Like the book on which it’s based, the movie version of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl contains a scene at a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As far as 1970s counterculture references are concerned, that glammed-up paean to letting your freak flag fly couldn’t be more apt. Diary also derives its power from the shock of recognition: the on-screen acknowledgement that somewhere out there are people whose deviation from the surface standards of American life has a lot in common with your own. “It’s like another family,” says Phoebe Gloeckner, the writer and cartoonist behind the book. “You find your tribe.”
She should know. Set in the permissive-cum-predatory world of mid-’70s San Francisco, the story of Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl embroiled in a sexual relationship with her mother’s adult boyfriend, is based on Gloeckner’s own teenage diaries. In the hands of writer-director Marielle Heller, who’d previously written and starred in a stage adaptation, the film depicts the totality of Minnie’s experience of female adolescence—from having sex and doing drugs to drawing comics and having fun with her kid sister—in a way that’s neither judgmental nor romanticized. A strong cast, led by Bel Powley as Minnie, Kristen Wiig as her mother, and Alexander Skarsgård as her duplicitous dudebro boyfriend Monroe, inhabit characters who are as real to Gloeckner as her own Facebook wall. Even her real-life daughters make an appearance: “They’re the girls who call Minnie a slut,” she cheerfully points out.
For Gloeckner, who’s spent the bulk of the time since Diary’s release in 2002 working on a photo-based comic about the family of a young girl who was murdered in Juárez, Mexico, the movie’s release is a fulfilling conclusion to a long journey. At the same time, the dilution of some of the book’s more extreme elements (including the deep dysfunctionality of all of Minnie’s parental figures and the extent of her experiences with promiscuity and drug addiction) and unexpected personal fallout from the film’s success clearly weigh on her. In this recent interview, Gloeckner opens up about all of it.
The A.V. Club: The Diary Of A Teenage Girl could not be a more personal project for you. Do you like how it turned out in the hands of other people?
Phoebe Gloeckner: I really do love the film. It’s hard for me to separate this whole experience, which was so important to me—I was on set a lot; my kids were in it; I’ve known the director eight years now—with the actual film sometimes. But when I do see it, the addition of music and everything else pushes every button. You’re definitely carried along with it.
I’m really proud of Marielle. When she came to me she had never even directed or produced a play; [writing and starring in the Diary stage play] was the first thing she did. I think she’s accomplished something phenomenal. And I know how hard it was for her. She’s been toiling over this for years now. She was just asked to direct a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and I hope that film is just as successful for her. It’s going to be hard to go from having all that time to work with the material to being handed a script and told “Here, direct this.” She really is a director that is able to focus and connect and look at something deeply. I’m crossing my fingers and hope that everything really takes off for her.
And Bel was amazing. She told me things about her life, experiences that were parallel or similar. From the very beginning when she read the script, before she ever met the director, she sent an audition tape that said, “I have to have this part. This is me. This is me! You have to give me this part.” It was really touching to have my work interpreted by people who really were connected to it. I couldn’t ask for more. A lot of other authors have told me they were bitter about the films made from their books. One of them told me that the best I could hope for was that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. I’m not embarrassed. I like it! So I’m luckier than I thought I would be.
AVC: But as you’ve discussed, it doesn’t paint as grim a picture of Minnie’s life as the book does. The movie doesn’t take her down to the rock bottom she reaches toward the end of the novel.
PG: Or even at the beginning. Near the beginning of the book, there’s a scene where Minnie meets someone at a museum, a stranger, and she has sex with him in the bushes. Why would she do that? There’s something wrong with the family that Minnie comes from. She doesn’t really understand the difference between right and wrong in that sense.
But in the movie there’s a scene in the bar, when Minnie starts sucking Monroe’s finger, which is something that suggests…Well, let’s just say it’s not in the book and it almost seems to be there to state that this girl’s in control, this girl knows what she’s doing. For me, it’s much more complex [than that]. I don’t think she would have done that gesture, and so I’m worried that it would turn that character into something else.
AVC: It’s a more controlled, thought-through action than fucking a stranger in the bushes.
PG: It’s more controlled and thought-through, where that’s not really what she is. At that point Minnie is a virgin. She hasn’t kissed anyone before Monroe. And it doesn’t excuse it, but it simplifies the relationship somehow. That’s the biggest thing that bothers me.
But let’s face it: Very few people have read my book. Most of the people seeing that film will not read the book. They’re not going in there knowing the story except from what they’ve read in a review. You know, it’s a different thing. It’s not the book. But somehow it’s always going to be connected to me. And I just feel in a sense that Minnie’s been a little bit changed or perverted or simplified. But we don’t even have to dwell on this, because I think that I still really do like the film.
AVC: Maybe the way to put it is that in the book there’s a desperation to Minnie that goes beyond being intensely interested in and compelled by sex after having her first sexual experiences, which can obviously be very intense for anyone. As you said, in the book, there’s a sense that it goes way beyond that, that something vital to developing as a teenager was not given to her by her family.
PG: Right, yeah. Pascal [Minnie’s ex-stepfather, played by Christopher Meloni] comes off as far more benign than he actually ends up being in the book. Even the mother is more benign. It’s lightened up quite a bit. So I think that Minnie’s situation is treated very differently. Maybe that does allow this feeling that she has sexual agency and she’s gonna be okay. Maybe that is easier to do in a film, which is shorter than a book.
AVC: But it still reads as dark. I mean, it’s statutory rape.
PG: I really think the worst part of that relationship is not that it’s statutory rape, but that it’s someone who’s sleeping with her mother. It’s more incestuous. That’s the evil part of it: It complicates the relationship between the mother and child. It ruptures it. Whatever was there, it’s not gonna be there anymore. It further cuts the kid off from any adult familial support that she could get, even if it would be brief, because she can’t have that relationship with her mother anymore.
That’s the bad thing: He’s sleeping with both mother and daughter. In a sense, he’s a fake dad. He’s in an incestuous position. No one mentions that, but rather than statutory rape, the age difference is a big deal, but the bigger deal is the relationship.
AVC: To many viewers, the incestuous element will be almost, I don’t want to say incidental, but it wouldn’t make a difference if it was just some dude she met in the park one day.
PG: I guess it wouldn’t, maybe, but why? Why? You think that they just find the age difference the most shocking thing?
AVC: Yes. When the film was first announced, or when the initial wave of reviews came out of Sundance, many of the descriptions of the film said something to the effect that it’s about a 15-year-old girl who has an affair, or a sexual relationship, with her mother’s boyfriend. Many people who knew the book were furious about that: “It’s not a ‘relationship,’ it’s not an ‘affair,’ it’s rape.”
PG: But however people look at it, that’s all from the outside. What you were just describing was people responding to a description. For me as an author, the most damaging thing was the fact that he was her mother’s boyfriend. Any wayward kid who goes and has an affair with some older man, you imagine she can always go back and tell her mother if something goes wrong, even if things are fucked up. That type of mother’s going to be reactive, and going to do something. But the reason [Minnie’s mother] said “You’re going to marry my daughter” is because it was not just an offense to her daughter, but it was a moral wound inflicted upon her, upon the mother. That is really the complex part of that equation, for me. But I can see in the film that it’s not… well, there is that one scene where Minnie’s watching them kissing and arguing, but still, I don’t think people are really commenting on that relationship. It’s basically just the age, and they’re calling it rape because of that.
It was funny: I haven’t talked to the real person that character was based on in a long, long time, but then I saw he was on Facebook. I wrote to him and I asked him if he’d read the book, and he hadn’t, so I sent him a copy. He said he read five pages and couldn’t read any more because it was “too intense.” Then he kept saying he’s going to read it, but he can’t. But when he found out there was a movie, I sent him the trailer, and he was really excited. He showed the trailer to some friend at a bar—I don’t think he’d said that it was supposed to be based on him—and that person said, “Wow, that relationship is really screwed up. Why are you showing me this?” The guy said “What do you mean, ‘screwed up’? That’s a real man!” You know? “He’s a real man! He’s going for it!” You can see that that particular person, that character. I mean, if I treated him correctly, he’s not the type of person who’s able to reflect on any of that. Which contributes to Minnie’s loneliness. It takes her a while to realize that, because she’s thinking she’s in love with him. What do you do when you’re “raped,” in quotes, by someone who’s thoughtless and unaware? There’s no way to have a discussion about that with him because he’s not on the ball enough to even grasp the situation. I don’t know what people think. You could argue rape or not—I mean, I don’t fucking know. It’s a complicated situation.
AVC: What term do you use to describe it yourself? Abuse, an affair, rape, a relationship?
PG: Well, the thing is, I don’t really judge it as simply as calling it one thing or another. If I did, I don’t think I could have written the book the way I did. I was trying to just describe it exactly as it was for that girl. She wasn’t thinking in those terms, because she wasn’t able to, so I wasn’t thinking in those terms. It is a relationship, it’s a sexual relationship. To say it’s abuse or rape is, again, qualifying it in a way that’s in a sense simplifying it, and that wasn’t my intent.
AVC: To honor her emotions and intellect, you have to recreate a mindset you no longer have.
PG: I mean, I still have it to a certain extent, but certainly I’ve grown up, more or less. But right, you have to. Minnie is feeling is the shock of sexuality, yes, but after a while she also feels that she loves him, and that’s what she’s looking for. She’s confused. This is a good guy, a guy who used to skateboard with them, so suddenly—it’s not really discussed, she just mentions it—that relationship is changed. It’s confusing to her. She figures, “Well, if he’s doing this, he’s such a good guy that maybe it’s okay.” It’s a very childish way to justify it.
Yet all this attention feels good! It’s really the attention, and that she feels special. In a sense, the sex that she has is often sort of pathological, which is a reflection of her experiences. So they make sense in terms of her experiences. But I think if the film had included a lot of that, it would have been harder to make the audience relate to that in a short space, I think.
AVC: While the film’s version of Minnie’s life is still different from the norm, there’s a universality to it. Even if you haven’t shared those experiences, it’s how being a teenager feels.
PG: Right. She’s a smart but normal teenager, right? She’s still experiencing all the same things and thinking about all the same things, albeit in a different context. That context amplifies a lot of it, which maybe makes it seem more real and more familiar. In my mind—I’m talking about the book, not the movie—Minnie is not a caricature, but everything she feels is amplified, and in a sense that’s what caricature is. It gives us a message real quick, and we’re like “Oh yeah, we’ve felt that.” But the reason she is that way is not any device on my part. Everything’s amplified for a reason.
AVC: One of the more uplifting moments in the film is when Minnie gets a letter from her favorite cartoonist, Aline Kominsky. It was the first time she received encouragement from a responsible adult with no strings attached.
PG: Definitely. And to tell you the truth, I’m not talking about the film here. Robert Crumb [Kominsky’s husband] is just mentioned once in the film, and he wrote an introduction to A Child’s Life [Gloeckner’s first memoir] which made it sound he’s a sex maniac. But the fact is that he never once indicated any kind of interest in me sexually at all. He was just drawing with me. For me, he and Aline really were people that I could check off in my head: “They’re artists, and they’re really normal, and I really like them, and maybe I could be like that.”
AVC: That intro has definitely been used as Exhibit A in the case against Robert Crumb.
PG: I don’t mind it. He’s just being him. And it’s helped me a lot, because I think people who would never read the book picked it up because it said Robert Crumb on the cover. In that sense, I’m indebted to him. What he wrote was something I didn’t really know about. [Laughs.] Maybe I should have written an addendum. Maybe I will after it gets printed again. I’ll write something at the end, like, “Well, that’s great, but I really didn’t see you that way. I thought you were a good man, and never had any hint of this. There was nothing sexual coming from you towards me as far as I could see.” [Laughs.] I’m still friendly with them.
AVC: Cartooning is a field with so few external rewards that the support of other artists takes on even great importance than usual.
PG: My books never sold a lot. The people who liked them really liked them, but I’ve always felt more or less invisible. I’m not famous. Maybe I’m famous in very small circles, you know? It takes me a very long time to do a book. I’ve been working on the one I’m working on now for eight or nine years. It’s not because I’m not working; I’m working all the time on it. It’s because I do not have a linear way of thinking. I’m constantly putting things together in different ways. It has to be right, let’s just put it that way. But I had this long period where I felt absolutely invisible.
Oftentimes, the focus on my work is that [journalists] mention it as being autobiography, and that’s always the question they ask me. “Is it about you?” I’ve always felt that this discounted any kind of artistry or craft that I put into the work. It’s really alienating for an artist to have a thing they spent so much time on, a thing that’s so important to them, be looked at in that light rather than as a piece of literature or a good comic. Combined with the long time it takes me to do things, I tend to feel like, “Do I even exist in the world?” [Laughs.]
AVC: The book you’re working on now involves your visits to Juárez. What is it about specifically?
PG: For me, it is not about anything. [Laughs.] What you know, probably, is that it started because I was in Mexico to do a story on “the murdered women of Juárez.” I didn’t even want to do that project, but this actress called me up [to work on it] a few months after I finished The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. I had worked on that for a long time, so I was still in this mourning period. After you finish something like that, you feel like, “Why am I alive? What is my purpose in life?” Something so big… It’s like losing a child. Plus, I had two little girls, and the idea of talking to parents of murdered girls frightened me. I didn’t want to go, and said no, but she was so persistent, and approached it by appealing to my guilt: “These women are so poor, they have nothing, and you’re the only one who can do this. You’re the only one. Plus, you have to do it for free, because most other people are.” Finally, I gave in, though I realize now that this actress asked another cartoonist to do it first, so obviously I was not the only one who could do it. [Laughs.] It was this mixture of flattering me and making me feel guilty, and I finally did it.
When I got there, I was treated like a journalist, but I’m not a journalist. I was so overwhelmed. I had been exposed to a lot of murder just by going down there and talking to people in the community who’d been affected by it. I was kind of in shock. I started out drawing it, but at the same time I was drawing illustrations for this book called The Joys Of Sex Toys. It was supposed to be really soft and warm and sex-positive. I’d come back from Mexico in the middle of that project, and on my desk waiting for me was the next thing I had to draw, which was a set of five buttplugs: You start out with a little one, you know. Then I was reading these police reports, and one was particularly frightening. This girl had been raped, and they’d beaten her, and she wasn’t dead, and they took a splintered 2 x 4 and stuck it up her rectum. What killed her was she bled to death very slowly from that wound. She was out in the middle of the desert in a sheet, dying from having this thing shoved up her ass. That was so hideous to me. And that, combined with this project I had to work on to get paid about the buttplugs—which were really very similar in a physical sense, you’re putting something in your rectum—I got really confused, I guess. Like, I didn’t know the difference between sex and love and extreme hatred. It all got compounded in my head. I wanted to draw the rapes or the murders, because in my mind it didn’t feel right to just suggest things. The victims are experiencing these things, and I had to show them, because the horror of the experience was somehow sacred to me. I started drawing them, and I just felt like I had become the perpetrator. I felt so confused. I didn’t do anything for a month. I didn’t even finish that other project; I was late with that.
So I had this idea, which was different for me: Instead of drawing these images, I started constructing actual environments that were similar, or in some cases pretty much exactly the same, as places I’d seen. I took a lot of pictures and I was reconstructing it. And I thought, “I’ll just go make dolls. I’ll do something with them, and it’ll be quick. I could kill them all, but they’re kind of alive afterwards. I could just change their clothes and they’re still alive the next day.” It made me feel better about doing it. When I started to do this novel, I stuck with that method. I think I was thinking in the back of my head that it would take less time than drawing, but in actuality, because I’m so obsessive with detail, I had to make everything exactly like it was. I did not know how to use a power tool before. I did not know how to use a sewing machine before. I did not work with materials, in that sense, ever. I had to teach myself a million different things. If I think back, knowing what I know now compared to what I knew 10 years ago, even in terms of making shit, I don’t know how I did it.
There was one particular girl whose life, or even just her case, I didn’t do anything about at that time. I started going back to Mexico two or three times a year and really focusing on this one family. Not as a reporter—it was in my mind that I wanted to become friends with these people. And it was incredibly difficult. Here I’m this privileged white woman who, naturally, these very, very, very poor people see as someone who has so much more than they do. They kind of ingratiate themselves and become “victims” in front of me, not showing the other aspects of their life because they think they know what I’m after. But that’s not what I was after. I had to get to that point by going back to Juárez a lot. I had to be there often enough and know the lives of the people intimately enough that it was normalized to me, that I could feel what they felt going about their everyday lives. That relationship took a very long time to build. There was this distance between us that I didn’t know how to overcome. But then, when I was getting divorced, I remember I was talking to them and I just started crying. I told them everything about what was going on. It was like something snapped. Suddenly they saw quite clearly that even though I had tried to conceal it, I had pain, and the relationship changed radically. I went from being an interviewer to… They came to know me, then.
The thing is, what the story is about is partially what I just described. It’s about coming to know people that you don’t know. It’s about coming to know the world in a different way. It’s about the sense of not belonging anywhere. I’ve always felt that way. At the border, you meet lots of people who were raised in the United States and then sent back to Mexico. In reality, they feel like they’re Americans, because their English is better than their Spanish. Their education, up to sixth grade or whenever they were kicked out, was in America. They go back to Mexico and they no longer go to school. They’re 12 years old and they have to go to work. Their life becomes so radically different, and they carry this sadness with them their whole lives. It’s a feeling of being rejected from what you thought was your family, your tribe, your country. Suddenly you belong nowhere. It’s an incredible betrayal.
This feeling was what was drawing me back again and again. In some ways I feel that I belong there more than I belong anyplace else. Of course I don’t, because I am different. But if I’m just gonna say the book is about the murders in Juárez… I saw terrible things there, but the heart of the book is something else. It’s more of a journey—I don’t know, that sounds stupid. I’m trying to explain to you that it’s not just about the violence in Juárez or the murders in Juárez.
AVC: Or even about this one specific girl in this family who was murdered.
PG: Right. Her narrative is definitely there, but she was the quietest person in the family. There were very few anecdotes that they could tell me about her, because all the other kids, and there were a lot of them, kind of left her alone. She wasn’t the type of kid who wanted to integrate. She had fantasies of going to school, and she liked to stay at home while they liked to go out. It almost felt like my ability to ever get to know her through them was so limited that it was as if she had never existed. That made me feel really sad.
I work with my own memory. To me, that is your life. It’s not that you’re always drawing on these things, but that’s the color of your life, that’s what you have. Otherwise you’re just racing through everything. I want to hold these things, to know that I’ve lived. And I felt like there was basically nothing, no physical trace of this girl, even. They only had one photograph of her, and the police had actually taken the photograph from the parents, made xerox copies of it, and then gave them back a xerox, not the original. There was no flotsam and jetsam. I don’t think I could have worked on a book for ten years if it was just about this girl. I came to really love that family and that experience. Why is it important to me? Well, for a lot of reasons.
AVC: For someone who wrestles with the challenge of depicting the truth even in work based on her own life, it must be very demanding for you to make work based on the lives of others.
PG: It is. But I think that the reason it is demanding on me is because I’m always looking for how they are the same as me. How can I understand them? How can they understand me? I really do believe that it’s not so important if we’re Mexican or male or female, because we’re all human. We focus on all these differences, these other adjectives, and that just drives me fucking crazy. I’m always looking for something more, maybe something that is not easily quantifiable or described. So when people are very different from you on the surface, it becomes important to acknowledge how your reflection on the story influences what the story is. That’s a lot of mental gymnastics.
I could have really written this from this guilty white point of view, but that means nothing to me, because it’s not real. Why is anyone guilty about anything? It’s not because they’re looking at a situation, it’s because they’re comparing it to what they have. They’re judging the quality of the situation by the external factors: “They don’t have a toilet, they have a dirt floor. Oh my god, I feel so bad—I have linoleum and a toilet and a shower and two bathrooms.” It’s meaningless. Humans are so resourceful and so adaptable to any situation. No matter what period in history or what situation anyone finds themselves in, they’re still gonna have the same feelings, they’re still gonna have similar thoughts. If they’re thinking people, they’re gonna think very much like you. So in breaking down those barriers in my head, I couldn’t write it from the stance of an outsider, because it doesn’t mean anything to me. I hate listening to This American Life—and I hate to admit that—because I feel like they’re taking you someplace and while you’re learning something, it’s “news.” You’re not really learning about those people, and I want to know those people.
Before I finished The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, people were asking what it’s about. If I’d said “Oh, it’s about a girl who’s having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend,” it’s the same thing. It’s meaningless. If I say this is about Juárez, well, yeah, but it’s about a lot more to me.
AVC: It seems like what you’re saying is that when you control for all the variables, the variables aren’t the interesting thing. The interesting thing is…
PG: …what’s common, yeah. That sounds good, and it’s a lot shorter than what I said. [Laughs.]
AVC: Now that the Diary movie is out there, is there a particular aspect of it you liked best?
PG: I really liked the beginning sequence. I really loved when she’s walking through the park and that music starts. And I like how Marielle used [the dedication] “For all the girls when they are grown” at the end of the film. I put that at the beginning of the book, but I think it was really powerful at the end.
And it was cast wonderfully. [Laughs.] A couple of nights ago at dinner, I asked Alexander Skarsgård if he could say hi to the real person he was playing in a video on my phone. He’s always been very interested in this guy; on the set he was always asking me, “What is he doing now?” So he asked me his name, and addressed him and said, “You know, I really enjoyed playing you, or this character that is you, and I’d really like to meet you someday. I’d like to know what you thought about this film, because I really enjoyed this experience.” [Laughs.] It’s such a strange thing, because my book is a novel, and in that sense it’s not true—it’s just a novel. But in another sense it’s very true for me, and for a lot of other people. This experience of having it interpreted in a play and in a film and then actually talking to the actors and the director is surreal. It’s crazy.
And I’m really glad my daughters were in the film. It was hard for me to give up the rights to do the movie; I was always worried—“What if it goes all wrong?”—and I didn’t anticipate getting much money from it. So I thought, well, what do my kids have to get from this? At least they had this experience, and they are part of it. That makes me really happy. You have to have something that pushes you over the edge to finally do something; I wrote that book for everybody, but in reality, in the end, I wrote that book for them.