Here at 25YL, we love The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Jennifer Lynch gives us a masterful glimpse into Laura’s inner life that enriches any viewing of the series and the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Over the next few weeks, we will be doing a deep dive into the Secret Diary as part of our month-long celebration of all things Twin Peaks. This week, join John Bernardy as he celebrates Sheryl Lee’s haunting performance as Laura in the audiobook version of the Secret Diary.
I wanted nothing to do with this audiobook. When I first heard Sheryl Lee was going to record The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer I got chills and every BOB memory I ever had came back for a second. I knew it’d be a damn powerful thing, I knew it’d be high quality, and I knew writing about it here would be the only way I could ever make myself listen. I knew full well the diary went full-immersion into Laura’s indelible trauma and it’s a tough thing to ask someone to dive into willingly. But I did it. And it’s a powerful experience just like I thought.
Sheryl Lee has never forgotten the pain Laura Palmer went through and this audiobook proves she still believes in making us experience Laura’s struggle to maintain her light despite so many adverse circumstances. If you were reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, if you had the pages in front of you, you could have a respite. You could look away at other things. You could close your eyes and literally hide in darkness for a moment. But this audiobook, even if your eyes are closed, will keep coming at you. It does not stop when you look away from it. You have to actively choose to pause the recording. You can’t instinctively dodge or take moments to yourself.
If you can listen to this in one sitting you are made of sterner stuff than I am. The trauma Laura Palmer went through, the trauma at the root of everything Twin Peaks, is on full display in this audiobook. It is raw and strong and relentless, and Sheryl Lee makes you feel for Laura as her inner light is attacked by BOB, others, drugs, and herself.
No matter how much you want to look away from the life of Laura Palmer as she copes (as best she can) with relentless abuse, you cannot do it. It is in your head, in your ears, and closing your eyes can only make it worse. You will experience the pain a sweet girl is going through as she tries to control a life that’s under fire from gaslighting, a possibly supernatural being and/or mental compartmentalizing, and sexual abuse.
In the book, the tone of Laura’s voice almost came clear off the page, but nothing like this. The audiobook version was Laura Palmer, delivered straight from the woman who played her for enough years to know who Laura Palmer is at a soul level.
In a lot of ways, this audiobook recording is Sheryl Lee going back to starting positions. Laura Palmer was the first character she ever played. She’s been there every step of the way for Laura, and Laura’s also been there every step of the way for Lee.
It’s been reported that Lee carried a copy of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer with her and referred to it regularly as she was filming Fire Walk With Me. Lee had so much compassion to embody Laura with, thanks in major part to Jennifer Lynch’s amazingly crafted words. Lee made sure the heart, soul, and pain within Laura in those pages came out in that film, and here she is presenting Laura to us again in this audiobook, with full force, and with possibly even more rawness than she showed in Fire Walk With Me. How can I say that without being lumped into hyperbole? She conveyed everything about a 12-year-old girl falling into darkness, broke my heart over and over, and to do it she didn’t have to scream once.
Sheryl Lee is amazing. And she deserves a break. Please let her have done enough for Laura Palmer that the actress is allowed to move on from embodying the pain again. No one should have that on their shoulders so squarely, yet she dives into it so willingly because she has that much compassion for the character and the realness of Laura’s struggle. Whether or not her assaulter was supernatural or worldly, Laura Palmer was a girl who was reacting as a girl, without any use of supernatural abilities, to multiple forms of assault, addiction, and gaslighting. Sheryl Lee is a professional who goes above and beyond all the time, she has so much love for Laura and her struggles, and she makes sure we feel what was really happening inside Laura’s head.
This audiobook is amazing, a feat. Powerful. It presents Laura’s strength, helplessness, ability to fight, and her feelings every step of the way. She always knows what she needs, is not often scared to say what she wants, and it is impossible to miss just what Laura’s gone through before Twin Peaks ever began.
Sheryl Lee felt every moment Laura Palmer did. She read the words, but there was more than that. Only the woman who was Laura in FWWM could become this character in the same way.
You can feel her grasping for control. You can feel her hopelessness when she knew she wasn’t going to be able to get out of a situation. You can feel her shifting anyway and fighting despite herself. You can feel her growing up year by year, just like Lynch’s language.
A GIRL GRASPING FOR CONTROL
Sheryl Lee reads the diary as someone so young sometimes: the dreams of a child who’s doing what she can to deal with abuse, how it must be bad dreams rather than reality. The beginning of the book has Lee reading the lines of a 12-year-old Laura Palmer in a believably 12-year-old tone. The pure bliss we get from Laura getting a pony for her birthday is straight out of any girl’s dreams. The story about Laura waking up and hooting like an owl and Sarah then embarrassing Laura by telling everyone about it is highly believable.
Except the pain is still there. Even in the early entries when Lee reads most of the lines age-appropriately, Laura is still a more-knowing 12-year-old. Tones of apprehension surface regularly, even though Laura is unable to understand or comprehend what’s been happening to her. She dreams about aspects of her experiences because it must be a dream, not reality. The pain Lee presents to us is confused and heartbreaking.
For as many fluffy entries as there are, there are also the entries where Laura recounts her dreams. This is where Laura talks about passing tests so that people don’t touch her in bad ways. The particular entry I’m referencing is recounting a dream the then-11-year-old Laura had, proving right away that Laura’s dreams have been filled with weariness for a long time. So young, and so tired.
Laura, though she didn’t have the perspective to know how to fight back effectively, was always trying to fight back against her situation. This was always apparent, and Lee’s reading made it even more apparent that Laura was actively working towards a better situation.
Laura was always trying to control the things she could (the sheer joy in getting Donna to try a cigarette) and regularly trying to control aspects of her trauma. To paraphrase a repeating theme all the way through the Diary: maybe I should be a better person and stop focusing on the things that happened to me, and I need to be good so people don’t think I’m bad.
With Sheryl Lee reading this book, you can feel the incensed heartbreak of 12-year-old Laura when someone had read her diary and the safe space for her thoughts was breached.
The age-appropriate little girl voice sneaks in regularly and organically between the tough stuff. Lee’s voice shifting between them so seamlessly really sold how Laura had two levels of life at once, and just how deep Laura was in trouble compared to where her age would normally have her.
The way Lee reads about the time at the lake with Donna and the boys from Canada (the same events Donna shared with Harold Smith early in Season 2), it seems so pure and innocent.
Then soon after she had a serene experience meeting the Log Lady, Laura said, “It is late, and he came tonight. I don’t know if the Log Lady was talking about the right Laura Palmer.” Lee’s tone was full of disappointment and cold acceptance, like why in the world should I have expected anything else. It was a wry tone, didn’t even get to fear, just disappointment.
There’s an entry where she remembers BOB being around her as a little girl, telling her what to see even if she didn’t see it that way. She realizes something bad had been happening to her for a very long time, and one of the most gut-punching moments is when she stutters and chops her words as she says, “I think that it is real.” The moments when Laura comes to an understanding are absolutely where Sheryl Lee brings her best and most heart-rending deliveries. She loves Laura Palmer so much and you can tell she has compassion for anyone who’s ever gone through anything like this in real life.
Every time Laura decides to continue to fight, it’s not a loud declaration. It’s not a shouted strength. It’s not at all brash. It’s always a quiet determination, as if thinking it too loud will draw attention to it.
PARTICULAR REVELATIONS FROM AUDIO
The trauma comes out in this audiobook strongly, just like it does in the book, but there are other subtler aspects you can only get from the voice of the woman who’s played Laura Palmer in every decade of her professional career.
Even though Sarah would sometimes embarrass Laura, you could tell from Lee’s tone that Laura actually liked her mom, even when she got to the point of wondering where her parents were when BOB took her from her room. When she talked about Bobby pulling her hair, Lee practically laughed and you could tell that Laura actually liked the attention and was not annoyed in the slightest.
Later in the Diary, sometimes Laura’s voice shifts back to being 15 like she’s supposed to be, for example when she’s talking about her mom worrying about her dramatic drug-induced weight loss. And Laura’s proactive near-optimism comes out once again when she begins talking about Meals on Wheels, but there’s also a manic level to it. And you can hear relief, almost nostalgia for a more peaceful time, when Laura talks about Johnny Horne. The moments when she feels unjudged are few and far between.
The entry with the list of initials (of the people she’d had sexual relations with) was an interesting study in what the audiobook specifically could bring. Lee imbues each set of initials with stories Laura damn well knows. Sometimes she implies a story and sometimes she doesn’t. You could tell some experiences were better than others; some were boring, some were spicy, and some were merely adequate. “AWN” in particular must be quite the story, and “HP” must be a never-again.
The entry where Laura and Bobby first have sex is her attempt at balancing her first time entering into a sexual experience with interest, and it supposed to having been her first time at all. She’s genuinely nervous, genuinely interested in making Bobby happy (though part of it is because she wants him to think all the attention and “treats” are worth it). She can’t help but imagine what BOB would be doing, imagining him as part of the scene, which disgusts me more than almost anything else, because even though it’s unsaid by Laura, she is not allowed to have anything positive without having to worry about BOB. Also what hits that point home is how Lee says about Bobby, “he is so good to me,” with such sadness-inducing amazement and confusion. There’s no confidence in Laura as to why Bobby was that way to her. And because she needed to keep her guard up and stay strong, she felt forced to humiliate Bobby by laughing at him “until his eyes lost his light,” thus ruining any kind of impenetrable foundation that could’ve been formed by the two of them. Her first time with Bobby evolved into an entry about finding out who BOB is and then revealing him to everyone. And Sheryl Lee made that transition as seamless and natural as Jennifer Lynch did in the writing—juggling two Lauras at once.
Part of Laura’s quiet cold strength that Lee delivers to us is so that Laura doesn’t freak out. Lee remains in control of Laura’s voice at all times. She isn’t scared, she’s handling what she’s been dealt whether she wants to or not, though cracks will sneak through. When Laura starts taking drugs, Lee is masterful at moving between a high confident energy and a manic near-loss of control. The drug deal in low town is one of the places where we see Laura’s outward bravado in context come out in her dialogue with the strangers who are threatening to kill her, but otherwise Sheryl Lee reads with that dejected quiet coldness that is happening inside Laura as she tries to maintain composure.
The story of the first party Laura goes to with Bobby and Leo where she gets off a woman is told almost serenely. It is Laura giving the woman a sexual experience that Laura herself longs for. Lee quietly and tenderly explained how “it was happening for her, and I just needed to keep her safe.” I don’t even think Laura actively knew this is what she wanted for herself, just that it felt good.
And of course right after this is when BOB fully enters the diary as an active voice, making the monologue into a dialogue because he can’t not intrude (and yes, I’ll be circling back to Sheryl Lee’s BOB voice later).
Laura’s first entry as a 16-year-old has a tearful delivery that she steals pride and confidence from people, just like BOB did with her. Sadness and tears and lament are all over Lee’s voice with this one. And the next entry where she admits she’s pregnant alternates between a cold worried voice and explosions of “I don’t know who’s baby it is,” and the ups and downs are nearly as drastic as when she and BOB alternate. She’s this close to being completely unhinged and it breaks my heart hearing it. There’s a wistful sadness after the abortion when she’s writing to her baby, “come back child, when I am no longer a child myself,” saying things and experiencing things no child should ever endure.
Cruelty organically enters Laura’s emotional toolbox and Lee’s vocalizations. She has no pity for Josie Packard for one, and she unleashes on Harold though we never see anything except how bad, broken, and penitent she feels after she rapes him.
After Laura turns 15 (which she did not commemorate at all), all her happier-sounding moments are when she’s trying to bring good into the world by helping Johnny and creating Meals on Wheels, or when she initially decided to help Josie with English, but even those bursts of happiness in Lee’s voice maintain the manic edge of this implication: “This is good enough to make the bad go away, right?”
Most of the time after she’s 16, Laura is jaded. She is disappointed by Jacoby’s appreciating both her light and dark sides, and by Josie wanting to be seduced by her. “Why does everything have to go sexual when I try to do good?”
The second-to-last entry is Laura recounting what she’d discussed with Jacoby in one of their sessions. It covers how people treat her and how she treats people. It’s a cold reading, and Laura still worries no one would talk to her if they knew how dirty she was. This is a broken Laura, a resigned Laura. She fantasizes about running away with her safety-deposit money to start over fresh but thinks she doesn’t deserve that. Laura ends the entry with a massively sarcastic read of “love, Laura,” as if “how could there really be love? It’s just the thing you’re supposed to say and we all know better, don’t we.”
The final entry is a thesis statement for the book. Laura wants us to believe she’s good in her core, no matter what kind of things she’s done. She doesn’t want us to think she’s dirty. We’ve heard this all the way through the book but Lee reads it with such pleading earnestness that it’s impossible not to believe her. It’s impossible not to feel your heart hurting for the pain delivered to our ears.
AND THAT BOB VOICE
I knew it was coming but it was not something I was prepared for.
Laura’s fear really comes out when she’s in active dialogue with BOB. The way she pleads and cries with him is how Laura is feeling all the time but won’t let on to herself unless she can’t help it and the beast is right in front of her.
He is that foot in the door letting in doubt, and he’s the evil that men do, and he’s in Laura’s head, and he’s a rapist and a murderer and also a veil over Leland Palmer—and he’s all of these things in this book as well. And Sheryl Lee gives him voice. She had to play Laura as she grasped at her light against all odds, and she had to play Laura’s killer: the man who wanted to snuff Laura’s light from the inside out.
Lee must have modeled her vocals after Frank Silva’s Episode 29 performance, the way he bit into lines like, “ he…CAN’T have your soul. I will take HIS.”
Sheryl Lee owned the character of BOB in this audiobook. It was a low and snake-like voice. Gravely, and its own palate. I could see people not knowing it was Sheryl Lee. Yet the voice entered as if he was coming straight through Laura, like he was becoming her, not like she was becoming him. You’d think it could feel like she’s possibly becoming BOB but that’s not at all how it worked, even when she said she did a convincing BOB impression to Johnny Horne. BOB was becoming her, crossing over into her head only. It’s a distinction I could feel. She would not have him, and that piece of shit was relentless and gaslighted a girl who had so much love for everyone. And that girl’s love slowly changed into protection and strength.
When Laura finally did accept her situation she was so deeply into it she didn’t have perspective to know how to ask others for help. BOB set Laura up to fail, coldly and demeaningly answering Laura’s statements as if they were naïve stupidity. Laura believed BOB every step of the way that she was not deserving of others’ compassion. She needed to control others to get that. Her strength is unrelated to her self-confidence, or at least they’re disconnected concepts. BOB is more than just some fictional character no matter what Laura tried to say when he wasn’t around. He had a fast counter-argument for any self-confidence Laura tried to display, and that’s why we heard Laura in her most frantic states when he was talking with her.
Listening to Sheryl Lee recount things in the varying ages required in this book, I couldn’t help but feel the nightmares I had when I was younger. I first saw BOB on Twin Peaks when I was 12, and the first time I saw him he was a mystery man creepily crouched at the foot of a bed. Nobody knew we were going to watch him and Leland brutally and slowly kill Maddy Ferguson—we hadn’t even met Maddy yet. I knew BOB was creepy immediately but it got progressively worse as the episodes went on. After the conclusion of that arc I had to take a break from watching because it was too intense for me. Then when I was 13 I came back for the series finale only to be confronted by BOB somehow conquering Dale Cooper, and my multiple-year fear of mirrors was solidified.
For years BOB was in my nightmares. I actively avoided mirrors (especially in my bathroom) because I didn’t want to see BOB looking back. This is me, a real life person, scared in my core of something from a TV show. Scared I might be inhabited by that bogeyman. I was on one side of puberty and wasn’t sure what I’d turn into when I matured. And I prayed to God my baser instincts would not be as primally bad as those BOB displayed. Turning into a man is a scary prospect anyway, but turning into that kind of man, inhabited by primal evil, especially when he was already in my nightmares…it can give a boy pause. Yet there he was in my dreams, constantly reminding me of what could happen if I wasn’t on guard.
This whole time I’d never once read the Secret Diary. Never once watched Fire Walk With Me. I never once knew that Laura was also scared of becoming him from within.
By the time I found Twin Peaks on Bravo and watched the episodes in the middle that I missed, I was 17 years old, and that meant for five years the relentless terror of BOB was regularly in my nightmares and therefore was very real. It gives me a point of reference whenever I’m confronted with the Diary as that’s the exact length of years covered in this book. I realize I am a real person who’d never been sexually assaulted, and that Laura was both sexually assaulted and a fictional character, so there’s obvious scale issues with the comparison, but the scariest bogeyman of my life was exactly Laura’s bogeyman in this book.
BOB was such a primal presence and more real to me than he needed to be. For however different the reasons, I understood Laura’s constant preoccupation with avoiding BOB, and I did some of the same things even though he never did anything physically abusive to me. The Secret Diary hit me at a foundational level I wasn’t expecting.
Maybe this is why I always get uncomfortable with all the exclusively pie-and-coffee fans. The ones who quote Dale all up and down and celebrate Twin Peaks Day but don’t seem to remember it’s all born from a girl who died under awful means. I will never forget that she died horribly, and I will never forget who killed her and how.
WE KNEW SHE WAS IN TROUBLE
The “We knew she was in trouble” speech by Bobby Briggs at Laura’s funeral put in plain words what really happened to Laura Palmer and why: the whole town looked away.
Before Season 3 started, people were planning their pie-and-coffee parties. Most of those fans, mind you, were well aware of FWWM. You’ve seen it but you compartmentalize. This is what we do.
I love Twin Peaks with all my heart. It was foundational and hit me at the right time to embed itself into the language of existential questions a preteen begins instinctively exploring. Twin Peaks and growing up will always be tied together for me. But I swear to God I will always get uncomfortable on Twin Peaks Day because I will never forget that a girl was gaslighted and abused and forced to make a choice to die. I will never forget that the trauma-laced life and death of Laura Palmer is the major foundation of Twin Peaks, even more so than the character of Dale Cooper.
Most people look away from this fact, show the white of the eyes and drink full. But I can’t.
Trauma isn’t removable, there is only navigating through it, one second at a time. It’s not easy, it takes longer than is comfortable, but it will end. Timelines can’t forget it, and this audiobook will never let you forget either.
Fire Walk With Me is an incredibly rough movie that puts Sheryl Lee’s skills to the test as we watch her go through hell as Laura. And even if you think there’s divergent timelines, all but the last major scenes after she got off James’s bike still happened to Laura Palmer.
By that logic, absolutely every page of the Secret Diary happened whether or not Dale Cooper changed the true past. BOB was progressively more and more present in Laura’s life. Her struggle to do good versus being bad, and the heartbreaking effects of her abuse by either BOB or Leland is unchanged. Laura suffered badly through no fault of her own whether Dale Cooper went back to the past or not. In “canon,” if you’re one of those people, this book is completely unchanged by anything that happened in the modern incarnation of Twin Peaks.
And this book is the most difficult goddamn thing of all of them. This puts you in the head of a girl who cannot forget her abuse no matter how much pie and coffee you put in front of her.
This is why I can’t read this Diary more than once or listen to it more than once. This book unfolding in your ears is an incredibly difficult path to get through, but its power is as undeniable as my respect for Sheryl Lee and her incredible work. I recommend you listen to the audiobook, just make sure you’re in an emotionally safe place when you do.
[The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer audiobook is available on Audible.]