Before Harriet BloggedNotes on Girls with Notebooks
She ran into her room and flung herself on the bed. She lay quietly for a minute looking reverently at her notebook and then opened it . . . there was her handwriting, reassuring if not beautiful. She grabbed up the pen and felt the mercy of her thoughts coming quickly, zooming through her head out the pen onto the paper. What a relief, she thought to herself.—Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
She dug into her bag, drew out her notebook, scribbled something, and tucked the pen in her hair. . . . Was it being a girl, Suzie wondered, that made this idea so difficult? A girl was really at the mercy of other people's thoughts, wasn't she?—Hope Campbell, Why Not Join the Giraffes?
For many young girls, keeping a journal or diary is an important rite of passage: a statement of private identity, a narrative of self-importance, and (often) a transgressive act of describing intimate truths shielded from parents and peers. Private writing is also a privileged activity in a world where literacy and access to free time and writing materials are unavailable to millions of girls and women. Ironically, the hours or even years invested in journal writing by girls with such opportunity may end up in ashes: the deliberate burning or shredding of adolescent pages marks a separation from the earlier, embarrassed self. Such erasure also shields, from a parent or friend's prying eyes, observations that revealed forbidden truths. While Internet blogging has exacerbated all these factors, from complications of access to technology to panic over an intimate blog "gone viral," in this essay I am primarily interested in old-fashioned writing by hand; pen on paper.
I was a girl with a journal; I remain interested to this day in other girls with [End Page 47] journals and how they used self-expression in navigating the path to womanhood and a writing life.
Women who like to scrawl by hand in journals are a uniquely modern clan, a tribe that would be unrecognizable to our Paleolithic stone-age ancestors. Instead of prioritizing sheer survival against the elements, we place finding time to write at the top of our agenda. We prefer gifts of pens and paper to milk and honey or the fat of the lamb. Our cave-dwelling ancestors' bodies were oriented to absolute basics: hunting, gathering, feeding, reproducing, and staying warm; yet we turn down social invitations of food, alcohol, and even sexual companionship in order to spend nights alone, in a cold apartment, narrating life into a bound volume. How does any woman dare to write her life down? How does that start?
Writing is, after all, a relationship. If keeping a journal marks one as an antisocial oddity, how much more so when one is female, expected to be available to others, always sharing, other-directed, keeping nothing back. Too much thinking has always been jeered as unfeminine: witness the centuries of cruel jokes depicting brainy girls as ugly, unlikely to marry. Thinking is masculine; caring for others, feminine. Even a progressive writer like John Steinbeck used this gender binary in The Grapes of Wrath, when the earth mother Ma Joad famously intoned, "Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head."
History books rarely acknowledge the personal, reflective writings and diaries left by women. Instead, we usually learn about great men, and their ideas, until we think that only men made history. My job as a women's history professor is to unlock the female past; to help students believe it could be women who drew on the cave walls at Knossos. But these students arrive in my classroom only after a lifetime of learning that important men, generals and clergy and politicians, are the ones who seized leadership and who wrote in public places. The inner visions of these few men ("Man got it all in his head"), shared with the world, created the rules and revolutions for Western culture. Moses held up his chiseled Ten Commandments, and Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door.
Acknowledging that women might have similar visions upset men in key positions of religious authority, resulting in the patriarchal prohibitions on female learning (and violence toward learned women) that continue to this day. The suppression of women's public intellect included devaluing women's speech, reducing it to mere gossip, to "catty" words empty of meaningful rhetoric. Should women's words ever be repeated, recorded, or remembered by men? Written down, for posterity? Early Greek, Jewish, and Christian philosophers thought not. [End Page 48]
Pericles declared that a good woman, by definition, should "not be talked about for good or evil among men," which boiled down to women leaving no legacy at all in order to uphold modesty.1 Second-century Jewish hardliner Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus proclaimed, "Let the words of the Torah be burnt before being handed over to women," putting the kibosh on female scholars, rabbis and scribes.2 In 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, St. Paul told women to be silent and have no authority over men. And Ancient Greece may have been a center of learning, but its brilliant scientist and public lecturer Hypatia ended up being hacked to death and then burned by a mob of Christian monks in 415. Most tragically for contemporary lesbian scholars, the openly passionate, woman-loving poems of sixth-century writer Sappho were trashed by her embarrassed critics; only fragments remain.
The history of women's secretive writing time begins with these bans. Since the mid-1990s, I have accompanied women's tour groups to the very sites in Greece, Turkey, and Jerusalem where male figures once spoke out against learned women of their day. At Kusadasi, near the ancient temple of Diana, I invited the voyagers from an all-female Olivia Cruises tour to pull out their journals and write at the spot where St. Paul urged newly Christian women to be silent. In that place, with its acoustically perfect amphitheater, recording artist Cris Williamson raised her voice and sang a lullaby to the women of the ages, and the fine hairs rose on our collective arms. In Jerusalem, beneath stone classrooms where Jewish sages once insisted that no young girl should become learned, my tour group wrote notes of female wisdom to place in the Wailing Wall. And when Afghanistan's Taliban ordered all schools closed to girls in 1994, I defied Jewish law (and brought ink right into my body) by having my writing arm tattooed with letters from the world's oldest alphabets—a badge of attachment to female literacy, and a public way of claiming I will write.
When modern writing started, first with scrolls and pens and ink, then with printing presses and books and authors, girls and women probably had plenty to say—but most of them had no hope of gaining an education or a tutor. Eventually Virginia Woolf would offer her famous opinion that in order to produce writing, a woman must have an independent income and a room of her own; but for much of history women remained poor and illiterate. They were (and still are) barred from schoolhouses, shamed for voicing a public opinion, mindful of religious teachings keeping women silent or unscholarly. Few women had the time to keep a journal, even if they dared to shape their letters or (as John Stuart Mill implored) to tell their truths to men. What most women found time to write were lists: goods to sell, goods to acquire, groceries, [End Page 49] recipes, household accounts, curatives for fevers, money owed to company stores, items to be packed for moving on.
For a young, unmarried girl to become a journal keeper, she had to have more than time, privacy, and an inkwell: she had to have the blustering confidence that her life and words mattered for something. The public record of museums and history books passing along a legacy called Western civilization includes journals kept by men; testaments of accomplishment and power, of sainthood and discovery. Men's journals offer stellar examples of leadership and decision making in perilous environments: for instance, a sea captain or polar explorer's logbook. An exhibit in summer 2010 at the Museum of Natural History in New York allowed visitors to examine the journal of William Hudson, captain of the USS Peacock, a ship that went to Antarctica in 1838 as part of an American expedition. Big as an oversize Bible and scrawled with manly brown-black ink, Hudson's journal lay flopped open to his daily entry on Monday, January 20, 1840, the date he sighted (or "raised," in sailor-speak) continental Antarctica. (The explorer's journal, by the way, reinforces the idea of white male discovery, and colonization, of lands no one else supposedly had seen or described before.)
Hollywood reinforces our view of the dynamic male journal with fictional examples in film and television, such as the opening "Captain's log" narration in episodes of Star Trek, or Kevin Costner's anthropological frontier journal in the film Dances With Wolves. In contrast, when female diaries appear on the big screen, they are either about sex (Henry and June, The Mayflower Madam, desire-mad Tita creating a diary of aphrodisiac food recipes in Like Water for Chocolate), a peek into innocence before the loss of virginity (Stealing Beauty), a woman's desperate pursuit of a man (Bridget Jones' Diary), or a popular girl's backstabbing path to power (Winona Ryder in Heathers, a film that began with the opening line, "Dear diary.") In this sexist treatment of what it means to write thoughts down in history, the male journal shows strong moral character; the female diary, a lack thereof. Diaries, like women's bodies, have to remain veiled.
The female diary lacks innocence because the hand that writes it is attached to a female body, that transmitter of original sin from Eve on down. Most young girls' diaries, if not as lyrical as the poems of Sappho, have been assumed to contain shameful secrets of the progression away from innocence. While men were recording blueprints for radical public change, girls wrote about the radical private changes ongoing in their own bodies, keeping a log of puberty, seduction, rape. The female diary was a private confessional when honesty about gendered violence simply could not be spoken; and having served its purpose as intimate witness, jury and judge, the adolescent diary [End Page 50] was often destroyed when its narrator turned eighteen and left home. Destroyed, torn apart, burned: the same fate as Hypatia.
Critics who wondered aloud about the salacious contents of women's diaries included late-nineteenth-century wit Oscar Wilde, who mocked Victorian sensibilities about "respectable" women in The Importance of Being Ernest. His formidable Lady Bracknell declared, "I always travel with my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train." Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, saw the hidden nature of women's writing as self-imposed modesty, which though proper in her day mitigated against literary acclaim. The fear of being a publicly confirmed writer, she felt, was a "relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women . . . that publicity in women is detestable."3 She urged women to throw off this yoke of inhibitions and write authentically about their lives: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only hours, nobody can say."4
But through the mid-twentieth century, those adult women who did allow their diaries to see print, such as Anais Nin, appeared to confirm the popular stereotype that "artsy" women were oversexed, promiscuous purveyors of scandal. Learned females who kept journals often turned out to be bisexual and tragic (Virginia Woolf), or bisexual and voyeuristically obsessed with other cultures' sex rituals (Margaret Mead), or bisexual while embracing a certain hermitude (May Sarton).
To win respect as a female diarist, one had to be a saint, or at least martyred for one's beliefs, and preferably a virgin. This was not limited to Christian women: the most famous example is the diary of Anne Frank. Anne's diary was reissued in 2002 in a new edition, featuring the six or more previously unpublished pages long held back at the request of her embarrassed father, Otto Frank. He had been uncomfortable with Anne's emerging sexuality as well as her pithy observations on his own marriage. But this once-expurgated material rounds out the portrait of Anne as a human adolescent, not a saint. Writer Judy Oppenheimer spent her own youth searching for this "real" Anne. In a 1975 column in Ms., Oppenheimer wrote, "And the mention, in her father's Introduction, that parts of the diary had been left out 'that could be of no interest to the reader' drove us crazy. We puzzled over it endlessly, causing one of our mothers to comment acidly, 'I'm sure if he'd known about you two, he would have left the parts in.'"5
In the years before the second wave of feminism gave rise to a new generation of woman-identified studies, it was difficult to find historic examples of preadolescent girls whose journals reflected the sheer love of writing for writing's sake. But enormous social changes began early in my lifetime. The year [End Page 51] 1963 introduced two groundbreaking books that would shape the outlook of American women and girls. First, of course, there was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which galvanized many of our mothers to start talking about their lives. And for new feminists' daughters, there was a book just for kids, with a journal-keeping girl heroine who leaped fully empowered from the pages and into the 1960s. This book was Harriet the Spy.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and '70s, every strong-minded girl of my generation read Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, usually after receiving the book as a gift from a hip adult friend. I selected the fat orange paperback for myself from the shelves of Campbell's Bookstore in Los Angeles at the age of eight. The late Louise Fitzhugh's controversial bestseller introduced an affluent, fresh-mouthed sixth grader living on Manhattan's Upper East Side, who writes in her private notebook about the world she sees around her—in particular, the baffling hypocrisy of adult behavior. Harriet lived a life of uptown Manhattan privilege that I could barely comprehend: an elite private school with uniforms, a personal nurse/nanny, and a household in which other domestic functions were run by unnamed staff (one surly figure was referred to as "the cook.") I did not envy these mysterious accoutrements of affluence; what I loved was Harriet's independence and writing time, and her self-driven discipline in coming home from school and writing every day. That daily writing habit was something I could relate to, and it leaped off the page of fiction to connect with my real life in 1969. My school friends did not devote their after-school hours to nonstop storywriting at the kitchen table, and I had begun to fear that I was a complete freak. But now here came Harriet, boldly identifying as a writer while still in elementary school, subverting her irrelevant school day with real writing work she assigned to herself. Her productivity began as soon as she was let loose with pen.
Any reader could see that the nosy adult authority figures depicted in Harriet the Spy were just terribly in the way; in the way of precious writing time. Harriet's solution—to turn all intrusive grownups into character studies for her own purposes as a developing writer—caused some American educators and parents to dislike and ban the book. For Harriet wrote frank assessments of everyone: her social-climbing schoolmates and teachers; her rather superficial, socialite parents; her working-class, self-taught, keenly intellectual caregiver; and the eccentric neighbors she spied on after school each day.
The adventures of this opinionated and empowered little writer influenced millions of girls, despite the ongoing backlash from conservative critics who felt children's literature should never challenge adult authority. There are still plenty of calls for the book to be removed from children's libraries. But few self-appointed censors knew that Louise Fitzhugh, growing up in the Jim [End Page 52] Crow South, had witnessed horrific racism and substantial acts of white adult violence aimed at black children. That background led her to reject any notion of clear adult morality.
It never occurred to me, or to my friends Adina and Robin, that Harriet the Spy was unusual in its directness and social critique. All we knew was that Harriet's guerilla journal keeping confirmed that a small girl could identify as an author, and the book validated our nascent beliefs that spending hours on writing, even after school let out, could be a legitimate compulsion. One could carry a notebook around—and it did not have to contain homework. It could be something else.
For Vietnamese-American immigrant Bich Minh Nguyen, author of the memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner, Harriet's personal journal symbolized freedom of personal opinion—a hard-won right for Nguyen, whose family had been relocated to America's upper Midwest. "Harriet had an envied life, and part of that came from her freedom to write. I tried to capture that same independence. . . . When I wrote like Harriet, I took pleasure in the release of opinions and the scrawling of thoughts that could not be said out loud for fear of getting laughed at, teased, or in trouble."6
Harriet's notebook is her primary companion and playmate, although she certainly has other smart, interesting friends. Writing does not make her a total loner: in fact, she needs friends and neighbors, ones particularly conducive to description. Their inner landscapes fascinate her: what makes such people tick? Urban anthropology is not the conscious goal for Harriet—her personal heroine is Mata Hari, not Margaret Mead—but in service to her alter ego as a spy, Harriet's notebook marks the social differences between black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and WASP aristocracy in New York. She studies a clutch of people, followed, through her daily "spy route," with a freedom today's more tightly scheduled and chaperoned kids may envy. When Harriet's mother tells her to stop playing with her notebook, Harriet retorts "I'm not playing—I'mworking!"
In other ways she is mentored by her nurse caregiver, Ole Golly, the one adult who never laughs at or talks down to Harriet's ambition to develop herself as a serious writer. The book defied other prevalent girl stereotypes by introducing Harriet's best friend, Janie, as an aspiring scientist. Neither of these girls lacks self-esteem; both appear far more intellectually directed than their mothers, part of the book's radical tone that set off right-wing critics. If anything, I was dismayed to read that Harriet's parents took no interest in her writing life; throughout most of my childhood, the best part of my day was showing my mother what I had written, and asking her to read it back to me with suggestions for improvement. Harriet had cake and milk after school—alone, [End Page 53] or with "Cook." ("'What you always writing in that notebook for?' she asked, with a sour little face.") In contrast, I enjoyed a challenging interplay with my audience/critic every day at 4:00 p.m.
Harriet pays a bitter price for writing about others when her schoolmates open her notebook. Incensed with how aptly she describes their own idiosyncrasies, they unite against her—and now she's odd girl out, with no one to eat lunch with. In fact, her classmates conspire to steal her tomato sandwich. This trauma of exclusion, familiar to any grade-school kid, occurs just at the point when Harriet's caregiver leaves, too, in order to get married. So Harriet becomes both friendless and mentorless in the same month, unanchored and unguided, her journal her sole ally. Then all of a sudden her notebook, too, is taken away, after teachers complain that the ostracized, violated, isolated Harriet is writing in her journal during class time.
Alone, her writing life pathologized, her notebook seized, Harriet commits entirely understandable acts of rage, designing unique hurts for each classmate—though these acts look pretty damn tame compared to today's school gun violence (Harriet puts a tiny tree frog in one squeamish girl's desk.) Her concerned parents finally pack Harriet off to see a child psychiatrist, who begins their session together by taking out his own notebook and writing about Harriet right to her face. Now she knows what it feels like to be described, with cool appraisal, by someone else. It's a many-layered scene, brilliantly conceived by author Louise Fitzhugh.
But here we also see a brainy girl child up against adult male medical authority. His writing life is a privilege (and proof) of his professionalism; her writing life is an itch that she's not allowed to scratch without adult permission. This may be fiction, but too often in history female artists have been institutionalized in order to interrupt and silence their creative power, experiences recounted in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, May Sarton's Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and Daphne Scholinski's The Last Time I Wore a Dress. In Harriet the Spy this scene with the child psychiatrist is written so that Harriet's perspective entirely usurps her therapist's credibility and control. Fitzhugh's rebellious empathy for Harriet was very clear to us kids; at eight, on the pages of my own copy of Harriet the Spy, I further rewrote the scene's dialogue (in firm ballpoint pen) so that Harriet got her own notebook back right away, and to hell with further plot development. But here is the actual dialogue, as written by Louise Fitzhugh:
. . . He went to the desk drawer and got out a notebook and a pen. Then he sat down across from her.
Harriet stared at the notebook. "What's that?" [End Page 54]
"I KNOW that," she shouted.
"I just take a few notes now and then. You don't mind, do you?"
"Depends on what they are."
"What do you mean?"
"Are they mean, nasty notes, or just ordinary notes?"
"Well, I just thought I'd warn you. Nasty ones are pretty hard to get by with these days."
"Oh, I see what you mean. Thank you for the advice. No, they're quite ordinary notes."
"Nobody ever takes it away from you, I bet, do they?"7
In Harriet's world it is the adult figures, few of whom take the time to get to know her well, who perceive her writing "habit" as antisocial and forbid it—resulting in the very depression that lands her on the couch. Finally, her parents take the initiative and contact Harriet's old nurse, who writes to Harriet with sage advice on how to win back her estranged classmates' acceptance. Harriet's nurse doesn't fault her for telling the truth in her journal—a journal, after all, is supposed to be honest, though private. But she counsels Harriet to apologize for the hurt caused by that revealed honesty. Diplomacy and truth telling can co-exist (a veiled message for the 1960s?). The book ends with Harriet's most-loved friends, Sport and Janie, walking toward her in reconciliation as she sits writing on a New York park. As further proof of their acceptance, they even stand and wait as Harriet writes the first paragraph in her new notebook.
She looked up at Sport and Janie. They didn't look angry. They were just waiting for her to finish. She continued:
NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.
She slammed the book and stood up. All three of them turned then and walked along the river.8
By the book's end young readers see that a writer need not be alone, even if journal writing is a solitary pursuit. Harriet's real friends learn to trust that she is not necessarily writing about them all the time or solely recording unflattering secrets. The writing impulse makes Harriet different from others, yes. But that difference does not need to threaten friendships.
It is impossible to overestimate the power of this one book. We all graduated, eventually, to Anne Frank's diary, and some of us to Anais Nin in high [End Page 55] school; but Fitzhugh's fiction was the first battle cry for notebook keeping as sacred work. Third grade, the year I met Harriet, was already filled with mixed messages about writing—it was the year we all graduated from print to cursive handwriting, a landmark of maturity. But for some reason this planned uptick in physical writing proficiency occurred, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, during the year when all my classmates were breaking their arms. At age eight, we were aggressive at tetherball, kickball, hopscotch; we fell out of trees and off bikes, skateboards, jungle gyms. Every girl had a cast on her wrist (or leg) at some point that year; but when I fell off our garden wall onto the hard stucco patio and later flew off a horse into the steep shrubs of Topanga Canyon, I walked away unscathed, to my parents' stunned relief. Still, for a year I practiced writing left-handed, and with my toes, just in case I broke my writing hand.
Harriet continues to inspire my students at George Washington University. When I first began teaching here in 1994, I overheard this exchange between two students while we were all standing in line at the campus bookstore: "You always have paper. You always carry that notebook. You're never without it!" "Sure, because I discovered Harriet the Spy when I was seven." I immediately turned around and introduced myself. Thus began the conversation with my students about how I came to carry my first notebook.
journal number one
It took me some time to acquire the notebook habit myself, as a girl. I wrote stories throughout my childhood and, at eleven, I entered the life-altering creative writing class taught by Henry Walker at Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina. In his beloved corner homeroom, where a motley group of long-haired, tie-dyed ten-to-twelve-year-olds sat in the yoga lotus position reading stories aloud to one another, Henry mentored my generation of young writers—and then another generation, and then another; he is still there, and that corner is ringed with light. That his approach to writing nourished us was evident in our end of term reports; he wrote in mine that pens and paper were more important to me than food.
But one can find a home as a young writer only to be uprooted without choice. After two years of working and growing with Henry, I left Carolina Friends when my family moved to Washington, DC, and I entered a new public school with no creative writing program. There was no institutional support for young writers there—and as a thirteen-year-old who wanted to write all day I was different, and bullied. Two strikes. The girlish one-page-a-day bound diary I'd been keeping for a year was no longer enough to hold my inchoate [End Page 56] incredulity. I went to Peoples Drugstore and bought a spiral notebook and my first ink cartridge pen.
Journal number one became my blotter for deep rage, a companion in the wilderness. I wrote 165 pages in 29 days, much of it an account of which bigger and meaner girls were picking on me, and how I was getting through each day by believing I would someday become a writer and thus get even. In the second notebook I focused on a theme: recounting friends and writing classes from my old school and trying to preserve verbatim as much as I could recall and narrate (long evenings babysitting were ideal for this, and possibly my first unwitting experience of being paid to write). During the winter of that friendless year my father built me a window seat for my bedroom, which had a small built-in nook overlooking our back yard. Journal on my knees, I could look down into the small garden where our Irish setter paced; that is, until the week he went berserk adjusting to the more limited space of our new home. I came home from school one day and our dog was gone. I felt that I, too, might go berserk adjusting to the confinement of my new school. Why didn't some loving Goddess/mentor/veterinarian swoop down and take me to a farm in the countryside—say, the Interlochen Institute or the MacDowell Colony, where I could write all day, as our dog had been rescued to run free?
At school I tuned out of everything but English class, where for forty minutes daily I had a writing identity—although even in that one class we rarely wrote freestyle. It was all parts of sentences and plot summaries of expurgated literature, the gists and mechanics of writing without creation. Endless rehearsal, I felt, and not a moment onstage. I came home every day to curl up on the window seat and write in my notebook, listening to my ever-present radio. I wrote detailed descriptions of the creative writing class from my old school, realizing that my own will to draft and revise better stories had always been made possible by a loving audience: first, the feedback from my mother and then at middle school age, the feedback from my peers. I remembered the lush reward of being heard, applauded, appreciated. I deeply missed that environment of mutual attachment: students to words, friends to friends. Had I known that a student writing group was a privilege and not a right? I had not. Without that audience, the circle of friends I had read to at Carolina Friends School every day for two years, I lost the regularity of writing as a public act. I stopped writing fiction and, for the rest of my life, wrote history and memoir. Because I am now a professional historian, I don't see that troubled year as any sort of loss.
By journal number three, a ritual emerged for the occasion of each new volume, each 300-page, spiral-bound, college-ruled plain cardboard notebook; each Sheaffer cartridge fountain pen filled with blue-black, peacock [End Page 57] blue, emerald green, red, or jet-black ink. My pockets bulged with cartridges. The grocery store list my mother tacked to our kitchen corkboard showed my insistent reminders: Cartridges. Mom! CARTRIDGES. My fingertips were green one week, red the next; ink on the bedspread, the knees of my jeans, the white porcelain bathroom fixtures. I managed to get ink on my retainer, once; and thus even had ink between my slowly straightening teeth: oral history. But: "You'll have to rewrite this essay," my new English teacher told me more than once. "Blue or black ink only. No writing in red or green."
I knew I was not crazy, because back at my old school there were other pals loyal to Sheaffer in all its color spectrum. At Carolina Friends School we had all self-published our own 'zines and sold them for a nickel apiece, chocolate milk money; at least one such literary entrepreneur, Jane Pratt, went on to become a hugely successful publishing mogul (first Sassy and then JANE Magazine), with her own television talk show in the 1990s as well. But in 1974 Jane's creative writing 'zine was called Dumb, and in Dumb #4 our mutual friend Jesse Thompson wrote these classic remarks about the problem we all shared:
Cartridge Pens and the Addicted Mind
I'm usually broke. I guess that's what happens to people who spend all their money on cartridges. I swear, it's worse than supporting a family!
It's an addictive habit and soon, if you have it, you will find yourself involved in heavy crimes like fishing money out of gutters! Let that be a warning! If you are hooked already, if you bring cartridges to school to trade with your friends, then please contact your local cartridge reform center. You're going to have to send yourself to college on ball points.
If you don't think you're addicted now, but you're afraid you might be in the near future, then here's what you should do: Every day, after school or before bed, answer all the questions. If you answer any more than two with YES, then follow the early cartridge reform program in the next paragraph.
Do you like cartridge pens better than felt tip pens for writing?
Would you rather buy a cartridge than a piece of bubble gum?
Do you take your cartridge pen on trips with you?
Do you change cartridges just for the sake of seeing the ink change color?
If you answered any more than two with YES, then I would advise immediate medical care! Also, follow the following program! Begin every morning. Do not worship cartridges when you get up as you usually [End Page 58] do. Just put on your clothes and get out of your room. Go to school without your cartridges or pen. Stay away from them forever! Never look at them!
By spring of eighth grade, I had met one other bored young woman at my school who kept a journal—and we were attractive to one another for mysterious other reasons, which gave both of us even more to write about. Soon we were engaged in a literary competition fueled by spectacular erotic energy, swapping our journals (filled with gushing remarks about one another) over the limp Tater Tots of our junior high cafeteria, until her entire girl gang confronted me and told me in clear scatological terms to give up the notebook or get lost.
That year I discovered some startling contradictions. Writing quietly in a spiral notebook during class time allowed almost any girl to seem cooperative and productive; it was a less disruptive activity than, say, the boys' predilections for throwing paper wads into a well-built female's cleavage. Yet I had learned that a "nice" girl's diary could actually contain deviant thoughts, in contrast to her straight-arrow facade. Needless to say, the third strike against me that year was that in 1975 there was no such thing as a straight-gay alliance for youth in junior high.
Few of us found support for our journal writing from teachers. We were girls, and in our hands a diary was not the first step toward being an author or journalist but a repository for curly-handwritten dreams about boys; at least, this was how diaries were packaged at stores. Meanwhile, television continued to portray male diaries as emblematic of ambition. John-Boy Walton, writing his journal homilies about Depression-era family life on the television series The Waltons, merited respect—he was going to get off Walton's Mountain and gain fame. In my 1970s suburb, though, girls' diary writing suggested drippy sentimentalism, strawberry-scented products, superficial obsession with one's popularity, and the battle zone with parents and home guidelines.9
In The Body Project, a women's studies text I have used since it first appeared in 1997, Cornell professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg examined one hundred years of American girls' diaries to chart their attitudes toward body image and sexuality. Not surprisingly, she found that many girls used diaries as Do Not Enter rooms for examining the personal hell of puberty: such freewheeling content was why many girls hid or shredded their diaries, fearful of their discovery by snooping mothers.10 At my junior high in Maryland we all knew various girls who had been packed off to juvenile detention programs because a concerned parent had read a diary entry confirming youthful marijuana experimentation at a "field party," where random making out was also [End Page 59] not unheard of. In the drop-in counseling center at my school, we had frequent, spontaneous debates about this problem. Was it ever acceptable for your mom to read your diary? If she thought you were a dope dealer, and the diary confirmed it, did that make snooping under an eighth-grader's mattress okay? What to do when Mom read a critical entry railing against parental control, and had her feelings hurt—was it obligatory to apologize, as in Harriet the Spy, or had Mom gotten what she deserved by breaking in to the only private turf a girl controlled? Did parents legally own everything in an adolescent minor's room, even a diary? A few years later, both Delia Ephron and cartoonist Lynda Barry would create poignant and hilarious storylines featuring fictitious teen girls' diaries. Ephron's How to Have a Teenage Romance included a heroine's discovery that her mother had read her diary:
I can't believe it—my own personal private thoughts VIOLATED. I've never been so insulted in my life. . . . She said if I didn't want her to read it, I wouldn't have left it where she could find it. . . . She said she was at least relieved that I realize my parents care whether I'm a virgin. Then she asked if I wanted to see her gynecologist!!!!!11
Our concerns were those of very privileged young Americans, secure in our individual rights, ready to scream Mine!—my journal, my bedroom, my thoughts. (Is it not inevitable that the twenty-first century would see young women flocking to a public forum called "Myspace"?) But the other side of the coin can be seen in the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors, based on Alan Duff's novel about family violence and racial alienation in a 1980s Maori family. Duff uses the diary of one character, a sensitive teenage girl, to make a powerful statement about sexual abuse. There are few film scenes more wrenching than this one: the family gathered around the table, grieving for the girl who has hanged herself; the mother reaching her for lost daughter's diary to find some words of comfort or explanation; the page opening to details of the girl's rape by her father's best friend.
As Brumberg found, most coming-of-age journals kept by American girls were neither literary masterpieces nor valuable eyewitness accounts to political crises of war and invasion. We were indeed writing about who we liked, and about the puzzle of our changing, bleeding bodies, all the more reason adult intrusion into those pages felt so violating: "In adolescent girls' private diaries and journals, the body is a consistent preoccupation, second only to peer relationships."12
But the emphasis on privacy and self-ruminating could only have occurred in an affluent society. The Body Project uses journals to demonstrate how rapidly American society changed through new boundaries of home ownership [End Page 60] and indoor plumbing. Brumberg reminds us that the American home itself had an ever-changing, growing "body," as modern bathrooms, bathtubs, mirrors, and adolescent bedrooms were gradually added (necessities to us now, but spectacular luxuries for many families until well after World War II). Girls with time and space to dwell upon their physical changes in a journal usually lived in environments that indulged body preoccupation: middle-class households with lockable bathroom doors and other fixtures.
a flapper's autograph book
After reading The Body Project for class, my students debate whether young women really were so sexually innocent in the past. Isn't it more likely that sheltered, middle-class girls were the ones with diary time and nice pens? Working-class girls, particularly those exposed to tough public street life and its language, lacked the time and privacy for a journal. Street-smart female voices are not as well represented in studies of girls' journals (although this is changing, especially due to the hit book and film The Freedom Writer Diaries). But when I began keeping my own journal and took an interest in what other teenage girls might have written, I discovered my own grandmother's high school autograph book from 1923.
My grandmother had four or five names. Old family papers and stories suggest that she was called both Zorsha (Polish) and Sadie (Yiddish) before leaving Warsaw at age five; she was referred to as Zelda in some places; and in America all her names were Anglicized into Shirley. On the immigrant streets of the Lower East Side, though, and apparently at school as well, her wild red hair earned her the nickname "Rusty." The high school autograph book is all that survives from her working-class/flapper youth in the Roaring Twenties: a rectangle of worn black leather, elegantly inscribed with poems and best wishes from Shirley's brassy classmates at Hebrew Technical Girls' High.
I open to the faded, fountain pen inscriptions dashed off by immigrant girls with wonderful Jewish names. Geraldine Shernmel, Bella Merancherk, Fannie Citron, Minnie Trisch, Estelle Litwack. These "greenhorns" were well on their way to abandoning the Eastern European shtetl mores of their parents for the wilder fun of American dating rites. In the entire autograph book, just one girl admonishes my grandmother to keep God and heaven her first priority. The rest of the gang are positively brimming over with trendy tips on boys, sex, and husband hunting. [End Page 61]
Twins are bad,Triplets are worse.Sleep alone! Safety first.
Sweet sixteen and never been kissed? AHEM!
Sitting by a little stream,Shirley had a pleasant dream.She dreamed she was a little troutAnd some fine fellow fished her out.
When Cupid shoots his arrow I hope he MRS. You.
Many a ship was lost at seaFor want of sail or rudderMany a girl has lost a HEFor flirting with another.
To stitch to weave to sew to knitWas once a girl's employmentBut now to flirt and catch a beauIs what they call enjoyment.
This last entry says it all: it was indeed the fate of these girls—and their older sisters, before them—to graduate right into garment work in the dangerous sweatshops around them. Hebrew Tech was a workers' school, enrolling progressive activist girls, some of whom organized in the factories and led labor strikes.13 Modernization might bring these girls the choice to marry whom they wished, the freedom to pursue and "catch" a beau; but fair wages and legal access to birth control were also important goals. My grandmother was a rebel who bobbed her red hair and donned a sleeveless white flapper dress twitching with fringe. Most notoriously, Shirley was a client of Margaret Sanger's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, a member of that first generation of feisty, sexually active Jewish girls lining up to buy a diaphragm. Slapped across the face by her own mother on the day she got her first period, Shirley later referred to menstruation as "getting elected"—she came of age (and became a citizen) just after American women won the right to vote. [End Page 62]
In my grandmother's tiny autograph book I see the transformation of Hebrew Tech girls into full-fledged women, feminists aware of their new rights and responsibilities. Frisky graduates in 1923, they were unafraid to write publicly about the risks for women. Sleep alone! Safety first. In fact, far from being old-fashioned, this was much savvier sex advice than anything my friends were writing in our teen yearbooks of the 1970s—the Me Decade, the Second Wave, the Sexual Revolution.
would you write in my . . . ?
If keeping a journal or diary raised questions about what a young woman might be hiding, her yearbook or autograph book publically boasted her social status and was meant to be exposed. The most common public writing exercise for pre-cyberspace schoolkids was the signature on the yearbook page, that record of first love.
Most adults who came of age in twentieth-century America had autograph books, slam books, or school yearbooks: sometimes all three, and popular with boys as well as girls. We did not have slam books at my junior high: those hot potatoes of teen literature passed around for anyone to see one's popularity ranking. "Slam books" in particular were blank notebooks usually controlled by girls and purposely intended for classmates to record snotty remarks about each other; their legacy is paid homage in works of children's fiction (Honestly, Katie John, Judy Blume novels), and nonfiction (John Herndon's urban education odyssey The Way It Spozed to Be.) Finding the slam book a popular girl had left in his ninth-grade classroom at a primarily black junior high, circa 1966, Herndon confesses: "I had expected to see a series of fairly nasty remarks, plenty of sexual invitation, and much bad talk in general; the expectation was based on the general prejudice we bring to anything teenagers do of the own accord . . . I was shown again, for perhaps the hundredth time, that 9D was a group of children, not dangerous hoodlums."14
In his chapter on the slam book fad sweeping his classroom, Herndon notes that students who normally hated writing and avoided school-work were absolutely riveted by the public writing opportunities presented by slam books. "Slambooks suddenly took precedence over everything . . . Since this was more work than many had done the entire year, I was delighted. They were avidly writing in them . . . the books were carefully made, the names spelled right, the style of the opening paragraph elegant and complicated and formal."15 [End Page 63]
By the time I was in junior high, yearbooks satisfied the combined purposes of autograph book and "slam" venue, but coming on the last day of a school term, with graduation or summer bubbling ahead and nostalgia's forgiving balm spread over the past year of rival-clique hatreds, their pages often showed phony, indulgent friendliness. "You're a doll." "Love ya much." "We made it." "See you in summer school, ya stoner." Even at fourteen, I found these inscriptions unsatisfying, inauthentic. But after discovering numerous kids had inscribed one another's yearbooks with "Have a great summer, and don't go queer like Bonnie," I decided to follow the ancient political advice "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." I understood that my girl-gang resented my journal because it was an activity I did without them and without sharing the results. In ninth grade, while still keeping a private journal for myself, I began carrying a completely different blank notebook to school, one I invited every kid to write in as they wished.
I approached girls, boys, stoners, nerds, my gang of friends, people who didn't know or didn't like me. Try writing stuff down, I cajoled. Hey. You. You wanna write in my journal? My invitation grew more flattering: please, can I get you to write a page in the book? "But I don't have anything to say." Sure you do. We're all walking containers of rage and viewpoint, at fourteen. Come on, man. "Well—can I draw a bong?" Sure, anything you like. Whatever's on your mind is cool. This is a fountain pen, though—be careful. Ever used a fountain pen before? Okay, so here's how it works.
Soon I had long pages from kids representing all strata of school life: pot-heads, athletes, abuse victims, straight-A student leaders, misfits, kids with obvious learning disabilities, and several classmates who later became well-known writers, film directors, and psychologists. I understood that by inviting peers to share in public writing, I was making a declaration that my journal was not a wall against them, but an invitation in; we all had things to say that our teachers and parents could not understand. I might be a weirdo for liking writing so much, but I made myself into a useful weirdo, as self-protection; I became the archivist of our inner lives.
Here are a few selections from those ninth-grade classmates' writings in my public journal, 1975–76:
My mother asks me to calm down, slow up a little. Is something wrong? Can she help? I tell her not to worry and walk away, a look of "What is this all about?"—well-practiced. But then I go to the bathroom mirror. And totally black out.
You must have so many secrets in this notebook. How can you write creatively every day when I can hardly spell? Not that I mind, but you look so peaceful. And I'm void of all feeling. [End Page 64]
To me, there is a difference between loving someone, and being in love with someone. Being in love with someone is a very selfish emotion. All you want is to be with that person without any consideration for what they want. But to love someone, is to want to share everything—happiness, fears, peeves, sadnesses. I LOVE YOU.
It was early spring and I had not been to the beach for almost four years. We (there were six of us) were walking across this field in early morning. I ran ahead of the rest. I ran across this sand dune and gazed out at the ocean. It was so quiet and peaceful: empty. Happiness and serenity welled up in me and I ran into the freezing water.
These bits really have to be seen to be appreciated because they include wildly divergent handwriting, based on gender. Boys scrawled, reluctantly writing in pencil. Girls left their mark with the consummate individualism of cute handwriting. Not "neat" handwriting, which teachers definitely expected of girls, but Eau de Love cologne-soaked cutesy handwriting: that round pubescent script shaped and embellished with curls, backward swoops, colors, circles dotting the lower case i, smiley faces within exclamation points. Power and endearment leaked from the felt-tip Bic Banana, the pink marker. At both of the middle schools I attended, the most popular or admired girls also had the curliest, most exotic printing, which of course we all imitated.
Joan Jacobs Brumberg herself suggests: "Self-conscious transformation of handwriting did not occur in girls' diaries until the 1920s, when girls learned from popular culture how flexible personal image could be. . . . (In the 1950s, I remember changing my handwriting so that I would appear more mature and feminine . . . making my letters as round as possible.)"16 And in the book Camp Camp, a collection of Jewish summer camp humor and memorabilia, co-author Jules Shell described what she called "The Power of Camp Calligraphy" and added her own thoughts about the handwriting phenomena of teen girls:
In the world of the girls' bunk, there were many paths to popularity, but among the least appreciated by historians is the power and status afforded to the girl with the nice handwriting. . . . Before the dawn of the technological revolution and the abundant font choices, clip art, and document templates . . . having neat handwriting was the status equivalent of having a hot boyfriend or at least a really good wardrobe. Cool handwriting was a way to distinguish yourself from the group.17
Standing out as an individual was not reflected in the calligraphy of my grandmother's autograph book. There, Americanizing immigrant teens meant forcing a standard script (the "Palmer hand") on girls whose household literature, [End Page 65] if any, was likely to use the Hebrew or Cyrillic alphabet. First-generation Americans and immigrants, including my own mother and grandmother, learned that good script equaled good citizenship. Every signature in that flapper autograph book is identical. By my time, however, the individualism of the 1960s meant that personal freedoms and rebellious nonconformity were represented by psychedelic design. "Penmanship" fell off the curriculum altogether. Thus began the felt-tip bonanza of groovy girls.
In our mid-1970s junior high we were stranded between the beatnik coffee-houses of the 1950s and the competitive poetry slams of the 1990s; yet the notion that there should be "safe space" for public teen prose caught on. Few of my classmates began journals of their own, but they agreed to write in mine; and soon there was a graffiti sheet on the wall of our student drop-in center at school. That wall became a year-long journal of pain and change from all of us: anyone could go in there and spill out what was happening, without a signature and without any fear of trouble. Kids wrote about parents, breakups, drugs, dealing with school suspension. Years before online blogs and websites, we "posted" how we felt.
In the four decades since I began carrying that first notebook in eighth grade, I have filled 175 journals, each up to 300 pages long, each written by hand with a cartridge fountain pen. They fill the wall in my apartment, the reminder of a life recorded without apology in an often misogynist world where the female voice is siren song—or silenced. It is not every day that I get to address journals in my teaching; but when I do there is always that one student who steps forward at the end of class, bound notebook in hand, shyly saying, "Here. This one is mine." [End Page 66]
bonnie j. morris, after serving as women's studies professor on the faculty of both George Washington University and Georgetown from 1994 to 2017, is now lecturing for the Department of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of sixteen books, including three Lambda Literary Award finalists (Eden Built by Eves, Girl Reel, Revenge of the Women's Studies Professor) and two prize-winning chapbooks (Sixes and Sevens, The Schoolgirl's Atlas). Her latest book, The Disappearing L, looks at the erasure of lesbian spaces and culture. In addition to teaching and writing, Dr. Morris has been an exam leader for the AP US History exam, a guest lecturer for Olivia Cruises, and a historical consultant for Disney.
Epigraph sources: Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (New York: Dell Publishing, 1964), 240; Hope Campbell, Why Not Join the Giraffes? (New York: Dell Publishing, 1968), 120–21.
1. Helga Harriman, Women in the Western Heritage (Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1995), 64.
2. Palestinian Talmud Sotah 3:4.
3. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest, ll. 289–90; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989), 52.
4. Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 110.
5. Judy Oppenheimer, "In Which Judy and Ellen Learn About Scarlett and Heidi," Ms., July 1975, 16.
6. Bich Minh Nguyen, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, 161.
7. Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy, 255.
8. Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy, 298.
9. Since the school shootings at Columbine High School, American parents and educators have shifted to greater awareness of boys' diaries, especially those kept on computer and/or harboring violent fantasies. An example of a journal "fantasy" sequence of a school shooting appears in the film The Basketball Diaries, based on Jim Carroll's own violent, heroin-filled Manhattan adolescence.
10. Cartoonist Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, addresses this in his Life Is Hell comic strip: "Secret diary tips: 1) Hide your secret diary well. No Mom in the history of the universe has refrained from reading her kid's diary if she got her hands on it. 2) Leave a decoy secret diary in an obvious hiding place to throw intruders off the track." Matt Groening, Childhood Is Hell (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 18. See also p. 15, where "The 16 types of sisters" defines "The Brat" as screeching, "Gee, your diary was a real howler! I don't think I'll EVER stop laughing!" The idea of the "decoy diary" also appeared in an episode of the television series Roseanne.
11. Delia Ephron, How to Have a Teenage Romance (New York: Ballantine, 1981), 138.
12. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project (New York: Random House, 1997), xxi–xxii.
13. For more on Hebrew Tech, see Sarah Schulman's My American History.
14. John Herndon, The Way It Spozed to Be (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 150–51.
15. Herndon, The Way It Spozed to Be, 151.
16. Brumberg, Body Project, 105.
17. Jules Shell, Camp Camp (New York: Crown, 2008), 24. [End Page 67]