And why I still want them back.
An ordinary moment in a 13-year-old girl's life: unpacking a trunk on returning from summer camp. I'm in our Manhattan apartment with my parents and sister, sifting through a season of clothes, when something goes awry. Missing from the stacks of T-shirts and shorts and my copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X are my three small, cloth-covered diaries. It's 1968, a momentous summer for the country. For me, it's the summer the diaries disappeared.
I'd taken so many volumes to camp because I was afraid that if I left them home, my mother would read them. At the artsy camp in the Berkshires, I acted in plays, sang a Schubert mass, and befriended several brainy New York City kids whom I promised to see once we were home. I had a few crushes, and one of the New Yorkers had a crush on me, but he ended up with another girl. None of this was remotely on my mind when I discovered the diaries were gone. I begged my parents to call the camp owners and search the wooden teepee where I'd spent the last two months.
No sign of them. I hadn't noticed them missing when I packed, but here at home, about to hide them under my mattress, their absence was as loud as a gong. The loss reverberated inside me because it had nothing outside to attach itself to. How could they have just vanished on the trip home?
Months later, I got a letter from the camper who'd liked me with news about the girl he'd taken up with: "She told me that she took some diaries from your teepee in order to defame you, but I never believed her." I shook with relief and mortification. What had she told him? That I made out with Jeff S. on Thanksgiving? That I loved shopping in Bloomingdale's teen department? I was terrified to ask, and soon I was busy trying to get the books back from this girl who'd believed that I was such a towering threat that she had to destroy me. But how had she known about my secret diaries? She must have sneaked into my teepee when no one was there, rummaged through my belongings for any old thing to steal—and hit this jackpot.
I found the camp directory and phoned her house in New Jersey dozens of times. We were a New York City family without a car, and that's the only reason, looking back, why my parents didn't drive out there and demand the stolen goods. For weeks, she would answer the phone and hang up on me. Then there was nothing to do but give up. My father was decidedly not—though I can see now the advantages it could have brought—Tony Soprano.
I never did find out what the Diary Thief told the boy she'd wanted to woo, but it must not have been too damaging, because he became my boyfriend for the next year. I got the guy but was so traumatized that I stopped keeping a diary for years. That changed in college, the day that a literature professor told me, based on a personal term paper I'd written, that I wanted to write a novel, which I hadn't known before. That night, I put a fresh piece of paper into my typewriter and wrote, "If I keep writing in this every day, it will eventually turn into fiction." I don't know how I knew that. I hadn't grown up among writers, and pronouncements on the writing life were not in the air the way they are today. I suppose it was merely my fondest wish. The surprise is that it turned out to be right.
My first novel, Slow Dancing, was not the predictable coming-of-age story, but my second book dealt with the partially invented childhood of a girl named Esme, growing up in 1960s Manhattan. I gave Esme an elegant, theatrical mother modeled on a family friend whom I'd adored as a child. When Esme turned 12 in the writing process, I was stumped about how she'd think and express herself, and I remembered the diaries. I yearned all over again to learn what was in them, but this time it was for professional reasons. Yet it was not hard to experience all I'd felt when I delved again into the theft: my anger, humiliation, fear of exposure, and powerlessness.
In this nearly hallucinatory state of writer's desperation combined with a fantasy that I might once and for all get the diaries back, I phoned a friend who was an investigative reporter and told him I wanted to track down the Thief. I knew from a camp directory that she had moved to Boston at some point and changed her name. He called back in five minutes with her phone number and a script.
When she answered the phone, I said the childhood name by which she knew me, and then, "I want my diaries back." There were a few seconds in which she must have been doing cartwheels into her past, looking for the antecedent. Who? She said nothing and hung up. I called my friend back. What do I do now? Mail her a $5 bill and a letter imploring her to return the diaries. A week later, she sent back the money and a note: "The diaries were lost or destroyed many years ago." She was sorry that I was still so obsessed. I seethed all over again. I was not obsessed with the diaries anymore—hundreds of pages of my 11- and 12- and 13-year-old self. I wanted to say, This is about being a writer. You stole my research—you took my material. That is the charge today, Little Miss Diary Thief.
I managed to write 12-year-old Esme without my aide-mÃ©moire, and quite a few more novels and other books after that. But it was a book I didn't write that recently brought back the Diary Thief and that distant summer. In 2013, Meg Wolitzer published a wonderful novel called The Interestings about a group of kids who meet at an artsy summer camp in the mountains. From interviews, I learned that we had gone to the same camp, but her novel was set six years after my time there. The campers live in teepees, they excel or don't at creative arts, and they give themselves a name befitting their sense of themselves, the Interestings. They stay in touch all their lives, as I did with my own group of Interestings. In the novel, some prosper, some struggle, some fade away. Art triumphs. Friendship prevails. Everyone learns that life is fragile.
It was impossible to read without the overlay of my own memories: the teepees, the landscape, the crushes. It was a lovely backward glance at our sweet innocence, our fledging ambitions, our teenage longings. As I turned the pages, I half-expected to find the Diary Thief lurking in them, and the diaries themselves, still hidden away in a teepee drawer, unopened by strangers, unstolen, ungone, waiting to be packed in my trunk and taken home.
About the author
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels and the editor of three anthologies, including the forthcoming Me, My Hair, and I: Twentyseven Women Untangle an Obsession.