The Burning Question
And what about my own children—would they shy away from reading my journals after my death, or would it be a welcome chance to learn more about me?
My older daughter, a yogini and student of Sanskrit, tells me outright that she intends to burn her own journals ("to set the words free") and has no interest in reading mine. "I don't believe there are family secrets," she says. "I think we all learn what we're supposed to learn when we're ready to learn it. Going through some old papers isn't going to tell me anything I don't already know." But my younger daughter, who like me is sentimental and appreciates gossip, says she'd feel cheated if I destroyed my journals—even if some of the contents were difficult to take. "I guess the only thing that would really upset me," she says, "is if I read something negative about me."
Her response reminded me that the journal keeper isn't the only one who's narcissistic. In the seventies, my best friend's artist husband had an exhibit where he displayed 30 years of journals that included photos, poetry, and descriptions of his extramarital affairs. "You wouldn't believe how transfixed people were," his now ex-wife says. "Not because they wanted to read about him but because they wanted to see what he said about them."
I can understand how for some, the journal is a way to put on a show, to fashion a persona for an imagined audience. But for me the opposite was true. Coming from a family of "performers," where every dinner was a "show," I was relieved to have a place where I didn't have to worry about what other people thought, a place where I could crawl into myself. For years I have avoided going back through those raw, unedited pages, afraid to relive painful experiences or see what a fool I was. But when I started thinking seriously about the future of my journals, I overcame my resistance and began to read. What I found was a writer who berated herself for not writing, a mother who blamed herself for not being good enough, a wife who was exasperated with her husband, and a daughter who struggled to be her own person. The self-criticism is leavened with analyses of dreams and descriptions of fabulous meals. In some places, I am amazed by the quality of the writing; in others, I am appalled by how crushingly boring it is. Sometimes I think I shouldn't wait until I'm dead to share these pages; other times I think I'd be doing my survivors a favor to destroy them now.
I have friends who react to in-flight turbulence with the dread that the plane will crash and they won't have gotten rid of their personal papers. "I would die if my husband/parents/kids ever read that stuff!" they say. I'd like to remind them that you can't die twice—and that if they want to go down with their secrets, they should destroy their papers before they board the plane. But every time I think about burning my own journals—or ripping out the pages that might offend someone I love—there's a little person inside me who says no. The journals are a part of me, a reflection of the good and the bad, and to destroy them would be to destroy a part of myself.
I have wondered if my mother was flirting with immortality when she left me her letters. And if I, too, harbor the same conceit. But if someone reads my journals after I'm gone, I hope they'll glimpse a woman who was less interested in cheating death than in discovering the meaning of her life.
Mary Pleshette Willis contributes frequently to the City section of The New York Times and is the author of the novel Papa's Cord (Knopf).