I haven’t seen the film, but I recently read the book version of Diary of a Teenage Girl in a few feverish sessions. It’s a devastating book in many ways, but I wanted it to go on and on. It’s shocking, heartbreaking and absolutely honest. There are some universally relatable things explored in the book, but the reason why it is so empowering and captivating is because it so raw and specific. What’s relatable isn’t necessarily the details but the bravery in the telling. My year of being 15 was very different than Minnie’s, but her story makes me feel less self-conscious about my internal world, both now and then.
The book’s author, Phoebe Gloeckner wrote and drew Diary by reading the diary she wrote at age 15. It’s a edited, illustrated, and polished version of things that really happened to her, but she’s always been a bit wary of calling it an autobiography. “In my case, I’ve used myself as a character,” she said in 1999. “You shape your own past, whether you end up writing or drawing it eventually or not. Psychologists say that they listen to a person’s story, but they’re not thinking of it as, ‘This is the truth’; they’re thinking, ‘This is how the person feels.’ About what they perceive happens to them. And I think that’s an important part of what I do. It’s not so much the story—it’s trying to figure out what it meant to me, or what it means in the larger sense.”
“Monroe” is now in his 70s and living on a boat, just like he always dreamed. Phoebe looked him up on Facebook, and even sent him a copy of the book, which he couldn’t read because it was “too intense,” but apparently he’s very excited about the film.
The subject matter, a teenage girl being sexually involved with an older man, is one that is rarely talked about. When it is approached, it’s with a certain timidity, which whispers and gasps. Whether you come from a conservative or liberal viewpoint, this topic is taboo and fragile. Certain rules and warnings much be in place, we feel. It is right to be trepidatious because so much wrong can be done here, but still . . we run the risk of silence when we censor what should and should not be discussed, and control exactly how we should discuss it. What isn’t wrong is honesty, a jewel we don’t know is rare until we see it. It’s something we don’t know is what we were hungering for until we taste it.
We treat difficult issues as if they are delicate and can’t bear the harsh process of illumination. We fear them and shroud them in concern. It’s as if stories like Minnie’s saw the light of day they would blind us. Minnie was wronged in many ways. She was a little girl who’s a woman now and had to save herself, and then she told her story.
Minnie suffered so much abuse it’s no wonder she’s so sad and conflicted. She hungers for the love that any child needs, but doesn’t get it, so she is vulnerable. At 15 she’s part adult, part child; she’s intelligent and uncertain. She’s confused about how people should treat her and how she should treat herself because it hasn’t been modeled for her properly. The adults around her seem just as confused, as most adults are. The adults in her life are too aggressively caught in their own narcissism to help Minnie navigate the world, so she has to do it on her own, making server missteps in her quest to find love.
15 is one of the terror years, where everything is both new and amplified. Our brains and bodies aren’t fully matured, but it feels like they are. We know a little bit about the world, and it feels like everything. We are so sure and unsure all at once. Minnie is struggling with her identity, with her personality. People give her sexual attention, but she can’t figure out how to get them to love her or how to like her. She can’t figure out how to love or like others, either. She is partly self-aware about how her behaviors turn people off and on, and like many sensitive, self-hating, and lonely people, this fuels her to ramp up her self-destructive behavior.
She is untethered in the sea of her own urgings and emotions; lost in her desire for some real human connection. Sex gives physical pleasure in the moment, but leaves the heart lonely. She doesn’t find love in her friendships, either. Companionship offers a bit of relief, but when there is no deeper connection, no real communication, it can leave a person lost and cold. When no one looks out for us, we don’t learn the how to really look out for ourselves. Even Pascal, in his long concerned letters is just making himself feel better in writing to Minnie, he’s just looking after his own interests, and making himself feel better by reaching out without truly helping. Even together under the auspices of love, of family and friends, people can be just a tangle of unmoored ships, self-involved and unkind. It’s hard to learn how to love, it’s hard to know what to do. It’s hard to be a person.
One of the most difficult parts of sexual abuse is how the victim deals with their role in it, especially if it is something like what happened to Minnie. Still, her feelings and how she viewed the world isn’t something to be invalidated. Diary lays bear the storm of thoughts and emotions of a turbulent young girl without condoning how people have treated her.