The art of the unsent angry letter and why they’re so cathartic

angry letter
Writing down irritations on paper – and then destroying it – really does calm angry feelings

EM Forster once asked: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

The novelist has been proved right by a new study that shows how writing an angry letter, and destroying it, is cathartic.

In the Japanese festival of Hakidashisara, visitors to a shrine smash small discs representing things that make them angry to let go of their frustrations. Now, Japanese scientists have proved that the practice works in everyday life: writing down irritations on paper – and then destroying it – really does calm angry feelings.

The practice is nothing new

There are many famous angry writers. Abraham Lincoln was keen on what he dubbed a “hot letter”. He would divert all his rage into a letter and then add these words at the end: “Never sent. Never signed.”

One of his hot letters was to a Civil War general, George G Meade, blaming him for letting the Confederate general Robert E Lee escape after the Battle of Gettysburg. American writer Mark Twain was also keen on not sending his angry letters because they granted him “unallowable frankness & freedom”.

Mark Twain
Mark Twain felt that his unsent angry letters allowed him 'freedom' - Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

President Harry S. Truman didn’t send this letter he wrote to the Republican senator, Joseph R McCarthy: “You are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the government of the United States. I am very sure that the people of Wisconsin are extremely sorry that they are represented by a person who has as little sense of responsibility as you have.”

Winston Churchill was a fan of the angry letter. In 1922, he wrote to the PM, David Lloyd George, saying that, when it came to Iraq, “We are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.”

Churchill never sent the letter.

Why does it work?

Writing an angry letter and not sending it is much wiser and sophisticated than yelling at your enemy.  You can’t take back letters you’ve sent. The same goes for the angry email or text – a second to send; a lifetime to forget.

Mary Killen, who appears on Gogglebox with her husband Giles Wood, writes the Dear Mary problem page in The Spectator.

“In the days when I used to be upset by real or perceived slights and setbacks and had no one to talk to because there was no internet or social media, I scribbled away or typed my worries and feelings out,” she says.

“Sometimes it would take me 2,000 words before I reached the nub of what my problem actually was and how I could move forward. I wrote these words for my own consumption and no one else’s. It must’ve saved me a fortune in psychotherapy bills over the years, as I was able to come to exactly the same conclusions a therapist would’ve done.

“Dear Mary deals with social problems but those who write in with proper problems, such as being beaten up or having addictions, are also helped by the clarification brought by putting pen to paper.”

Orlando Bird, the letters editor of The Telegraph, agrees about the power of the pen.

He says: “A letter to the editor can certainly be a way of letting off steam. These days, most of the “letters” we receive are emails, and you can often tell from the subject header when catharsis was the main objective (‘INCANDESCENT!’ ‘TREASON!’).

“Some are clearly sent without any expectation that they’ll be published; others are fired off in such a frenzy of rage that fairly important elements – an opening paragraph, say – are missing.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill was another believer in writing cathartic angry letters (and not sending them) - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“With the best letters, though, even the angriest ones, there’s usually been a deep breath and an attempt to order thoughts. And, crucially, they’re not just about the writer – they’re about the reader, too.”

“I’m fed up with seeing television advertisements in which people dance,” declared one Telegraph letter-writer Keith Rayner recently. “A man is in a lift. He puts some chewing gum in his mouth, gets out of the lift and dances. Why?”

“Why indeed?” asks Bird. The response verged on a national outpouring. Here was a sentiment, as the English poet Dr Johnson would no doubt have put it, “to which every bosom returned an echo.”

Letters that should have been destroyed before sending

The Letters of Note collections record wonderfully angry letters, including the classic 1993 feud between the British journalist Julie Burchill and American academic Camille Paglia.

When Camille refused to write for Burchill’s magazine, Modern Review, because of a bad review from her, Burchill fired off a broadside:

Paglia replied:

In 1971, John Lennon sent Paul and Linda McCartney a magnificent rant:

Harry Mount is author of Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury; available from Telegraph Books)