Rob Delaney explains why Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life is “the North Star”

Rob Delaney explains why Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life is “the North Star”

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Comedian Rob Delaney, whose name is seemingly bound by law to be mentioned with Twitter, because the medium propelled him from an unknown to national fame thanks to his enjoyably demented tweets. In the years since, he has been voted “Funniest Person On Twitter” by Comedy Central’s Comedy Awards, released a special, Live At The Bowery Ballroom, and this week, a frank, funny memoir called Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

The fanned: A Child’s Life And Other Stories, by Phoebe Gloeckner, which Delaney calls “the North Star” in his book’s acknowledgements.

The A.V. Club: What’s your history with this book? 

Rob Delaney: Well, I found it at a bookstore in Berkeley, California, when I was there visiting a friend. I had not been sober for very long, and I found this book. Of course, she’s an amazing illustrator, so the images capture you right away, but then her unflinching ability to look at her childhood and the pain in it and to sublimate it into instructive art that is so helpful to its consumer is unparalleled. Her ability to transform her pain into art is on a level with Sinéad O’Connor or the sculptor Camille Claudel. Then I thought about this for this piece that we’re doing, because I just wrote a memoir, and Phoebe Gloeckner was one of my role models for this. There are no better memoirs than Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life [and] Diary Of A Teenage Girl. They don’t exist as far as I’m concerned. There’s such strength and such beauty in them that when I was in early sobriety reading these books, they were very helpful in me getting healthier mentally and emotionally. So, they’re just indefensible tomes to me and guides on how to create stuff and how to do it honestly and unflinchingly. 

AVC: Gloeckner has always been a little cagey about how autobiographical her work is.

RD: That certainly doesn’t matter to me, because once something is in our memories, it’s not real anymore anyway. It no longer exists. Werner Herzog always talks about trying to achieve “ecstatic truths;” what actually happened and what we think actually happened are not as important as [the question of] “Does it get to the heart of what we felt, how we felt it, and how we want to learn from it?” In the film Lost Highway, Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette are being sent videos of their own home, which are scary. One of the detectives asks Bill Pullman if he takes home videos, and Bill Pullman says, “No I don’t. I prefer to remember things the way I want to remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.” I think that is magnificent, and we remember things the way we want to as a defense mechanism. We remember things the way that we do because we tell them again and again and again, and it’s almost like playing telephone inside our own skulls. Memories shift and change and morph and transform as necessary for the stories that we’re telling ourselves today. For example, I could tell you about my accident and my time in jail and in a psychiatric hospital. Had I told you about that three weeks after it happened, it would be an upsetting story that would be upsetting to hear. I tell you about it now, almost 12 years later, and it’s pretty much a fairy tale. I don’t know Phoebe Gloeckner. We’ve exchanged emails; I’ve written her fan mail, and she’s written back. But I’m sure that these are not wholly fabricated, but it wouldn’t diminish their value to me if they were. 

AVC: Because it’s still speaking to an emotional truth. 

RD: Yeah. She’s also a medical illustrator, and there are medical illustrations in the book as well, and there is something about her depiction of the female experience that is so strong and powerful and enduring. Now I have two kids—the oldest one is 2 and a half. So I’ve rather recently seen my wife go through two pregnancies and births, and thank goodness I was able to participate and witness them and be so close to that. These books are also important to me because they helped me understand a particular type of feminine strength that is, to me, one of the most wonderful things we have here on our planet: to see that unfold and see that strength apply to the world’s problems. It’s different. Maybe I’m more fascinated by it because I’m a man and I don’t have that. There are just certain things that women are going to experience that men aren’t, just by virtue of being born, because of the things that their bodies can do. I think about that stuff a lot more now, because I have two young kids that I just saw get built inside my wife’s body and then brutally tear their way out of. I’ve always been fascinated by that, but now I’m more acutely and presently amazed by it. 

AVC: Are you familiar with how the book got banned by a library in California? 

RD: I have heard that her books have been banned, yeah. 

AVC: This was in Stockton, California. Apparently an 11-year-old checked out this book, and the mother of the child proceeded to make photocopies of the really graphic stuff and distribute them around. The mayor of the town referred to it as “a how-to manual for pedophiles.” This was in 2004, so not all that long ago. It’s still amazing how people don’t get comics and particularly what the book is about exactly—which isn’t “child molestation and how to do it best.”

RD: Yeah, maybe how to survive it best. Plus, I hate to break it to you book-banners, if somebody wants to molest a child, they probably used to be a victim themselves, so they pretty much have the guide on how to do it, you stupid book-banners. How about the fact that the book can be about how to survive a thing that happens that people try to sweep under the rug and don’t want to talk about, so then they commit suicide? How about how this book is a manual on how to not commit suicide, you fucking small-minded idiots? This book could be called, Survive! This book could be called Survive Beautifully And Help Others, you fucking moron. That’s what it could be called. [Laughs.]

AVC: Gloeckner has said the book is hard for her to look at, that some of it gives her the creeps.

RD: Yeah, aspects of the book are supremely creepy, without question. 

AVC: Have you always been a fan of comics, or was this just a book that you saw that spoke to you? 

RD: I dabble. I’ll read popular graphic novels, just because you can’t ignore them. Certain ones like Persepolis, or Guy Delisle’s books, or Maus. You know, ones that are massively popular. I don’t seek them out. I don’t go to comic book stores too often. Oh, Mat Johnson’s Incognegro is a superb recent one. But yeah, I like them when they fall into my lap, so really I probably should explore them more. 

AVC: Have you ever had an interest to work in that format? It can be especially effective with a memoir. 

RD: Yeah, you know, I never have. I’m a terrible drawer. I’m really bad at that. 

AVC: You could always write and find and artist and work with somebody, like Harvey Pekar. 

RD: Yeah, I totally could. You know, I never thought of that. It never occurred to me. [Laughs.] That’s a good, fun idea, certainly. I did think about asking if I could hire Phoebe to draw art for an album, like maybe a stand-up album. That’s funny that you should ask. I’ve never thought about doing a graphic novel, but I have entertained the idea of asking Phoebe if I could hire her to do something, whatever it is I don’t know. Normally if I think of collaborating with Phoebe Gloeckner, it would be, like, me rubbing her feet after she’s had a difficult day of teaching medical illustrations or going and getting her lunch or doing her laundry. That would be the appropriate collaboration for the two of us, I think. 

AVC: What about this book influenced your own? Was it how she expressed what happened to her?

RD: Yeah. I would say the willingness to show as clearly as possible. For example, stuff that I’ve written about depression, I’ve tried to make it as unglamorous as possible. A lot of people have written about depression and I really, really, don’t like a lot of things that I have read, because depression kills people. It’s turns living, breathing people into corpses, and so it must be fought, and I don’t think the way to fight depression is to write in any sort of flowery language about it. I don’t want to see you working when you’re writing about depression. I don’t want to see what a wonderful vocabulary you I have. I don’t want to hear any overwrought metaphors. I want to know what it is and how to get rid of it and nothing more. So in that sense, that would be where you could see, I hope, the spirit of Phoebe Gloeckner guiding me through writing about stuff like that. Sure, I love to be flourish-y and use 50-cent words in certain areas, but when it comes to something like depression, something that I know, for better or for worse, intimately, and have been able to survive, we don’t need a soundtrack to that. I’m not there to impress people when I write about that stuff. I’m about trying to help people, you know? 

AVC: In the book, you talk about how people romanticize depression: “Those who think that depression is ‘good’ for creative people may form a line and very aggressively blow me.” 

RD: People used to say to me, “Have you read Darkness Visible by William Styron?” So I did, and it made me want to kill myself! Fuck that book! I hate that book. William Styron is a massive, indispensable, towering genius. Read Sophie’s Choice and throw Darkness Visible in the garbage if you’re depressed. That’s how I feel about that book. 

AVC: Because it romanticizes it? 

RD: To write about depression should be a pamphlet, not a fucking book. Disclaimer: I am well aware I could be wrong about everything I’m saying, so also forge your own path—maybe that book is helpful to you. To me, that book was like, “Did you hear about this neighborhood where people get stabbed to death and they get their bodies thrown off a cliff? Let’s go walk through it for 300 pages!” I mean, no thanks. [Laughs.]

AVC: It sounds like A Child’s Life is the better option.

RD: Just, everybody really read it. I’ve read a lot of stuff in my life, and this ranks way up near the top. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s good for people. And it’s good for damaged people. This book can help damaged people get better and feel better.

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