“Dear Gretchen… Don’t give up, have faith in yourself and hold on to the dreams that have brought you this far”
Anyone looking for proof that letter writing isn’t dead need only consider the sheer volume of post that flooded into Barack Obama’s mailroom during his presidency. Between 20 January 2009 and 20 January 2017, the former President of the United States received 10,000 letters every single day – some complimentary, some furious, and some from people who simply wanted to talk.
Obama was the first president to interact daily with the letters that dropped into his Office of Presidential Correspondence, and every night, at his request, he read a handpicked selection of 10 letters. Now, nearly two years after he left the White House, a collection of the post and his replies have been published in a book, To Obama: With Love, Hate, Joy and Despair, by Jeanne Marie Laskas.
Below, Stylist shares five of these letters and replies. From a handwritten note from a young girl looking for some advice on how to change the world, to a heartbreaking letter from two parents who lost their 26-year-old daughter in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they give a glimpse into the relationship the president had with America.
“Girls cannot change the world”
Delaney and her friends Carrigan and Bree write in to the president asking for some advice, after two (very foolish) boys in their class tell them that girls can’t change the world.
“I know you’ll never read this”
A woman called Gretchen writes in to the president believing that he will never read her letter; she is sad about losing a writing competition, and looking for a place to vent. We can only imagine her surprise when a reply from Obama dropped into her mailbox…
“I was taking a shower upstairs when I heard the first two shots”
A 21-year-old woman recounts her father’s suicide attempt, and asks Obama not to forget retired servicemen.
“Our lives have been forever changed by the events of September 11”
The parents of a 26-year-old woman who was working on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Centre on September 11 share their story with Obama, and urge him to “bring justice to those responsible”.
“What would President Obama want us to do right now?”
A doctor writes to Obama to tell him the surprising impact his presidency has had on young children, and asks him to send a letter to a young girl who needed medical attention after being attacked on her way home from school. Obama sends her a note that she will no doubt treasure for the rest of her life.
What was it like working in Obama’s mailroom?
Here Jeanne Marie Laskas, who compiled and wrote To Obama, shares her first experience of spending the day in Obama’s mailroom - and the surprising impact the letters had on his staff…
“You get attached,” the intern sitting next to me said. Her name was Jamira. She had her hair bundled tightly on top of her head and wore a pretty print top. She said that one time she had opened a letter from a woman who was writing the president to say she had lost a family member to gun violence. “She had enclosed photos. Just blood all over in a car …” She tapped her eraser on the table, up and down on the table.
“Everybody has that one letter,” Yena said. Letters could take a toll. Unlike most other shops at the White House, OPC offered monthly counseling sessions to anyone who felt the need.
The most important code everyone needed to know about was Red Dot. Red Dots were emergencies. These were from people writing to the president to say they wanted to kill themselves or someone else, or they seemed in some way on the edge. You wrote “Red Dot” on the top of the letter if you got one of those, and then you immediately walked it across the hall and gave it to Lacey Higley, the woman in the back corner more or less in charge of rescuing people.
“Do you need a break?” Yena asked me. “Do you need cookies? We have cookies.” She reached for a tub of oatmeal-raisins and slid it over.
I asked her if she had ever red-dotted a letter.
“Oh my,” she said. Some two hundred letters a day were red-dotted.
I asked her if she had a letter like Jamira’s, one that haunted her.
“It was an email from a mother who missed her son,” she said. She pushed her hair behind her ears as if having to prep herself for this one. She said in the email the mom explained that her son had been kidnapped overseas, and at the time the investigation was still under way. Yena read the letter a dozen times, stunned by details in it that, for reasons of OPC confidentiality—and national security—she could not reveal to me. “Everything was hush-hush.” She alerted the authorities, then felt helpless because there was nothing more she could do. Weeks later, she was watching CNN, and that was how she learned the son had been killed. It was national news. It was an international incident, and his mom had reached out, and Yena had been on the receiving end of her desperate pleas. And now he was dead.
“I just lost it,” she told me. “I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.” It was a Sunday. She came in to the office and sat at her computer. “What if his mom wrote again?” She told me the experience changed the direction of her life and her sense of her place in the world.
Jamira was leaning in to hear Yena tell the story of the mother and the lost son. She had put her pencil down. “It’s weird. I’m going to go from this to being back at school,” she said. “It’s hard to explain all this to my friends.”
“You can’t,” Yena said. “I never thought about how powerful a letter was.”
“Did you even know we had a correspondence office before you came here?” Yena asked her.
“I had no idea.”
“You think you’re going to be the mail lady or something.”
“We’re in the mailroom.”
In the end I didn’t sample the letter from the guy who had conquered his heroin problem; I didn’t sample any of the ones I read, in part because I wanted to sample all of them and then got overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility. I surrendered my stack, adding it back in the pile for reconsideration by the group. Later when I saw Fiona, I told her about the guy with the heroin and about some of the other letters I had read, and I wondered if there was something I could do to put my finger on the scale so that if any of them ended up in her daily sample pile, she would give them special attention when she sat down to pick the day’s 10 letters.
I learned that pretty much everyone felt that way. You got attached. You became an advocate for your letter. And if yours got picked as one of the letters, it would make your day. And if the president actually wrote back to the person, you felt high. And if something from one of your picks ended up in a speech or a policy decision, well, it was time to throw a party.
When Fiona interviewed people for jobs in OPC, one of the tests she had them do was writing their own letter to the president. Not for her to find out what they had to say. But so they got a chance to know what writing a letter to the president felt like.
The capacity to occupy a stranger’s head and heart — that was the key competency needed to land a job in Fiona’s mailroom.
To Obama: With Love, Hate, Joy and Despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas is available to buy from tomorrow
Letters: Courtesy of Bloomsbury