Diana Decides to Forget Half of Her Life

After years of writing and talking about herself, Diana Nyad misplaces three decades.

On a recent episode of the “Wild Ideas Worth Living” podcast, host Shelby Stanger asked about Diana Nyad about her expulsion from Emory University, an incident that Nyad has recounted numerous times. Surprisingly, she claimed that she had little memory of her teens, twenties, or thirties. She concluded, “…I don’t remember Emory at all.” Below are some excerpts from Nyad’s remarks. (For the full passage, please see “Diana Nyad on her memory.”)

…my childhood and high school and college and maybe even a little bit longer—I remember almost nothing, because I was in a whole different world. I was in a world of trauma. I was [in] a world of confusion, a world of low self-esteem.

…I wasn’t in this world, I wasn’t attached to reality at the time.

…I don’t remember Emory, at all. (starts at 29:38 )

Remember (if you can) that this is the same person who recounts in the above interview, just before the lack-of-memory monologue:

I was studying comparative literature and reading Flaubert in French, and it was fantastic. I was twenty-some years old, and then I swam around Manhattan Island, and it just happened to be a big deal…. So all of a sudden, I’ve had chances, and I got chances to put the Cuba swim together. (28:20)

Remember that this is the same person who recalls in speech after speech that, for the ten years leading up to her last pool race in 1968, she woke…

…at four-thirty every morning, 365 days a year, no alarm clock needed. A thousand sit-ups and fifty chin-ups every day. Never 999, never 49. (Find a Way, p. 44)

And remember that this is the same person who, 32 years after the event, describes the aforementioned Manhattan swim so vividly that it could have happened the day before:

When I came out of the Harlem and into the wide, historic Hudson and lined up the George Washington Bridge, I had an adrenaline surge I’ll never forget. It was a sparkling day, the sun glistening off the white caps. (The Score, 6 Oct 2007)

This same person now wants us to believe that, in a state approaching amnesia, she drifted through a confused haze for thirty years.

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Nyad published her first memoir, Other Shores, in 1978. It covers a four-year period, beginning in 1974 with her Lake Ontario swim, the year Nyad turned 25. It ends four years later with her first Cuba-to-Florida attempt. In the book’s first paragraph, Nyad writes about her final training swim before the Ontario crossing:

EIGHT THOUSAND four hundred. Should I ask the time? No, I know the time. Five hours, thirty-six minutes. Six hundred strokes to go; twenty-four minutes. Hang on, stay strong. Finish strong. Four hundred one, two, three…

Nyad continues in the same vein for 173 pages—an entire book devoted to remembering just four years in her twenties. AN ENTIRE BOOK!

Diana remembers.

Welcome to Emory!

Here are two examples of how Diana remembers Emory University. First, from Find A Way:

A fine school, a fine city, but a low time in my life. Debutante belles were pledging sororities, and I was gay but didn’t know it. My lifelong self-identity as an athlete was gone. I became a loner, which neither suited me nor made me happy. I parachuted out a fourth-story dormitory window in a desperate, immature attempt for attention…. I was asked to leave Emory the next day. (2015)

Second, as told to Jane Shapiro in “What Makes Diana Nyad Swim?”:

…As a college student in Atlanta, she was caught in Rich’s department store with some other girl’s shoplifted things in her bag, and although Nyad had been shoplifting routinely for years, she wouldn’t say that those particular items were hers. Because it was the other girl’s stuff. So she got kicked out of Emory, and they said she needed ‘critical psychological help….’ (1976)

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What of the other two lost decades? From her teens, here is part of the down-to-the-fingernail description of her final pool race in 1968, a story Nyad often repeats (with a few critical variations)…

Two minutes later I’m at the blocks. I blast off with shoulders and heart and swim the most perfect race of my life. I hit the wall, close my eyes, close my fists, and I say it. Out loud, with passion. And I mean it. ‘I couldn’t have done it a fingernail faster.’ (Find a Way, p.53)

For her thirties and forties, see chapter ten of Find A Way. Nyad fondly recalls, among many other experiences, the joy of hanging out with her good friends Candace and Bonnie, the fun of working for Wide World of Sports, of researching big cats, and of meeting Julia Child. She ends the chapter:

So New York life in my thirties and into my forties was busy with work; it was flush with my deep and growing friendships with both Candace and Bonnie; it was about squash and reentry into the athlete’s arena. And it was about love. (p. 100)

Diana remembers.

Given the brazenness and scope of this lie, I could go on and on and on and on. Practically anything that Nyad wrote in the last 40 years—or that someone wrote about her—attests to the deceit.

And yet we fall for it. Why?

 No matter how much we like to think we can tell when people are lying, we really can’t.
Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game)

When someone looks us in the eye, literally or figuratively, and speaks with sincerity, it’s almost impossible not to believe them. Having spent almost two years documenting Nyad’s deceptions, I still find it difficult to catch her new ones, even those as breath-taking as this. In a Facebook post about her “Wild Ideas” interview, I focused much more on her regular-rotation fabrications. Not until listening again a week later did I understand the breadth of this new untruth.

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Aris Nyad turns informant in a Zurich prison two years before marrying Diana’s mother.

Diana experienced trauma. She had a difficult and chaotic childhood at best. Her step-father, Aristotle Nyad, a.k.a. Aris Notaras, was a criminal and a con man. Arrested numerous times, he spent more time in prison, both in the U.S. and abroad, than we’ll ever know.

But Diana has demonstrated—via her books, articles, and interviews—that she has no problem remembering details from any decade of her life. If she does forget a thing or two, she can always consult Other Shores or Find a Way.

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