Phoebe Gloeckner's 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' Is a Frank Look at Teen Sexuality

We talked to the graphic novelist about what it's like to date your mom's boyfriend when you're 15, write a book about it, and then let your teenage daughters appear as extras in the film adaptation.

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Aug 6 2015, 5:05pm

All photos courtesy of Brigade Marketing

Making jokes at the expense of teens is so trendy, it's easy to forget they're actually people. But Phoebe Gloeckner's book The Diary of a Teenage Girl has been challenging that notion since it was published in 2002, to cult-y acclaim from feminists as well as comic lovers. Absolutely not to be confused with the series of Christian YA books of the same name, Gloeckner's autobiographical Diary an unapologetic chronicle of the year in the life of Minnie Goetze, a sex-loving, school-hating 15-year-old who embarks on a secret relationship with her mother's boyfriend Monroe after she loses her virginity to him. The relationship--coupled with her mother's bored neglect, of the type often seen in parenting clichés of the 1970s--seems to spark something in Minnie, who goes on to get kicked out of several boarding schools, do a lot of drugs, and fall in love again. (Though it's hard to say whether an age-appropriate girl who more-or-less pimps Minnie out for smack is a better match for the funny, perceptive anti-heroine.)

Read More: Why Do Teen Girls Like Gay Porn?

Now, thirteen years after Diary was published, the film adaption--starring Bel Powley as Minnie, Alexander Skarsgaard as a strongly mustached mom's boyfriend, and Kristen Wiig as Minnie's blasé mother--is set to make its theatrical release tomorrow, to positive reviews. It's quite a bit more happy-ending than the book, focusing on the "empowering" aspect of a 15-year-old's aggressive sexual relationship with her mother's way older boyfriend. This comes at the expense of the darkness that made Gloeckner's graphic novel feel like an actual--and, thus, important--portrait of a teenage girl, rather than like an image of what we think teenage girls should see and emulate. But, hey, that's showbiz. I talked to Gloeckner on the phone about the process of mining her turbulent adolescence for art, twice.

BROADLY: With many of the most popular--or most discussed--books and films right now, people are often asking, "Is this autobiographical?" I'm sure you get it a lot, even though everyone knows the answer is, basically, "yes." Does the question bother you?
Phoebe Gloeckner: It drives me nuts. Who cares? Nobody's going to meet the author, very few people. Once it's published, the relationship that's important is between the reader and the book, not between the author and the book.

I can see why it's an important question, but sometimes it becomes the most important question. Everything in that book happened to me, okay? I kept copious diaries when I was a teenager; I wrote everything down. However, when I wrote the book, it was 25 or 30 years later. I had changed a lot; my perspective was very different. I looked at those diaries, and they were just burning a hole in my brain. I felt like I had to do something with them.

I wrote so much that most of [the editing] was subtractive, editing it as if I were Minnie, but spelled better. In the end I didn't care about the facts--it's more the emotional truth of the story. I couldn't see myself as Minnie because, when I tried to do that, I couldn't write the book. I hated myself as a teenager, like many teenagers do, and I couldn't hate Minnie in order to write the book. I had to somehow learn to love her, which kind of forced me to separate myself from her. For me, she was any girl.

Had you had your daughters by that point?
When I was writing that, one was eight or nine; the other was four or five.

Did you ever make connections between your past and your own kids? Is it difficult to imagine them doing the kinds of things you did?
They were always kind of in the back of my mind. But if I thought about them too much I was getting horrified, so I couldn't do that at that time.

Have they read Diary of a Teenage Girl?
They have; both of them are extras on the film as well. I always said they couldn't read my work until they were 15 or 16, and the older one didn't. But the younger one did when she was much younger--I didn't know about it. That's what kids do if they're curious. [She is] 16 now, and she tells me she really admires me and that it's a great book and her friends all love it. She's kind of a wild and crazy kid herself, which is a challenge, but I don't know if it has much to do with the book. It's just her nature.

I read an interview where you said you had resisted other directors because you didn't agree with their visions for the film. What made Marielle [Heller]'s version different?
One director had wanted to change the ending entirely so that Minnie married her mom's boyfriend; that felt to me that he was just focusing on her sexuality, kind of in a fetishistic way. It just wasn't my book. But Marielle--I always felt she was relating to the book for the reasons I'd hope anyone would. As far as how the movie came out, ultimately, I think it carries a lot of the spirit of the book. It's not as harrowing as the book. It leaves the really gritty parts out. It focuses on the relationship between the girl and her mother and the boyfriend. It leaves out a whole lot in terms of drugs; [in the movie] Minnie is not going out or fucking strangers in the park, you know? It doesn't have that kind of stuff. But I really felt like she kept the spirit of the girl.

I've read descriptions of the film where people say, "Oh, it's such a great representation of girl sexuality." The weird thing is that the movie doesn't really show Minnie as this kid who has this damaged past. In that sense, Minnie's hyper-sexuality is kind of simplified and interpreted by people who see the movie as a [depiction of a] typical, highly sexually charged girl. I think in reality it's really a little more complicated than that.

Still, it's a good movie, and I like it.

How was the book received when it came out in 2002?
There were lots of people who said they weren't interested in the book because it's the "literature of victimization." Like, who wants to hear another bitch complaining about how she was abused? And I was like, Jesus Christ! I mean, that's not what the book is about. I was shocked.

Do you think the movie is going to get similar reactions, condemning the culture of victimization? Now, there's a real movement of women making books and films about their sexual relationships, their drug use, their trauma, being raped or being sexually abused.
Well, first of all, that's not what my book is about. My book is about a person who is in a situation and kind of moves through it. To me, it was never about looking back and going, this is how I was victimized. It's not a portrait of a victim.

But was it painful to write the book at all? Did you, at times, feel you had been victimized, either when you were going through "the situation" or afterwards?
I realize that as a teenager I didn't really have a lot of the experiences that other teens have. I didn't have a teenage boyfriend, a real one, and I couldn't tell most of the people I knew that I was having any relationship [at all]. My mom would say, "Why don't you have a boyfriend?"--it sort of cut me off from my mother. I was basically alone. There were no adults that I could talk to at all about anything. I kind of mourn that. I kind of missed a certain part of growing up. I had something else, but I never shared innocence with a kid.

And then, after everyone found out, I was told that I shouldn't talk about it. In my mind I wasn't dwelling on anything--I was telling this story. Probably because I was always told not to tell it, and I was like, why the fuck can't I tell it?

I'm asking if you ever felt like you had been victimized or traumatized in some way, looking back. As a teenager, one often feels very powerful, but maybe as you look back, you realize you had no control over anything that you were doing, at all.
Right. You feel like you're an adult at age ten or something. I remember at age ten thinking that I didn't have to go to college because I already knew everything. If I was victimized, it was by people who perhaps weren't perpetrators, but they were totally unconscious. Adults that were seeking their own pleasure or security but not thinking at all about other people. I was, I guess, born to a family and a time where the adults were kind of selfish and the kids were kind of ignored. I guess I never felt victimhood because it's all adaptation. You figure out how to navigate and survive.

Did you work with the actress who is playing Minnie to help her get into character?
You know, the person who asked me for coaching was Alexander Skarsgaard. He was trying to figure out what [Monroe's] motivation was. Like, who is this guy? What's he doing now?

Do you know what Monroe's doing now?
Well, he's in his 70s, living on a boat like he always wanted. I have not talked to him much in all these years. But I guess he got a Facebook page a few years ago, so, you know, I said hi or whatever. He's never read the book. I was kind of curious to see if he had.

Would you want him to?
Well, yeah. I wouldn't want him to, but who I was a hundred years ago would, so I have that kind of conflict in my brain.

What about your mother?
She hasn't read the book--she doesn't want to. She made a lot of assumptions that are not the right assumptions to make. She was actually really upset about the film; she said it was going to be a mommy-trashing movie. I finally said, "Okay, you have to watch it." And it wasn't the horrible thing that she feared, so I think she's okay with it now.

Do you understand her impulse not to read it?
I would want to read it. I wish she had. I wish she would have been proud that I wrote a book. She was more concerned about how she was portrayed, but it's not about her.

Did you have reservations about publishing it at the time?
Maybe a little bit, but if that had been in my mind, I never would have done it. I don't have bad intentions, so there's not really any reason to feel guilty.

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