a clear intention not to judge her letters’ recipients, nor to justify herself, but simply to say what she feels needs to be said, to admit to the weakness she has shown or mistakes she made in relationships, to offer some healing to those willing to receive it from her, and to resolve her own feelings about certain situations.
The letters’ chronological order allows readers to journey with Sarah through her life as if reading a type of autobiography. Many of the letters will make a person smile, others may be a bit painful to read, but in each case, I found myself admiring Sarah’s honesty and her courage in revealing herself. She comes off as being human more than anything—she shows her weaknesses, her fears, her misconceptions that led to mistakes, but also her generosity of spirit, and the best of her truest self, whom she aspires to be more frequently.
Among the lighter letters in the book is one to her childhood home, another to the first tree she hugged, and one to Chad, the first boy on whom she had a crush. More serious letters include one to a department store where she was employed and stole money by returning clothes she did not buy, letters to her stepchildren in hopes of improving her relationships with them, a letter to her ex-parents-in-law, and a letter to a former colleague who now owns a pornography business. There are also personal letters to herself, a letter from the adult Sarah speaking to the child Sarah, another of the current Sarah speaking to herself as a young bride of twenty, one to her body, and also one from her future self, envisioning whom she will become.
Among my favorite passages from the book, one of the lighter moments is in the letter to “To the First Home I Remember,” where she reminds her childhood home:
Our backyard bordered a tree nursery. We learned how to cross-country ski there. One time, the neighbor girl and I were playing out there in the rain. She got stuck in the mud. I had to run and get my mom. She pulled my friend out, leaving her boot. My friend was screaming and crying. I thought it was kind of funny. I bet you did, too.
Other letters are more soul-searching and apologetic, such as “To Ann, a Woman in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship”:
I left what was an unhealthy living situation for me when I wasn’t even able to talk about it [the abuse] with you. It opened my eyes to the lack of integrity I had around my beliefs about community, my belief that “we are all one.” I did not walk my talk. When it came right down to it, I protected myself and my child and left you and your children behind.
Readers will be interested to know that Sarah mailed most of the letters, provided she could track down their intended recipients. In the Table of Contents, she includes an image of a mailbox next to the title of each letter she actually mailed. She does not mention the responses she received to the letters, but I imagine while some of the responses matter a great deal, what ultimately matters is that she wrote the letters and made peace with herself.
Some people may question the wisdom of publishing such personal letters. Sarah addresses the vulnerability and hesitation she felt in revealing such a private side to herself and her personal relationships by stating:
An old part of me is a little scared about writing all this to you and letting you read it, without knowing you. Can I trust you to see through my mistakes and shortcomings—to see my heart? Am I brave enough to tell the truth and not slant any stories to make myself look better or feel better? Here’s what I know. I highly value extreme honesty. I’ve heard that the truth will set you free. This year, I have experienced that. I feel so much lighter now than when I began this journey.
In the end, the letters are all about healing. Each letter has a brief introduction to it. It is clear that some letters were fun to write while Sarah says that she labored for months over other letters while striving to find the right words, to make her feelings clear to the letter’s intended recipient, and to make sure she understood her own feelings. Through the process, she came to a greater understanding of herself, forgiving others and mostly forgiving her own faults as she reassessed who she is and who she wants to be.
Sarah Dean intends to write another book about the letter-writing process, but for people unable to wait, she offers some appendices with questions relating to each letter to help readers analyze the situations expressed in the letters in relation to similar situations in their own lives. The book also contains a short guide for people who want to start their own letter-writing journeys.
Each reader of “Coming Clean” will come away with different responses to the individual letters, but I do not doubt that readers who embark on this journey will peel away the negative layers of their lives to get a fresh look inside themselves, which will help to heal their pasts and strengthen their futures. Such a letter-writing journey will have its rocky moments, but in the end, peace in the soul will be predominant. “Coming Clean” will inspire readers to be equally courageous in healing their lives.
For more information about Sarah Dean, “Coming Clean: My Letter-Writing Journey,” and the various letter-writing workshops that Sarah Dean hosts, visit www.sarah-dean.com.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and author of the award-winning “Narrow Lives”
Superior Book Productions • 1202 Pine Street
Marquette, MI 49855 • (906) 226-1543 • firstname.lastname@example.org