I save the letters written to me about my work. From the time my first novel, Desert of the Heart, came out in 1964, there have been many more than I expected, thanking, asking for help, challenging, telling their own stories.
A writer for some people is like the stranger on a plane, someone to confide in, with a real, if only half-consciously recognized difference: the stranger is chosen as someone unlikely to betray secrets; the writer, on the other hand, is a teller of tales. Though some of my correspondents have offered their life stories as material of books I ought to write, I have never used material from any of the letters. Yet I feel my heart far better informed for them, the range of my understanding greater. And they, as much if not more than reviews, describe the climate in which my books have been written.
Archivists have argued that the letters, for their sociological and psychological value, should be among the papers preserved for the future. When that suggestion was first made, I protested that people who write to me don't imagine that their sometimes very personal revelations will end up in the public archives. Though I didn't write books for the purpose of soliciting people's confidences, once I received them I felt I had a trust, protecting the real people who wrote those letters from exposure and abuse. To that objection, a 50-year seal was suggested. In, let us say, the year 2030, there would be no one left with any personal stake in letters, and their social value could be fairly assessed. Though legally the dead can't be libelled, I feel no freer to abuse their memory. Yet, I wondered, isn't one of the motives in writing to become part of the testimony of what it has been like to be alive? To destroy the letters might be a greater offense than to save them.
I talked with a number of people who argued on both sides. For some, privacy is absolute. To expose it no matter how far into the future is a betrayal. I have friends whose letters, at their request, I routinely destroy once I've answered them. Others, however, feel just as strongly that our personal lives belong to history, and to destroy evidence is to participate in the lie that reduces the truth to a guilty secret.
One afternoon when an archivist was visiting and helping me to sort out various other problems about preserving papers, I told her that I hadn't been able yet to make a decision about the letters. She was still arguing strongly for their inclusion in the archives.
"Would you mind if I looked at some of them?" she asked.
Though for some clear-eyed moralists this request in itself would be a violation of privacy, I felt no hesitation, respecting as I do this woman's discretion. I thought if she could see the range of the material, she might understand better both my hesitation and my concern. I handed her the file of letters written after Lesbian Images came out, then offered her a cup of tea or a drink, which she refused. I went off upstairs to get myself something and also to start dinner. By the time I got back down to my study, she was sitting with the file in her lap staring at the fire.
"Could I change my mind about that drink?"
"Of course," I said and went to get her one.
When I got back, she asked for a cigarette as well. She doesn't ordinarily smoke.
After some moments of silence, she said, "These should be burned, all of them, right now."
"You begin to see the problems they pose for me?"
"One of them," she said, "is from a good friend of mine."
I stood, watching her trying to recover from the shock of it, having so inadvertently exposed her friend. Hadn't the writers of those letters been real people to her before that, rather than cranks and kooks about whom I was being over-fastidious?
At that moment, I made my own decision. Though I don't intend to dispose of my papers for some time, having uses for them myself, when the time comes those letters will be among my archives. For only when people can read the power and diversity of response to persecution will they begin to learn that the people in pain are, in fact, their good friends. The solution is not to throw their testimony into the fire but to face it.
To read those letters is not only to recognize suffering but to encounter remarkable courage. No hate mail I've ever received has been signed. Apparently self-righteousness needs anonymity. But from those who had real reason to protect themselves, the letters have invariably been signed. They have been a support for me without which it would sometimes have been nearly impossible to go on writing.
Preserving pain and courage and love betrays nothing but the world's hypocrisy. Our only real defence has always been the truth.