The Longform Guide to Diaries

Nina Simone, a Scientology kid, and a murderous college student: Great articles about diaries.

Nina Simone, in 1991.
Nina Simone, in 1991.

Photo by Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be
Joe Hagan • Believer • August 2010

The secret diary of Nina Simone.

Sex became her primary refuge. In her diary, she documented it obsessively, desperate for “the only thing that allows me to be an open and warm human being.” She connected sex directly to her music. “Yesterday,” she wrote in an undated entry, “I learned where the source of power is for my performances (the love songs are the best) so all my concentration is centered there, drawn out to a blunt statement about sex at the end.”

But Stroud, a man with limited patience and zero interest in psychology, often lashed out in frustration at her unpredictable temperament. Simone wrote on August 6, 1964: “Andrew hit me last night (swollen lip) of course it was what I need after so many days of depression. I wish I had someplace to go (I wish I had some hope). All the motherfucker did was get me off him; it still leaves me with the same fucking problem—he actually thinks I want to be hit (he told me so). He believes like old-fashioned black men that I need beating up once in a while. The fool believes I like it—there are milder forms of discipline.” (Stroud is hardly contrite: “I’m the type of guy, I don’t take any shit off of anybody.”)

Tuesdays with Saddam
Lisa DePaulo • GQ • June 2005

The diary of a Scranton, Pa., National Guardsmen tasked with guarding the highest profile prisoner in U.S. history: a surprisingly amiable Saddam Hussein.

He liked to talk about chicks.

“O’Shea, are you married?”

He always called people by their last names, and he learned them quickly. Sean said no. “Then he just started telling me what to do. He was like, ‘You gotta find a good woman. Not too smart, not too dumb. Not too old, not too young. In the middle. One that can cook and clean. Then you thank her, and you go —’ ” And Saddam smiled and made the gesture of bending a woman over and spanking her, as if to say: This is how you keep her in line. Sean tried not to bust out laughing. Then Saddam started laughing, as he often did, and went back to doing his wash in the sink.

In Search of Baseball’s Holy Grail
Bryan Curtis • Grantland • September 2013

Is an ancient diary the key to discovering the origins of baseball?

A week later, Block got an e-mail from the woman. She had found … photocopies of the diary. A few days later, Block was snooping around a library in Cornwall when he got another e-mail. The woman had found the diary. Block and Barbara raced to her cottage the day before they were scheduled to leave the U.K. In William Bray’s small, compact script, they read the following from Easter Monday, 1755:

“After Dinner Went to Miss Seale’s to play at Base Ball, with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Fluttor, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford, H. Parsons & Jolly. Drank tea and stayed till 8.”

Did you catch those “Misses”? The Bray diary confirmed a theory Block had developed after reading the Hervey letter. In the 18th century, baseball was played by both men and women.

Guantánamo Diary
Mohammed el Gorani and Jérôme Tubiana • London Review of Books • December 2011

The youngest prisoner held at Guantánamo on his seven years in detention.

We landed at another airstrip. It was night. Americans shouted: ‘Terrorists, criminals, we’re going to kill you!’ Two soldiers took me by my arms and started running. My legs were dragging on the ground. They were laughing, telling me: ‘Fucking nigger!’ I didn’t know what that meant, I learned it later. They took off my mask and I saw many tents on the airstrip. They put me inside one. There was an Egyptian (I recognised his Arabic) wearing a US uniform. He started by asking me: ‘When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?’ ‘Who?’ He took me by my shirt collar and they beat me again. During all my time at Kandahar, I was beaten. Once it was like a movie—they came inside the tent with guns, shouting: WE CAUGHT THE TERRORISTS! And they put us in handcuffs. ‘Here are their guns!’ And they threw some Kalashnikovs onto the ground. ‘We’ve been fighting them, they killed a lot of people!’ All that was for cameras, which were held by men in uniforms. I was lying on the ground with the other prisoners. They brought dogs to scare us.

My Love Affair With The New York Observer
George Gurley • New York Observer • March 2013

Diary of a veteran gadfly.

Next, I was hired as a fact-checker at The New Yorker. I decided this was my calling. Forget writing. I’ll do this for the rest of my life. There was a big problem, though: I didn’t fit in with the other checkers, who were all Yale, Harvard, Harvard Law and spoke six languages. It was cool, though, seeing legends like Tina Brown (so fucking hot), John Updike and Joseph Mitchell in the hallway.

My first mistake: getting Roger Angell on the horn and calling him “Mr. Ann-gell.” Then asking Calvin Trillin if some of the lines in his Shouts and Murmurs were jokes. He kept repeating, “Joke … joke … joke.” He was nice about it, unlike Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, who kept snapping “critical commonplace” at me.

Bea’s Scientology Story
Bea Kiddo • Ex-Scientology Kids • 2011

A diary of a misspent youth (and adulthood) in the service of Scientology.

First of all, prior to the 1989 earthquake, I was in the Cadet Org and I was in the yard practicing front flips. There was a mat on the ground where we were doing the flips. There were two of us.

Then Ronnie Miscavige came to see his son, who was in the Cadet Org. Ronnie was dressed in full dress whites. He saw what we were doing and came over and did a cool front flip and then immediately he walked into the building and did not see what I did. I decided I wanted to try that! And so I did. I did the flip ok, but I landed on my tippy toes and forgot to catch myself. So my rear hit my ankle and I heard it break. Didn’t hurt too much, but freaked me out.

Because I was a minor, my mom had to take me to the hospital. I don’t know if she was mad or joking, but she told me I interrupted her dinner. Anyways, I got a cast on.

Diary of a Murder
Melanie Thernstrom • The New Yorker • June 1996

On the last day of their junior year at Harvard, one roommate kills the other, then hangs herself.

The great hopes Sinedu had held for her relationship with Trang dissolved immediately. Not only did Trang leave Sinedu alone every weekend to go home to her family but she already had a best friend—Thao Nguyen. Sinedu was jealous of Thao, and sometimes neglected to give Trang her telephone messages.

A month into their sophomore year, Sinedu wrote the following entry in her diary:

On the way to depression & battered w/ pessimistic thoughts…I am unlovable and a cuckoo …Trang told me I am boring … I felt like I’m boring her…If I ever grow desperate enough to seek power & a fearful respect through killing, she would be the first one I would blow off … You know what annoys me the most that situations would never reverse for me to be the strong & her to be the weak. She’ll live on tucked in the warmth & support of her family while I cry alone in the cold … The bad way out I see is suicide & the good way out killing, savoring their fear & [then] suicide. But you know what annoys me the most, I do nothing.

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