When two-time alumnus decided to pen a memoir about love, he had no idea how circuitous and therapeutic his journey would be
By Deb Cummings
Love hurts, especially in the emotional minefield that is high school. A 17-year-old’s confidence tanks when she’s ignored by the guy she saw the night before. A Grade 10er’s text to her crush goes viral. A student in Grade 11 logs on to Facebook to discover his girlfriend “is single.” Most high school teachers, like Glenn Dixon once was, would insist these kids are too young to fall in love.
But, take a jaunt to fair Verona and do a two-week shift at Club di Giulietta (a.k.a. the Juliet Club) and, if you’re anything like this former James Fowler high school teacher, you’ll leave with a different attitude toward relationships and love. For anyone, at any age.
Set on the skirts of Verona (the home of Shakespeare’s most famous of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet), this “house” has operated since the 1960s and is run, primarily, by four Italian “secretaries,” along with a handful of summer volunteers like Dixon. The tradition of sending letters to Juliet goes back centuries, to when people left notes on Juliet’s tomb. By the 1980s, Verona was receiving so many letters it created an office in order to deal with the volume, and staffed it with secretaries who could answer letters in Italian, English, German, Spanish and Japanese.
“The place was chaos,” says Dixon, BEd’82, MEd’96, recalling his first trip in 2014, “boxes and boxes of letters everywhere, written mostly by lovelorn teenage girls. The secretaries receive about 10,000 letters a year and every one is read, answered and signed, ‘Juliet.’”
However, Dixon was there on a specific mission — to gather just enough colour to write the first chapter of a book pitch — a memoir, really, that would explore love around the world. Following a similar formula that had worked for his other two books — one on music around the planet and the other on languages — this time, Dixon’s book would combine his love of travel (he’s been to 75 countries) with universal truths about love. This initial chapter would fete Italy, by diving into the work of Club di Giulietta’s secretaries, framing it as a testament to one of the greatest love stories ever written: Romeo and Juliet. Except, Dixon’s plot never turned out that way.
The moment his pitch was read, his agent changed her mind and wanted a book specifically on this letter-writing operation, and nothing else. So back to Verona, Dixon went. And that’s where the emotional twists begin, twists and knots that eventually lead to the book’s name, Juliet’s Answer.
Spoiler alert: Dixon needed answers himself. In the writing of this memoir, his own “disastrous” chain of relationships unravels, bending and shifting the book’s structure so many times that at one point, he says, “I realized I wasn’t writing the book, it was writing me.”
Having taught Romeo and Juliet, “oh, about 30 times,” the retired teacher and now full-time author, says, “If you love reading and writing and Romeo and Juliet, chances are you’ll see di Giulietta as a little bit of magic in the world. I really believed we were all doing a good thing in dark times. The secretaries thought they were a little beam of light in the world. And I think that’s true.”
While diligently replying to the heartbroken, Dixon’s own state of loneliness and pain appears which is when he says, “for the first time in my writing, I was forced to explore very personal things which left me feeling vulnerable … I knew I had to tread into the dark rooms of my soul.”
Never an easy thing to do. Evidence of that painful exploration is deftly woven into the memoir through not only the voice of Dixon but that of his students to whom he taught Romeo and Juliet, as well as the faithful secretaries.
Taking a risk by opening up his life and battered heart has, so far, been worth it. Juliet’s Answer is Dixon’s first book to receive international attention and it has just been released in the U.S. Rights have also been sold to Australia and New Zealand and it will be translated into Chinese, Spanish and Serbian.
Seeing that today is Valentine’s Day, we asked Dixon for any romantic advice.
“Love yourself first,” he says, “so others can follow your example.” Or, as the great bard put it, “To thine own self be true.”
Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak
By Glenn Dixon
Simon & Schuster