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Wake Up, Little Susie

The early journals of Susan Sontag reveal a pretentious, insecure, surprisingly lovable narcissist.


Susan Sontag started keeping a journal at the age of 12; her first entry concerned the rotting corpse of a dog. Over the course of her life she remained such a devoted self-documenter that, when she died, she left nearly 100 full notebooks filed neatly in a closet. It was unclear whether she wanted them published. (She whispered to her son, cryptically, dramatically, during her final illness: “You know where the diaries are.”) “In the journal,” she wrote in her own, “I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.” With the publication of Reborn—selections from the entries Sontag wrote between the ages of 14 and 30—we can now track the agonizing process of that self-creation: the first steps in her journey from a suburban California loner to America’s reigning public intellectual.

The story is simple, swift, and mostly sad. Sontag was a precocious, restless teenager, a Euro-culture junkie with guilty homosexual urges who managed to live several lifetimes before she was old enough to legally drink. At age 16 she left home for college at UC Berkeley. Later that year she was (as she puts it) “reborn,” after having epiphanic sex with a woman she refers to only as “H.” She marked the occasion with a series of ecstatic life resolutions:

“I know what I want to do with my life … I want to sleep with many people— I want to live and hate to die—I will not teach, or get a master’s … I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge! … I intend to do everything … I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly … everything matters! ... I am alive … I am beautiful … what else is there?”

This is moving on several levels: as a burst of happiness in a happiness-starved life; as a brief lifting of the weight of sexual guilt; and as a radical life program that would inevitably be betrayed. (She taught plenty of classes, got two master’s degrees, and became a high priestess of knowledge-worship.) Life, for Sontag, turned out to be about much more than simply being alive and beautiful.

After a semester at Berkeley, Sontag transferred to the University of Chicago, where, at just 17, she married a sociology instructor named Philip Rieff. They had a son. The marriage dissolved. She moved, alone, to Oxford, then to Paris, where—in a sad circularity—she fell into another love affair with “H.” This time it ended in a painful anti-epiphany, after which Sontag had to be re-reborn. As the relationship goes sour, you can see her, in the journals, begin to berate herself toward a new persona: “My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists.” “Weakness is a contagion, strong people rightly shun the weak.” “Through the mask of my behavior, I do not protect my raw genuine self—I overcome it.”

By her late twenties, Sontag was basically already middle-aged: back in New York, divorced, scaling various intellectual hierarchies, and learning to inhabit the bulletproof exoskeleton we’d eventually come to revere as her public persona. (The book ends one year before she published what is probably still her most famous essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ”)

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