Phoebe Gloeckner Is Creating Stories About the Dark Side of Growing Up Female
PEGGY ORENSTEIN (continued)
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Whatever tenuous stability Minnie had felt at home crumbled as that initial touch turned into an affair. In 'Minnie's 3rd Love, or Nightmare on Polk Street,'' a story in ''A Child's Life,'' Gloeckner's alter ego is seen on her knees in the laundry room of her apartment building. Next to her is a ''Hello Kitty'' diary. Minnie looks tearfully up at her lover-surrogate father, on whom she is about to perform oral sex, begging him to tell her he loves her. In her right hand, she clutches a bottle whose label reads, ''The kind of good cheap California wine that makes girls cry and [perform oral sex on] jerks.'' To escape both her shame and her obsession with her mother's boyfriend, Minnie runs away to Polk Street with another girl, a teenage junkie with whom she falls in love. She takes whatever drugs come her way, then is pimped by the girlfriend for more. ''I was in a lot of pain, so I would do anything,'' Gloeckner says about her own life at that time. ''If someone said, 'Shoot up this' or 'Take this pill,' I'd do it. I guess I didn't really care.''
Though Frog Ltd. was eager to publish ''A Child's Life,'' its printers balked. One refused outright, the other agreed, but backed off after staff members objected to the graphic imagery in ''Minnie's 3rd Love.'' Eventually, the second company did print the book after work hours.Gloeckner had caused controversy before: in 1995, British customs officials seized an anthology of comics that included an earlier version of the same story, claiming the laundry-room panel was child pornography. ''There's resistance to something that's drawn that wouldn't exist if it were written,'' says Frog's Richard Grossinger.''If you're talking about child sexual abuse, 'Bastard Out of Carolina' is in many ways harsher than Phoebe's work. If you drew that, you'd be marginalized.''
A British judge eventually ruled in favor of the book's distributor, but last year, when ''A Child's Life'' was confiscated at the French border, there was no such reversal: the book never was allowed into the country (although, interestingly, R. Crumb's comics depicting his sometimes violent sexual fantasies are readily available). ''Some people think what I draw is pornography,'' Gloeckner says. ''But there are children who experience this, who have this penis in front of their faces. They see it, so why can't I show it to make the impact clear?''
It's a question she hasn't fully answered herself. Gloeckner describes her creative process as a wrestling match between the compulsive demands of her own vision and a fear of those who might label it ''dirty.'' There's the voice of her publisher, who has -- no pressure -- mentioned that without the images of erect penises, her books would be easier to market. There's the voice of her mother, who has ''not been pleased'' with the Minnie stories. There's the voice of herself as a mother, fretful over what her daughters will think when they are old enough to see her work. There's the voice of her own shame. ''I'm constantly fighting with it,'' she says, ''But if I censor myself, it makes me feel sick. Actually physically ill.''
Ultimately, Gloeckner says, she has no choice but rigorous honesty, including this: Gloeckner doesn't flinch from the blurry lines between experimentation and exploitation. A panel in ''A Child's Life'' shows Minnie reading ''Lolita.'' In ''Diary,'' Minnie describes her excitement at provoking desire in adult men in a bar (as well as her revulsion when they respond). She confides the thrill of picking up strangers in Golden Gate Park. And she admits to actively participating in the affair with her mother's boyfriend after he made the first move. Even at her most debased, Minnie sometimes seems to be having fun. As her fellow cartoonist Clowes says: ''Phoebe doesn't paint herself as either a hero or as a victim or say that this guy is evil and this guy is good. She's just there in the world as she should be, and you have to interpret the events she depicts.'' Minnie's complicity doesn't change the fact of her abuse, but it does provide insight into its dynamics. It's a daring subtheme, and it is part of what makes Gloeckner's work ring true, what makes it transcend the genre of most child-abuse memoirs.
In a way, the European border patrol was onto something-- Gloeckner's cartoons may be devastating, but they can be arousing as well, because that, too, is part of Minnie's experience. The most explicit images threaten to implicate the reader, transforming a sympathetic eye into a voyeuristic one. That quality may be what offends censors and raises red flags among the bookstore buyers who won't carry her work. ''Maybe it is titillating,'' Gloeckner admits. ''It can be titillating for the child in a way. But it's also confusing, destructive and horrifying and can be rape and everything else. So to draw things as either black or white is a lie. Because that titillation is in you. I'm not saying it's good, but it's there.''
Gloeckner remains ambivalent, veering in our conversations between self-righteousness and embarrassment, between dreaming of a larger audience and hoping no one she knows will ever see her books. When asked what her suburban neighbors think of her comics, she laughs. ''I just tell them I'm a medical illustrator,'' Gloeckner says. ''I don't think they would let their children play with my children if they knew what I drew.'' Of course, she's telling this to a reporter from The New York Times, which has a substantial circulation on Long Island. Chances are she's about to be outed. ''I know, I know,'' she groans. ''But I haven't lived there that long and I don't know anyone really well. . . . '' She trails off for a moment, snared in her own loopy logic. ''Well, I don't know how many people will recognize my name,''she concludes, weakly. ''So I think it's not going to be that bad.''
There was no great epiphany, no moment of being scared straight, no hitting bottom, despite how low she sank. Hers was an incremental awakening. At 17, Gloeckner was still prowling Polk Street, shoplifting on the side. She remembers thinking that in another year, if she were caught, she could be jailed, and that scared her. Then there was her grandmother, a doctor back in Philadelphia, whom Gloeckner admired and wanted to emulate. Instead, she seemed to be taking after her father, who had become irretrievably lost in drug and alcohol addiction. And Gloeckner knew she had a gift; even at her lowest ebb, she drew comics on paper bags or in her diary. ''They weren't very good, but they sustained me,'' she says. ''I felt good about that part of myself -- and only that part of myself -- but it was something I could feel good about. It made me feel there was some hope that I could do something if I tried.''
She managed to squeak through what she describes as a ''school for incorrigibles'' and did well enough on her SAT's to enroll at San Francisco State. ''I don't know exactly how I made that leap back to normal life,'' she says. ''I wish I did. I suppose that even though I got kicked out of all those private schools, they had given me a sense that there was something else to strive for. Other kids I knew didn't have that.'' Eventually, Gloeckner studied art and medicine, earning a master's in medical illustration. It's a career that suits an artist as meticulous as she. (''It's really hard for me not to fill up every space with crosshatching,'' she jokes.) But more than that, it's the perfect day job for a person compelled to make the hidden visible, then present it for public display. ''I was always aware that the interior was as much a part of my body as the exterior,'' she says. ''I've always done things like try to imagine what it looks like inside when I'm swallowing. Or what it looks like inside when you have sex. So I wanted to understand the interior better. I guess interior life in general.''
There is a triptych of Minnie in "A Child's Life.'' In the first drawing, she is eating candy dots, those bits of colored sugar peeled from strips of paper, and looking up at a chevron of migrating birds. In the next, which faces it, she holds a Tootsie Pop. Both are archetypal images of childhood. But turn the page and ''Little Minnie'' is about to kiss a grown woman, her mouth wet and open, her eyes glazed in anticipation. Is Minnie a child or an adult? Innocent or carnal? ''That adult woman is me,'' Gloeckner says. ''I was having a hard time doing the book. I was really nervous about it. So I thought: 'How do I feel about this little girl? Well, I like her, and I want to tell this story for her sake. And I just have to look at it that way and not worry about what people will say.' So that picture is supposed to be me as an adult kissing Minnie. In a sense, it's myself kissing myself. And there is something sexual about it because we're blending in my brain. So I could see that people would interpret it differently.'' She shrugs. ''But that's O.K.''
It may be that you have to be 40 before you can reconcile with 14, before you can reach back in time and offer a consoling embrace. Gloeckner imagines teenage girls would be the natural audience for her work if it were more readily available in conventional bookstores. But for the most part, it doesn't cross their paths. Even so, the dedication of ''Diary of a Teenage Girl'' reads, ''For the girls after they've grown.''
''Although I was exposed to all those things when I was a kid, I don't think everyone should be, even through a book,'' she says. ''So the dedication is hopeful in that sense. It is for girls, but let them stay as ignorant as they can be of these things until they're stronger or know more. Unless, of course, they're forced to grow up too soon.''
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for the magazine and author of ''Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-Changed World.''
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material copyright 2001 The New York Times, Peggy Orenstein, Michael O'Neill