They're Dear Abby with an Italian flair.
They come by the thousands each year: outpourings of emotion in many different languages, and each one is read and responded to by compassionate volunteers. The letters are addressed simply to Juliet and often carry the modest address of Verona, Italy, yet they manage to reach their intended recipient. A woman who never really existed but whose spirit lives on centuries after her “death”.
The volunteers are all part of Club di Giulietta, otherwise known as The Juliet Club. It was originally formed in 1972 by Giulio Tamassia as a cultural organization but members didn’t begin answering the many letters written to Juliet until 1989. Tamassia continues as the club’s president today.
At any one time there may be as many as twenty women reading the voluminous amounts of mail. The topics are varied but most center in some way on relationships with lovers, with family, and with friends. Mixed in are sad reflections on dashed dreams and lost hope. Emotions run the gamut from joyful to angry to despondent, but the responses from Juliet’s ghostwriters are always upbeat and encouraging.
Ten years ago a depressed young woman poured out her heart in a letter to Juliet, giving voice to a lifetime of heartache and disappointment. Her respondent assured her in a hand-written one and half page letter that she was not as fragile as she believed, that she was a strong woman destined for happier times. “Juliet” ended the letter with an invitation to write again, telling her that she wanted to continue to correspond with her and learn how things improved. In effect, she let the young woman know that she cared.
I kept that letter and have reread it many times. Each time it is as if I am reading it for the first time. I marvel that someone whose first language is obviously not English could understand my pain and feel such empathy that she could write exactly what I needed to read. She did with one letter what it would have taken a therapist many sessions to accomplish.
In researching this article I asked their representative, Giovanna, how they handle problematic letters. She replied, “We rarely receive letters so complicated that we have to look for external help. In the most difficult cases we talk to each other and try to look for the best answer.” But she adds, “We always suggest to (them) speak with someone close to them, to look for counseling in a friend, a relative, or an expert. Even if Juliet always listens and understands, it is always better to have someone near.”
There is a lot of personal satisfaction to be gained in volunteering. Juliet’s recipients often write to thank them for their help and to share their success stories. Sometimes they show their appreciation in other ways. According to Giovanna one young woman from Japan sent her diary to Juliet upon her engagement. She didn’t want her new husband to read it but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy it so she sent it to the person who had helped her the most. Juliet has received wedding invitations and on one occasion was entrusted by one young man from Finland with helping him declare his love in a most memorable way. By decorating Juliet’s balcony with one hundred red roses.
When asked who pays for all this, it was explained that Club di Giulietta operates on a very tight budget. Though the Verona Municipality pays for the postage, they rely on donations to help pay for the stationery and other expenses. As Giovanna pointed out, “We are all volunteers but all this work has a real cost.”
I asked Giovanna for any last thoughts. She promptly replied, “The letters to Juliet are a very exciting and unique phenomenon. It is a big privilege to have the chance to read all these stories which come from all over the world. It is wonderful to know that people from every corner open up their hearts and write to Juliet, Verona.”