Posthumous Voyeurism

I’ve read someone else’s diary.

I read it from beginning to end. I underlined sentences I liked, put stars next to thoughts that I could relate to, and exclamations next to anything shocking. In some cases, I even went so far as to write comments or questions, for example “Are you sure, Syl?” I didn’t skim any of the embarrassing or deeply personal entries; in fact, I heavily annotated those sections, leaving my ink stains on her privacy.

I read a woman’s diary without her permission. I read it all, cover to cover. I sucked in every word, drawing them in through my eyes and giving them renewed immediacy in my mind.

I did all this in full knowledge that she would not want an audience to her heart break, her self-doubt, her catalog of times she’s violently puked (including location and reason for the sickness). I felt a giddy rush of justification when she revealed that she, too, was guilty of was reading someone else’s diary. When she confessed to “feel[ing] my life linked to her, somehow. I love her,” I put two stars, a blue underline, and a red box around the those sentences. To read the most private thoughts of another woman, to experience life and interpret the world through her words, is as intimate as friendship, but without any of the niceties, obligations, or safety of white lies. When she “richochet[s] between certainties and doubt” there is no spoonful of sugar, no winking and nudging, no sudden rain shower to break the mood. This is dangerous. It is a violation and a trespass.

The words we share with one another go a long way towards shaping reality. We build relationships with our words, we build nations with our words,  we determine the future survival of our species with our words. These aren’t little plastic swords for bandying about in practice. These are the real, fucking sharp-as-hell deal, and they can kill. When you steal into someone else’s diary, be prepared! It’s not like a novel or a movie; with those, you can simply look away and remind yourself that “this isn’t real.” A diary is the distilled reality of an emotional landscape frozen in time. Like most things that are distilled, diaries are quite strong. They can make you feel woozy with omniscience, but they can send you spiraling into sickness.

I read Sylvia Plath’s diary. I read it from cover to cover. I read it around 2008, devouring her days with my breakfast for nearly three months. Her perceptions seeped into me through her words. Beautiful and terrible, Sylvia’s words are lyrics fit for a Siren. They are pure and undiluted, lacking any redirection or editing for public consumption. They are a little like vodka, a little like strychnine, and a lot like magic.

Original ouija board

Original ouija board (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvia drank coffee with a lot of milk, had a station wagon that broke down, dreaded going to work, suffered violent cases of writer’s block, loved working in the garden, picked her boogers, and  played with the Ouija board. The illusion of Writer, In the Abstract is blasted away by her journal. The illusion of separation between her perceptions and my own was likewise obliterated. My trespassing intimacy was harmful to me. I crept into my own depression, my emotions at odd with the Spring all around me. When I closed the final pages, I put my annotated copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath away with the same reverence one would pay to a nuclear warhead or a gun without a safety and a light trigger. I keep the book in sight, just to the right of my writing desk, as a reminder of the power of words. Every so often, I pick it up and re-read a few of her entries at random. More often than not, the experience is disquieting.

I have come to think of her diary as a very extended, quite diffuse, but utterly terrifying piece of horror.

I wonder: should journals survive their creator? Do you journal? And if so, do you write with the self-conscious intent of allowing future generations to paw through your pages?

Sylvia, I love you. I fear for the you crystallized in those pages, and I’m sorry we met under these circumstances. I apologize for intruding where only your soul should have tread.


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