I’ve been writing in my WSJ.com column recently about the loss of tangible history, where our move to digital artefacts — letters replaced by emails, snapshots by digital pictures, SMS messages by postcards — is depriving of us of things we can touch to reconnect us to the past. A wonderful piece by the NYT’s Seth Mydans in Vietnam touches on the theme, although that’s not his intention when writing about the massive popularity of a recently discovered wartime diary by female doctor Dang Thuy Tram, who was killed in 1970 at the age of 27 in an American assault after serving in a war zone clinic on the Ho Chi Minh trail for more than three years.
It made me realise a couple of things, as I consider the unmeasured, and perhaps immeasurable, impact of digitization on our lives: My columns were fired by a conversation with a friend who had recently discovered the long lost letters of her mother, who had died when my friend was very young. It was a great way to connect to a woman she didn’t really ever know. But I didn’t really consider diaries. Diaries are hot zones. They plug straight into the heart. Here’s Tram’s tale, as Seth interviews the American soldier who saved her diary, Fred Whitehurst, whose visits to Hanoi have drawn wide attention:
Speaking by telephone from North Carolina, Whitehurst, now a lawyer, said he had been a military interrogator whose job also included the sifting of captured documents and the destruction of those that were of no tactical value. He said he had come to feel that his discovery of the diary linked him and Tram in a shared destiny and he now calls her “my sister and my teacher.” “We were out there at the 55-gallon drum and burning documents,” he said, describing that moment, “when over my left shoulder Nguyen Trung Hieu said, ‘Don’t burn this one, Fred, it already has fire in it.'”
In the evenings that followed, Hieu, his translator, read passages to him from the small book with its brown cardboard covers and, Whitehurst said, “Human to human, I fell in love with her.” According to Tram’s account, two earlier volumes were lost in a raid by U.S. troops, which means the published diary begins as abruptly as it ends, in mid-conversation.
Last year, after keeping it for decades at home, Whitehurst donated the diary to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Within weeks, Tram’s family was located in Hanoi and last October her mother and sisters were brought to Texas to receive the diary.
“It seemed that my own daughter was in front of me,” her mother said in an interview at her home. “For me the information in the diary is not the important thing. What is important is that when I have the diary in my hands I feel I am holding the soul of my daughter.”
She said she was able to read the diary only in small sections because of the power of the account. “She wrote us letters, but we never imagined that she was suffering those dangers,” Tram’s mother said.
Powerful stuff. I’m a sucker for a story like this, and of course the beleaguered Vietnamese Communist Party is milking this: A beautiful woman who is in love with the party as much as her missing boyfriend, sacrificing herself on the Ho Chi Minh trail? Never mind the self-doubt. Compared to today’s soft youth this woman was a rock.
What I find so powerful about this story is the pure chance that led to the diary’s rescue from the fire, and the long journey it took to get home. I love too the idea of the mother holding the diary in her hands, something tangible she can grasp instead of her daughter’s hands. I love the idea, too, that Tram wrote this for herself, to grapple with the demons and self-doubt within her. She had no audience in mind, no Comments page. She might be somewhere above us horribly embarrassed by the attention, of course, but our diary, and our letters, our writings, are our immortality. They are what will outlive us.
Blogs do this too. And they do a lot more: They connect us with the world, so we won’t be lonely, even if we’re in Dili in the middle of a firefight between rogue soldiers. But perhaps we need that loneliness sometimes, that feeling of writing for ourselves: writing as a form of exorcism and self-discovery. We don’t always need to be validated by others. Our existence is validated because we exist. I think I might be getting too existential here. I guess my point is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that writing a diary and writing a blog are the same thing. By moving our lives online, in the tiny glare of the few folk who read our musings, are we losing the intensity and unselfconscious honesty for when we write only for ourselves?