By Rachel Corrie; W.W. Norton; 2008; 256 pp.
Diaries are not written to be published. Few people’s daily scrib- blings ever make press of any sort partly because they’re so honest and really human in all the limitations and sublimity this allows—an irony if there ever was one. Most writing, especially political thought, is produced from a standpoint purposefully removed from the author’s emotions, sensibilities, and lived experience.
The publication of Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie is an inspiring demolition of this ironic separation of our own subjectivity from journalism and political analysis. We need more of this, more often. Corrie’s writings—a collection of diary entries, biographical introspective, letters, emails, and a final spree of press reports from Palestine—come across as lucid prose of a budding political consciousness formed in the wake of September 11, grappling with the immense problem of being in solidarity with the world’s dispossessed. Her reflections on privilege and the meaning of solidarity are an enormous triumph of Corrie’s journals. Those of us coming from a similar subject position of privilege and alienation can learn a lot from these pages.
Corrie’s early writings expound a deep preoccupation with social problems, albeit from a position of naivety. But her lack of knowledge does not stop her from asking the right questions and shuddering at those things her instinct rejects. In her childhood she writes of what I could only think of many years later—things like the Gulf War of 1991 that a generation of us watched confusedly on television as our parents took in the daily news. She even pens a letter to a Desert Storm soldier and proclaims that she "hate[s] seeing war on TV."
Many of her early words are poems and ruminations on the ecology of her childhood home on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. She writes of earthworms and blackberries and the estuaries and salmon beneath her city. Her entries show a desire to explore and learn about the earth as a living thing.
Her words span the thoughts of any youth growing up in America, especially those hang-ups confronting women—obsessions over her body, her attractiveness. She writes of school dances, rejections, awkwardness, and her worst fears. She describes her own body at times in disdainful terms. And she writes with an early awareness of our collective social diseases: "Why was my home and my country so terrifying? Supermodels and court TV and anorexia, Daytime talk shows, All very American. Our emptiness. How we’ve either forgotten or never learned our own own history." At the age of 13 Corrie calls us all soldier- zombies, stagnant liquid animals, goblins of selfishness.
The most beautiful entry in the book is a dreamlike recantation of a tragic romance. Written in 1999 Corrie recalls her relationship with a "beekeeper." She loves him, but is repulsed by the habit, the "stings" that mark his body: "Colin’s body is a network of bee stings. He is dying in front of me. He tells me he has decided to die of it. There is nothing I can say. He doesn’t care. He says goodbye and drives off. I scream after him, ‘I see now you never loved me!’ and ‘I never loved you either!’"
In November 1999, after this broken love story, the World Trade Organization descends upon Seattle, 60 miles north. Police and protestors clash. The world quakes. A year later Corrie ran into Colin at the library where he tells her he’s, "Reading up on some young anarchist." This unabashed mix of life, personal struggle, politics, and history comes across several times in Corrie’s journals in a welcoming grace. Corrie eventually uses her understanding of addiction learned from personal relationships as a metaphor for politics, and she dreams of possible solutions to both personal consumption and societal destruction: "How can a culture like this alter itself before it destroys itself and its environment? I think about how people get out of their addictions."
Through her personal struggles and relationships, her own irrational desires and obsessions—what Richard Rorty calls everyone’s "wild orchids"—the political and personal mix, not without contradictions, but they blend through her words. In one letter to her mother from Palestine, just a month before she is murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces, she writes: "I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make comics for my coworkers. But I also want this [war] to stop. Disbelief and horror is what I feel. Disappointment. I am disappointed that this is the base reality of our world and that we, in fact, participate in it. This is not at all what I asked for when I came into this world…. This is not what I meant when I was two and looked at Capitol Lake and said, ‘this is the wide world and I’m coming to it.’"
Few themes come across in Corrie’s writings as strong as her wanderlust. She writes incessantly of traveling, and is constantly reflecting on her discomfort in Olympia. This sense of homelessness bred from her alienation from white middle class America is a feeling common to every generation. Corrie reads and writes about authors who have resonated these feelings with the children of this nation, writers who have had something to say of homelessness and the nauseating mono-culture, writers like Kerouac.
Corrie’s writings during her enrollment at Evergreen State University span an interest with what’s happening in places far and wide. September 11 only seems to expand her global perspective. At the age of ten Corrie writes a verse based on her exposure to hard facts about inequalities. Decrying preventable deaths due to lack of medicines in Africa she implores, "We have got to understand that they are us. We are them." As an adult her writings convey an understanding that there are very real differences between those of us who are born in the global north and those born in the south, in Baghdad, Palestine, and the internal colonies of the United States—and that the solutions cannot be as simple as liberal appeals to conscience. Aid is only charity begot from immense wealth grasped through conquest and domination. She comes to understand the system and dedicates herself to radical change.
Corrie has profound insights about privilege. Many of her journal entries from 1997 onward deal with the problem of how to be in solidarity with those who do not possess race, class, and national privileges. Although she offers only questions, not solutions, her reflections on privilege are major sources of inspiration.
In Olympia’s peace mobilizations after September 11, and later from Palestine, she wonders how these movements can respond to local conditions, how the specificities of place and community provide opportunities to mobilize around what peace means in Olympia, how this is different from anywhere else, but how it is connected to the wider struggles. She ruminates on the fact that the war is not severely affecting most people’s daily lives. She wonders what a long-term more culturally based movement against militarism and capitalism would look like instead of the simple liberal opposition to this or that specific war.
Rachel Corrie says that she doesn’t "expect to see the world that I want to live in emerge during my lifetime. I expect things to get worse before they get better." Looking forward to seeing "an escalating number of people willing to risk life and limb in order to resist," Corrie holds out hope that the American people who mostly benefit from the world’s crisis and are mostly insulated from its disasters will start following the lead of the world’s majority to dismantle structures of oppression.
Before her death she was surrounded by an occupying force, living with Palestinian families, trying to understand their struggle and create a long-term system of people power to resist occupation and dispossession. Her journals are about long-haul solidarity with the oppressed, dismantling the structures of oppression that the privileged benefit from, and appreciating all acts of opposition in the present. At around the age of 18, Rachel wrote of her own death, saying,
If I die today,
you must burn the papers under my bed,
to charred leaves of ash.
You must silence my dead voice,
so it will not embarrass my memory.
We are more than fortunate that Rachel’s family has chosen otherwise and published her words.
Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist working with the Right of Return movement in New Orleans.