When she was fifteen, her mother’s boyfriend seduced her. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. While her classmates at San Francisco’s top prep schools were attending deb balls and joining the debate team — though, granted, such pursuits were on a decline in those Pink Floydian days of 1975 — Phoebe Gloeckner was spending a lot of time on her knees. At one point she looked up and asked him to tell her he loved her.”Of course I love you,” he fired back. After all, he added, what man wouldn’t give anything to get it from a fifteen-year-old?
Like a lot of her classmates, Gloeckner kept a diary. It wasn’t just words, though. It was alive with pictures. She was good at drawing, had always been good at drawing. Surrounded, in those Tales of the City-era landscapes, by grownups all too eager to dispense drugs and hard drinks and innumerable pains and pleasures to nubile girls, Gloeckner drew it all. When she realized, years later, that she had survived — others, including the best friend who sold Gloeckner’s body in exchange for dope, did not — she turned it into a book. A Child’s Life, published in 1998, is not your average dime-store comic book. Frame by frame, it traces the trajectory of Minnie, who with her lank black hair and generous nostrils looks a lot like the teenage Gloeckner, and experiences the same harrowing epiphanies. At one point, we see her clutching a bottle of “the-kind-of-good-cheap-California-wine-that-makes-girls-give-blowjobs-to-jerks.” Minnie is not sweet but still achingly tender. She does grownup things with grownups, but she’s a kid.
A new book, Diary of a Teenage Girl, is due out this spring from Berkeley’s North Atlantic Press. Now living in New York after a long stint in Oakland, Gloeckner is busy with the finishing touches. A deeper look at the youth she left far behind but which still occupies her dreams and notebooks, Diary of a Teenage Girl is halfway between the graphic-novel form of A Child’s Life and a full-on, all-text novel.
“It’s a hybrid,” says the award-winning cartoonist, who also has won international acclaim as a professional medical illustrator, drawing organs and the effects of illness with dazzling precision. In the new book, cartoons alternate with blocks of text.
“I realized that writing is so much faster than drawing,” Gloeckner laughs ruefully, “There’s just no comparison.” From rough sketches to final inking, a drawn page takes a day and a half. “And it would never take a day and a half to write a page.” Well, not unless you count those sixth and seventh drafts.
Gloeckner is basing the text on those diaries she once kept.
“Diaries are a very subjective form, especially a teenager’s diary,” she reflects. “It’s all tunnel vision and the obsessiveness of adolescence. Sex was something I was exposed to at a young age, and my response to it was to become obsessed with it because I didn’t understand it. Well, I understood it, but not the effect it was having on me.”
One of the interesting things about the book is how the art opens up the story by representing a different point of view than the narration provided by Minnie. “You don’t know who‘s showing you the visuals,” Gloeckner says. This expanded point of view gives those heroin stupors and mornings after a chilling documentary feel.
Growing up in the silty backwash of the Summer of Love, Gloeckner saw countless girls — and the boys she came to know on Polk Street, the Castro’s predecessor — “eaten alive” by parents and other adults who were totally oblivious to the effect they were having. “They took lots of drugs, lots of cocaine — they’d give us drugs.”
With role models who rape her, even while she sleeps, Gloeckner’s Minnie gets kicked out of prep school after prep school, her tuition always paid by the old-money family of her father, a substance-abuse-addled aristocratic artist who died young. Nor does Minnie pretend, even for a minute, that this life is without its occasional perks and joys — skipping school and doing drugs.
“I was compelled to do those things,” Gloeckner says now. “I thought I was going to live forever.”
Now a parent herself, she knows that immortality — or even just living to the age of consent — is anything but guaranteed. And hindsight is, after all, 20/20.
“Some people are too freaked out to look at the pictures,” Gloeckner confesses. Her mother, in fact, doesn’t like them or like that she does them. “Yet it’s so natural,” she reflects, “to draw what happened.”