#38: Don't read my diary when I'm dead

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Good morning!

It feels uncouth to admit, but I was in kind of a good mood last week. Not even this drawing of Biden and Harris hugging while McCain, Lewis, Cummings, and Ginsberg look down from heaven could get me down. It turns out it’s not necessarily helpful to feel bad all the time…a conspiracy theory I’m actually interested in. What’s even crazier is I recorded three podcasts last week (one being my own), and what if podcasting is what put me in a good mood? Unsettling to think about.

Speaking of which, this week’s episode of the Maybe Baby podcast is a gossip rundown featuring resident pop culture experts Avi Bonnerjee & Harling Ross, wherein we discuss cannibalism, Bridgerton, the My Pillow guy, the Kimye divorce, why your IG likes are down, and much more. It has nothing to do with what you’re about to read but I decided to drop it today at 3pm EST instead of the normal Tuesday because it’s just that timely...

And now, on to other important matters:

Don’t read my diary when I’m dead

My firmest belief is that my loved ones, in the aftermath of my death, will read my journals under the guise of “getting to know me better,” and I, from the comfort of my urn, won’t believe them for a second. I will have to allow it, as I’ll be dead, but I would like them to know in advance that I know exactly what they’re up to. That rather than reveling in my casual, unpublished brilliance, what they’re after is the juicy details: what I thought of them, what I was afraid of, what kind of weird shit I was up to in my private life. They’ll believe themselves innocent, unbound by the social mandate that says reading someone’s diary is brazen and impudent, and I would like to state for the record that although I love them I think they’re curious little snoops.

I’ve always been amazed by the extent to which snooping has been institutionalized. Academics are always rifling through dead writers’ stuff. Going to libraries or temperature-controlled archives and getting “permission” to meddle in famous people’s diaries, unfinished projects, and letters to each other. But whose permission are they getting, really? In 2008 and 2012, Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, published two volumes of his mother’s private notebooks after her death, with a third yet to come. Three volumes. He found nearly 100 diaries hidden in her closet and thought, Not only will I read these, but so will everyone else with $17.89 to spare on Amazon. The gall! To be fair, her notebooks say things like, “I vulgarize my feelings by speaking of them too readily to others” and they’re actually very good, but still. Maybe she never shared that particular idea for a reason. Maybe she grew to feel differently, or even hate that opinion. Maybe she wouldn’t have wanted it highlighted under her name on WikiQuote. We should all take responsibility for that!

Sontag is probably a bad example. She once journaled that, “One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people,” so I suppose we can assume she’d embraced the idea of an eventual audience, but she was 24 when she said that, so can we really? Here’s something I wrote in my journal when I was 24: “Feeling normal isn’t something you pick up at the supermarket and have the next day. It’s not even a catalyst for change, for the new you or the better you or the same old you. Feeling normal is an effect. Of what, I have no clue.” I found that while rifling through my own old notes recently which, to be fair, should also be a crime. Anyway please don’t put that on WikiQuote! I have no idea what it means.

I once implored my boyfriend to delete all my personal writing in the event that I should die while he was around, and he refused. “But what if my journal doesn’t actually reflect how I feel, and people read it and think it does?” The sporadic nature of my note-taking—and the fact that I mostly do it when I’m deluding myself—is central to this anxiety. It’s one thing to learn about someone’s inner monologue, it’s another to glean an unrepresentative version of it. He said something unsatisfying like: Well maybe those choices still say something about you, even if not taken literally. “But how would people know whether to take them literally?” And he said something like: Why do you care? You’ll be dead! He had a point.

Last week I asked some friends who write if they would care if people read their private notes when they died. “Unfortunately I write them as if someone will,” my old editor Mallory told me. “Pathetic.” Catherine, a comedian and a poet, at first said she wouldn’t care, then she realized she would: “Half of them would be like, ‘STOP EATING!’ And whoever was reading would be like...I thought she was an interesting artist…so maybe I do care. Also a lot of them are from when I was full Christian and they’re like GOD FORGIVE ME FOR GIVING A BLOWJOB IN SPAIN.” (Shout out to the year I addressed all my journal entries to “God” in middle school.) Harling, my old colleague, was torn: “On the one hand, it would be kind of a shame if no one read them. On the other, I’m so glad I’ll be dead because that shit is very embarrassing.” Why a shame? “There’s just something weird about it disappearing,” she said. “So much record-keeping for nothing.” This is the most convincing argument I’ve seen for publishing your diaries. Like being hot on social media, it proves you exist.

To Mallory’s point, I do think there’s a difference between journaling you do almost compulsively, to externalize or process a thought, versus writing you do with an audience in mind—even if it’s just your future self. The latter seems more primed for exposure; a kind of artful record-keeping. When I look back on entries from my twenties, which mostly cluster around eras of personal crisis or brief stints of reporting my activities for no reason, almost none of them are fit for consumption. Here’s something I wrote in 2013: “I sat around by myself literally all day today. I was hungover watching shows in bed until like 3. Then I got up and got dressed and got myself grilled cheese and french fries and watched more shows (but on my couch!!!!).” Or how about this, same year: “One thing I've realized I should do more is go out to eat on weekends to places further than my fucking block! Like taking a long walk or bus to a place in another neighborhood is an acidity [sic] in itself and I want to do it more in SF.” Humiliating! And these are just the ones that don’t have to do with convincing myself to stay with my ex.

In 2017 I impressed myself with this one: “I used to think New York was electric for all the little things that made it different. The lights, the food, the parties, the art, the money, the history. The millions of people and the big old buildings. The movies and books and ideas that were born or realized in or about this city and the way all of those things made us feel. But now I’m beginning to think that saying New York is what it is because of the lights is like saying high school is what it is because of the lockers. Neither is true; they are what they are because they break you.” A little dramatic. The lockers thing doesn’t exactly track, but I’ll take it! Which is not to say I would publish it, or even stand by it. In this economy? I could never. There’s plenty of awful writing and stupid ideas to my name on the internet already.

I did find a couple things I’d be open to sharing—a love letter I wrote to Avi to document our first months, for example, which I found very sweet—but most of it is nonsensical. Scraps I never shared for a reason; ideas I came to understand as flawed or unoriginal; entries I wrote to expel an emotion I knew to be anomalous or passing. That someone might one day read them and believe they’re bearing witness to my most authentic self is one of those fears that blows through me every few months, like a bad memory that hasn’t happened yet. In softer moments, I wonder whether I’m being too harsh on myself for thinking I’m only as worthy as the stupidest thought I’ve ever jotted down, or whether it’s ungenerous to snoopers to assume they take their findings as canon, or at face value. It is kind of nice, when I think about it, that someone might take such an interest in me that they’d want to read my grocery lists after I die in a pile of collapsed scaffolding (or whatever). But it feels invasive, too. Like a betrayal of a fundamental rule that divines us each our privacy.

I’m probably arguing with an imaginary adversary. Or maybe a little with myself, as someone who would very much like to read everyone’s diaries and in fact considers it a personal dream. And I can admit it takes someone of considerably weak constitution to spend time worrying about their posthumous reputation when they have yet to do essentially anything. But I’d like to think I’m speaking on behalf of all people who don’t stand by their journals when I say I don’t stand by mine. This is my way of defending, in advance and perpetuity, all who leave behind bits of themselves that paint an inaccurate or unflattering picture, like the deceased man whose daughter recently inherited his laptop only to find a single word in his search history—“pussy.” Surely we’re more than the detritus left in the wake of a life well-lived. Although nothing but respect for that man.

1. This kale and pecorino salad recipe from Smitten Kitchen that I’ve made countless times and maintain is the only salad I’ve ever eaten after which I want more, like it’s junk food.

2. “How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted,” an essay by Kyle Chayka for the New York Times about our collective pursuit of numbness. It doesn’t exactly reflect my desires anymore (I want everything), but it wove a convincing tapestry of modern life regardless. 

3. This Jenny Holzer tweet:

4. 1 email from the San Francisco Shih Tzu Meetup Group I joined in 2012 despite not owning a shih tzu (I would just show up). They keep me abreast of when and where they’re meeting and I appreciate that.

5.  “Tech Giants Can’t Be Trusted to Police Speech,” a short op-ed by Jeet Heer for The Nation that explores the validity of various arguments against Trump’s Twitter ban and offers a different solution.

“If Trump is worth banning now, he was worth banning many years ago. The decision to ban him now is purely arbitrary, an assertion of raw corporate power rather than a principled stance. Motivated by fears of revenue-damaging regulations and boycotts, the social media crackdown is completely capricious. It highlights why such important decisions shouldn’t be left to the heads of a few very large firms.”

6. An unspeakable number of episodes of Love Island while making drawings on Procreate for iPad, my new favorite pastime. When I shared a screenshot on Instagram with my most recent drawing as my iPhone wallpaper, a bunch of people asked for it via DM, so sharing it here!

(Someone also asked how I learned to use Procreate and I recommend the slightly corny but super helpful tutorials by YouTuber Art with Flo.)

7. “You Don’t Know Her,” Allison P. Davis’s profile of Mariah Carey for Vulture. It’s from December but a friend recommended it in a group chat about good pandemic profiles. I love Davis’s show-don’t-tell profile style; her best jabs are never her own words. (Also watched Glitter last night…the most criminally underrated movie on Rotten Tomatoes at 6%.)

8. “Cher Everlasting,” Caity Weaver’s sort-of profile of Cher for the Times, also suggested in my group chat. I really miss Weaver’s GQ profiles so this scratched a little itch (I still think of her Bieber profile every time I think of Bieber). This piece is specifically about Moonstruck, which I now want to rewatch.

9. One more profile: This NYLON one of Phoebe Bridgers by Lauren McCarthy, which led me to watching a bunch of commercials Phoebe starred in before she was famous.

10. The unfortunate news that I love this new Grimes song:

11. This photo my friend sent me of a basset hound named Anguish:

12. “The Dream Job That Wasn’t,” a feature by Clio Chang for The New Republic in which she interviews people with “dream jobs” like a lighthouse keeper and a park ranger about what their jobs are really like, and what we really mean when we say “dream job.”

13. 1 Health-Ade Pomegranate Kombucha, my true love I always return to after I stray...(my favorite side piece being Pilot Kombucha in Lavender Peach). 

14. “Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Limits of Representation,” an essay by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for the New Yorker that asks readers to consider the ideological impetus of “representation in politics”—that legislators will fight for those who look like them—and not settle for the optics.

“Ending Trump’s dismal rule is of critical importance—but we should be stone-cold sober about the reality of mainstream politics in the United States. … The pandemic continues to push the contradictions of U.S. society to its surface, and, in doing so, it makes clear the necessity of radical solutions. This need stands in sharp contrast with Biden’s political instincts as a deficit hawk and Harris’s inexperience as a legislator. It also wildly collides with their mutual fidelity to a market economy that has produced such historic inequality in the first place.”

15. This video of an owl standing over a fan a la Marilyn Monroe. Vibes:

A post shared by kamui_szk (@kamui_owl)

That’s all for today! Reminder that next Sunday is my five-question advice column for paying subscribers, Dear Baby.

Thanks so much for reading,
Haley

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