Truth, Sex, and Ego: On Women’s Diaries

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“I know myself, oh, very well,” wrote Mary MacLane on January 13, 1901. She was nineteen-years-old and trapped in Butte, Montana, a teenager bored by everything except herself. Today she would be a Youtube personality or Twitter celebrity, famous just for being who she is, but in her day she turned to writing a diary.

The act of keeping a diary has a long history, and a tangled relationship with subjective “truth.” Although diaries have long been associated with women, Margo Culley argues in the essay “I Look at Me: Self as Subject in the Diaries of American Women” that diary-writing was not a feminized form until the second half of the nineteenth century — with the era’s shifting notions of self, the private sphere, and inner life — and again in the feminist 60s and 70s. But the authenticity of the “self” became a matter of concern. Once you start to delve inward, where does it end? Must the diary be the truest expression of an individual?

On the one hand such writing seems to be about recording impressions to preserve a momentary truth: “I could not rest until I had told all this,” wrote Marie Bashkirtseff in 1883 in an outpouring of feeling. On the other hand they are a space to work out ideas, to enact the saying: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I have written.” Both modes echo Foucault’s notion of confession, “the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself,” with its “continuous incitement to discourse and to truth.” But a half-hour of scribbling after tea necessarily cannot reflect the whole truth of lived experience, no matter how precise the description. This recalls the passage in Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home where she describes her childhood diary, in which she would anxiously draw marks over words, phrases, and eventually entire pages that seemed to her to bear “false witness.” In her essay On Keeping a Notebook, Joan Didion solves the problem of her journal’s truth by saying simply: “I tell what some would call lies.” What is “getting closer to the truth,” she says, is “how it felt to me.” (Of course, she is not keeping a diary, but writer’s notes.)

Yet there is some relief in the fact that the diary unfolds over time, and does not at any given moment demand a conclusion or statement of self, but rather allows for self-contradiction and a shifting “I.” Anais Nin thought that her journal proved “that life is not one thing or another but changes constantly, that character has not one face but a thousand, changing as these pages change.” It reflected, she thought, “pettiness, inconsistencies, bursts of passion, fits of dejection, periods of exalted activity and of revolting idleness.” In a time when every Internet post feels like a declaration of self, a definitive statement of opinion or identity, there is relief at an inconclusive space, in which multiplicity and irrationality is not a threat to a personal brand. (Which is not to say a person should retreat entirely. At the extreme, an isolated worldview resembles the following diary entry: “These days it is fashionable to ascribe sick-sounding motivations … to persons who commit antisocial acts…. However, I think I know myself pretty well and I think they are wrong.” That comes from Ted Kaczynski.)

Even from such unsettled ground, patterns tend to emerge. As events unfold there is a linear thread, an evolution of thought, placed beside circular habits, revisited spirals of self. In both cases the diary, as a record of such shifts, allows for self-recognition. Anais Nin, master of mood, described a repeating emotional pattern that to me seems eminently familiar:

Once a month I get the moonstorm, and it is madness recurring rhythmically, only each time more violently. In a week I get persecution mania, obsession, fears, doubts of all kinds — I feel everything I described in my novel.… With it come violent erotic longings.… I see the insanity in my loves — the obsessions — in my need of the diary as a proof of reality, of the reality of my life.

Every mood is a shade of her full existence, and in these diaries she does not have to say which one is the “real” her, even as she uses her own writing as a reality check, to see herself at a little distance.

In our era, part of identity-making is to know your own sexual “truth,” and to ask others to honor it. This openness of course has not always existed, and diaries do much to illuminate how our predecessors thought about those most unspeakable subjects, love and sex. Many women likely had no other place to tell the full account of their curiosity and desire, to meticulously and luxuriously describe their precise feelings. These are the parts of the texts often left out of published editions, but also, obviously, the most compelling passages.

Anne Frank rather innocently describes her new understanding of herself — “Until I was 11 or 12, I didn’t realise there was a second set of labia on the inside, though you couldn’t see them” — while keeping careful track of her crush on Peter. Simone de Beauvoir’s diaries more insidiously recounts her affairs, sometimes with her underage female students, in contrast to her publicly monogamous relationship. I am fascinated by whatever this means: “I kissed her and again Descartes and tears. I was really fed up; I thought that she was putting me on and that the mixture of philosophy and feelings was absolutely intolerable.” I am intrigued by de Beauvoir’s seeming resistance to mixing philosophy and feelings, because I’d argue that diaries deal with the intellectual questions of how to live, how to conceive of the self, and such philosophical inquiries are not unrelated to personal life, even in contradiction.

The best example of sexual truth-seeking is Anais Nin, who in her unexpurgated diaries provides detailed accounts of her many affairs and encounters, including incest and a secret abortion. Her unfiltered accounts are indeed compelling: “I was powerfully excited by my own writing. I had an orgasm while I wrote.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, considering individual sexualities in Epistemology of the Closet, wrote: “There is a large family of things we know and need to know about ourselves and each other with which we have, as far as I can see, so far created for ourselves almost no theoretical room to deal.” Sedgwick suggests our sexualities are not necessarily transparent to ourselves; Nin’s diary seems to be a tool toward transparency. It is delightful to read a narrative counter to dominant historical notions of monogamy and repression; affirming to remember that such experiments in sex and affect have been performed and privately theorized countless times in the past.

I should acknowledge here that many diaries were not entirely private, but meant to be either shared with intimates, published, or transformed into fiction or memoir. Culley suggests that keeping a diary requires — or perhaps fosters — a “sense of self-worth, a conviction that one’s individual experience is somehow remarkable,” which might naturally lead to a public ego. Marie Bashkirtseff, who kept a diary from 1869 until her death at age twenty-five from tuberculosis, had a premonition of her own death and believed her diary would ensure her a kind of immortality. The title of the diary, I Am the Most Interesting Book of All, gives you some idea of her ambitions. In her introduction, she says: “This is the thought that has always terrified me; to live, to be so filled with ambition, to suffer, to weep, to struggle, and, at the end, oblivion! oblivion! as if I had never existed.” She frames her project as one of authenticity and performance at once: “The life of a woman, traced day by day, without affectation, as if no one in the world should ever read it, and yet at the same time intended to be read; for I am convinced that I shall be found sympathetic — and I tell everything, everything, everything.”

As Culley notes, when Bashkirtseff’s diary was translated into English in 1889, it became so popular in the U.S. that women began to keep diaries in hopes that they too might achieve fame. One woman she influenced was young Mary MacLane, who noted in her published 1902 diary, I Await the Devil’s Coming, with quite the contemporary instinct for drama: “As for that notable, Marie Bashkirtseff, yes, I am rather like her in many points, as I’ve been told. But in most things I go beyond her.” She was wonderfully brazen: “Where she had astonishing vanity and conceit, I have yet more astonishing vanity and conceit.”

She was not the first to want to write without having anything in particular to write about. Her life consisted of very little besides her walks, meals, and routines; “I stand in the midst of Nothingness,” she wrote in despair. For some writers material comes first, but I’m sure many can recognize their own desires in hers: “I want Fame. I want to write — to write such things as compel the admiring acclamations of the world at large; such things as are written but once in years, things subtly but distinctly different from the books written every day.” Happily, her book was published, and although she wrote little else, died at age forty-eight and was soon forgotten, her diary did, in a sense, achieve its purpose. She never did find a subject beyond herself (her second book was titled I, Mary Maclane), but she saw her ability to self-examine as an artistic accomplishment: “I am able to stand off and gaze critically and dispassionately at myself and my relation to my environment, to the world, to everything the world contains…. I am able indeed to tell what I am and where I stand. I can see far, far inward. I am a genius.”

For those with artistic ambitions, diaries were meant less as an exercise in immortality and more as a way to gather material for other writing. Anne Frank, for instance, wanted to use her diary to compose a novel after the war (although she also knew that wartime diaries would be collected as a matter of historical interest). Anais Nin published her diary during her life, and continually turned her experience into fiction, though she complained, “It gets dehumanized and becomes a fairy tale.… It is process of evaporation.” Virginia Woolf, who didn’t start keeping a consistent diary until she was thirty-three, thought it practical: “I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.” For her, the diary itself was a form worth consideration: “I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction.”

As a form, diaries have perhaps fallen out of fashion. The impulse to record a moment or convey an inner emotional state might instead become an Instagram or Tweet, while public persona has become an art form in itself. But I wonder if even now, perhaps especially now, with the daily stream of information and news, there are reasons to delay self-exposure, to give philosophies and impressions some time to sit quietly on hidden pages. In a time when our public figures seem to lack all self-awareness, to invest time in private self-examination, to acknowledge the messiness and pleasure of subjectivity, might even be a radical act.


Lead image: Anais Nin and Hugo Guiler. Steven Reigns.

Inset image 1: Anne Frank’s Diary. Anne Frank Museum in Berlin. Wikipedia Commons.

Inset image 2: Marie Bashkirtseff, Self Portrait. 1882. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nice.

Inset image 3: Mary MacLane. Mary MacLane, Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana.

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