Rhapsody in Penguins II — Fifth Movement: The Diary of a Young Girl

The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
by Anne Frank
translated by Susan Massotty

Usually when I write these thinkpieces, I like to have some semblance of scholarly analysis: a thoughtful journey through the book, singling out bits and pieces to buttress out a central thesis. This one, though… deserves a different kind of effort.

Dear Anne,

I hope you’ll forgive me for adding to your mailbag — God only knows how many letters you receive every day, from youngsters across the world who’ve read your diary and immediately squealed “OH GOD THIS IS SO ME”. But I think you’d find all the letters worth it. Your diary has really, really changed lives since its 1947 publication. Including mine.

Did you know that the correspondence with Kitty you started on your thirteenth birthday — the only “person” you could ever confide in — would be one day pored over by readers all around the world? When you first started, there was little notion that your diary would become numerous ruminations on life and all those insecurities we have. Instead, it was the little things you were concerned about, things like this passage on 24 June 1942:

My bike was stolen during the Easter holidays, and Father gave Mother’s bike to some Christian friends for safekeeping. Thank goodness the summer holidays are almost here — one more week and our torment will be over.

Little did you know that just two weeks later, the Nazis would happen and your family would be going into a small upstairs room, never to be free again. The “torment” you describe would seem pressing to a 13-year-old, but not to others: compared to the atrocities of war, the pains brought on by walking or deciding on whether to get a boyfriend is certainly nothing to shout about. (Although the Kardashians — that’s a very weird family here on Earth, Anne — may like to disagree.)

And yet, never has cabin fever been so productive. Over the course of 25 months you grew up, and your way of thinking appears to have matured with it. You started to realize that things weren’t as black and white as they were, developed your own ideas on humanity, and drifted further and further away from family members and towards somebody closer to your age. (I remember reading it on the bus and actually opening my mouth in surprise and delight when you and Peter kissed. In the words of modern-day youngsters, “I ship it”.) In short, you went through your teenage years with spectacular success. Which is not what everyone on Earth can claim.

On the surface then, your diary is a stirring and impressive take on a teenager’s life, full of wisdom and charm, and very much smashing expectations of maturity. A hundred years ago, your feelings would be scoffed at: you were an adolescent, and a young one at that. Knowing so little of the world, what could you have possibly written about the human condition? But your diary showed us all just what teenagers are capable of: through laying out in full all the problems you faced in life, every reader discovered that age and a lack of experience doesn’t prevent us youngsters from having our own problems, our own insecurities, our own existential crises, that adults can also have. (And let that be a lesson to all parents everywhere. Not that I have problems on that front. Oh no.)

But as I reread your diary, I couldn’t help feeling that I was seeing a lot of the same issues over and over. Although the way of thought matured over time, the themes you dealt with were still the same: only the person misunderstanding you changed, and the people you loved also changed. But it was still “Mrs. van Daan’s a massive pest” and “Mother/Father doesn’t understand me”. And despite your many claims that you would try to be good, at the end of the diary we saw you still trying to cope with your own problems — you were, to use an English adage (of which you are so fond), “older but none the wiser” on that front.

To your credit, your frank (ooh puns) confessions regarding those problems are really courageous. Even when you started preparing them for general readership, late in the war, you still decided to lay bare what you’d been experiencing in your two years of semi-exile. It’s truly amazing. But admitting your sins is one thing, and trying to improve yourself is another. We read passages like the following, written on 7 May 1944…

To accuse Pim, who’s so good and who’s done everything for me… I should be deeply ashamed of myself, and I am. What’s done can’t be undone, but at least you can keep it from happening again. I’d like to start all over again, and that shouldn’t be difficult…

… and combined with your famous declarations of hope for humanity, we feel we can do this. We can improve ourselves, it’s not an impossible task. But barely two months later, you’re at it again, accusing him of not understanding you enough to help you in your struggles, and that you can’t confide in him anymore.

I can’t help but feel that this continuity (or is it contrast? Either way works) reads a bit depressing. You had a lot of ideas for the outside world, having so much optimism that people would come to their senses and justice would prevail — and yet your inside world does not get the attention it really needs or deserves: you do not realize that you, like your parents, have problems connecting with people. You tell Kitty all your problems in life, and yet despite loud proclamations that you will change, your diary entries over the years betray the fact that there was ultimately no real action.

That’s got some implications if you choose to lay out your heart to all of us. It’s the insides of you that we as readers are most interested in: your daily hopes and fears, your loves and losses, how you got on every day without going mad. (Honestly, anyone else who’s been cooped inside a small space for 25 months can really go insane.) You are a role model not because you are a social justice warrior, but because your experiences are relatable to us. But not doing a thing… that’s a massive hole in the fabric of what is supposed to be a narrative of maturity.

I don’t mean to suggest that you haven’t tried to change, of course. On the contrary: your example really gives us a view into who we are as humans. Specifically, it is a story of maturity: like so many things before it, it is a never-ending journey that rarely comes to fruition. Every day we go to bed thinking that we’re a wiser person, that we’ve learned from all the mistakes we’ve made during the day. A few troubling dreams later, we almost always wake up and go out to perform those mistakes all over again, and upon discovering that this has happened, we blame others — and if there are no others to blame, ourselves — for making our own lives hell. It’s a vicious cycle that never ends.

But to some, that is enough. It is enough for them to acknowledge that these problems exist, because they believe that it’s all part of their personality — that the fault in our… selves… make us beautiful. That is a nice and (probably) admirable sentiment, but isn’t mankind built on an innate desire to better ourselves? It’s so easy to feel complacent about what we can and cannot do, and so tempting to leave it at that. But I don’t know, it just feels wrong to proudly parade them around and say “this is who I am” — after all, you might be causing the people around you pain, and in that case it really is up to yourself to change. If we can change, and it’s within our power to do so, then why shouldn’t we? If we fail, we can at least hold our heads up high, and say “well, I tried”. But there needs to be a try in the first place.

Which one is the better approach? I’ve been thinking about it for years and still I have no idea. In ending, then, I’d just like to introduce you to some popular music from America. After the end of the war, Anne, popular music really took off. And there was this song from a group in America called “Simon and Garfunkel” — weird name, I know — and in one of their songs called “The Boxer”, there’s these lines:

Now the years are rolling by me, they are rocking evenly
I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll ever be
That’s not unusual; no, it isn’t strange:
After changes upon changes we are more or less the same;
After changes we are more or less the same.

We fall down and we get back up again, and in the end, we’re in the same place we began. But maybe we should all just thank God that no matter what happens, whether we change or not, the world will continue to turn, that we can and will continue to grow and mature as people — and that our lives can still be colourful despite everything that happens to us.

God rest your soul up there.

Yours faithfully and sincerely,

P. S. Okay, maybe this letter is crap, after all. You’re the experienced one… you tell me.

Next time: Journeys of introspection have long been immensely powerful in literature, and as we close series two, we turn to what is possibly the most introspective — and therefore long-winded — work in literature. It’s time to take on the great behemoth that is “Moby-Dick”.

2 thoughts on “Rhapsody in Penguins II — Fifth Movement: The Diary of a Young Girl

  1. A refreshing new style very suited to this book. I was much younger when I read it though and I remember very little of what happens.

    Reminds me of what a wise anime character once said, “Mankind will repeat its mistakes.”

    Liked by 1 person

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