This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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, e-mail or cell phone. But for missionaries, forbidden from texting or calling home most of the year, handcrafted 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."
At one point, Jackson set out to study the letters academically. He had a hunch they might qualify as their own genre, because he suspected they're likely written in similar ways. They may begin with small talk, for example, or state right upfront that things are about to get ugly. They're likely full of earnest apologies and clichéd compliments.
He knew this somewhat from experience. He wrote his own sort-of Dear Jane letter to a woman on a mission. The two weren't in a committed relationship but were romantically interested in each other. He met someone else while she was away.
"I can only remember getting about a paragraph in and feeling phony," Jackson said. "I remember crossing out something and saying, 'Look, I've got to just tell you I met this girl in Jerusalem, and we're getting married in July.' "
Despite the letter, the two remain good friends, he said. Jackson is still married and has four kids.
But not all Dear John letters end in friendship perhaps part of the reason Jackson never got to study them. He couldn't gather enough of the letters. People don't exactly save and cherish them.
Nathan Richardson doesn't know where his Dear John letters are anymore. But he vividly remembers them both of them.
Richardson, now 43 and living in Bowling Green, Ohio, was Dear John-ed twice during his mission by the same woman.
He was young, in love, and things were going great until about seven months into his Buenos Aires, Argentina, mission when his girlfriend's letters stopped arriving. He was so confident in their relationship, he imagined a mail strike was to blame.
After about a month of no letters, he finally received one. In it, she said she was engaged. Richardson was upset, but thought that was the end of it until he received another letter.
"Just about the time I got focused, about three months later, I got another saying, 'Just kidding. I broke that one [engagement] off because you mean so much to me.' "
The two started writing again for a few months. Then she sent another Dear John, saying she was engaged to someone else and "this time was for real."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Richardson learned upon returning home from his mission that she had broken off that engagement as well, and she wanted to see him. They spent three days together at BYU before one of her ex-fiancés crashed a date. That was the end of their relationship, though they never discussed it again. It was awkward whenever they ran into each other from then on.
Richardson, happily married for nearly 19 years with three children, said he doesn't remember much about the letters, other than their formal, religious tone, which, in retrospect, strikes him as odd.
When typical 20-year-olds break up, drama usually takes place. Maybe one person tells off the other in a foul-mouthed, tearful scene.
But the letters Richardson remembers, from him and the girlfriend, were civil. He even used nice stationery to write her what he jokingly refers to as his "Dear John acceptance letter," a correspondence he filled with graceful sentiments, such as "I'm a better person for having known you."
"You're trying to be a good missionary and do what a good missionary should do," Richardson said. "Everyone is trying to behave themselves in this breakup. You've been given the language through which you will speak and interpret the breakup.
"Instead of the worldly cheese," he added, "you get this kind of gospel cheese" in the letters.
Richardson said it's an age in which everyone is caught up in the mystique and idealism of going on a Mormon mission. He said those conditions along with the way he was never able to mourn the relationship loss and instead just dived back into his work as a missionary made for a very strange experience.
"Missions and romance," Richardson said, "the combination is just weird sometimes."
A time to laugh …
The phenomenon hasn't gone unnoticed by writers, researchers and even LDS leaders.
BYU's archives contain a number of references to Dear John letters.
In 1977, Mormon general authority Loren C. Dunn penned an article titled "To wait or not to wait?" In it, Dunn wrote that "no formal poll has been taken that I am aware of, but it appears more often than not that an agreement to wait somehow gets sidetracked during the mission, and as a result the familiar 'Dear John' letter is received by the missionary."
Twenty years later, as if to confirm that suspicion, Hayward Alto, a former BYU student who studied Dear John letters for a class, found through an informal survey that 90 percent of women ultimately give up on their missionaries writing them off through Dear John letters or simply letting the correspondence fizzle. Of the 10 percent who remain steadfast, 7 percent break up after the missionary returns home. He found only 3 percent of couples actually married.
To soften the pain, Mormons have found a number of ways to make light of the sometimes-melodramatic letters.
Through the years, kids have held Dear John and Dear Jane dances. A 1969 newspaper brief about one Delta Phi Kappa fraternity-sponsored "Dear Jane, Dear John" dance promises prizes for the "most humorous 'Dear Jane' or 'Dear John' letter."
Even the modern-day bloggernacle buzzes about the topic.
Aaron Quist, a Fountain Valley, Calif., attorney who with friends created a website called The Returned Missionary Training Center, http://www.thermtc.com, recently wrote a mock Dear John form letter online. He called the entry "Dear John Letters Just Got Easier." The letter includes multiple choices of how to finish certain oft-used sentences. Here is a sample:
I think it's time to end things because (circle all that apply):
• I want you to focus on your mission.
• I want to date all the really great returned missionaries in my ward.
• I am getting married to a really handsome and smart guy I met last week.
• I got married four months ago and I am expecting!
• I woke up this morning and realized you are the last person I could ever be married to.
Quist ends the letter with, "P.S. No, I am not joking."
"I think it's fun for the girls who are home to laugh at themselves," Quist said of the blog entry. "Hopefully, it will help [returned] missionaries that were Dear John-ed feel like it's OK. They're not alone. It happens."
… A time to cry
Some missionaries can chuckle at the letters only after years pass.
Richardson's brother, Joel Richardson, 25, also got a Dear John during his Ecuador mission. At the time, he was devastated. But looking back, as a now-married father living in Ohio, he's able to admire her writing skill. It was a nice balance of blunt rejection and sugar coating, he said.
"I have to do a shout-out to her," Joel Richardson said, "I guess."
Many missionaries seek to soften the experience not just through laughter but also by aiming to take something away from it a lesson learned.
Kelly Rogers, 30, said she and her boyfriend broke up before she left on her mission to California, thinking it would be "ridiculous" to try to keep a relationship going during her time away. Her ultimate experience only confirmed that suspicion.
Though they broke up, she wrote to him during her mission, after finding out he was dating someone else, to tell him she still had feelings for him.
He sent her a sort-of Dear Jane letter back, telling her he "felt he could be happy with me but was so happy with other person, so he didn't see a reason to break up with her."
"You could tell that he had really thought about the words carefully," Rogers said. "He had really spent a lot of time making sure it was exactly what he wanted to say."
Rogers was devastated, but she remained somewhat hopeful. Once she returned from her mission, he would remember how "awesome" their relationship was, she thought.
It wasn't until she came back and attended her church homecoming in Holladay that it sank in. The ex-boyfriend was there with his new girlfriend. Relatives asked her about the boy she had been dating. "I was like, 'He's right there with his new girlfriend.' "
In many ways, Rogers said, Dear John and Dear Jane letters epitomize the plight of LDS teens and 20-somethings awkwardly, and sometimes embarrassingly, transitioning into adulthood.
"It's the perfect situation to showcase the naiveté of young Mormon people," said Rogers, now married and living near San Diego.
It's one of those milestones or rites of passage that some believe make LDS missionaries wiser.
"At that age, there's a lot of other options for the person who's not on a mission," Rogers said. "Why would they hold out when they could find something great with someone who's there?"
Then again, some returned missionaries end up married to the people they dated before they left.
Despite his two Dear John letters, Nathan Richardson said he's not sure what he would tell future missionaries when it comes to dating and rejection.
"Being in love is being in love," he said.
And there are far less elegant ways to dump a person.
Katie Drake contributed to this report.
Ouch recalling three memorable letters
Matthew Douglas Spring conducted interviews in 2004 for an English class at BYU about "Dear John" letters in Mormon culture.
Here are three samples, starting with one from Spring himself:
• "I had a friend on the mission [who] had a girlfriend right before he left. After he left for the mission, he got a letter from his girlfriend and his best friend in the same envelope. The letters told him that his girlfriend was officially dumping him for his best friend."
The next is from Nathan Cannon, who was studying accounting and served in a Mississippi mission:
• "I had a companion named Elder Abrams, which is key to the story. Elder Abrams, as you might imagine, had a girlfriend and that girlfriend said that she was going to wait for him. ... They had a wedding date set and the whole nine yards. ... He found a scripture where it said "And Abram took Sariah to wife." And that was his girlfriend's name. ... He thought it was inspiration, like it was a sign from above. So he had the bright idea of putting that in a tape and sending it to her and letting her know. And shortly thereafter he received his "Dear John" letter, letting him know that she thought maybe he should be a missionary first and she was going to go date other people, which she did successfully, finding another husband."
And, finally, from Ben Richardson, a student at Utah Valley University
• "This elder got a 'Dear John' letter that was pretty funny. ... He copied it onto the back of a T-shirt and he wore it to preparation-day activities, and we all got a kick out of what the girl sent him because it was pretty stupid."
Source: "Group Therapy: The Dear John Story in Mormon Culture" by Matthew Douglas Spring