“Never write anything on paper because it can be used against you,” Mom warned me as a child. I was twelve when my sixth grade teacher told me to start writing a journal. She gave us little blue lined notebooks and time to write in them each day. I was prepared to lie about my life. I really wanted to write my truth, however, so I wrote about what was going on at home, booze, loss, blood and heartbreak. My dad was an alcoholic and soon went to a hospital, and his brother committed suicide because he couldn’t stop drinking. We lived in a periodically insane alcoholic world of never knowing when things would explode. I felt mortified every time I thought about Dad’s recent black out and how he drunkenly fell down at the local pool shredding his elbow. I overheard a woman call me ‘the drunk man’s daughter’ and I never wanted to return to the pool or take another breath on this planet.
Then my teacher said, “I’m collecting your journals and will read them over the weekend.” Like Hell you are, I thought.
“Can I have another notebook? I lost mine.” I lied. She gave me another one, and I wrote a pretend journal. I threw my real one in the trash without a second glance. Mom was right, trust nobody.
I tried writing my life like I imagined it would be on TV. The handsome, perfectly sober father lovingly shakes his head as his older daughter rushes through the front door and climbs the staircase to her bedroom taking two steps at a time. We see her ponytail wagging behind her. Later, she skips rope with two of her friends in the manicured backyard, while her ‘stay at home’ mom watches from the kitchen window, wearing a dirndal dress and swiping a plate with her apron. I thought being normal and not offending was the solution to life. My family was not like that, yet I loved everyone in my household, and I loved the sober times when we laughed and joked. What complex truth I had went into a wastebasket and I came up phony.
My teacher returned my new notebook with the letter “B” written in red pencil, along with her comment,’very nice.’ I felt like I had dodged a bullet, and relief rushed over me like a shower of golden sprinkling starlight. No one would know me, not anyone, because I could not trust paper. Mom was right. It could have been used against me.
But it didn’t take long until I realized what I had destroyed. I wanted to see who I really was from an adult point of view, and all I had left was a notebook with a pretend life that meant nothing to anyone. No judging could occur because nothing true came forth into the world. I didn’t have a record of who I was and where I came from. I was afraid to tell the truth.
In college I vowed to never ever lie about my life again. Other teachers read my journals and they made suggestions concerning my writing style, not that I was a bad or sad girl. I came to understand that writing is not who I am, but it’s the content of what my heart and mind are trying to convey to each other. When I read my words, I get a glimpse of myself, and I’m not that person anymore. For me, writing is sacred, and the only way I can examine what’s going on. The physical act of putting pencil to paper is a catharsis, volcanic explosion of vocabulary and rhythm.
Mom and Dad are dead, and I still have the phony notebook. I used to show it to my students, hoping they can learn from my mistakes that trusting paper matters most of all.
As a historian I disagree with your mother, but I understand why you didn’t want anyone to read about your life. Writing things down shows you what you were thinking was important at the time. I am not much of a writer, but I would have loved to see what I was thinking when I was 10 or 12. I value those that can write well.