In the 1980s, teenager Amy Weinland Daughters was at camp and made friends with another girl named Dana. During the six weeks of camp the two become thick as thieves. But like many childhood friendships, the pair lost touch over the years.
Fast forward to a few decades later, the women reconnected on Facebook. But it wasn’t until Daughters saw that her old friend’s teenage son Parker was fighting cancer that Daughters decided to reconnect more directly with Dana in a different more personal way. By writing her a letter, the two became pen pals. That experience inspired Daughters to pen handwritten letters to others. A lot of others.
She describes the experience in her book, Dear Dana: That Time I Went Crazy and Wrote All 580 of my Facebook Friends a Handwritten Letter.
Daughters spoke to Houston Matters on Thursday about what what led her to pick up the pen in the first place.
“I’m a writer, and just suddenly out of nowhere, like this bolt of lightning came into my head, and I was like, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to start writing them letters at the Ronald McDonald House.’ So that’s what I did,” she said.
Daughters said she knew that she was a bit over-involved in the story. “You know, how you get that feeling? Like you don’t know these people, stop writing them letters.” But she said she felt compelled to write the letters.
So she got up and wrote letters on Christmas cards.
“If I said it wasn’t a little bit awkward then I’d be lying, because what do you say,” Daughters said. “But I just said, ‘Hey, I’m praying for you guys’… Dana … had shared quite a bit. So I felt like I knew about the story as much as you know, she was willing to let on to.”
Daughters said she began writing to them every week, and for eight weeks she sent a letter to Dana and Parker.
“It’s unfathomable, unthinkable, you know, Parker passes away at 15,” she said. “As a parent, as a fellow human being, my heart was broken. I did feel almost like she she and I had been besties for 30 years. And I felt it stronger than I would have from a random internet person. So I was like, ‘What do I do, even though it had nothing to do with me, like zero?’ I was like, Well, I’m just gonna keep writing letters. And that even seems crazy.”
Daughters said Dana did not respond to her in the beginning. But four months into writing to her friend Dana, she wrote her back.
“I didn’t have her home address, so I was sending these letters to her husband’s law office, she wrote me back.” Daughters said. “So she responds, which was huge, I get this five page letter in the mail from this person who I really know nothing about. This kicks off this amazing two-year, pen pal relationship. We still write each other in 2023. But we spent two years with no electronic communication. We didn’t have cell numbers. We didn’t have email addresses. We didn’t ask for them. I didn’t know what her politics were, I had no idea where she stood religiously, and we just shared.”
Daughters said the longer it went on, the more they shared.
“It was so powerful, because I did not know when she was reading my letters. She had no idea when I was reading hers or if I was. And so what that does is creates this free space where you get to say whatever you want, when you trust each other, despite the fact you shouldn’t. I was sharing details on my life with this person I didn’t really know she was but there’s something so intimate about writing someone regularly.”
Daughters said the concept was so profound to her that she began to wonder about the rest of her Facebook friends. So she put all of their names into a box, drew out a name and began writing them a letter.
Daughters said she didn’t have everyone’s address, but had access to about 40% of them.
“I had a spreadsheet on everything. I had access to about 40% of the addresses. And whether that was me calling my mom from her Christmas card list, or me asking another friend or for me just having the address from some way. The other 60% I kind of, you know, I got good at it,” she said. “So I could either look for you on the internet, the easiest thing, I would have found out where you worked and sent the letter there, it’s a little less intrusive. My last resort was I’d Facebook message you and be like, ‘I’m not trying to sell you anything.’ You know, at the beginning, it was super awkward, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But then I was finally like, I don’t want you to join my cookie exchange … But I’m just simply trying to reconnect with people through letters. And the shocking thing to me, Michael was, I think 97% of the people gave me their physical address. I had a couple people want me to verify who I was, and who they were totally fair, you know, and they gave me the address. So and then I wrote them a letter.”
Daughters said she then had to figure out what would it look like writing a letter to someone she had not talked to in a long time, like a high school classmate.
“The first thing you’re going to do is you’re gonna go look at their profile, and you’re going to try to figure out first of all, how does it fit into my life, you’re gonna have to be specific, you can’t assume any more, I don’t think we assume out of any kind of bad will. But if you’re going to do something deliberate, like a write a letter, you’re going to have to go next level,” she said. “…And I said stuff that I needed to save stuff, you know, to people, and a lot of it would not have until I actually wrote the letter, and it was so gratifying.”
Daughters said she didn’t know what these letters would mean for some people, but it became a special connection for some people.
“I think by and large, what I didn’t realize letter writing is such a deliberate act, because if I sent you a letter, you know what I had to do,” she said. “You’re like she had to find an envelope. She needed a stamp and she took 15 or 20 minutes to sit down and just think about me.”
Daughters said she began to feel bad because the response was overwhelming.
“I felt guilty because you can’t keep up with all of that,” she said. “And there was a lot of lessons in that for me because I realized first of all, that didn’t take away from the reaching out and the response that was still a special thing. But really we can all handle a limited number of friendships… You could maybe get away with, be really close with seven people and maybe my number is four. But really if what I started to count on, what if these letter recipients who shared with me, if their close circle of intimates kept up with them and did their job as a real life friend, then they were taking care of all of us.”