Report on 1993: From the Diane Files: Volume One, Ethan Swan
The single scariest facet of the internet is that, at any time, you can mistakenly open a door onto a spectacle which rouses pity, disgust, or horror for humanity. Simple searches for movie times or song lyrics can uncover the most heart-mangling confessions of pain and loneliness. This potential horrorshow lurks at every page, tempting you to scroll down past Billy Corgan's top 8 and see what mis-sent lovenotes his fans have left in his comments. It's a terrifying prospect, but one that can be kept at bay with a proper vigilance.
It wasn't always this way. Before websites, many cries of isolation were forced into broader public forums. Cut off and in search of friendship, pleading voices were woven through any cheap forum, from co-op announcement boards to magazine classified ads. If you could find the right venue for your desired subculture, you could reach everyone, even if they were just looking for a babysitter or a new apartment.
When I was in high school, I spent hours reading through the crowded text of Maximum Rocknroll classified ads in search of Misfits singles or Monsula tour dates. If you glance at a recent issue's half page of zine announcements and tape trade requests, it's impossible to imagine how daunting and addictive the 15 or more pages of classifieds felt in early-90s issues of MRR. As a relatively isolated teenager, I found straightedge cassette compilations that introduced me to 30 new bands. I wrote to people who wanted $1500 for the "Cough/Cool" single. $1500!! I very vividly remember having my curiosity irritated by a young man looking for penpals who swore he'd "came without touching."
In November 1992, during the height of my MRR classifieds addiction, an ad appeared that didn't mean anything to me but apparently reached many readers:
"Lonely 18 year old female into violent beauty, chaos as freedom, grotesque dark nite flighting and subjection through poetry. Write and tell me your dreams. Diane"
Dozens of responses were written. Maybe hundreds. The recipient described it as "more mail than is humanly possible to respond to intelligently." But to the dismay of all these writers, Diane didn't actually exist. The ad was a hoax, a part of a "scientific excuse to subjugate the individual", and a selection of the letters appeared, printed in their entirely, a few months later in a zine titled: From the Diane Files Volume One: The Doghaired Infants.
If I thought the classified ads of MRR was a harrowing experience, nothing prepared me for the letters in The Diane Files. The zine is a slaughterhouse. It's as if the letter writers have no skin; their cringing, uneasing pleas for contact filled with unconvincing hubris and pitiable vulnerability. It took three or four sessions to read through the letters. A sentence like "write down part of something about yourself that u are uncomfortable about writing down" would upset me enough to send the zine across the room. So would a sentence like "I'm a str8-edge vegeterian [sic] bro." There are extremes, like the girl who admires Hitler, the vampire and the mental patient, and there are insufferable banalities: "what kind of music are you into?" and "I had a dream of being a professional BMX racer."
What they all have in common is that they want so desperately to receive a response. "Please write"; "write back"; "drop a line"; "I hope to hear from you"; "Please write back." Some of them even acknowledge that their letter is one of many, and are eager to stand out: "Fuck all those other people who wrote to you. Their thoughts & ideas couldnt possibly be as rewarding as mine." It's hard to avoid imagining their disappointment at never receiving a reply.
The Diane Files anticipates some of the ways that people would receive the zine. The introduction ends with the warning, "If you enjoy prank phone calls yet get pissed about a project like this, then you have missed the point. Yet if you only laugh at the desperate absurdism then you too have missed the point." The second half seems especially poignant, as most readers tended to view the zine as a freak show, the participants as victims of a funny and/or shameful prank. But the implications of Diane and her admirers run much deeper.
The calculations are unavoidable: 12 issues of MRR a year, with at least 50 classified ads an issue. If each of those 600 classifieds received even 25 letters (the number printed in The Diane Files), that's 1500 letters a year. There's no telling how many friendships this basic, unspectacular plea for friendship would've spawned had Diane been real, but it's also hard to imagine anyone writing back to these requests: "how deep is your beauty diane? and where do you keep it inside?" Or, "If u choose to answer this letter and u are not beautiful dont send me a photograph."
What can't be calculated is the impact these one-sided exchanges had on the letter writers. After choosing to expose themselves so completely, did the writers sink deeper into vulnerability and disconnect? The loneliness is immeasurable, and it very quickly contradicts all of the sociological studies that celebrate the community of punk, and undermines the diary entries I was writing at age 15 about how I had finally found a place I belonged.
John Piche, the instigator of From the Diane Files Volume One: The Doghaired Infants, issued the zine under his Love Bunni Press imprint, which was founded in 1988 and still operates today (you can even still get copies of Diane). The Diane Files isn't the only hoax perpetrated for Love Bunni, but its effect is singular. While Piche's other elaborate pranks are remarkable (manuscripts supposedly stolen from the Chelsea Hotel; translations of 19th century French prisoners), none cut so close to the heart, or spoke such awful truths as The Diane Files. I emailed John to ask a few questions about his practice, mundane requests about the nature of pranks and the number of letters he actually received. But I really only cared about my final question, the answer to which would either vindicate Diane as an illumination of an unspeakable reality, or damn it as an evil-hearted trick. I asked him, "Do you like people?" Despite his earlier, enthusiastic reply to my request for an interview, and his surprise that I remembered a fifteen-year old zine, he never replied.