Is it a cardinal sin to read another's diary? Writer Constance Roisin contemplates for whose eyes the author truly intends to write.
A friend of mine (in fact my old babysitter) kept a diary after breaking up with her girlfriend. In it she wrote long and sincere entries about her heartbreak. Then, one day, she lost the diary on a train from Newcastle to London. I have since often thought about what happened to it; who found it. This has morphed into a daydream where my own diary is lost, and a stranger reads it and becomes enamoured with the mysterious author of the text. (I am admitting here that I keep a diary. I have for the last five years. Every time I tell someone this I seem to be wearing a cardigan and I can’t help but hear that line from HBO’s Girls: "Of course she keeps a journal, like all girls who listen to Tori Amos and masturbate.")
Susan Sontag argued that all diarists secretly want their journals to be read. According to her, "one of the main (social) functions of a journal … is precisely to be read furtively by other people". Sontag wrote this after having found and read her partner’s diary. The journal is, according to her, the only place where you can be cruelly honest about the people in your life, and by reading it, you are spared the discomfort of confrontation. "Do I feel guilty about reading what was not intended for my eyes?" she asks. "No."
It is, as we all know, a terrible offence to read someone else’s private journal. I have myself twice read someone’s diary without their permission. The first was my mother's; a journal from when she was 24 and living in Greece. The entries were written, in green ink, mostly at airports and on ferries, the occasional balcony. The backdrop is very glamorous, but what I like most about it is that it shows me a version of my mother who I have never and will never meet. She smokes and swears and sleeps on the beach and wears dark sunglasses. By the time I met her (at a C-section in 2001) she was a polite non-smoker who hated cold water.
"I have myself twice read someone’s diary without their permission. The first was my mother's..."
The second was a diary that my mother found and kept (clearly invasiveness is genetic). Written in the 90s by a teenage girl, it is the holy grail of strangers' diaries. Inside the small red leather notebook is a thrilling tale of the writer’s relationship with an older man - who she gives the alias "Smiley" (why? I still wonder. Did he have a smiley face tattoo? Is it a Le Carre reference?). What follows is a romance that leads to her being arrested, and it ends mid-trial. That is the funny thing about diaries. Sometimes they stop in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes they stop right at the good bit.
It is particularly unforgivable that I have read these diaries because I am myself somewhat obsessed with privacy. I have tape over my laptop camera, and private browsing mode permanently on. I am not on any social media and whenever I have to register for anything online, I always put my sex as male, and my age as eighty five, in order to confuse the man. (Who is the man? They ask me. Jeff Bezos, I say. Cambridge Analytica. Something to do with Russia?). Do I feel guilty for reading what was not intended for my eyes? No.
Why then, given my love of anonymity, do I have this daydream of you finding my diary (A4 moleskin, light blue) on the Glasgow subway? You are stuck between Buchanan Street and St Enoch’s; it is on the seat next to you, and so you casually pick it up. In its pages you find the following details.
"Why then, given my love of anonymity, do I have this daydream of you finding my diary...?"
Whilst my friend drove me home from A&E on the 27 September 2020, he sang along to Hungry Like the Wolf. In that same car, less than a month later, when we crashed into a bollard, the radio was playing WAP (my last words were almost "macaroni in the pot that's some —.") Standing in St Pancras station on the 18 November there were carollers singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and it made me cry. On 29 November, back in Glasgow, my grocery list was "tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic bread, apples, veggie bacon, lemon (one), ice tea". On the 17, after a day waitressing, I wrote "quiet shift. Messed up one order. Made 45 pounds in tips (though only got to keep 5), one kind older woman folded a tenner into my palm and said 'and you take care of yourself young lady'. An American tipped me in euros."
I have a made a note of the customer who played chess against himself. Of the woman at the taxidermy section of Kelvingrove Museum who told her little boy that all the animals were just sleeping ("this was a terrible idea" she said, sidelong to me). Of the stranger who ran towards me with an umbrella in a flash storm last August. On Halloween I wore the perfume Fracas and on the 10 October I put too much garlic in the spaghetti. I know that on the 4 November at a pub quiz I contributed only one answer to my team ("Monte Cristo"), that we came in fourth place, that I drank a lime soda, half a glass of whiskey, ate two packets of steak McCoys crisps and that it rained.
You also find the worst version of myself. My diary is the only place to be cruelly honest, just not about others. I am repetitive, dull, always telling you the details of my dream the night before (17 January 2021: "Had a dream I was on a beach, playing in the waves with a swan - an egg appeared and hatched into a newborn baby"); self congratulatory, vain (28 August 2019: "Ran into Z— and her new girl, thank god I looked great: red bra, red lipstick"); overly judgemental about Covid rule breakers, keeping track of them like some kind of Nazi guard; and moody (23 September 2020: "G—sends a text about the importance of forgiving others. It is the least helpful thing she could have possibly written.") I never try particularly hard at anything. I never read the news. I hate that all his ex-girlfriends are blonde.
"28 August 2019: 'Ran into Z— and her new girl, thank god I looked great: red bra, red lipstick'."
It is a relief to be terrible in a diary, particularly if you put a lot of effort into being good in real life. In the outside world you have to remember people’s birthdays and smile when you are tipped in euros and not look in the mirror too often. So, occasionally, I want someone to meet the other self. Not anyone I know, but you, who has taken the Outer, rather than the Inner line (a mistake I also often make), and so has some time on their hands.
Really, I think that the fantasy of the diarist, and the reason that a diary is often as confessional as it is factual, is for someone to understand you exactly as you wish to be understood.
However, this will never play out in real life. I am a very careful packer. My handwriting is fairly illegible. And, okay, here is the thing. On 18 November 2021 I was at St Pancras. There were the Christmas lights; the birdcage between that station and Kings Cross was lit up purple. And there were Christmas carollers, singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I watched them for a while. In fact, I almost missed my train. But I didn’t cry. I felt like I might cry, and my thought was that, in a scene, I would cry. So that's how I wrote it down later.
What is the point then? I regularly change my email passwords. I am a polite non-smoker. So I want you to understand me, and then I leave you a doctored account anyway.
Maybe, if you want someone to know who you are, you should just take a breath and tell them.
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