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 Rachel Stewart as she recounts how the Secret Diary lead her to the world of Twin Peaks and forever shaped her perspective.
It was the cover that caught my eye, that burning red velvet color radiating between the other books in a discard and discount pile at the Dollar Tree. The words “secret diary” paired with a flat and faded oval inset picture of a homecoming queen intrigued me. I dropped it in my mother’s green shopping cart. At this point, I knew nothing about Twin Peaks or who Laura Palmer could be, having slightly missed the heyday of the TV show all together. I was in sixth grade and completely unprepared for the pop culture obsession I had innocently stumbled upon.
Yes, dear readers, I did this whole Twin Peaks thing backwards. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I found Laura first.
Plot Point versus Person
In the series, Laura Palmer is a plot point. She’s a mythical dead girl, blue-grey and swaddled in plastic for us, as the audience, to deconstruct and obsess over. She’s a foreboding spirit trapped in the Black Lodge that haunts Special Agent Dale Cooper’s dreams. She’s also the mystery David Lynch never wanted to solve. In an interview, he once famously called her “the golden goose” that laid all these beautiful world-building opportunities for him and Mark Frost until ABC forced them to solve the mystery in the second season.
But thanks to Jennifer Lynch’s writing, Laura was always a person to me first.
The first few pages of Laura’s secret diary read like my diary did at that age, full of excitement and longing to be older, paired with the anxiousness that no one really sees you or could ever understand your true heart. There are poems broken out into stanzas across pages, entries start and stop, and pages go missing later on. It feels authentic, like the only thing that’s missing is scratched out words or smudged pencil marks along the margins.
And then the darkness creeps in slowly. We, as the reader, meet BOB and witness the physical and psychological torture he puts Laura through years before her dead body is found washed up on a shore, wrapped in plastic. Over the course of the diary, Laura is at war with herself, sexually and spiritually. She’s on high alert to be good or she’ll be punished for her thoughts, feelings, and actions. As someone who grew up in a small town steeped in Southern Baptist conformity and all the guilt that comes along with it, that also rings true. Looking back, Laura is probably the first character in pop culture that I witnessed to be bisexual or, if that term is too strong, open to sexual experiences with partners of both genders. Considering it was the early 1990s, I can’t underestimate the impact that had on me as I grew up and my understanding of the world deepened and shifted away from guilt and shame.
“Sometimes I think life would be so much easier if we didn’t have to think about being boys or girls or men or women or old or young, fat or thin…if we could all just be certain we were the same. We might be bored, but the danger of life and of living would be gone.” – The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, page 17
And yet, in the series, Laura’s death serves as an example of the danger of living and “going nowhere fast.” When I finally got my hands on the full series (and it took a while, since my Blockbuster only had the international version of the pilot and Fire Walk With Me), it felt empty of that realness I had found in Laura’s diary. Sure, there’s coffee and pie and owls and Dale Cooper saying funny things—these are all wonderful stories in their own right—but it’s not Laura’s story.
There are all those iconic, seemingly untouchable characters but I felt like those same characters stood apart from the space Laura held when she was alive. They never knew Laura, not really, and that’s part of the reason they, as a collective town, lost her. How can you truly be sad for someone you never knew? Dale Cooper gathers clues and stories, papering together a frail collage of who Laura could have been, but it never rings true. She was a homecoming queen. She was a drug addict. She was a sexual abuse survivor. She could be sarcastic or sweet. She could be cold and conflicted, but she was also scared and desperate for solace and protection.
On a surface level, the gossip, forbidden romances and endless dead-end clues and secrets have always made Twin Peaks hard to classify outright. Is it a soap opera? Is it a mystery? Is a meditation on the duality of life and the forces of good and evil? Even then, it felt like there was so much more underneath it that we, as an audience, weren’t getting. As a whole, the series is endearing and magical, but it always leaves me wanting more, but in a different way than viewers who watched the series first.
The Hidden Spark for Fire Walk With Me
After Twin Peaks ended on a cliffhanger and was cancelled, David Lynch decided to direct a prequel instead of a sequel. To the avid viewers of the show, that must have felt like a gut punch. It left Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge but returns to Laura Palmer, whose storyline was allegedly wrapped up when her murderer was finally discovered. I think Lynch was haunted by Laura’s real story and so he aimed to dig deeper. As the prequel was developed, this meant many fan-favorite characters were left out of the story altogether or even recast.
Outside of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, Fire Walk with Me is basically the holy grail of Twin Peaks for me. It’s the thing you thought you didn’t want but actually need. It does on screen what the diary did on the page: it makes Laura human. It makes us witnesses to her descent into total darkness, paired with depression, sexual abuse, and drug use.
Lynch cleverly places the appearance of the diary in a pivotal scene in the film.
“The man behind the mask is looking for the book with the pages torn out. He is going toward the hiding place. He is under the fan now.” – Mrs. Tremond’s grandson, Fire Walk with Me
Laura rushes home to find BOB in her bedroom, only to show later that BOB is, in fact, her father—or, in this case, inhabiting her father to wreak havoc on her life and wear her down. As readers, this has been happening for years, to the point that BOB is able to overtake Laura and have conversations with her in her own diary.
“I could talk to you forever and never learn a thing.
SOMEONE OF WISDOM IS ALWAYS MORE DIFFICULT TO COMMUNICATE WITH. THIS IS THE FIRE YOU MUST WALK THROUGH.
I don’t want to hear about fire.
THEN YOU DON’T WANT THE ANSWER.
Who are you . . . really?
I AM WHAT YOU FEAR I COULD BE.”
– The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, page 156
In the train car at the end of Fire Walk With Me, those fears are realized when Laura sees her reflection turn into BOB. In that same moment, she realizes she must die or others will be hurt. After years of abuse and torment, she decides she’d rather die than become the pure evil that’s haunted her whole life.
And thus she finds herself not in the seat that BOB saved for her but guided by the good Dale in the White Lodge. She sees her angel return to her and, with it, eternal peace, illuminated in laughter forevermore.
When I met Sheryl Lee at a convention a couple of years ago, I thanked her for her performance in Fire Walk With Me. I told her I never understood why people didn’t get the film. I understood. I knew girls like Laura growing up. I revealed my own brushes with darkness, that seemingly endless looming vortex of nothingness paired with feelings of not being enough. The whole time she listened. She saw me. It was then that she came out from behind the table and hugged me. I won’t ever forget that—and I sometimes can’t believe it actually happened. I also had her sign a copy of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer because in many ways, it’s just as much her book as Jennifer Lynch’s. In some way, they both live through Laura’s tumultuous life.
I have no doubt that the Diary—along with David Lynch’s meditation-focused direction—helped Lee find Laura’s emotional highs and lows throughout filming. I’d like to think the Diary filled in other performances as well. Moira Kelly stepped into the role of Donna Hayward after Lara Flynn Boyle declined to return. For whatever reason, Moira feels closer to the Donna I read about in the Diary: sweet, well-meaning, and caring, but out of her depth around Laura. Kelly gives Donna a light and grace that Boyle lacked. And for continuity’s sake, it fills out that offhand theory I heard once that Laura’s death literally changed Donna into another person (i.e. the bitchy, boyfriend- and shade-stealing Donna of the series).
Filling in the Missing Pages with The Return
One of the most thrilling moments of The Return for me was when the missing diary pages were discovered in the bathroom of the sheriff’s station. David Lynch pulled not only from the references he sought to expand in Fire Walk With Me (i.e. the Blue Rose cases), but also the mythology that built up around the series. Pulling the connections even tighter, the pages that are found chronicle the dream where Laura sees Annie in her bed, telling her the good Dale is in the Lodge. That moment also sets up the audience for the time-travel loop that will occur towards the close of The Return. Whether that’s where David Lynch meant to land this whole time or not, we’ll never know, but the Diary continues to play a role in making the original series, prequel, and third season a cohesive experience.
Generally, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer can be seen simply as a problematic promotional tie-in of its time: some of the dates are off, and every character seems to have a link to Laura in some way. But I love that Lynch found a way to anchor it deeper into the series canon and give it weight. Growing up, there was nothing I wanted more than to see what was in those missing pages and the original series never delved into Laura’s diary the way that Fire Walk With Me did. I think it comes down to David Lynch taking the time to dwell on the possibility of an idea and how to make a deeper connection. It illuminates Laura’s struggle and confirms what she herself could not believe: that she was worthy of love and peace.
“Please, Diary, help me explain to everyone that I did not want what I have become. I did not want to have certain memories and realizations of him. I only did what any of us can do, in any situation…My very best.” – The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, page 186
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