Your Journals: Leave Them Behind or Destroy Them?
How television's 'Victoria' made me rethink my decision to shred my journals
Queen Victoria’s secrets make for some good TV. We can thank her journals for that.
Daisy Goodwin, author of the novel Victoria and creator of PBS’s Masterpiece series of the same name, discovered those journals while in college.
As a 19-year-old at the University of Cambridge, she was less than thrilled when a professor assigned an essay on Queen Victoria. “I thought of her as a sad-faced old bag in a bonnet,” Goodwin quips in a new promotional video for the second season of Victoria.
Then Goodwin took a look at the queen’s journals and was immediately hooked by an entry dated Nov. 3, 1839, in which the 20-year-old queen described dashing in from the rain with “her angel,” her newly betrothed. “Victoria wrote that Albert was ‘in white cashmere britches, with nothing on underneath,’” Goodwin says in the video. “This was a girl after my own heart.”
As I watched her talk about whooping with delight in the library at this discovery, I realized there would never be a TV series about me. A month ago, I shredded the pages of the five journals I had kept in my 30s, 40s and 50s.
Different Pen Strokes for Different Folks
Since I destroyed my journals, I’ve been asking friends, friends of friends and strangers two questions: Do you keep a journal? If so, what do you write about?
I’ve talked to people who keep dream journals, some who list goals and others who track the growth of their children or grandchildren, recording precious anecdotes.
One woman in San Francisco has abandoned keeping a traditional journal. “In the past, when I’d go through my old journals, they were really boring,” she said. “I used to pull out the interesting tidbits to read — and now I just write the tidbits.” At the beginning of 2017, she started what she calls a "synchronicity journal" in which she records “interesting runs of synchronicity with blue birds, intense experiences with strangers, psychic moments or interesting dreams.”
Another woman used to keep a journal that included a list of everything she wanted to accomplish, including, ”Own my own home, learn to make a perfect roast chicken, become an executive producer.” As she checked off each goal, she would write about her successes. Just thinking about that has inspired her to start writing again, she told me.
Another woman I spoke to has her own version of a "health journal." She keeps an index card noting the date and how much she weighs. “I only journal long enough to recognize a loss,” she says. “The minute that changes — end of story.” Her mother kept a more traditional journal. Some 35 years ago, the woman I spoke with discovered a journal about the first six months of her brothers’ life. “My perception of my mother was changed that day,” she says.
Journals as Self-Help Tools
A group of women in suburban St. Louis, friends since junior high, decided to use journals to help them mark a milestone birthday. “We had a get-together and I gave everybody journals titled ‘My Year at 50,’” says a member of the group. “We all kept them that year, and it helped us have a smooth transition.”
In The Princess Diarist, published last year, Carrie Fisher revealed the details of her long-ago affair with Harrison Ford on the set of the first Star Wars movie. Maybe that was just for fun, or maybe telling a long-held secret was therapeutic. The practice of keeping a journal does have proven benefits.
A study published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology included the results of an experiment on keeping journals. In the study, which I learned about in a recent CNN story about how to become more optimistic, 192 undergraduate students were divided into three groups. “One group,” CNN reported, “wrote about what they were grateful for over the past week, another wrote about five hassles that occurred in the week and the third group wrote about events or circumstances that affected them in the past week.” Those writing what they were grateful for “reported higher satisfaction … and were more optimistic” than those in the other two groups.
Research by psychologists James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin and Joshua Smyth of Syracuse University (discussed in the American Psychological Association article “Writing to Heal”) shows that “expressive writing” may offer physical benefits to people battling terminal or life-threatening diseases.
The Decision to Shred
But these studies say nothing about whether to shred your journals. So why did I?
For the most part, the books had served as witnesses as I redefined myself after a divorce. (Sex! Drugs — but not many! Rock and roll!) I used them to bolster my confidence when things went bad at work. I mourned in them when a man I loved was killed in a car accident. I struggled in them when it was my turn to be an empty nester.
When I moved across the country to California almost seven years ago, a time when I was eliminating two-thirds of my possessions, I pondered shredding the journals. I knew I didn’t need them to retrace my progress through life or to help me build my future. I liked me then; I like me now. But I packed the journals and stored them high in my new closet. On the few occasions when I did consider getting rid of them, inertia won out.
Then late last year, as I sat thinking about four younger friends confronting terminal illnesses, I decided the only way to protect my own privacy in the future was to shred the journals. So I did. My decision startled my friends. “How could you?” one wailed. I could and I did, I said, because those tales I confided were for my eyes only.
Just one day later, while seeing a play at Berkeley Rep, I watched as a character on stage prepared to head off on a long journey. Before she zoomed away on her motorcycle, she told her grandson, “You’ve got to have notions,” and tossed her journal to him so he could read about hers. Oops.
In defense of my decision, I offer this: In Lori Ostlund’s novel After the Parade, the protagonist marks an important psychological transition by throwing out a journal. When Aaron unpacks a long-stored box, he finds a notebook he had used to record his many grievances against his former partner, detailed lists of everything Walter did that drove him crazy. Aaron throws away the journal, “because forgiving Walter was forgiving himself.”
As I fed the shredder, I did read random pages. I noted that the earnest tone was remarkably similar to that of the diaries I kept in junior high and high school — those padded, plastic-covered blank books with locks and the tiny keys that always went missing. In the journals I kept as an adult, however, the content was far more compelling.
Maybe I should have kept them for the benefit of future TV viewers. On a few of those pages, I could give young Victoria some competition.