part 1 | part 2
When Diana Nyad tells stories about traumatized children, those children are always three-year-old girls:
This woman told me a story that I’ve heard many times before. Her father began molesting her when she was 3. (NY Times, 11 Nov 2017)
It’s harrowing to hear these tales of a girl who was three years old molested by her father then her grandfather. (Facebook Live, 17 Nov 2017)
She became the little concubine of the SS officers. Oral sex, anal sex, intercourse. At age three, she was forced to perform these heinous acts many times a day. (Find a Way, 135)
Never two, never four or five or six—the little girl is always three. That’s not a coincidence.
22 August 1952 — Diana Sneed Turns Three
Diana’s fourth year doesn’t start badly: nine days after her third birthday, she gets a brand new brother, William Lent Sneed III. Unfortunately, though, she must now share a mother, Lucy Sneed, whom Diana describes as neither warm
My mom Lucy would stand at the door to say good night when I was a child. I wanted her to come in and cuddle with me. But she stood her distance… (ibid., 35)
…I was often disappointed at my mother’s weakness in not protecting me when I was young—not protecting all three of us, not even protecting herself. (ibid., 33)
Then, shortly after her brother arrives, possibly within days of his birth, William Sneed Jr. takes off. In the fifteen months that follow, the world Diana knows crumbles while a new one coalesces around the unstable gravity of a new stepfather, the man Diana believed—well into her teens—to be her biological father: Aristotle Zison Nyad. 
12 January 1943 — Aris Nyad, 90210
In the Solomon Islands, some six or seven hundred miles off Papua, New Guinea, the Battle of Guadalcanal winds down. The seven-month campaign will end in February, but not before more than 25,000 soldiers have died.
Food shortages plague the United States. Meat is scarce in much of the country, including Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Aristotle Z. Nyad, who looks more like a movie star than most movie stars, has been partying with Hollywood high rollers in Beverly Hills since November. He wears the full military dress uniform of a lieutenant in the Greek naval air force. The medals on his chest provide palpable proof of his heroism.
Nyad fled Greece and its economic woes in 1940, taking a job aboard the Greek flagged S.S. Nea Hellas. Upon arrival in New York, he deserted. He’s in Los Angeles now, he claims, to build morale among his fellow expatriates. Between stories of his courageous and death-defying airborne exploits, he reminds the revelers that his countrymen need both their concern and their currency. Any denomination will do.
Tonight, the partiers have taken over the ballroom at the Beverly House Hotel. The bigwigs convince themselves that, by supporting the godlike Greek, they’re doing their bit; with battle-hardened soldiers like Lieutenant Nyad waiting in the wings, the war is as good as won.
So, when Beverly Hills police officers stride through the ballroom doors, handcuff Nyad, and accuse him of fraud, the partiers know it’s a mistake. His sincerity, his honesty, his single-minded commitment to the cause—Lieutenant Nyad lie? Impossible. Everyone at the Beverly House that night knows this for a fact. 
But Aristotle Nyad, a.k.a. Aris Notaras, hadn’t spent a single minute in battle. Instead of flight time, he gets prison time: six months for impersonating an officer. A few years later, a court in Athens awards him three years in absentia for “smuggling gold from Switzerland to Greece.” By early 1951, Nyad’s in Zurich serving his sentence. To shorten it, he informs on fellow smugglers.
Between sojourns in the slammer, Aris finds time to marry at least twice and have at least one child: a daughter, Aryne, born in Florida in 1944.
Later in 1951, he says auf wiedersehen to Zurich and reunites in Paris with fashion model Nelly Nyad, his most recent wife. In 1952, while still in Paris, he runs a scam wherein he impersonates a duke.
By March of 1953, having returned to the U.S., Aris has insinuated himself into the social scene in Palm Beach, Florida. There he meets an heiress to a patent medicine fortune. She is a separated mother of two named Lucy Sneed.
In July, Lucy files for divorce from Diana’s father.
In November, two months pregnant with Diana’s half-sister, Lucy elopes to Arizona with Aris, then returns to Palm Beach with her beguiling new beau. Free in Florida with a fortune at his fingertips, Aristotle Nyad has found his Elysian Fields.
Aris didn’t know it at the time, but he had stumbled upon both a patron and a protégé. By the time he decamps a decade later, he had bestowed upon his step-daughter his sociopathy and his surname. Diana Sneed had disappeared. Etched in her place: Diana Nyad.
Many details of Diana’s survivor tale change from version to version. But certain elements remain constant. These unchanging details constitute the core of the story and tell us a lot about its real subject, Diana Nyad.
For instance, while the geographic location of the story varies from Arizona to New Mexico to nowhere-in-particular, the first scene always opens in a noisy restaurant. That’s where Nyad meets and becomes mesmerized by her imaginary survivor:
[T]he noisy din of the restaurant fell away. All I heard was this woman’s voice. I was transfixed. (Find a Way, 134)
It turns out that when Diana was young, she frequently witnessed another mythical character spellbind diners:
Dashing in a white dinner jacket, Aris resembled Omar Sharif in his prime. Only better-looking. I remember walking to our table in restaurants when I was little, noting that women were tracking my father, jaws agape, forks hanging limp. He was a beauty. (ibid., 27)
For her survivor tale, Diana invents a woman who has many of the qualities she saw in her stepfather, many of the traits that she grew to want for herself:
“Clearly the life of the party, she had a light in her eyes and was introduced to me as the pillar of their community” (ibid., 134).
“He was the life of the party, as he’d been the life of every party. He danced with all the women and chatted up a storm, in an array of languages, with every guest” (ibid., 32).
“…obviously she was the most respected one there. And she told wonderful stories. And obviously everyone, myself included, was captivated by her” (National Speakers Bureau).
“The next day as our guests called to thank us for the evening, every single one of them used the phrase I had heard all through my childhood: ‘Your father is the most charismatic person I’ve ever met in my life.’” (Find a Way, 32).
“[S]he had the light of life in her eyes. She was still burning strong” (Oprah).
One guest “said she realized Aris couldn’t talk much about his work with the FBI but the hints he’d dropped revealed some of the things he was investigating, and he was obviously leading a devastatingly interesting life.” (Find a Way, 32).
But just as Aris’s charisma is always an act, always part of some scheme, so the survivor’s radiance is a fiction, another Diana-devised illusion. She has conjured a near-perfect mirage, one that appears so real and pure that we don’t think to question it. But anyone who gets close enough will find that it’s just hot air.
The three-year-old’s family always consists of a mother, a father, and a six-year-old sister. That’s also the constitution of Diana’s family when she turns three—except that Aryne, the child playing the part of the sibling, is seven.
In all versions of the story, the Nazis kill the girl’s family. A three-year-old would feel this as abandonment. Diana, too, would have felt abandoned at three, first by her father and then by her mother. No adult comes to the aid of either girl. And, for Diana, the person in the best position to protect her is the person responsible for inviting an abusive con artist into their lives in the first place.
Whether Aris’s abuse was solely emotional or both emotional and physical, we’ll never know. Diana says that Aris hit her siblings and her mother. She also says that, later, he touched her inappropriately—when she was about ten—and she implies that something sexual might have happened before that (see Find a Way, 28-30).
But Diana is a compulsive liar, so we have to question everything she says. However, his step-daughter—just like the girl in the survivor story—had no way to protect herself no matter what Aris did.
After the survivor describes her abuse at the hands of the Nazis, Diana responds:
I began to cry. I told her I felt deeply embarrassed to have mentioned my “little” story on the stage that night. (ibid., 135)
Diana wants us to believe that she can feel shame and empathy despite all evidence to the contrary. She wants us to believe that she can shed tears for someone other than herself. She wants us to believe that she is good.
What’s more, she doesn’t want to convince just us; she also wants to convince herself. She needs to believe she can still feel emotions that, under the weight and wing of Aristotle Nyad, she learned to live without.
Every version ends with the same advice from the survivor’s new mother:
You must take these memories and bury them deep in a corner of your soul. Don’t live them on your skin. Tomorrow you will wake up for the first time in your new home, here with us. You will not wake up a tortured little girl. You will wake up a citizen of the world, deserving of a happy and meaningful life. (ibid., 135-136)
She makes it sound so simple—the suppression, in a single night, of years of daily sexual abuse, then the jolly getting-on-with-one’s-life. Like the entire tale, it’s Diana’s own story reflected in a distorted mirror. Nyad wants it to be easy. She tried it with her own traumatic childhood memories. But the scheme didn’t work, and the trauma continues to roil and fester.
“I will never replace your mother” (ibid, 135), says the new mom, who is everything that Lucy was not: maternal, protective, huggy. But replacement is precisely what Diana desires. She wants to trade her trauma-filled childhood for a fantasy one, a childhood with no father and no siblings, but with an ideal mère chérie who trains her spotlight of love and attention at all times on little Diana.
Every time she tells her Holocaust fable, Nyad discovers that her protagonist is a survivor in exactly the same way:
[S]he reached across the table to get something that night like this, and her sleeve pulled back, and I saw the numbers etched in her forearm, and I said, ‘you’re a survivor.’ (Oprah, 1:10)
Something important, though, does change: the camp to which Nyad sends her survivor. Depending on the version, it’s either Dachau, Treblinka, or an unnamed “death camp.” Nyad never sends the woman to the one camp that actually tattooed prisoners. It’s as if Diana wants us to know, albeit unconsciously, that her story is not a factual one about a woman who bore literal marks of trauma on her skin but a parable about a woman who bears figurative marks of trauma on her soul.
Diana’s third year engraved itself onto her as indelibly as a survivor’s tattoo. Nyad blankets the evidence with bombast, hubris, and faux heroics. It horrifies her to think that people might discover the truth: hidden under the covers sleeps a vulnerable little girl who dreams of having what she, like everyone else, deserves—a safe, stable home, and the attention of loving parents.
Diana Nyad got none of that, and she wears the absence on her skin. No amount of submersion in fresh or saltwater can make it disappear. 
Update & Correction: March 12, 2021
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Aris Nyad fled Greece when the Germans invaded in 1941. He left Greece in 1940. The entire post has been edited for ease of reading.
- Most of the preceding paragraph, the one that begins, “Then, shortly after her brother arrives,” comes from “And Then We Were Three: Diana Nyad’s Very Bad Year.” I borrowed a few other passages for this post from the same source. RETURN
- According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Hollywood Trip Ends in Arrest,” the police take Aris into custody on January 12, 1943, at “120 S. Lasky Drive.” A researcher in the Beverly Hills library’s history department told me that 120 S. Lasky did not exist in early 1943. She thought that the author or the police probably meant 140 S. Lasky, the address of the Beverly House. At the Beverly House, Aris might have crossed paths with Joan Berry, who later filed a paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin. In testimony during the suit, Berry said that she “stopped at the Beverly House Hotel” from December 7 (1942) until December 22, “the day before she went to Chaplin’s home.” RETURN
- At three, Diana probably didn’t know about Aryne. Diana learned about her later, probably sometime before inventing the survivor tale. On the other hand, Diana could have known about Aryne much earlier. A few weeks before Diana’s mother married Aris (i.e., shortly after Diana turned four), Aris changed the name of his newly acquired yacht, rechristening her the ARYNE-N. RETURN
- In 2012, Diana momentarily opened up about some of her internal struggles:
[A]s the big [60th] birthday neared, she became overwhelmed with regret…. “Just second-guessing everything. It was ruthless. It’s good to examine a life. I’ve done plenty of that—this was just a constantly revolving regret and self-bashing: I really don’t deserve this. I’m really not that good. Somebody’s going to find out I’m a fraud….”
“And when I turned 60, I thought, Am I going to do this another 22, 25, 30 years, and that’s going to be it? I’m sick of it. I’m going to stop it.”
So she came up with the biggest, most outrageous-sounding idea, a desperate lifeline…. She would go after the great white whale…. (“The Swimmer,” Out Magazine, August 2012)
But no matter what Diana does, what whales she rides, what epic walks she takes, what swims she pretends to complete, that little girl will always be there waiting for her at the finish. RETURN