The letter that I can’t answer

By Paulo Coelho

The letter that I can’t answer is lying right here on my desk. It reached me through the efforts of a Dutch couple who sent me an e-mail in June 2006. I lent it no importance, and did not answer. At the end of that same month they wrote again, and again I paid no attention. And then came the warning phrased in more serious words:

“This is the last time we are asking you this favor. It is up to you to write to Justin or not. Or to put it better, it is up to your conscience. I got to know your books because he recommended them. Yours truly, Jacobus” (I shall omit his surname).

I read the text of the e-mail carefully: it says that Justin Fuller, prisoner #999266 at the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas, will be executed exactly on my birthday, the 24th August. His lawyer, Don Bailey, has already been to all the appeal courts, and it looks like the cause is lost. They are not asking me to denounce the fact publicly, or to take some position on the case: they just want me to send this reader some comforting words.

I type Justin’s name in a search tool. I see his photo, then I discover that there is a page with the names of all those who are (or have been) in death row in Texas. I see his criminal record at

I write the letter. The week following my birthday, Jacobus writes to me once more: Justin received it, and answered me before he was executed. The letter is waiting for me in a hotel I usually stay at in a certain town, and that I used as the sender’s address.

Finally, at the end of October 2006, I stop at the hotel. I know that a letter from a man condemned to death awaits me. I know that he has already been executed. I collect the letter, enter a bar, and read the words from someone whom I will never be able to answer. Whom I will never be able to ask permission to publish extracts, but since we are talking about a true aberration of justice – death as an instrument of the State – I shall copy some parts:

“Dear Mr. Coelho:

“Death row is the arena where the policies of Power, Retribution and Violence are applied to a man using materials such as concrete and steel, until this man turns into steel and his heart becomes as hard as concrete. However, though steel can be hard, it can still be flexible, and though the heart can be transformed into concrete, it still beats. Beyond the concrete and the steel stands the man, his love of life, and the great principles that rule human beings.

“Your letter surprised me. And it is very strange that my transcendence (Justin always uses this term instead of “execution”) is to take place just on your birthday. Of course, I hope it does not take place, but we both know that life is always accompanied by death. In the USA they execute prisoners in the name of what they call “justice” without taking into account whether they can be well represented in court, the circumstances of their birth and their family environment.

“While I wait out the last appeal to the Supreme Court, I feel full of life and strong, and my spirit is completely free.

“If I transcend, I will finally be able to float in the wind and enjoy freedom. I have realized that although my body is imprisoned, my life has changed and my soul can still love, because all freedom is mental. Many people in this world, although they are on the outside of prison, are far more in bondage than I am.

“Only when these people come to understand that freedom is a state of the mind will they be able to really enjoy it.”

The letter that I couldn’t answer is much longer. It describes the relationship that we built through my books, and it wishes me and my family all the best. And now it sits on my desk.

The letter that I couldn’t answer, from a man condemned to death, arrested when he was 19 years old and executed when he was 27, contains not a word of lamentation: it speaks of freedom and life.

Copyright by Paulo Coelho

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  1. GM Baker says:

    At first, my eyes welled with tears after reading this post. I felt a bit sad that you couldn’t connect before he passed. Should this mean you should respond to every email? If not, which to choose? Do you become chained to the vanity of your readers?

    Then I felt light and happy. It makes sense and is so beautiful!

    One day, decades from now, Paolo Coelho will have moved on. But people eons from now will build a relationship with you and others because of what you wrote and how that touched them. You will not be able to answer them either and their prayers will come even more freely than emails.

    I do believe the Dutch couple demanded your reply not because their friend needed comfort, but to share their gratitude. Can you imagine that what you wrote FREED a man? What you wrote helped him love his life, his death and us that condemned him or never knew him. That’s just…..There’s no words!!!

    It’s not necessary that you answer. But this letter was necessary to share with your readers (including me) and future readers to let go of the desire to talk with Paolo the man, be grateful that you followed your journey and shared it with us so we may follow ours.

    Thank you.

    1. Dave says:

      Life is fleeting in this domain, but once we pass over it is eternal. Justice may seem blind to some, idiotic to others, retribution to the rest. But to the individual concerned, Justice is redemption within one’s own soul and spiritual being.

  2. Jeffeny Gutierrez says:

    I really think life isn’t just about the difficult moments. It is also enjoying the difficults problems we pass throwhout life.

  3. Sara says:

    I felt that.I dont know if it feels good…
    suddenly i dont know how to name my feelings anymore…
    The man is redeemed by The SUPREME and i think you were one of the instruments used…

  4. zeinab says:

    I know how your words comfort people,,,Those who sent you the e-mail asking you to send Justin some of your words knew exactly what they wanted,,,I love your words which are full of spirituality that we all lack but need,,,

  5. Nidhi says:

    Hello Mr. Coelho,

    I was never aware that there is a website like this here where you are blogging. I am so happy to found this site. I stumbled upon it via twitter. I happen to follow you on twitter and I feel blessed to read daily wisdom thoughts you share with tweeple.


  6. Ayushi Dobriyal, India says:

    Dear Mr Paulo

    You are changing people’s thinking for good. You are making them realise wht free will n free soul is all about.wht freedom is all about.

    I think you and your books are the only reason of Justin’s peaceful death n m so proud of u and happy for justin.

    Thanks & Regards
    Ayushi Dobriyal
    Delhi, India

  7. A lot of answers seem to come at the end of life for a lot of people.
    all that understanding that Justin found after being condemned, the wisdom about freedom and the miracle is that through you we can read about his story. IF there is an immediate after life he must be smiling in his found freedom and yes he could as well be floating in the wind. It seems to me he expected no answer but for you to send it forward like this.

    Your teaching is eternal.

  8. Diana says:

    When I read words from prisoner’s letter I understand that he was absolutely right. People don’t usually understand the real value of life and feelings until they lose it.

    Beside this I would like to thank you, Paulo, for your fantastic books and stories. I’ve read lots of them and I think that they are full of wisdom. They help me to learn more about surrounding world. Moreover, you are the best writer I’ve ever read.
    Thank you for all your marvelous works,
    best wishes, Diana.

  9. Saikiran says:

    Quote “If I transcend, I will finally be able to float in the wind and enjoy freedom. I have realized that although my body is imprisoned, my life has changed and my soul can still love, because all freedom is mental. Many people in this world, although they are on the outside of prison, are far more in bondage than I am.”

    Well if this prisoner felt this – then death row really worked. Would he have felt the same if he was in for life imprisonment?

  10. Iris Gromus says:

    Dear Mr Coelho,

    I have read this blog a few times in the past months. It is very valuable to me.

    I am very much against the death penalty and of course I feel very sad for Justin having had to endure this sentence. I have to stress the point, that for me his death per se is not the most cruel factor in this situation, but the time he had to live while awaiting it. He seems to have been a very strong person and I hope his transcendence finally set him free and put an end to his suffering.

    One thought crossed my mind – aren`t we all somehow living awaiting our end? Dying starts with the first breath we take.

    I am a nurse and have specialised in Intensive Care, so I am not a stranger to death or a situation, where death is the most likely outcome of a situation. I have witnessed both – birth and death many a times and, in my own private opinion, it felt the same. I experienced the same `aura` in these situations. Of course this is my own perception of these situations.

    However, being subjected to this knowledge not by nature, but by another human being/state system/court is so unbelievably wrong/cruel in my opinion.

    Whenever I have been reading this blog I mostly felt for you as a person. And I applaud your courage to share this specific part of your journey with the wider community. I have not looked up Justin`s criminal record – why should I? It would not make a difference to my personal perception of this story.

    The lesson I have learnt? Act now!

    I am sure, you have given Justin a lot of support, when he was reading your books and when he received your letter. That must have meant a lot to him.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    Kind regards and God bless.

    Iris Gromus

  11. mariee52 says:

    Thank you for answering this man, and share this with us, my tears are running for this young man,tme—

  12. susan says:

    I must make a correction; the American school children were assualted in the public schools. Some teachers were merely transferred to other schools. My above paragraph was not clear. I wonder how those children are going to turn out?

  13. susan says:

    perhaps it is that we all cling to life when ours is at stake, but what about when it is anothers life that is at stake? Searching the internet in regards to Justin Fuller, I didn’t find Justin a hero. I also find it interesting that 4.5 million American School children were sexually assualted over the past 10 years, however when the report came out and was presented to congress, the silence was so deafing across the USA, one could hear a pin drop. Nary a word was heard from congress, nor was their much outrage from the public, but the Justin Fullers get the press.

  14. violeta says:

    ojala las personas valoraran mas las pequeñas y maravillosas cosas de la vida. todo lo dejamos pasar como si no fuera importante, y nos damos cuenta de las cosas cuando estamos al borde del precipicio. es triste. pero real. me gustaria que el mundo fuese distinto, como a tantas otras personas, pero se que no puedo. por eso es valorable como usted ha podido ayudar a quien sabe cuantas personas mas. es un enviado de dios que esta cumpliendo su fantastico trabajo. le agradezco mucho por su infinita sabiduria. con mucho cariño, violeta.

  15. toni j says:

    it seems as though justin has found balance through confinement, however in his next life he will have to find once again a path similar to give himself balance, a more peaceful one.(meditation). i am not one to judge but will add that if he truly had balance remorse was given to those he hurt. i feel Paulo that he wanted to give back to you in his own way, what you had given him through your writing. Hope, Faith, Wisdom, Courage, Forgiveness. words are that powerful….people too..they help some realize they want to be different.. thank you paulo, you’ve probably changed more lives than what you know…

  16. meme says:

    this is very touching and sad ,,many of us who are here in this world dont appreciate that we are still living this life…

    if i was in ur place i wouldnt be able to even read it . may god forgive him for what he did in the past .

    thank you Mr. Coehlo

  17. Kate says:

    Recently I come to realised that people appreciate the value of live if they are about to lose it. I’ve listened to the last album Freedie Mercury(Queen) recorded before his depth(he was diagnosed with AIDS) and all he’s singing about is the admiration of life. “It’s a beautiful day…the sun is shining…I feel good” (“A beautiful day”- “Made in heaven”). Freddie died, Justin Fuller died, they will not have another chance. Yet they sent us a message saiyng open your eyes and see what precious in life,admire it because it’s a miracle.
    We are still alive and we are able to appreciate the world all around us, the sun that is shining above us, the blue of sky and everything :)

  18. This is very touching letter..I don’t know what I would have done if I would received such a letter! God! is very hard for the person who reads it..and it’s hard too for the person who writes it too! No doubts about it! Life is not ending here! No! And that “nice” prisoner he knew that THIS IS NOT THE END!

    I like the word he used for execution..”transcendence”..Life is a transformation I shall say! Yes, our spirits are through the end more evoluated and they are almost ready to step into something higher and diffent then this world! Oh, this is really a hard subjesct for me..and it’s so late now..almost 11 pm..maybe I will reflect upon it tomorrow..One think I want to say: Never take thinks that happen into your life for granted!!!..or they will never happen!
    All my best wishes, Gabriela

  19. imelda says:

    Thanks for that. x

  20. Zaynab Kadhem says:

    The very true words were written in that unanswered letter. I always ask my friend and myself also to be free and strong. Thank you Mr. Coehlo.

  21. Marie-Christine says:

    i remember answering that saying :” When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou
    I stand by that 100%.

  22. intan says:

    sometimes, when people are condemned to death, they just realize how much alive they are, don’t you think?

    this is a very beautiful letter, and you are a great person to spare your time to read and reply all your mails.

  23. Ahmed .. Los Angeles says:

    those words you published mr. Paulo brought tears into my eyes

    God Bless all souls and for always he acceptes the Regret from anyone



  24. Andréa Kelly says:

    Realmente a vida é como justin falou, muitos estí£o livres mas se sentem muito mais aprisionado do que ele. Assim sou eu, pois apenas com suas palavras e seus livros me sinto livre para voar por todo esse mágico mundo das palvras que somente vocíª sabe como nos transportar,obrigado por voce existir e escrever maravilhosamente bem. Te adoro…

  25. Paddy says:

    This is a very warm message. In fact what if all human beings could feel free just like Justin. What if we could all see beyond the limits or boundaries that we live in day in day out?

    I am reading “Veronika Wants to Die”, It is exaclty my story except of the plot of course. I always find myself in your novels and always ask, why?

    Thank you so much for your beautiful and inspiring stories. They make me think and feel differently about myself and they give me courage to overcome the hardships of life!

    Have fun in Frankfurt.

  26. Gulaya says:

    When I saw the title of this text I was surprised, why my favorite writer could not response the letter.After reading it I understood…This letter made me cry…
    Life reminds us play and not everybody acts his role well in it. Justin acted his role badly…
    “We do not need to know “how” or “where” but there is one question that we should all ask whenever we start something:
    “What am I doing this for?”

    Paulo Coelho

  27. Karin says:

    I am copying some of your amzing textes for my students on my website and when I read this, I cant stop my tears…
    life is so precious, for every being. no matter, what he or she did. there is a field, beyond, where all this makes sense.
    when we stop judging, ourselves and others, we will reach the next step of love.
    thank you for writing.

  28. Shakirah says:

    This post brought tears to my eyes. It is a reminder to practice gratitude at all times for the life we have and to learn forgiveness and love always. I am sure Justin is now in a better place. It is humbling to see how he has accepted an look forward to his transcendence..a position i have still yet to arrive to.

    Thank you Paulo. You have certainly used your time on this earth to inspire many..

  29. John Fisher says:

    As ever, a very uplifting piece. The strength of the human spirit never ceases to amaze.

  30. Caroline Lucas says:

    I thought that this was a very interesting read. I’m glad that you wrote him.

    1. Shweta says:

      It was so touching that my cheeks were wet after reading. We can actually see the inner freedom residing in the heart of this guy, mature enough to free his spirit from the chains of his body holding him back from flying in the sky of eternity. May God bless him and may God give a long life to you who’s words can even give comfort to a dying man.