Review for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures” by Phoebe Gloeckner (originally published in 2002, reissued in 2015)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
It’s hard to quantify this book. When I first started it, the nature of its content threw me for such a loop that I didn’t think that I was going to finish it. Then I found myself drawn in, so I think I’ll go half and half here–3.5 stars.
Minnie Goetze is a complicated teenager growing up in San Francisco with her single mom and younger sister in the 1970’s. She’s smart, she’s artistic, she loves to draw. Much of the book is composed of her black and white drawings, which I have to admit, are pretty impressive and beautiful to look at. Minnie is also extremely unhappy and insecure, and within the first couple of pages she begins having really creepy ‘sex’ with her mom’s boyfriend (I put ‘sex’ in quotations because it bears mention that at the time she’s 15, and he’s in his 30’s). The sexual relationship between Minnie and her mom’s boyfriend is presented in a stark, almost ‘favorable’ way, from her perspective as a willing participant. From there she moves on to having sex with a rich guy at her school, who treats her like utter trash. There’s sex with strange boys, more sex with older men. Honestly, after a while, I lost track. There’s also LOTS of drugs and booze in this book, not only with Minnie but also with her mom, who you come to discover isn’t all that angry when she finds out about Minnie’s relationship with her boyfriend. It’s a strange family saga, and it was equal parts disturbing and painful to read about.
Minnie was a complicated character for me. It’s obvious that the character is somewhat based, in part, on the real life of the author of this book, Phoebe Gloeckner. Minnie fluctuates so much between childish naivete (“By golly, wait a minute, I’m getting taken advantage of!”) when dealing with the sleazy-ass adults around her and very sharp perceptions about life in general. It was hard to read the troubling content of this book and keep in mind that the protagonist is, after all, just 15 years old. There was also a fine thread of racism that ran through this book that I didn’t like either. The conclusion of the book brought no Hollywood ending, Minnie just kinda ‘grows’ up in the last few pages and moves on, deciding that she doesn’t want to keep another diary.
What I can say that I did appreciate about this book is the entire point of it: the fact that it presented a teenage girl’s sexual life in a way that is actually rare and kinda unique. After thousands of years on earth, there are still really only two sexual roles for girls: a virgin or a slut, and we’re forced to play one and reject the other. Minnie is sexually active, unapologetic, and expresses her desires openly. There’s no moralizing, no finger-wagging from characters on the sidelines. The story simply was what it was. As much as possible, I suspended my judgement of Minnie’s actions and just let her story speak to me how it wanted to. My discomfort, I think, comes from my own hang-ups about what I consider to be morally acceptable behavior from a teenage girl.
True art, I figure, is supposed to challenge you and provoke thought, which I can say that this most definitely did. With that, I say proceed with caution if you do decide to read this, because it’s not the book for everyone.