Read it and weep: Coming-of-age in Phoebe Gloeckner’s ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

A girl with bangs rubbing her eyes against a red and white background
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

CW: Mention of sexual abuse

In “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader,” Vivian Gornick writes, “It has often been my experience that re-reading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question … Yet the world still drops away while I’m reading and I can’t help marvelling, ‘If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?’”

So describes my relationship with “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures,” a book I first encountered in movie form the summer before my junior year of high school. At the time, I was enraptured. It was hard to put my finger on what it was about the film that moved me so deeply. I identified with the protagonist Minnie Goetz, played by Bel Powley, an aspiring artist with heavy bangs, wide eyes and big boots who liked to stomp around San Francisco “driven astray by the lustful lure of the flesh.” 

Soon after, I read the book by Phoebe Gloeckner that the film is based on — which frames itself as the illustrated diary of Minnie Goetze, narrating her coming-of-age in San Francisco in the ’70s as she enters into a sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. While Gloeckner includes pages from her own diary as an afterword, Gloeckner instructs: “It’s not my story. It’s our story.”

It is hard to know exactly what language to use to describe what the book is “about” — Gloeckner explains in the book’s preface: “Having flogged the dead horse of autobiography, I’d like to respond to frequent descriptions of this book as being about ‘trauma’ or ‘the sexuality of the female adolescent.’ Again, all coyness aside, I must tell you that it is ‘about’ nothing. At the same time, it is ‘about’ everything … It’s about pain and love. It’s about life. That’s all.”

While it is difficult for language to adequately organize trauma, Frederik Byrn Kohlert notes that comic forms can “represent individual traumatic memories in a way that language alone cannot, and also serve as the vehicle for the construction of a visual narrative that can help the event be integrated into lived experience.”

As much as trauma and sexual exploitation are part of the book, Minnie is not reduced to her trauma nor is her trauma reduced to a vehicle for plot or character development. It is a delicate balance that Gloeckner deftly pulls off. As the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis notes, the book “pulls off the tricky feat of honoring Minnie’s sexuality without exploiting it or her.” 

Indeed, reading “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” at 16, I felt viscerally that the book was for and about me. I vividly remembered lines like Gloeckner’s dedication — that it is a book “for all the girls when they have grown” — which I felt, and still feel, is true. I, like Minnie, wondered if “anyone loves me that I don’t know about.” 

“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” was also the first book I encountered that treated a teenage girl with the same seriousness and multidimensionality as an adult protagonist. The diary form of the novel gives way to Minnie’s rich interiority, while the wonky, highly stylized portraits that punctuate the text reveal her unique voice as an artist, highly influenced by underground comix like “Twisted Sister.” 

Minnie speaks frankly about sex in a way that is both disarming and ambivalent, leaving space for both her discomfort and desire. “I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted him or anyone else to fuck me but I was afraid to pass up the chance because I might never get another,” Minnie reflects before losing her virginity. Then, later, “I need sex. I really want to get laid right now — in fact, any time — the desire is insatiable.” 

Yet beyond being, as Dargis describes, an “affectingly honest hormone bomb waiting to explode,” Minnie is also deeply human and deeply real, grappling with the enduring desire to love and be loved. 

Yet as Minnie struggles with the feeling of being alone, as a reader growing up, her voice cut through my feelings of isolation. In bearing witness to the intensity, discomfort and gravity of growing up, Gloeckner succeeds in writing a story that is strikingly particular while simultaneously “ours.”

Nina Potischman PO ’21.5 is one of TSL’s book columnists. She is an English major from Brooklyn, New York who likes to make art and eat bagels.

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