Missionaries recall receiving dreaded ‘Dear John’ letter

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Brian Jackson still remembers it.

Taped to the wall of his kitchen in Botswana, where Jackson served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a typewritten letter that had belonged to a missionary who lived there before him. It was an apologetic breakup note from his girlfriend.

Jackson doesn’t recall exactly what the correspondence said. But he does remember what that missionary had scrawled at the bottom of it, as if in response: “Get amoebic dysentery and die.”

It’s a memory that still makes Jackson, now an English professor at Brigham Young University, laugh a little, though he recognizes that for the missionary who wrote the rejoinder, it was also probably a way to release pent-up anger and hurt.

“It’s part of the esprit de corps of the mission,” Jackson said of the letter and others displayed in similar ways. “They post it on the wall as sort of a public renunciation of the relationship and almost as a way to poke fun at the sender because often these letters are, not disingenuous, but trying very hard to do a hard thing.”

As long as young LDS men and women have set off on far-flung missions to spread the Mormon message, Dear John or Dear Jane letters have followed them. Many on the receiving end share similar stories. They left with sweethearts at home, only to later get letters informing them the relationships were over. Their girlfriends or boyfriends had met someone else during their long absences – 18 months for women and two years for men.

In today’s digital world, many in their teens and early 20s split up via text message, email or cellphone. But for missionaries, forbidden from texting or calling home most of the year, Dear John letters remain the breakup standard. In many ways, these letters have become as much a part of mission lore as dark suits, name tags and calls home on Mother’s Day.

Jackson believes Dear John letters also have become part of the Mormon conversation because they’re so evocative.

“They’re emotionally salient because of the helplessness of the missionary. They feel isolated from their previous life that they just have no control over at all,” Jackson said. “It is one of these interesting intrusions into the sort-of monklike state you get into as a missionary.”

Hayward Alto, a former BYU student who studied Dear John letters for a class, found through an informal survey that 90 percent of women give up on their missionaries. Of the 10 percent who remain steadfast, 7 percent break up after the missionary returns home. Only 3 percent of couples married.