Is It Wrong to Read the Diaries of the Deceased?

Published on 9/22/2020

Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me. As a young girl who both dreamed of being a renowned writer and battled heavily with her mental illness from the age of fifteen, Sylvia was the glowing mirror of possibility. Given her demise, this could be a warning sign and probably was. I recently wrote an article about the Sylvia Plath Effect, how this genius has been diluted into a correlation between depression and being a poet. My research on writing and depression led me to stumble onto her diary, which I had heard of and read excerpts of before. But this time was different. I looked at some of these quotes, the raw, undiluted pain that she had taken the time to put on paper, and I felt guilty. Sylvia wrote hundreds of words during her life that she intended to be shared, but not these. These writings were meant for her and her alone, yet now they can be bought for a couple of pounds in numerous bookstores. Her privacy can be exchanged for approximately £15. Is it worth only that?

We’ve been reading diaries since we were young. In history textbooks, they would often include source material like letters, notes or diary entries. Few of us haven’t read the diary of Anne Frank and felt like we were crouched in that small attic with her. If you’ve been to Amsterdam, you may have even visited her museum, and seen her real diary covered in inky scrawl. We have normalised the act of reading a diary to the extent that we don’t even question the morality of it.

But I ask you to stop for a second, and question precisely that. If you have a journal, consider how you would feel if it got published after your death by a family member. Your most private thoughts and feelings opened for the world to devour. We don’t often write letters anymore, but what if your text chain with a close friend was compiled into a novella and sold for £6.99. Your words would be eternal but at a price.

Examples of published diaries

Let’s start by looking at some examples of published diaries, in each case I’ll note whether the individual was involved with the publishing. These examples will form the basis of the advantages and issues with publishing a diary.

1. Anne Frank. As I mentioned, Anne’s diary is considered to be one of the most famous diaries ever published. It records her experience during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, as her family hid in an attic apartment behind her father’s office. Several versions of the diary have been published since the original publication in 1947. Anne passed away in 1945 at a concentration camp, and so her father was the one to publish the diary. It has been translated into over 60 languages over several editions and is the highest-selling diary in history.

2. Sylvia Plath. In 1982, Sylvia’s husband published a heavily abridged version of his late wife’s journals. It contained an exact and complete transcription of the diaries Plath kept during her last twelve years of life. It detailed her struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. The couple had been separated for six months prior to her suicide.

3. Marcus Aurelius. One of the most respected emperors in Roman history, Marcus is known for his philosophical interests. He kept writings of personal consolation and encouragement, a collection that has now become renowned as ‘Meditations’.

4. Frieda Kahlo. A great deal has been written about this vibrant woman, and through her journal of 1944-45, the world gets to see the truth behind the bright colours. It reveals her stormy relationship with her husband, as well as containing personal experiences, thoughts, dreams and poems.

The advantages of using diaries

1. Growth outweighs morality

If you are to look at this with strict rationality, you could say that the good outweighs the bad. The thousands or even millions of readers who enjoy the diary and even learn from it are more important than the one individual who has been exploited. I am not saying that I agree with this, but I am presenting you with that argument.

Anne Frank gave us the insider perspective of Nazi occupation, of a young girl growing up during this turbulent time. It gave the atrocities a personal face and voice, to make them feel closer and harder to separate yourself from. Sylvia Plath teaches us about depression, helping people to understand just how difficult it is and know what depression feels like. In every published diary, we are given something through that personal account.

2. The undiluted truth

When someone writes a memoir or autobiography, it must always be taken with a grain of salt. They are writing for an audience, and whenever we write for an audience, we are slightly less authentic, even if we don’t intend to be. But writing a diary is usually intended for yourself as the recipient, and so it easier to be honest.

When I am overcome with my mental illness, I will write down my thoughts in a notebook. These scribblings are the most honest that I have ever been. They detail my darkest moments and scariest thoughts. It is a relief to release them, and they contain things that I have never told another. I write articles about mental illness and my own experience, but never to the extent of that notebook.

3. Personal experiences within history

Learning about history should never just be about facts and numbers. We can know how many people died in the Nazi occupation or another atrocity, but it will never reach us in the same way that a personal account will. This is vital, as it ensures that history remains relevant, that we learn from it. If history is forgotten, so are the lessons that came from that event. Diaries allow us to understand and learn from the past, discover things that we didn’t even know about.

4. To be eternal

Anne Frank explicitly stated that she hoped for her diary to be published, as she had heard that the Dutch government would be searching for documents, diaries and letters written during this time of Nazi occupation. Her father quite correctly stated that she would be thrilled by the fame of her diary. She was unable to fulfil her dream of becoming a writer during her lifetime, but her work lives on.

Many cases could be like Anne’s, where the individual gets the fame or dream they never achieved in their lifetime. Their words are eternal, by publishing a diary, we are acknowledging the beauty of it and sharing it with the world. One could argue that writers who consistently publish personal works are unlikely to have an issue with it. But then we are assuming consent, something that should never be done.

The issue with publishing diaries

1. Profiting off someone else’s work

When a writer publishes their work, they (hopefully) earn for it. But that can’t be the case when someone is deceased. In most cases, the family member that will earn their royalties is the one to publish the work. This does lead you to question their motive in publishing such a personal piece. It’s easy to share private thoughts when they’re not your own. I take issue with the fact that someone can earn for the publishing of another’s diary without any consent. I’d be curious at how many diaries were published posthumously if the rule was that all royalties went to a specific charity and couldn’t be collected by the spouse or family member.

For example, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were separated at the time she died, yet he chose to publish her personal journal years later.

2. Invading their privacy

This is the most obvious issue present. If someone writes a diary, it is pretty clear that their intention is for no one to read it. They’re not writing a book or letter to someone else, they are writing to themselves. We have woken up in a world that lacks privacy, our data is consistently used, and renowned people have little left to themselves. Do we really feel that it is okay to take this a step further and share their musings? They didn’t want anyone else to read this or they would’ve done it themselves. To publish a diary posthumously on the assumption that they wouldn’t mind is to publish without consent. I question whether it should be legal without written instructions in their will.

Consider how you would feel if your partner read through your messages, or a family member rifled through your diary. That’s a breach of trust. Why does that change if it is an audience of thousands rather than someone close to you. Ask yourself if you would want your private thoughts shared in this manner, dissected and questioned.

3. Ruining their image

In a diary, you may write things that you later come to regret. We change our minds so often that a diary is only a snapshot of a specific moment. Anne Frank wrote negatively about her mother, as they had a problematic relationship, and now these moments of anger, the ones that lead you to vent in a diary, have been read by millions. This is how they will consider her mother and Anne for discussing her as such. Her sexual thoughts were also initially removed and then included in a later edition, which could taint how people viewed this young girl.

We have all done things that we are not proud of, and nowhere is that more accurate than the words we hastily write or say in anger or sadness. But should these words then be eternalised before we had a chance to rewrite our own story?

4. Authenticity

As mentioned, Anne’s sexual descriptions were initially removed from the diary, as the publisher feared that it would not be well received. But this led the first edition of the diary to be an inaccurate portrayal of this complicated teenager. Such thoughts and urges are so normal as an adolescent, but young people reading it would not have that confirmed for themselves.

Humans are egoistic in nature. We view the world as we see it, and struggle to see it through another's point of view. So in a diary we naturally focus on our narration. What we think happened and how it affected us. This shouldn’t be taken as truth or history, as it is steeped in bias. We use diaries for a glimpse into the past considering them honest, but is honest the same as truthful? Diaries may not be the best source of information as they are rarely written with that intention.

A diary will never paint a complete picture, as it is the world through one lens. But moreover, a published diary will only paint the picture the one publishing it wants the world to see. They could remove sections that don’t flatter them, or that contradict the tale they want to tell. Without the writer present, we can never believe the tale we’re being sold.



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