Susan Sontag: She’s Just Like Us!


We’ve always found the idea of Susan Sontag intimidating, and outside of some required reading in college (Against Interpretation), we avoided the voracious critic at all costs. Four years after her death, her son David Rieff — an author and academic himself — is publishing Sontag’s personal diaries in three installments; the first, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, came out last month and we were surprised when an excerpt in Book Forum sucked us in.

These pre-fame journals are intimate but businesslike, and because she’s writing as a self-critical teen experimenting with her under the radar bisexuality, she seems more vulnerable and human than the carefully-wrought public persona we know and fear. And it’s just a really juicy read — especially when she describes her first sexual encounter with a young woman identified only as ‘H’. “Perhaps I was drunk, after all, because it was so beautiful when H began making love to me …. It had been 4:00 before we had gotten to bed … I became fully conscious that I desired her, she knew it, too….”

So you can only imagine our excitement when Caleb Crain of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything posted a few snippets from Harriet Sohmers Zwerling’s diary from that same time period. It seems that Sontag was constantly peaking at her lover’s journal and many of the entries in Reborn are direct responses to the things she’d read in H’s diary. It’s like something Carrie Bradshaw once did in that episode of Sex and the City where she goes nuts on a former boy scout. It’s like something we would do.

We find it funny that the part of her life that Sontag felt obligated to shield from public view is the one area that makes her feel real and approachable in spite of her harsh, almost otherwordly, intelligence. We almost wonder if she’d been born a little later — when choosing to spend her life with another woman was slightly less taboo — if the Susan Sontag we know would have been easier on herself (“I had never realized how bad my posture is. It has always been that way. … [I]t’s not only that my shoulders + back are round, but that my head is thrust forward.”) and harnessed some of that energy toward becoming a different kind of unrelenting thinker. Like the kind who could have easily squashed Prop 8.