A nonconsensual diary read is enough of a taboo to be considered an additional deadly sin. Yet on eBay and Etsy, the secondhand diary is a surprisingly sought-after item. Sellers boast features like “heartbreak” and “wartime” to lure nosy buyers, eager to eavesdrop without consequence.
And then there’s the writer’s diary—perhaps the most sought after of all, resting in a precarious place between reader connection and fetishization.
Rebecca Brill, the administrator of the Twitter accounts @sontagdaily and @whatsylviaate, understands this temptation well. In excerpts of 280 characters or less, Brill spotlights musings from Susan Sontag’s diaries and publicizes daily extracts from Sylvia Plath’s food diary. The accounts have garnered followings of 43.8K and 32.7K, respectively.
Before she launched the Twitter accounts, Brill was a long-time follower of a page that published Andy Warhol’s diaries. The pleasure she found in perusing Warhol’s daily dishing of gossip from the 1970s inspired her to pick up a paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s journals and began the @sontagdaily archive.
“I think access to anyone’s diary is really amazing. I’ve gone to Goodwill before and rummaged through the books and found people's diaries in there, and of course, purchased and read them,” Brill says.
What started as a pastime to combat the mundanity of cold winters in Minneapolis became a beloved, virtual archive of Sontag’s journal entries, ripe with topics ranging from self-delusion to intellectual struggle. Though she ran out of Sontag material in July 2021, Brill now spends her days documenting the fruits (and meats, and grains, and dry martinis) of Sylvia Plath’s food diary.
“The great thing about publicizing these diaries in this way is that it’s both private and communal,” Brill says. “You have the privacy of the diary as it was written—you do kind of feel like [you’re] alone with Susan Sontag or Sylvia Plath.”
As a transcriber of Plath and Sontag’s diaries, Brill has become a public purveyor of two of the most profound writers of all time. While Sontag’s writing occasionally alludes to the potential of her diary being read by others, Brill says she sees no such intention in Plath’s food diary. Thus, to read Plath’s food diary, whether directly from her journals or scrolling through @whatsylviaate, is always in part a privacy invasion. Yet, given how many have already flipped through Plath’s intimate entries, the reader can’t help but keep scrolling; if the violation has been committed time and time again already, how bad could it be to take a peek? When the private diary becomes a public feast, the feelings of the deceased author become an afterthought.
At first glance, Plath’s food diary is peculiar. Aside from her absurd milk consumption habits (something Brill says readers often complain about), her entries depict a range of moods through daily meals. The “mental nausea of daily squash” (1950) and being “unable to swallow anything but water” (9/8/52) are juxtaposed against the comforts of cookies (11/2/54) and conversing with “various vintage toothy Englishwomen” over sherry (10/19/56). Occasionally, her entries read as tweets from very online writers: “after my second cup of coffee, I always feel extremely creative, as if I could write a Pulitzer prize novel.” (Me too, Sylvia.)
Interestingly, Brill believes Plath’s diary plays a role in countering the view of Plath as a symbol of depression.
“One thing I like about the project is that it shows a much wider array of the emotional life of Sylvia Plath than how we normally conceive of her. Sometimes, the meals are depression meals, but I think just as often, if not more frequently, I see a lot of joy,” Brill says.
For dedicated Plath fans, the journal becomes a way of seeing the whole of Plath’s persona. Interpreting the symbolism of her meals becomes a way for readers to contemplate who she truly was.
Another element to consider is the question of agency, which is central to a diary’s publication. In Plath’s case, it is especially relevant; her estate was controversially in the hands of her late husband, Ted Hughes. Following Plath’s suicide in 1963, Hughes became the moderating figure governing Plath’s posthumous persona. He destroyed her later journals in the name of protecting his children. He omitted poems and hid letters to protect himself. Hughes’ monopoly over Plath’s written legacy meant that published selections were anything but objective.
In the The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, a book deconstructing Plath’s life and poetic legacy, Jacqueline Rose notes that “the published Journals take out the ‘intimacies’ and the ‘nasty bits.’ Here, the purpose seems to be the selective protection of people who Plath knew (by no means exclusively Hughes) as well as, in a gesture of unmistakable moralism, the (sexual) protection of Plath from herself.” Thus, the Plath known through her journals and food diaries is a moderated Plath. Naturally, the diary brings the reader closer to Plath—but just how much of this perceived closeness is artificial remains unknown.
Then there’s the posthumous fantasy of Plath herself, driven by Hughes and the cult of personality surrounding Plath. The question then becomes one of ownership: who dictates the truth of Plath’s life?
As Rose argues, “Plath does not own the facts of her own life, not just because she is no longer here to speak for herself but because even in relation to one’s own life…there can be no simple ownership of the facts.” Therefore, “to own the facts of one’s life is not self-evidence, it is war—a war in which husbands and wives, mothers and daughters battle over the possession of—or rather, the constitution of what will pass as—the truth.” While she is right to say this, it’s crucial to note that readers constitute what they believe are the “facts” about Plath through their interpretation of her being. Writing in 1991, Rose could not have anticipated that thousands of melancholic women of Twitter would be gushing over Plath’s depression dinners, but it’s a continuation of this truth-making process nonetheless.
Brill readily accepts that some may criticize her for fetishizing the diary. In a way, she sees the posthumous diary as inherently fetishizing the late writer. At the same time, the merging of the posthumous diary and Plath, who has become somewhat of a fetish object herself, complicates things. Would Plath want the world to see her inner musings? If she’d known they would be published, would she have written with such honesty?
Although Plath’s compulsion to document her meals seem unusual at times, the food diary is ubiquitous in today’s culture—it’s merely escaped from the journal and leaped onto various social media platforms. Without the veil of privacy that the written journal is assumed to grant, the food diary tends toward two extremes: on one hand, it captures the self-discipline of TikTok influencers through açai bowls, tofu scrambles, and gallon-sized water bottles; on the other, it manifests in self-deprecating humor of depression meals, poking fun at oneself for eating a pathetic dinner of deli meat and Doritos. The food diary today is less of a personal archive and more of a highlight reel (or lowlight reel) of pleasures (and displeasures). While Plath does away with the excessive glamourization of her meals the premise remains similar: documenting food is a way of documenting the fruits of life. Mundanity thrives in the diary—and oftentimes, it's what heightens the allure.
“At the local coffee shop, hunched in one of the secretive, high-backed booths with hundreds of people’s names gouged into the wood, we drank cup after cup of black coffee and talked frankly about sex,” she describes in a 1963 entry. Of course, other entries leave much to the imagination: “Hot grains, simply” (1960); “I must eat more cheese before bed!” (10/23/56); “terrific apple recipes” (10/6/61).
User engagements with @sontagdaily reflect this notion as well. There is no doubt that Sontag’s intellectual curiosity and philosophical rigor are captured in her journals. She engages in private musings with Plato, Wittgenstein, and the various intellectuals she personally encountered as an academic. The social artifacts that led to Notes on Camp can be traced back to gay bar slang she documented in 1949.
Sontag is deeply confessional about her feelings toward her crippling nine-year relationship with American sociologist Phillip Rieff and the loss of agency and selfhood that is signed off in a marriage contract. The sense of guilt and detachment in her relationships, the bluntness regarding her promiscuity, queerness, and self-loathing welcome quote tweets from users who say “she’s just like me.”
Decades after Sontag’s death, Twitter users engage in an echo chamber of dialogue in the @sontagdiary replies, revealing it isn’t all that much about Sontag at all—it’s about finding themselves in someone else.
“A lot of my experience running these accounts is young women on the internet retweeting the tweets and being like ‘she’s so me,’” Brill says. “Seeing people find connection through this really solitary activity has been interesting.”
Indeed, after mining the quote tweets and replies to try to make sense of what this all might mean, it was fascinating to see the similarities between the responses; aside from users occasionally scoffing at Plath’s wine pairing or accusing Sontag of being esoteric, most echoed a sense of connection.
Perhaps what’s most appealing about the diary is the intention: one writes for their past, present, and future selves, above all. The carefully-curated public persona crumbles against the liberation of being honest with oneself, alone. “Decline of the letter, the rise of the notebook! One doesn’t write to others any more; one writes to oneself,” Sontag wrote in a journal dated 1980.
The astounding popularity of @sontagdaily and @whatsylviaate demonstrates that the diary, more than any other written medium, is where we find parts of ourselves, in others. Reading a diary is a curious sin, but a sin we find solace in nonetheless.