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Should You Burn Your Journals Before You Die?

What one mother says about what your kids need to know.

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Stack of journals on a blue background with the top pages on fire
Margeaux Walter
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In Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake, a mother shares with her three adult daughters the story of her long-ago romance with a man who went on to become a movie star. Isolated from the outside world by the pandemic, the family spends the summer working in their cherry orchard, as the story of this love affair unfolds, day by day.

The mother tells them a lot — but not everything. “There was always going to be a part of the story I didn’t tell Joe (her husband) or the girls,” says Lara, the protagonist. “What I did was mine alone to do.”

After looking through my old journals recently — mostly written when I was in my 20s — I’ve come to the same conclusion as Lara. My two adult daughters know a lot about my past, but they’re not entitled to know everything. (“Tim?” Who was Tim? And why does he take up so much real estate in my journal?)

I’m 68 and I need to decide what to do with these books. If I don’t want anyone to read them after I die, I should probably get rid of them now. But how? I could just throw them in the trash, but aren’t they worth a more dignified ending?

Yes, they are, according to Robin Chaddock, a certified life coach who teaches several courses on journaling including one on stress reduction. “A person has to ask, 'Am I done with this?' If the answer is yes, have a party, bring our journals, drink wine and have a bonfire. We say goodbye. We congratulate ourselves on where we are in life, and we let ourselves go.”

The decision to share a journal with grown children depends upon the emotional intelligence of everyone involved, says Chaddock, who holds a doctorate in organizational development. “What would be the motive of sharing? What would it accomplish? If you are writing as you are going through a divorce or some other sort of family trauma, it might not be in everyone’s best interest to leave that journal behind.”

Chaddock says she recently tore out a few pages of one of her journals. Her children are 32 and 28. “It’s not that I didn’t think they could handle it. It was just, who needs to be burdened by this?”

Helen Redlich, who will be 80 in September, came across an old journal she had kept when her four daughters were young. Redlich, who divides her time between New York and Florida, decided to share it with them now that they are ages 48 through 60, with children of their own.

Her journals chronicle her six decades of marriage. She wrote during their many travels, but also during a difficult period when her husband was out of the country and she had to run a business by herself. “I wrote mostly for him to read. I wanted him to know what I had to endure,” Redlich recalls.

Her youngest daughter, Tracey Alalouf, 48, of suburban Washington, D.C., says reading her mother’s journal gave her a new perspective on her parents’ marriage. “I was really happy to see she had a lot of fun with my father when they were younger. You never think of your parents as having fun. And I was touched to read about the many reasons my mother loved my father.”

Her mother captured moments that her children don’t remember — moments that must have been painful at the time, but make them laugh now, such as when Alalouf was little and threatened to run away. “She said, ‘I hate you.’ And out she went, barefoot, in the snow,” her mother wrote.

Another time, Redlich asked her oldest daughter to babysit for her younger siblings. That daughter said, “You decided to have kids. They’re your responsibility, not mine.”

For people who want to keep their journals private, Chaddock recommends writing a note on them: “This is Robin’s private journal writing. Please do not read it, comment on it, or express strong emotional reactions to it, unless she has given you specific permission. Anything that comes of you disrespecting that rule is completely on you.”

But do everything you can, she advises, to make sure you don’t have to “police” your journal writing. “We need to give ourselves every opportunity to journal honestly.”

As for my own past with “Tim,” I did track him down on Facebook. No, I didn’t send a friend request. I don’t need to go down those sorts of dark holes. I am still good friends with some of my old boyfriends, and they are integrated into my present life, kids and all. If I’m not friends with them now, well, there must be a reason for that.

I journaled from a place of weakness when I was younger. Why didn’t I journal when I was happy? Perhaps I should take Chaddock’s course on legacy writing, and leave my daughters with positive memories and advice on how to maneuver through life’s narrow channels.

Until then, Chaddock offers this tongue-in-cheek prayer for journal writers:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

Please throw my journals in the lake!”

What do YOU think? Will you destroy your journals or share them with your kids? Let us know in the comments below. 

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