The Rumpus Interview with Phoebe Gloeckner
Twelve years ago, I spent a day interviewing the artist Phoebe Gloeckner in her garage studio on Long Island. Her semi-autobiographical novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl had just been released. Based on her own teenage diaries, it chronicles a year in the life of Minnie, Gloeckner’s doppelganger, as she loses her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend, begins to navigate her sexuality, descends into a brief drug-addled stint on the streets of San Francisco, and realizes she might have serious artistic talent. It was my first profile, for Salon, and I felt immediately drawn to Gloeckner, which unnerved me. I wanted her to like me, and I wasn’t sure if that was okay. We briefly kept in touch after that. At a comics convention, I bought a sketch of Minnie, eyes downcast, hand at her heart, vulnerable and soft. It still hangs in my bedroom.
In the years since, Gloeckner has received a Guggenheim fellowship for her work, and has spent most of her free time—she teaches fine art at the University of Michigan now, in Ann Arbor—on two projects based in Juarez, Mexico: a piece for I Live Here (Pantheon, 2008), a collection of narratives about “humanitarian crises” around the globe, for which she photographed dolls she’d hand-sewn and set in various poses, and now, a novel based on the death of a young Juarense woman. At the same time that she was traveling regularly to Mexico, I lived three hours down the border from Juarez in Marfa, Texas, a tiny town populated mostly by Mexican-American families, but known for its arts community and freewheeling urban expat culture. By the time I moved to Far West Texas, the cartel violence along the border had increased significantly, so during my six years there, I crossed mostly in the middle of the Rio Grande River, or in Ojinaga, a small town opposite Presidio, Texas. I’ve only been to Juarez three times, and no matter how often I’ve landed at the El Paso airport, it’s still somewhat jarring that its sister city is so close, and that the river that separates the two has dried up to almost nothing.
Now, after ten years of living between Juarez and Ann Arbor, Gloeckner is once again immersed in the world of her earlier work. On August 7th, the film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl opens in theaters, starring Bel Powley as Minnie, Kristen Wiig as Charlotte, Minnie’s mother, and Alexander Skarsgard as Monroe, Charlotte’s boyfriend and Minnie’s secret lover. Directed by Marielle Heller, who also directed and starred in an earlier stage play based on the book, Diary was a Sundance favorite and has already earned raves for its unabashed portrayal of teenage female sexuality.
We decided to talk over Skype immediately after I’d seen a screening of Diary. Gloeckner didn’t look like she’d aged over the last twelve years. Her daughters—four and twelve when I met them, now sixteen and twenty-four, came and went behind her, along with her younger daughter’s boyfriend. Our conversation spanned four hours and has been edited for length and clarity.
Phoebe Gloeckner: How was the movie?
The Rumpus: I loved it! Of course I loved it. But I have to say I’m a book loyalist, you know? Not that we’re comparing the two, necessarily.
Gloeckner: But you always do. I’m the same way. I can look at the movie as a movie, but there are things that are fundamentally different that kind of bother me.
Rumpus: Like what?
Gloeckner: Well, you know the scene where Minnie is with Monroe in a bar and she starts sucking his finger? Minnie would not do that.
Rumpus: Yeah, I noticed that.
Gloeckner: The reviews describe a celebration of adolescent female sexuality. She knows what she wants, so she goes after it. But the thing is, Minnie was quite a virgin and had never even kissed anyone at that point. Maybe it had to be that way, or else she would have seemed like a victim.
And it has a really happy ending. It’s implied that she’s getting along with her mother. I think in films you have to have that happy ending or audiences are upset.
Rumpus: They wouldn’t know how to feel.
Gloeckner: Right. How should they feel?
Rumpus: That’s one thing I love about the book so much. Minnie’s writing gets into the grime and complexity of her experience and human nature—not to be too macro about it. I can imagine people seeing the movie who haven’t read the book and thinking, “This is so raw.” But she’s much more raw in the book.
Gloeckner: I had two books, A Child’s Life and Diary. The first one suggests Minnie’s background more, and it is not very happy. She’s always a child amongst adults, but treated in an adult way and never really feels loved. Maybe that is not expressed in the film. You kind of don’t understand where her hypersexuality comes from. And I’m afraid that it suggests that all teenage girls are hypersexual and will respond at the drop of the pin to you know, anybody doing anything.
Rumpus: Oh, I don’t think so.
Gloeckner: You don’t? Good.
Rumpus: No. In the movie, it’s like, here’s a sweet and sexual teenage girl, longing for love and caught up in this affair that she can’t really negotiate. In the book, as much as those “Who will ever love me?” passages are certainly there, they’re woven in among so much more. There’s more going on. Her mother is abusive.
Gloeckner: Yeah, her mother’s more affectionate in the film. The director knew that my mother was very threatened by the book. My mother’s never read it.
Rumpus: She still hasn’t?
Gloeckner: No. And she’s been nasty to me about it. Marielle knew that. I think she was perhaps intentionally toning that down. She kept saying, “Kristin Wiig is playing your mom; won’t your mom be happy!”
Rumpus: Did you want your mom to be happy?
Gloeckner: No. The truth is, around the time I met you, several people had asked me to make a film of the book. I started thinking, maybe I should try this myself. I don’t know if it was you, but somebody told me to go watch Irreversible. I thought, Jesus. It’s an incredibly raw, violent film. Not even the story, it’s the way it’s filmed, the sex mixed with this emotional nuance. I was saying, I want to make this, this is going to be emotionally violent and it’s going to be fucking pornographic. The sex is going to be sex. I don’t care if it’s about teenagers or not; I want the sex in there. I want everything. I want it to be life. Even in A Child’s Life, I never even thought about showing sex or not—I just did. In The Diary of A Teenage Girl, I toned it down a lot, because I knew no one would buy it. A Child’s Life was always shrink-wrapped.
If I had done a film, it would have been a film that would hurt to watch. It wouldn’t have been lighthearted and hardly anyone would have seen it, and it would have been a sort of underground thing. And what Marielle did—first of all, she’s not as dark a person as I am. She’s a happy person who understands the book. I mean, I’m a happy person, but she has a different kind of ebullience. And even though she changed certain things, she still basically captured the essence of that character. Bel Powley becomes Minnie. I’m happy about that. I think it’s a great performance. What did you think?
Rumpus: I agree. It’s a beautiful film. For a movie that’s about Minnie’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend, it was—sweet. A co-worker noted that it’s really fascinating to watch these sex scenes because you feel—speaking of not knowing how to feel—both turned on and and creeped out. Because they are sexy.
Gloeckner: Well, see, I like that! A Child’s Life was banned. I know that people responded to it lasciviously, but when they realized it was a kid and an adult, they’re ashamed and outraged. But I always liked that.
Rumpus: Minnie is going through all this pain, but she’s also brilliant and so funny. When I re-read the book, I fell in love with her all over again. She’s so self-aware; yet she has this intense self-loathing, too.
In the transcripts of our conversation last time, there’s a lot of discussion of why you didn’t want to call it an autobiography. At this point you’ve answered that so many times. I know you don’t like answering it. You talked about how, if it you’d written it as an autobiography, then you would hate her. You needed that separation because you needed to protect her.
Gloeckner: I had to look at her and accept her as any girl. But myself—I was ugly, I kept getting kicked out of school, I had no future, no one really liked me. When Monroe came, I remember thinking, if I don’t sleep with him, no one’s ever going to sleep with me. And so, because I respected him, he was our friend, showed us how to do stuff, I thought he knew what was going on and I didn’t.
I always resisted this thing about an autobiography, because honestly, what does it matter if it’s me or not. Every work of art is about the artist.
I’m finally admitting, yes, that’s my experience. I’ve given up trying to explain to people. It’s not like I just took my life; it’s not a document. I had no interest in saying, “This is me and this is my story.”
Rumpus: It’s easier to find compassion for a fifteen-year-old girl going through that kind of experience if it isn’t you.
Gloeckner: No one gives a fuck about an old woman trying to deal with her stupid past and problems!
I had all my old diaries and I was working from those. And I realized when I was reading them, I actually really liked that person. When I think about it, I was probably more afraid of boys my age then I would have been of Monroe, because for him I had my youth. But someone my own age—well, they would be judging me for a million other things that I had no confidence in.
Rumpus: You said earlier that maybe Marielle made some of the choices she did because she didn’t want Minnie to be seen as a victim. But clearly Minnie’s relationship with Monroe was sexual abuse.
Gloeckner: It was clearly sexual abuse. Sometimes I think about the movie and the book, and the truth is that that whole thing made me really sad. The whole experience. Writing the book, at least—I reject the idea of it being psychotherapy—but it made me feel like it gave this child a voice. But that didn’t make me feel any less sad about it.
I feel now that something was taken from me. Because he didn’t see the love I had for him. I actually really loved him. But I think that meant nothing for him, or he would laugh it off. “You’re just a kid.” If I look at that situation, it sounds crazy to say I don’t think I was abused.
Rumpus: When we met the first time, your mother was still friendly with Monroe. He hadn’t read the book, either.
Gloeckner: He never read the book. I finally friended him on Facebook. I never said anything to him except hi. It turns out he’s living on a houseboat, just like he always wanted to. Finally, when the movie came out, he saw the trailer. I said, Do you recognize any of this? Does this look familiar to you? I sent him the book. He started to read and he said it was overwhelming. He couldn’t read more than a page or two, because it just reminded him of me and he had never really known me.
Rumpus: Because you’re a real person.
Gloeckner: He couldn’t really say that; he just said it was weird. I was hoping he would read it. I think even when I was writing the diaries, I was hoping someday he would read it and love me. Something of that still stays in me because you know, it’s a part of you.
Rumpus: What would a satisfactory response from him be?
Gloeckner: Maybe just that. “I never realized that somehow there was a disconnect; I never realized that you were so thoughtful; I really loved you.” Maybe that would make me happy and I would just say, I’m happy that you loved me too.
Rumpus: You wouldn’t be angry? Fuck you; you took advantage of me?
Gloeckner: I really think of him as a child. I don’t feel angry. I mean, I feel angry at the situation but it’s kind of fruitless to be angry with someone who is totally unself-aware.
Rumpus: Your daughters were so young the last time I last saw you. How have they responded to the book and the movie?
Gloeckner: Do you want to ask them? Here’s Fina.
[Fina is Phoebe’s twenty-four-year-old daughter.]
Fina: I had seen her artwork around since I was a kid, so I wasn’t like, Oh my god! She said I couldn’t read the book till I was fifteen. I guess I was expecting something really inappropriate or out there. It was never that crazy, but because it was such a personal piece, it was still very hard to read. It didn’t weird me out. It was just a heavy book, because it was my mom’s.
Rumpus: Tell me how you first got involved in doing work in Juarez.
Gloeckner: It was right after I finished Diary of a Teenage Girl. This actress calls me up and says, “Oh I have this project.” She was tenacious and said, “You have to do this for the women of Juarez.” I said, “Yeah, but I’ve got two little kids and I don’t want to think about murder. I’ve already been thinking about having sex with children and I don’t want to think about people murdering girls too.”
Rumpus: Did you know anything about the femicides and drug violence in Juarez?
Gloeckner: I’d heard about it on the news. She kept saying, “It’s your moral imperative.” So I went. We were in Juarez, then we went to Chihuahua, and I was just meeting family after family of murdered girls. It was pretty intense. I had been only been to Mexico for like a half an hour after San Diego Comic Con; I didn’t speak Spanish. To go to Juarez may or may not be shocking, may or may not be fun, but one does not generally get invited into houses of girls who have been murdered and just hang out.
[Persephone, Phoebe’s sixteen-year-old, walks in.]
Rumpus: What was it like for you to read your mom’s work?
Persephone: It wasn’t weird. I was like, “I have a cool mom.” Everyone’s been through a lot. I think it’s just cool that she made something cool out of it. I’m proud of her. When I was growing up the book was already out; it was just kind of there.
Gloeckner: She went to Juarez with me.
Persephone: My dad was always opposed to me going there because he thought it was really dangerous. We saw a lot of kittens. I heard a lot of stories before we went but it never felt scary. The people we talked to were very friendly and nice and not the kind of people that do the bad things you hear about.
Gloeckner: What did you think about the poverty?
Persephone: That was really upsetting. There were these two dogs lying on the ground in the heat. They looked like they were dead and these little kids were running around petting them and there were just ticks crawling around them. I was kind of like, Eww. And then I felt like such a bad person, such a privileged shit, for being like that.
Gloeckner: Anyway, so when I finally got home [from that first visit], I was determined to go back there one hundred times and not just to be a Johnny hit-and-run. The first time I went to Juarez by myself, I had been prepped to be afraid. The people at Artists for Amnesty had sent me all these articles about how to be safe. I went in there feeling like “Oh jeez, we’re going to die.” When we got there I found myself slowly melting. That all dissolved and I wasn’t afraid. I met 10 families; they all had daughters that had been killed, but I was particularly moved by this one family who was so much poorer than the others. Twelve people living in a shanty made of building pallets and tarpaper. There was a dust storm and the dust was blowing through. One room divided by a curtain with three large beds. You’d sit there and eat dinner. Nobody had any privacy.
When I was first there in 2003, no one had building materials, no running water, no plumbing, no sewage treatment, no garbage pickup, so there was trash everywhere. And after a sandstorm, it suddenly looks so clean because the sand covers all the trash and looks like rolling hills. It was beautiful and it was similar to the way that bodies were dumped in the desert. You barely have to dig. You just put the body there and put some sand over it. The shifting sands cover and reveal, not only bodies, but bits of people’s lives, trash. I just fell in love. So I’ve been going back for ten years following this one family.
Rumpus: You’ve said that that first project, the actress’s project, had a political agenda that you didn’t know if you believed in, that globalization and the maquiladoras were the cause of the femicides.
Gloeckner: I did not believe in that at all. In 2003 I didn’t speak Spanish but I was reading the Juarez paper every single day. Eventually I could read Spanish fairly well. Around 2007 I started noticing more murders. I started counting them, and I was like am I right? Am I crazy? There was nothing in the press about an uptick of murders.
In every article I read, it always seemed to have this spin, like it’s the maquiladoras, it’s the government and so and so. But when you get closer, you realize, no, just reading the fucking paper. Most of it is domestic violence or boyfriends who are pissed. It’s usually made to look like a murder by someone else because a body is a body and the police don’t really do anything. So it’s kind of a McGuffin. Blame it on whoever you want, but the fact is most of the murders are men killing women that they know—most of it is related to relationships. You just can’t come to the conclusion that it’s all strangers killing women or you know, groups of people killing women.
Rumpus: Or it’s some mysterious ritualized situation or force.
Gloeckner: It’s not a conspiracy.
Rumpus: The New Mexico State University professor Molly Molloy—you seem to have similar views—was interviewed by The Texas Observer and said: “It’s almost like we’re fetishizing these dead women, constantly focusing on women as if they’re this symbol for suffering.”
Gloeckner: I think it’s our own guilt about the inequities about the workers that we hire in Mexico—to make it into this evil is very easy.
The girl that I’m writing about, Maria Elena, inspired me to write [my current] book. She was murdered by a man who was very interested in her, but her parents wouldn’t let her date him, because he was so much older. He drank and he had killed someone previously. He wasn’t a good guy. He got pissed and killed her and no one knew for ten years. But it was eventually revealed.
Rumpus: What was your experience going back and forth? It seems like for a lot of people, the border feels very arbitrary. But, of course, it’s very real.
Gloeckner: It’s an artificial and a political boundary. But it’s very different on one side from the other. It’s not easy for Mexicans to go back and forth. There are so many people who are neither American or Mexican, but are technically Mexican and therefore cut off from far more experiences and services and the ability to travel. And I think for me, I related immediately to this place, of not belonging anywhere. I think I strongly related to that aspect of the border.
The family, the parents of Mary Elena, did not speak any English at all. When I first met them I felt that they wanted to tell me about their daughter but they also saw me as something very different than they were. I think the first time I really felt that—I got divorced in 2012. I was down there and they were asking me about stuff, and I just started crying. I was crying all the time, but not to them. But I couldn’t help it. I remember they looked at me very differently and the whole tone of our relationship was different after that.
Rumpus: This is not a graphic novel. What is it? You’ve been working on it for eight years.
Gloeckner: It took me years to write Diary of A Teenage Girl because, even though I knew the story, I didn’t know how to tell it. With me, the relationship between images to story is one where the image will progress the story rather than repeat what is already there. It took me a really long time to figure out. So this book, I went into it with no plan and I think the experience was extremely important. I hesitate to call it research. Maybe it started out as research; I got all the police reports.
Initially I didn’t know what I was going to do, what I would find out or what impressions would come to me. I just got this fellowship so I don’t have to teach next year, so I’m bringing everything together. I’m at a point now where I can’t exactly tell you what it will look like in the end, because I’m not sure. But most likely it’s similar to Diary of a Teenage Girl in that it’s a hybrid novel. Many of the images are photographic rather than drawn. When I got home from my first trip to Juarez, I was illustrating all these sex manuals, and I also had all these police reports from different murders. There was one that was this girl that was raped and then they stuck a splintered two by four up her rectum and she bled to death very slowly. I got home and I had to finish these damn sex toy illustrations. The particular illustration that was waiting for me was butt plugs. They sent me all this information: a little baby butt plug, a mommy, daddy. There was a whole series. And there were instructions: you can strengthen those muscles and you put them in your butt and keep it in when you go to work, I don’t know. Whatever, I don’t care. But I had to make something warm and fuzzy about butt plugs. Then suddenly I came back from Juarez, and I had all these images in my head, and especially that splintered two by four. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the difference between pleasure and torture, and the impulse to augment your sex life, and the impulse to augment your sex life by raping someone and putting something up their ass. I couldn’t draw it. I couldn’t draw either thing. My brain was rejecting everything.
So then I just had this idea that I would use dolls. I guess it was more comforting to me, that I could pose them and rape them and pose them, and the next day I could clean them up and they would be alive again. Drawing that was harder.
With The Diary of a Teenage Girl, I didn’t know how it would end. I didn’t reveal the full book to myself until the last day. I’ve never made an outline for anything. I know other people do and work more efficiently, but for me, part of the joy of it is figuring it out and exploring it. It always seems to eventually fall in place, but there’s a lot of experimenting along the way.
Rumpus: In one entry in your blog, you said, “I want to tell you about Mexico.” Do you remember this entry?
Rumpus: I don’t remember when it was. You wrote “I want to tell you about Mexico. I want to talk about my work, and how difficult it is. The experiences I’ve had while living this story are beautiful and horrible and profoundly sad. Maybe I’ve allowed the project to kill me. Somehow, I know it is my job to become my subject, to feel the same fears and joys, to know them so intimately that my translations are fluent and true. This can be a dangerous job for a human being. The collision of personal tragedies with the horror and despair suffered by one’s “subjects” is bound to produce injuries. I don’t know what sort of person, or artist, I’d have to be to sustain fewer wounds.”
Glockner: With blogs you never really remember what you wrote. It’s kind of spontaneous. I said that, and it is like that. My husband hated that I worked all the time. I was teaching full-time and working on this project. The only time to do it was when I came home, or at night. He was always jealous of my work in that sense, and then suddenly he wasn’t, and he was going out with his student. But I don’t think I never would have stopped the project or stopped working because of him. What I am is my work. I don’t produce copiously. I didn’t publish anything until I was thirty-nine. People probably think I’m dead. It feels bad sometime, but I have to do it the way I do it and forget about people thinking I’m not doing anything. But I’ve been working like crazy.
So maybe indeed, my work is killing me. But that’s my job and that’s who I am. It’s always been who I am. I think about my kids equally, but maybe I just didn’t love my husband enough to sacrifice my work for him.
Rumpus: Like you said earlier, you are a happy person. But you’re also able to live in darkness. For so many people it’s something we touch in on, get scared, and draw back.
Gloeckner: It hurts me, but it also brings me joy. I think if it didn’t, I probably couldn’t live. I’m well aware life is all those things. Why would I deny one for the other? Happiness is quite fleeting. We have this idea that the opposite of happiness is sadness, and that’s not entirely true, because happiness is another kind of emotion altogether. There’s contentedness, which can be pretty constant, if you do the right things.
But we’re so lucky to be alive and there are so many things that are just fucking miraculous. And we’re just so fucking lucky. I wanted to include all those things. It’s not all just tragedies. I guess, this thing in Juarez, is to find that joy, the beauty in death, even. To try to look at it without fear, without shrinking away. That’s my goal. I never know if I’ll succeed. Maybe I’ll fail miserably. But I have to try.