Monday, June 12, 2006

The realm of diaries: function and invasion

I remember the day, years ago, when I discovered a certain someone in my life, let us called the person Z, reading my diary. Z was lying on the bed reading my diary, fully absorbed in the details s/he was reading. So absorbed was s/he that even looking up to address my presence seemed like too much effort. I instantly recognized the decorated cover of my diary and contorted my face in varying ways--a response to the different questions that were now passing through my mind. Z seeing the knowledge in my eyes, instantly became fearful. You could tell s/he wished there was a way s/he could will the diary into disappearing.

I lunged towards Z.
“Is that my diary you’re reading?” I asked, as I snatched it away from him/her. I, of course, already knew the answer to my question, but I still needed to ask it, in order to create the guns of accountability that should now be certain to hit him/her. Z could not say a thing and looked at me with that pleading look, one arising from the sudden realization of the wrongness of his/her actions. I looked at my diary, which I had marked with all sorts of warnings. “Do not read!” “Privacy Alert!” Yet, Z had decided to enter.

“How dare you!!!” I screamed.

Such invasion of privacy wounded me deeply. It was not just an invasion of my space, my world. It was an invasion of the very essence and reason for the diary’s being. The diary is a looking mirror that allows one to see (years later) how one was and maybe still is. The idea of someone else being privy to this subtle knowledge of who/how I am, which I have not yet discovered or realized, by virtue of still being so close in time to the me in the diary, hurt me. I felt naked and unable to clothe myself, at least not before his/her eyes, even though there was nothing particularly negative and unexpected in the diary given Z’s relationship to me. But the idea of someone seeing my life or me as I saw it, giving the effect that my mind was no longer just my own, felt like a fork through my heart.

A diary means different things to different people. For some, it is just a personal account of their every day thoughts, actions, and so on. For others, it is a place to explore one’s self, to find release, to say what one feels powerless to do or say, and other such psychologically and maybe intellectually motivated reasons.

I have noticed that I cannot get myself to read another’s dairy, unless I have the author’s permission—and this includes diaries of historical figures. As it concerns historical figures, I say to myself, “But you gain unique and invaluable insight into that person’s life, the events and views of his/her day, and so on.” But my mind is still adamant in its refusal to doing any such reading.

In some cases, the family of the deceased person gives a publisher permission to print the deceased member’s diary. And I try to convey this to my mind. Still, it is not persuaded. It says to me, “When the person was alive, the family probably was not allowed to view the diary. So what gives them the right to distribute this work to others upon the person’s death?”

When the publication of a diary is mainly to satisfy other people’s curiosity, is it justified, if the author of the diary has not given his/her permission? Sometimes this question and this whole issue about whether or not to read published diaries of the deceased seems trivial, but I still cannot get myself to read important works like “Anne Frank.” I bought the book. However, each time I prepare myself to read it, I my attacked by the thought that I am invading another’s world and soul.

Maybe I am too sentimental. Maybe I am making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe this is just another example of my oddness. Whatever it is, it has become my personal conviction not to read diaries, published or otherwise, unless the author has given his or her permission. Of course, in the case of a life and death situation where a diary is certain to provide valuable information, a justification for reading it may be made, just like how one's privacy can sometimes be compromised when it is necessary for legal/safety issues.

To explore this issue further, let us consider the case of Kurt Cobain’s published diary.
I know someone who bought the dairy of the late artist, Kurt Cobain, who is believed to have taken his own life. She told me that in the beginning of the diary, Cobain warns people against reading his diary, but later, he seemed to hope that people would read it. She, a fan, justified her reading it by hanging on to his second wish. But to get to the second wish, she had to ignore the first. Some fans have opted not to buy the diary, claiming that it was an invasion of his privacy. Is such publication justified?

This case makes me wonder whether the very act of keeping a diary can indicate a subconscious or conscious desire to have someone else read the work, but long after s/he is gone, so s/he is not there to respond to people’s reaction. This reminds me of D.W. Winnicott’s words that “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” Maybe for some people, a diary is a means of being found or known while being hidden or alone to one's self/thoughts.

I believe for many, a diary is a chance to live in a world filled with only one’s eyes, whether real or imagined. It can be a person’s Atlantis—existing but not existing. Its boundaries, I believe, are to be respected, regardless of whether the author is alive or not.

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At 12/6/06 9:03 PM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Oh Rosie, I'm reading your blog and I'm not soaking anything.
Though I know you're saying wonderful things. I have to come back and read it all up when I feel sensible again.
All I can think at the moment, is that you're going to have a fully-fledged storybook out for the whole world to read in about 3 days. And you're going to be a fully-fledged literary novelist. I'm so proud of you, it makes me want to cry.

At 14/6/06 2:25 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Thank you, Susan.

It's here. Tomorrow is it.

At 15/6/06 7:20 PM, Blogger Lotus Reads said...

Today's the day, it's here! Congratulations, Rosemary!!! I'm sure you are the epitome of happiness today and I rejoice in your joy!

What an interesting post this is, Rosemary. I have occasionally pondered the very same thing - why do people keep diaries anyway? Do diarists write only for themselves or is there some part of them that wishes that one day another reader will also have access to their diary, and if that is the intent, and this is important, does it change the way they write? Are they able to be totally honest about their opinions and feelings knowing that one day another pair of eyes might be reading their innermost thoughts?

Hmmm, and you do bring up an important issue - is it ethical to read someone's private diary published without their permission? I'm with you on that one, I don't think we have the right. Even personal letters (and now e-mail) should be given the same courtesy. Ofcourse, with letters, one could argue that the receiver is the owner and can do what he/she wishes with the letter, but when both parties are deceased does anyone else have the right to publish them?

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post...

At 17/6/06 12:38 AM, Anonymous Rose said...

Thought provoking post. Congrats on the publication of your book.

At 20/6/06 12:17 AM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello Lotus,

Thanks for your engaging comment.
I don't know why people choose to keep a diary, but I know the reasons you mentioned above are true for some people. I kept a diary because I wanted to have a way of looking back at myself. Since Z's intrusion, I do feel that my journal entries have been written with the consciousness that another foreign pair of eyes might look on. As such, I have pretty much given up on diaries. I only write about my wishes now, so in the future I can know how far I have come to achieving my dreams.

In place of a diary, I have decided to pursue, more vigorously, creative writing. I think my writing, the issues I explore and the way I explore them, will provide the reflection/self-analysis that my future self wants.

My current view on reading personal letters is that if the letter doesn't have my name on it, and I'm not a proxy or anyone authorized to read it, I won't. It just keeps my life simple and my conscience at peace.

Hello Rose,
Thank you for stopping by, and thanks for your comment.


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