Second Selves

Vincent Van Gogh, Oleanders, 1888. Public domain.


Jill Price has remembered every day of her life since she was fourteen years old. “Starting on February 5, 1980, I remember everything,” she said in an interview. “That was a Tuesday.” She doesn’t know what was so special about that Tuesday—seemingly nothing—but she knows it was a Tuesday. This is a common ability, or symptom, you might say, among people with the very rare condition of hyperthymesia—excessive remembering—also known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. All sixty or so documented cases have a particular, visual way of organizing time in their minds, so their recall for dates is near perfect. If you throw them any date from their conscious lifetimes (it has to be a day they lived through— hyperthymesiacs are not better than average at history), they can tell you what day of the week it was and any major events that took place in the world; they can also tell you what they did that day, and in some cases what they were wearing, what they ate, what the weather was like, or what was on TV. One woman with HSAM, Markie Pasternak, describes her memory of the calendar as something like a Candy Land board, a winding path of colored squares (June is green, August yellow); when she “zooms in” on a month, each week is like a seven-piece pie chart. Price sees individual years as circles, like clock faces, with December at the top and June at the bottom, the months arranged around the circle counterclockwise. All these years are mapped out on a timeline that reads from right to left, starting at 1900 and continuing until 1970, when the timeline takes a right-angle turn straight down, like the negative part of the y axis. Why 1970? Perhaps because Price was born in 1965, and age five or six is usually when our “childhood amnesia” wears off. Then we begin to remember our lives from our own perspective, as a more or less continuousexperience that somehow belongs to us. Nobody knows why we have so few memories from our earliest years—whether it’s because our brains don’t yet have the capacity to store long-term memories, or because “our forgetting is in overdrive,” as Price writes in her memoir, The Woman Who Can’t Forget.

Price was the first known case of HSAM. In June of 2000, feeling “horribly alone” in her crowded mind, she did an online search for “memory.” In a stroke of improbable luck, the first result was for a memory researcher, James McGaugh, who was based at the University of California, Irvine, an hour away from her home in Los Angeles. On June 8, she sent him an email describing her unusual memory, and asking for help: “Whenever I see a date flash on the television I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was and what I was doing. It is nonstop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting.” McGaugh responded almost immediately, wanting to meet her. Her first visit to his office was on Saturday, June 24. He tested her recall with a book called The 20th Century Day by Day, asking her what happened on a series of dates. The first date he gave her was November 5, 1979. She said it was a Monday, and that she didn’t know of any significant events on that day, but that the previous day was the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis. McGaugh responded that it happened on the fifth, but she was “so adamant” he checked another source, and found that Price was right— the book was incorrect. The same thing happened when Diane Sawyer interviewed Price on 20/20. Sawyer, with an almanac on her lap, asked Price when Princess Grace died. “September 14, 1982,” Price responded. “That was the first day I started twelfth grade.” Sawyer flipped the pages and corrected her: “September 10, 1982.” Price says, defiantly, the book might not be right. There’s a tense moment, and then a voice shouts from backstage: “The book is wrong.”

McGaugh and his research team also asked Price to recollect events from her own life. One day, “with no warning,” they asked her to write out what she had done on every Easter since 1980. Within ten minutes, she had produced a list of entries, which they included in the paper they published about Price, or “AJ,” as they called her in the case notes, in 2006. The entries look like this:

April 6, 1980  9th Grade, Easter vacation ends

April 19, 1981  10th Grade, new boyfriend, H

April 11, 1982  11th Grade, grandparents visiting for Passover

April 3, 1983  12th Grade, just had second nose reconstruction

It continues through 2003. The team was amazed, in part because the date that Easter Sunday falls on in any given year varies so much, and in part because Price is Jewish. McGaugh’s team was able to verify the content of the entries because Price has kept detailed journals since 1976. She’s protective of the journals; she doesn’t like anyone to read them and she doesn’t like to read them herself. But she showed them to the researchers, and she showed them to Barnaby Peel, the director of a 2012 documentary about hyperthymesia. The journal has “everything, everything, everything, everybody, everything,” she tells Peel in the film. It’s written in tiny print on calendar-grid pages held together with paper clips. “I don’t like lined paper,” she says—it feels too constricting. He asks her how often she rereads it, and she says, “I don’t reread any of it … I don’t need to, I don’t want to.” She’s defensive on this point because in 2009 the professor and science writer Gary Marcus wrote an article about her in Wired that she hated. In it he claimed that her incredible memory was really a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the object of obsession her own life: “Why is her memory of her own history so extraordinary? The answer has nothing to do with memory and everything to do with personality. Price remembers so much about herself because she thinks about herself—and her past—almost constantly.” He noted that “one simple method” of improving one’s memory is keeping a journal. The implication, for Price, was that she was using her journals as a crib sheet, a study aid to memorize her days. “I don’t write this to remember,” she says to Peel. “I write it so I don’t go crazy.”

Hyperthymesiacs are prone to this kind of externalization, keeping some kind of ship’s log to document their memories. Aurelien Hayman, a Welsh student who was twenty at the time he was featured in Peel’s documentary, covered the walls of his bedroom with snapshots. Hayman thinks of photos as “the closest you can get to making a memory an object.” A picture is “a concrete memory”—a kind of verification that persists into the present and exists outside the head. Hayman’s memories, like those of others with HSAM, are already highly visual, anautomatic memory palace. “It’s like I could get a diary for 2009 and write it if I wanted to, retrospectively,” he says—he can see the “imaginary pen writing in events in this sort of mental calendar.” Bob Petrella, a stand-up comedian and TV producer, has a scrapbook-like album he calls by the recursive acronym B.O.B., “the Book of Bob.” He didn’t write it in real time, like a diary, but re-created it from memory in 1999. It includes highlights from his life and a ranking of years from best to worst; his favorite year was 1983, and then 1985 and 2004 are tied. Petrella clearly takes joy in the book and in his memories, unlike Price, who, by the time she was in her thirties, when she wrote to McGaugh, was deeply depressed and overwhelmed by her memories—by their volume, their hyperspecificity, their irrepressible immersiveness. Everyone has cues that will trigger certain memories, but for Price the cues are constant and the memories inescapable. “It’s as though I have all of my prior selves still inside me,” she writes in her memoir. If anything reminds her of a bad day, essentially she has to live the day again. She feels she is in those moments—living both the past and present, like a “split screen”—and the pain still hurts. She often falls into a pattern that she calls “Y diagramming,” going back over her choices and all of their consequences: “If I hadn’t done this, then that wouldn’t have happened … It has instilled in me an acute, persistent regret.” It’s the line of causation that haunts her—she can see all the causes going back for forty years so clearly. Hyperthymesiacs can seem to get lost in the past; the remembering takes so much time. (Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” is a fictional hyperthymesiac: “He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his half-dreams. Two or three times he had reconstructed a whole day; he never hesitated, but each reconstruction had required a whole day.”)

There have been periods when Price stopped journaling for a while, but eventually “the swirl” in her head, the cascade of days, would get out of control and she would realize she “had to go back and get all of that time down.” She’d then reconstruct the missing time day by day after the fact—she remembered the details whether or not she had written them down. It happens, the remembering, with no conscious effort. The journal is “a physical and emotional reassurance that the event really happened,” she writes. “I can’t accept living with just the memory. It has to be tangible—something I can hold on to physically, something I can handle.” By “handle,” I think she means both that she can touch it and that, because she can touch it, she can process and accept it; she can cope with the overpowering reality of reality. Most of us can cope with it, insofar as we can cope with it, because the reality passes so quickly and then begins to fade. (I think of Rilke, the end of “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man”: “Oh quickly disappearing photograph / in my more slowly disappearing hand.”) McGaugh’s team believes that Price’s condition is not an ability—a skill one can develop, like the people who memorize digits of pi or the order of cards in a deck—so much as a disability. Her brain is very bad at forgetting—Price claims she has never misplaced anything, never once lost her wallet or her keys—but forgetting helps us live. Life, experienced once, in its excruciating fullness, is enough. As Ernest Becker writes in The Denial of Death, “full humanness means full fear and trembling.” “Life itself is the insurmountable problem.”

In her memoir, Price writes about “the memory bump,” the spike in autobiographical memories that most people have between the ages of ten and thirty, a time that includes lots of novel experiences and during which people are actively forming their sense of themselves. She cites a study described in Psychology Today: “If you ask college students to tell you their most important memories, and then surprise them six months later by asking again, they will repeat stories at a rate of just 12 percent … Even when asked specifically, ‘What is your first memory?’ subjects will rarely mention the same one twice.” So even though we have more memories during this period, or perhaps because we have more memories, the importance we assign to our memories is in flux. Our personalities, our selves, are likewise in flux; we choose the memories that serve our going narrative at the time. These narratives seem to be culture-bound; that is, they follow templates we absorb from the culture. Americans, according to the psychologist Dan McAdams, are drawn to redemption narratives, which frame the star as a hero, and to their counterpart—the “contamination narrative,” the idea that a certain event ruined everything afterward. Price thinks her memory changed irrevocably when she was eight years old and her father moved the family from New York City, where she’d had an idyllically happy childhood, to California for a job. But her highly specific memory didn’t really feel excessive, didn’t come to be a burden, until her twenties, when her life became unstable. Her mother almost died during surgery; her grandparents fell ill and died; her parents started fighting and eventually separated. So much change and strife, recalled in all its particulars, was too much for Price. She did not have the luxury of “choosing” to forget what she couldn’t accept.

There’s something strange about HSAM I never see mentioned. Price’s father was an entertainment agent—he worked for the man who discovered Jim Henson, and she used to go with him to tapings of The Ed Sullivan Show, before they moved to California. Her mother was a dancer in a troupe that appeared on Broadway and TV in the forties and fifties. Price’s first job was in TV, and she says she’s “a TV fanatic.” (In addition to her journals, she collects all kinds of objects and data from her life, and indexes the data: “In 1982 I started to make tapes of songs off the radio that I labeled meticulously by season and year, and I kept that up until 2003. I still have all of those tapes. In late 1988, I started making videos of TV shows, and I have a collection of close to a thousand of them. I also started an entertainment log in August 1989 in which I wrote down the name of every record, tape, CD, video, DVD, and 45 that I own.” If memory is an index, Price also has an index to the index.) When Barnaby Peel quizzes Aurelien Hayman about what happened on June 17, 2008, one of the things Haymen mentions (after clicking his tongue while thinking, a sound like a Rolodex, or the numbers turning over on an old-fashioned flip clock) is that Joan Rivers was thrown off a talk show for swearing. He can call up the dates that specific episodes of Big Brother aired—but bristles at any suggestion it means he’s “obsessed” with the show. He says it means nothing to him. Bob Petrella worked in TV. The actress Marilu Henner is another of the few known people with HSAM. She describes her memory of a year as something like “selected scenes on a DVD.” “It’s like time travel,” she says on a CBS clip. “I’m back looking through my eyes.” In a 60 Minutes segment from 2010, an interviewer asks her about a random episode of Taxi filmed more than thirty years earlier, in 1978. (The show ran for five seasons, 114 episodes.) She instantly remembers the dress she was wearing and one of Tony Danza’s lines.

Why are so many of the well-known examples of hyperthymesia involved somehow with TV? Is it because TV helped them discover one another? Or because people who watch a lot of TV were more likely to hear about Jill Price and Marilu Henner and realize they weren’t alone? I thought so at first, but now I wonder if HSAM is actually a post-TV condition, a disease of modernity—if it is a disease. (Henner is a happy person—maybe it helps that she’s rich and famous—but most people with hyperthymesia have difficult lives. For Alexandra Wolff, it feels as if “there are no fresh days, no clean slates without association.” Another person with HSAM, Bill Brown, told an NPR reporter that he’d been in touch with most of the known cases, and that all of them had struggled with depression and very few—only two—had maintained long marriages.) In his book The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are, the historian David M. Henkin discusses the invention of the week. Unlike years (defined as the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun) and months (which are based on the cycles of the moon), weeks are wholly man-made. The seven-day week has been around for centuries, but according to Henkin, television schedules helped solidify weeks as the stranglehold unit of our lives: “Saturday afternoon movies, weekly sitcom serials, and colossal cultural institutions such as Monday Night Football played a far greater role in structuring the American week than Wednesday theater matinees a century earlier, because they reached so many more people and faced so little competition.” Maybe TV, as trains did before it, fundamentally altered how we think about time.

Jill Price has said that when she dies, she wants her journals, those external memories, to be buried with her body or “blown up in the desert,” a literally Kafkaesque request. It’s a refusal of the hope of “life” after death. If someone else could read her journals, Price’s days might be lived through yet again—a prospect she must find gruesome and also unnecessary. (Freud reportedly once said, after fainting, “How sweet it must be to die.”) A journal is an effigy of the self, or else is the self, the self that exists because we create it. I am no longer sure, for the record, what people mean when they say that the self is illusory. Isn’t it here? Here where I sit, and in what I am writing? Isn’t it just my singular memory? Price understands this. The self dies with the self.


I’m interested in the journals of writers (I suppose anyone who writes journals is a writer) as sites of self-loathing, of disappointment and failure. In his preface to A Writer’s Diary, the volume of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s diaries that he edited, Leonard Woolf remarks that, even taken in full, “diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait,” because “one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood—irritation or misery, say—and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite.” Max Brod writes something similar in his postscript to Kafka’s diaries, which he published against his friend’s wish that they be “burned unread”: “One must in general take into consideration the false impression that every diary unintentionally makes. When you keep a diary, you usually put down only what is oppressive or irritating. By being put down on paper painful impressions are got rid of.” We can use as a kind of confessional, a place to expurgate our worst thoughts—so we don’t “go crazy.” Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, in his preface to Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947–1963, identifies the two primary moods of his mother’s notebooks as “pain and ambition.” He writes of wanting to argue with her as he read them, to shout, “Don’t do it,” the way Sontag had seen the audience at a performance in Greece shout out at Medea. These editors were close to the authors, and must have felt their own impressions of the authors as people were more correct, more complete, than the version preserved in the diaries. But I’m not sure that follows. Aren’t the grim, unflattering things you only share with your diary in a way your truer self? The self you are alone, in what Sontag calls “the ecstasy of aloneness”? Yet she also writes, “I know I’m not myself with people … But am I myself alone? That seems unlikely too.” If there is no one self, you can never be yourself, only one of yourselves.

Sontag was prone to making lists of resolutions, lists of qualities she hated, lists of books to read and reread and of art and films to see—lists as a method of betterment. The very first entry in her notebook from 1947 is a list of beliefs, which begins:

I believe:

That there is no personal god or life after death
That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e. Honesty
That the only difference between human beings is intelligence

She was fourteen years old—and already conceived of writing as commitment to belief. In 1948 she writes: “It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence—(There are too few of them anyway!) Let me note all the sickening waste of today, that I shall not be easy with myself and compromise my tomorrows.” This is writing as a way of making truth more true, if not creating truth out of nothing. Her notebooks, she writes, coincide with her “real awakening to life”: “This has been a necessity for me for the last four years: to document + structure my experiences … to be fully conscious at every moment which means feeling the past to be as real as the present.” The journals are a sort of supermemory, a more reliable and permanent record of experience, and of consciousness itself, which can’t quite be captured outside writing, with a photo album, say—one could only guess at the moods and arrangements behind the pictures. Some writers keep a notebook as asidecar, a paratext, while writing another book, to capture ideas and excess material and feelings aboutthe process. A diary, then, is the footnotes to the project of our lives, to the self as a project.

Ten years later, in 1957, Sontag writes this (unconscious?) revision to her list:

What do I believe? In the private life

In holding up culture

In music, Shakespeare, old buildings

She adds, this time, a list of things she enjoys (music, again; being in love; sleeping) and a list of her faults:

Never on time

Lying, talking too much Laziness

No volition for refusal

This distaste for talking, her own speech, comes up again and again: “The leakage of talk. My mind is dribbling out through my mouth.” “I am sick of having opinions, I am sick of talking.” “Important to become less interesting. To talk less, repeat more, save thinking for writing.” Conversation competes with writing. In 1954 and 1955, the middle years of her marriage to Philip Rieff, the entries are scant. “Speech is so much easier + more copious compared to the labor of keeping a journal,” she notes. She’s not writing much because she’s not alone—there is somewhere else for the language to go. (I remember, during the early pandemic, when we saw fewer people, I felt overburdened by language; all these things I would say, they were trapped in my mind. And writing them down made me feel less lonely, even if I didn’t think anyone would read what I’d written.)

But Sontag doesn’t value what’s easy, and would rather put the language into writing. “From now on I’m going to write every bloody thing that comes into my head … I don’t care if it’s lousy. The only way to learn how to write is to write.” In 1957, when she separates from Rieff, the notebooks fill up again—there’s no one else to observe her. Being self-conscious, she writes, is “treating one’s self as an other.” (That’s one of those thoughts I had thought of as mine.) In an entry labeled “On Keeping a Journal,” she writes, “I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood … It does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.” The journal forms a parallel universe, a better reality. I am struck by Sontag’s ambition not just for fame and success but for real moral excellence. She wants to be a person who deserves success. She really wants to change.

In 1960, she writes a number of entries on a trait she calls “X,” or “X-iness,” the need to be liked, to please and impress other people, which she sees as very American, and which encourages her “tendency to be indiscreet,” to gossip and name-drop (“How many times have I told people that Pearl Kazin was a major girlfriend of Dylan Thomas? That Norman Mailer has orgies?”). X is why she’s a“habitual liar”—“lies are what I think the other person wants to hear.” “All the things I despise in myself are X: being a moral coward … being phony, being passive.” “People who have pride don’t awaken the X in us,” she writes; pride is “the secret weapon,” the “X-cide.” She hasn’t solved this problem in herself by 1961; she’s still telling herself “to smile less, talk less” … “not to make fun of people, be catty.” “Don’t smile so much, sit up straight, bathe every day, and above all Don’t Say It, all those sentences that come ready-to-say on the tickertape at the back of my tongue.” It’s hard to imagine, despite all this evidence, that Sontag was ever a suck-up or a people pleaser, someone who smiled too much or too ingratiatingly. I have watched many times, though it makes me squirm, a clip of her speaking to Christopher Lydon, in 1992, with utter and withering contempt. Her only smiles are pitying. She dismisses all his questions as unserious. We can see she’s achieved it, fame of course but also pride, the vanquishing of X.

Gide also made lists in his journals, lists of commitments and theories of living (“One ought never to buy anything except with love” … “Take upon oneself as much humanity as possible. There is the correct formula”) and “rules of conduct.” From an entry in 1890:

Pay no attention to appearing. Being is alone important.

And do not long, through vanity, for a too hasty manifestation of one’s essence.

Whence: do not seek to be through the vain desire to appear; but rather because it is fitting to be so.

He frequently chided himself: “I must stop puffing up my pride (in this notebook) just for the sake of doing as Stendhal did.” When Sontag read Gide’s journals, she identified so deeply with his thinking that she wrote, “I am not only reading this book, but creating it myself”: “Gide and I have attained such perfect intellectual communion … Thus I do not think: ‘How marvelously lucid this is!’—but: ‘Stop! I cannot think this fast!’ ” Delightfully, Woolf felt the same, reading his journals in 1934: “Full of startling recollection— things I could have said myself.” (When I mentioned this coincidence to my husband, John, he looked at me wide-eyed—“That’s how I’ve always felt.”)“Recollection” is an odd word, here— did she mean recognition? It suggests she remembers Gide’s thoughts, experiences Gide’s thoughts as memories, the way she does when rereading her own writing. (“To freshen my memory of the war, I read some old diaries.”)

Woolf, like Sontag, would periodically go through and annotate her old journals after the fact, adding comments and asides and corrections of a sort. In late October of 1931, she notes the updated sales figures for The Waves (“It has sold about 6,500 today … but will stop now, I suppose”) in the margin of an entry dated January 26, 1930, where she’d guessed “[it] won’t sell more than 2,000 copies.” To an entry about Arnold Bennett she adds: “Soon after this A.B. went to France, drank a glass of water and died of typhoid.” In an entry dated April 27, 1925, Woolf notes that The Common Reader has been out five days and “so far I have not heard a word about it, private or public; it is as if one tossed a stone into a pond and the waters closed without a ripple.” But she claims she is “perfectly content” with this silence; she cares less than she has ever cared. (I love Woolf’s continual insistence that she’s indifferent to her fame and her work’s reception. In response to a “sneering review” two months later, she assures herself, “So from this I prognosticate a good deal of criticism on the ground that I’m obscure and odd; and some enthusiasm; and a slow sale, and an increased reputation. Oh yes, my reputation increases.” Once she knew she had fame she found it “vulgar and a nuisance.” I love the vanity of writers, and of famous dead writers especially.) In that same April entry, she digresses: “My present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness: and I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness etc.” In the margin, she has added, at some point, “Second selves is what I mean.”

Who is Woolf lying to, if she is lying, in these diaries? Herself, a little bit, the second self that is the diary, and the future Virginia, who might as well be another person entirely. In 1919, she writes, “I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better.” Later that year: “What a bore I’m becoming! Yes, even old Virginia will skip a good deal of this.” At the age of thirty-eight, she writes:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it—suited the comfortable bright hour after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age.

It seems we can’t help but imagine an audience when we write. Because a journal makes the self external, the self counts as an audience. But I also think Woolf and Sontag, in saving their journals, just must have imagined that others might read them as well. They must have, because they loved reading writers’ diaries. Sontag read Kafka’s diaries. Kafka read Goethe’s: “Distance already holds this life firm in tranquility, these diaries set fire to it. The clarity of all the events makes it mysterious.” (The next day he writes, “How do I excuse yesterday’s remark about Goethe [which is almost as untrue as the feeling it describes, for the true feeling was driven away by my sister]? In no way.” For Kafka, contra Sontag, writing the thing often made it less true, reduced the verity of pure thought to lies. “Nothing in the world is further removed from an experience … than its description.” The words spoil reality.) Plath read Woolf’s: “Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels Saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less!—and I hardly can believe that the big ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock and sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her somehow.” So did Eudora Welty, who quotes or, rather, misquotes from Woolf’s diary in her Paris Review interview: “Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her. Remember— ‘I’m not very far along, but I think I have my statues against the sky’? Isn’t that beautiful?” Woolf’s exact quote is: “It is bound to be very imperfect. But I think it possible that I have got my statues against the sky.” (This makes me think of Czapski: “There’s nothing easier than to quote a text precisely … It’s far more difficult to assimilate a quotation to the point where it becomes yours and becomes part of you.”)

A journal—any writing—is a chance at immortality, or if not eternal life, at least a little more life, a little more after death. Rieff notes that his mother died “without leaving any instructions as to what to do with either her papers or her uncollected or unfinished writing.” It makes sense because she didn’t really believe she would die, as he describes in his own memoir of Sontag’s terminal cancer. He contrasts her death to Simone de Beauvoir’s mother’s death, which she called “a very easy death”—with no internet, and differing medical ethics at the time, Beauvoir’s mother died in ignorance of the severity of her illness. Sontag had no such luck, and though she knew intellectually how slim her odds of survival were, she couldn’t help but hold out hope, even inside or beside her despair, and continued to make lists and notes and plans for travel and projects, “fighting to the end for another shard of the future.” She was willing “to undergo any amount of suffering,” according to Rieff, for a chance at more life, this despite her depression: she “wanted to live, unhappy, for as long as she possibly could.” Woolf, although she killed herself, seemed also to believe she might not die—in 1926 she writes, “But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them?” If! Ernest Becker would say no one really does or can believe it: “Our organism is ready to fill the world all alone … This narcissism is what keeps men marching into point-blank fire in wars: at heart one doesn’t feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him.”

Woolf wanted her diary “to be so elastic that it will embrace anything”—as she had said the previous year of Byron’s Don Juan, that the poem had an elastic shape that could hold any thought that came into his head, or as she said of the new form of novel she’d begun in 1920, which became Mrs. Dalloway, a form with “looseness and lightness” that could “enclose everything, everything.” Like Jill Price’s journals, the journals holding “everything, everything, everything, everybody, everything.” A comprehensive diary exposes the near infinity of detail in a life, even a life as short as Plath’s—the index to Plath’s unabridged journals is almost thirty pages long and contains entries for apartheid, Louis Armstrong, the Aztecs, Brigitte Bardot, bees, Sid Caesar, Alexander Calder, Un Chien Andalou, circumcision, Marie Curie, demonic possession, the Detroit Tigers, Amelia Earhart, the Eiffel Tower, Paul Gauguin, Adolf Hitler, need I go on? Perhaps a life actually is infinite, like the points between zero and one on a number line. You could always make the journal longer, write in a finer degree of detail, add in more sense and observation, that is, if you had the time.

Woolf also wanted her published books to be more like the diaries. “Suppose one can keep the quality of a sketch in a finished and composed work? That is my endeavor.” This is part of the beauty of journals—they remain forever sketchy, with the un-worked-over magic of first drafts. “It strikes me that in this book I practice writing; do my scales.” This in 1924: “And old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V., everything— more than I can, I think.” Here is a bit of the tragedy Welty referred to. By 1940 life was very difficult for Woolf, and not only because of the war, though the war is heavy too, inescapable as atmosphere: “One ceases to think about it— that’s all. Goes on discussing the new room, new chair, new books. What else can a gnat on a blade of grass do?” Her friends’ deaths have been hard: “There seems to be some sort of reproach to me … I go on; and they cease. Why?”

“It’s life lessened”—less life overall; their deaths seem to sap life from her. After Roger Fry’s funeral, she writes: “A fear then came to me, of death. Of course I shall lie there too before that gate and slide in; and it frightened me.” (How like Berryman’s lines: “Suddenly, unlike Bach, // & horribly, unlike Bach, it occurred to me / that one night, instead of warm pajamas, / I’d take off all my clothes /& cross the damp cold lawn & down the bluff / into the terrible water & walk forever / under it out toward the island.”) Seeing more, knowing more, having more to remember—it all has a cost, a weight.

Toward the end of her life, Woolf seemed to begin to view death as release from the fear of death. She writes more and more of death. On Sunday, June 9, 1940: “I don’t want to go to bed at midday: this refers to the garage.” (“The garage” is where Leonard had stashed away petrol, for use in the case that Hitler should win.) “It struck me that one curious feeling is, that the writing ‘I’ has vanished. No audience. No echo. That’s part of one’s death … this disparition of an echo.” On June 22: “If this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. … Oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end?” The war, she feels, “has taken away the outer wall of security”; “no echo comes back”; “I mean, there is no ‘autumn,’ no winter. We pour to the edge of a precipice and then? I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.” (There wasn’t, for her.) On July 24: “I make these notes, but am tired of notes, tired of Gide.” On September 16: “Mabel [the cook] stumped off … ‘I hope we shall meet again,’ I said. She said ‘Oh no doubt’ thinking I referred to death.” On October 2: “Why try again to make the familiar catalogue, from which something escapes. Should I think of death?” She tries to imagine “how one’s killed by a bomb”:

I’ve got it fairly vivid—the sensation: but can’t see anything but suffocating nonentity following after … It—I mean death; no, the scrunching and scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye and brain: the process of putting out the light—painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so. Then a swoon; a drain; two or three gulps attempting consciousness—and then dot dot dot.

In her very last entry, written on March 8, 1941, she seems almost happy. She’s been to hear Leonard give a speech in Brighton. “Like a foreign town: the first spring day. Women sitting on seats. A pretty hat in a teashop—how fashion revives the eye!” She recommits to Henry James’s command to “observe perpetually.” Like Sontag she imagines a future, a prescription for old Virginia: “Suppose I bought a ticket at the Museum; biked in daily and read history … Occupation is essential.” “And now,” she concludes, “with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”


A friend of mine told me her journals are not retrospective, a record of time past—instead, they look forward, a record of plans and ideas and projections, sources of excitement and hope. I once wrote in a notebook, “I hate hope, and yet …” (And yet what—I need it? I don’t believe in free will, but I can’t help behaving as though I have it. In that sense, free will is automatic. It springs eternal.) I once wrote in a notebook, “Underlining books makes me want to return to them and reminds me of hiding ‘treasure’ (coins or candy) in my room as a kid, to forget and find later.” I think I use notebooks for the same reason, as a way of hiding “treasure” for myself, for old E. I record events sometimes, date the entries sometimes—on September 25, 2021, I wrote: “I remember, the night before John’s father died, they said, He’s doing a little better. He ate all his peaches.” On September 15, 2021, I wrote: “I’m starting to remember the bleakness of 2020 fondly—well, not the bleakness exactly, but the moments of non-bleakness—making a lot of banana bread. Huddling around a kerosene camp heater on Mike’s balcony. Xmas.”  To be more exact, I recorded the memories, not the events. (Woolf, in 1933: “It’s a queer thing that I write a date. Perhaps in this disoriented life one thinks, if I can say what day it is, then … Three dots to signify I don’t know what I mean.”)

But mostly they’re undated, mostly they are thoughts out of nowhere. In 2021, according to my notebooks, I thought a lot about Sartre’s bad faith, or mauvaise foi—the moments when we recognize the anguish of our freedom, which he called “negative ecstasy.” Kierkegaard called it “the dizziness of freedom,” those glimpses of the way out of the trap. Why do we always look away and never take that path out? I wrote “INERTIA & UNCERTAINTY” in all caps at the top of a page. I wrote “THIS CONNECTION BETWEEN JOURNALS & MEMORY.” I put asterisks next to the interesting thoughts, the thoughts that wanted more thinking, a map to the treasure. Proof that thoughts were had. The disconnected thoughts are always me, are they not? Proof of continuity? “In the diary you find proof,” Kafka writes, “that this right hand moved then as it does today.” We need proof of our lives, and we need it while we live.

I wrote in August, as shorthand, “Memory—New Orleans.” I know what I meant by this. WhenI was nineteen years old, I went to Mardi Gras with my brother, my roommate, and several other college friends and got as drunk as I’ve ever been, so insensibly drunk that I famously spiked a frozen hurricane, which, according to most recipes, already has four ounces of rum, with more rum from a flask, and blacked out standing up, such that I recall coming to in the arms of a stranger wearing skull beads. The beads were little skulls, memento mori. Later I looked so green in the very long line for the bathroom at Café du Monde that they let me skip to the front. I don’t remember getting back to the hotel that night. The next day, my roommate, who was sharing a bed with me, told me that I’d puked on the sheets, so she’d yanked them off the bed and thrown them into the bathtub, and when she’d tried to pull the little decorative coverlet over us for warmth, I had told her, “They don’t wash those.” I swear this was the first time I ever heard that hotels don’t wash the coverlets—when my friend told me I had told her so. My drunken mind had knowledge I didn’t. When I told John this story, he didn’t seem surprised. I guess when you’re so drunk you aren’t even there, you really are someone different. (Dot dot dot.)


Elisa Gabbert is the author of six collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently Normal Distance and The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays. She writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared recently in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and The Believer. This essay is adapted from Any Person is the Other Self, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in June.

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