Telling the truth about one’s own life is risky business. It can be tempting to wrap up a story with redemption, allowing the narrator to enjoy her status as survivor. But what’s braver, I think, is reflecting on a difficult, tumultuous life and turning an unflinching eye toward what it’s like to be a woman in the world. This is what Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl accomplishes.
Part memoir, part graphic novel, and all guts, Gloeckner’s fictionalized self, Minnie, takes the reader through her turbulent upbringing in 1970s San Francisco. Minnie experiences sexual abuse, emotional heartache, and every drug under the sun. Some of the heartbreak comes of living in a cruel world, and some is the result of her irresponsible decisions. But for all the ugliness and all the struggles, Minnie shines with honesty and resilience.
She is unafraid to admit that she’s scared, or desperate for love, or confused about what she’s worth. Her life is human life, in all its messiness and complication. While Diary is not what I’d call an uplifting account of a young girl surviving her adolescence, it’s a perfect example of what memoir can do at its best: shine a light, however harsh, on what it truly means to be human.