Letters From Jenny

This is a book that I’m a little surprised I even bothered reading. Surprised, pleasantly so.

Almost 5 years ago, I stopped by a table of free books outside the library at my residence, the library they were disbursing and replacing with a student lounge or some such thing. As I do with all free book tables, I pick stuff up even if I think they might be only mildly interesting. For some reason, I really enjoy collecting useless things, especially if they’re in book form. This book, with the others I picked up, landed on my bookshelf, and, at the end of first year, found themselves in my basement bedroom at my parents’ place, collecting a thin layer of forgetting.

Two weeks ago, we visited my parents specifically to finally clean up my bedroom, a room that had become a repository for the past: fragments of my childhood, dumped first year university notes, old pictures of friends I no longer have. Having run out of books to read in my own collection a couple weeks earlier, I packed up a generous stack of old books I had never read for one reason or another to come back to the Big City with me. Somehow, this one made it into that stack.

Letters From Jenny is raw, pure, non-fiction. This book is, in fact, a collection of letters, never meant to be published, never meant to be read by another other soul but the two they were meant for. In fact, were Jenny Gove Masterson still alive, I expect she would have been horrified, angry that her privacy was so violated in the publication of these letters. Even so, I am grateful they did make it to press. Jenny was a sad, passionate, disturbed, dramatic, difficult human being. There is not much that is particularly pleasant in this collection of letters. Suspicion, paranoia, disappointment in life. The letters are a study of how one person destroyed all her relationships but one, building herself a prison of loneliness. It is intensely interesting, but oh, so sad.

There is one bright spot in Jenny’s life, though, the one relationship she manages to maintain, to cherish. The letters are for (and were kept by until being passed on to a psychologist, Gordon W. Allport) one young couple, Isabel and Glenn, college friends of her son. With them, she corresponded regularly for 10 years before her death. While she visited them once or twice, and they visited her a handful of times, the majority of their relationship was built and maintained through letters. I love this book, not as a study of an old woman’s spiral deeper and deeper into her difficult personality, but as an example of how something so small as a written letter can mean so much to a troubled life. Isabel includes a letter at the end, commenting on their relationship with Jenny. She recognized that, had they had any closer of a relationship with the old woman, their relationship with her would have taken the same nose dive as all other relationships Jenny had. But the letters, the distant, normal communication, brightened Jenny’s life considerably. They took so little effort on the part of Isabel and Glenn and yet? In a sense, they were Jenny’s backbone.

This is the kind of book that reminds you to be kind to people, even people who are sometimes difficult. It reminds you how small, seemingly insignificant actions and decisions can so positively effect another’s life. It reminds you to look out for other people because it really does make a difference, if only a small one.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Letters From Jenny

  1. That’s fascinating. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a copy- though I doubt I’ll be as lucky as you were to pick one up for free.

  2. Kate

    Actually, in the preface the book indicates that shortly before Jenny’s death, Glenn did ask her if she would be willing to allow her letters to be published and although surprised she said, “Yes, if you think they would do anybody any good”.

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