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Dissections in Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life (1998, 2000)

Hélène Tison

Abstracts

Phoebe Gloeckner’s anatomical drawings and écorchés, her often blunt and jarring graphic narratives centered on abusive relations, are inevitably controversial; they fly in the face of feminist attacks on such representations as debasing to women and they complexify and redirect the debate about child sexuality. But A Child’s Life cannot be summed up in terms of exploitative objectification of women’s bodies, despite the depictions of scenes of abuse and self-abuse. Gloeckner creates characters, notably a semi-autobiographical persona, who assume very different, sometimes contradictory, roles and positions, and her insistent and minute lifting of the skin of (mainly female) bodies can be read as an empowering gesture of displacement and repositioning, one that, through repetitions and variations, redirected gazes, erotic or pornographic scenes, engages the reader/viewer in a very direct, embodied manner.

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Author's notes

All illustrations in this essay are from A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner, published by Frog Books/North Atlantic Books, copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher. Further reproduction of material forbidden except by express permission of publisher.

Full text

Rending of a child’s body and mind1

  • 1 In the writing of this article, I am greatly indebted to Hillary Chute, whose book Graphic Women in (...)
  • 2 ACL hereafter.
  • 3 In several interviews, in the introduction to Diary of a Teenage Girl, and in the short piece “Auto (...)

1Phoebe Gloeckner has given the apparently innocuous title A Child’s Life and Other Stories2 to a collection of graphic narratives that focus for the most part on a series of traumatic or painful situations, most of those included in the childhood and teenage chapters being related to sexual, physical, emotional or substance abuse. As she has repeatedly stated3, these stories are not strictly autobiographical although they do draw on her own experiences.

  • 4 The text in ACL is generally in capital letters, but will be quoted here in lower case; the underli (...)

2Some of the titles for the stories that make up the childhood and adolescence chapters of ACL are similarly ironic or antiphrastic, such as “A Shoulder to Cry On. The pitiable tale of a maddening little child and how she disrupts those around her, and a glimpse into her fantasy life.” (11) The viewpoint in the subtitle reverses the one chosen for the story, which is focalized on Minnie, and expresses the adults’ negative opinion of the child. The eight-year-old in the story, who has no shoulder to cry on but her own (there is a clear resemblance between her and her sad doll, who in Minnie’s imaginary story has been abandoned by her parents and is in need of love), is thus, in the subtitle, designated as the culprit, while the story shows her brutalization by her stepfather Pascal, with the complicity of her mother. In the second half of the story, irritated by Minnie and her young sister who are fighting in the back seats, Pascal screeches to a stop on the highway, forces her out of the car and abandons her by the roadside; when the mother eventually comes back for her she asks Minnie: “Why do you do these things to me?”4 (21). In “ ‘En Famille’ or Beggar’s Banquet”, the same stepfather offers to adopt Minnie and her younger sister, then withdraws the offer and blames the girls for their “ungracious” reaction, their “suspicion and mistrust” in the face of his “generosity.” (40)

3Pascal’s predatory attitude, mind games and twisted rhetoric, and the mother’s acceptance of his behavior, are recurrent themes. In one story, Pascal’s inappropriate questions about Minnie’s and her schoolmates’ breasts and menstruation embarrass the child but arouse him and her mother (50). In “Honni Soit Qui Mal y Pense”, he tells the latter, Beth: “There’s something I noticed which I feel duty-bound to discuss with you. It’s about your relationship with Minnie. [It] has become very physical – I’d say blatantly sexual. […] You two were practically fucking right in front of me this afternoon. […] Anyway, it’s the male figures in her life that should be key now.” (25-6)

4The title to this story, with its impersonal turn of phrase and lack of identifiable addresser, also points to the importance of gazes and their ability to ascribe (false) meaning and positions, and to the circulation of desire and guilt. In these stories Minnie (as well as other characters who share many traits with her) is confronted with visions of herself as presented by others – the “bad girl”, the object of sexual fantasies, etc. – which throw her into a state of confusion, and distort her perception of herself and of others.

  • 5 Emphasis mine.

5The behavior of adults is sometimes expressed in terms of a reversal between parents and children, as in “Cat Litter Caper”, where the daughters have adult bodies, and the mother that of a child; or in “Fun Things to Do With Little Girls” where the biological father appears in a flashback panel, playing with a toy car (67). In reaction to this adult/child confusion, young Minnie, manipulated and prematurely sexualized by Pascal and others, expresses the need to be allowed to remain a child: “It’s Mary the Minor5” is a story inspired by Phoebe Gloeckner’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend when she was a teenager, which she drew in the mid seventies, around the time when it was taking place; it ends with the protagonist wishing she “was three years old.” (84)

  • 6 There is a parallel contradiction or duplicity in the speech bubble, which originates outside both (...)

6The adult world conspires against her desire to lead “a child’s life,” and the ensuing distortion and confusion are materialized in the opening panel of “An Object-lesson in bitter fruit” (47, illustration 1) representing Minnie reading Lolita in her bedroom, drawn as a repulsive hybrid space, encroached upon by the voice of one of the adults summoning her6.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

7The doll first seen in “A Shoulder to Cry On”, which looks very much like Minnie, is here one of the numerous literal and figurative expressions of the rending which is inscribed on the body. It has been brutally tortured when “An Object-Lesson in Bitter Fruit” opens: its hair is undone and shorn, it is partly dismembered and has a rope around its neck; while the sexualized body of the other doll with pointed breasts resonates with another strip, when eight-year-old Minnie, in a dream, starts menstruating, develops huge breasts, and is congratulated by her teacher for her deformed, almost monstrous body (65).

  • 7 The instability of these bodies, whose integrity is constantly under threat, recalls the dolls ment (...)

8Bodily distortions are common also in the representation of characters, as in “Stepfatherly Counsel” where the mental and sexual games Pascal plays with Minnie are graphically duplicated in their oversized heads, while his bulging knees and groin (which looks somewhat like a vagina) contrast with Minnie’s childish asexual body (53). In the preceding story also (“Fun Things To Do With Little Girls”), as in caricature, scales and proportions are distorted, and the appearance of the characters is eerily unstable, changing from panel to panel7.

9Unsurprisingly perhaps, the “Teen Stories” move largely from abuse to self-abuse; they focus on self-destructive acts, and again on physical corruption and distortion. “Minnie’s 3rd Love”, one of the longest stories in ACL, is subtitled “Nightmare on Polk Street” and chronicles Minnie’s descent into hell; all of the episodes focus on the consumption of alcohol and drugs, on physical and sexual abuse, culminating with a page whose format, composition, and style suddenly become very different from the rest of the story and take on a much more “cartoony” aspect; one panel sums up the sorry state Minnie is in through text boxes with arrows pointing at different parts of her body (80) – it is as though the extent and intensity of abuse had exceeded all rationality and plausibility, and disconnected her from reality. Throughout this story, her body and those of her friends are abused and used as commodities, as expressed most blatantly by Tabatha, an avatar of teenage Minnie, who, more than any other character, embodies the confusion, corruption and self-destruction we have been discussing; on the last page, “18 years later,” she is seriously ill, covered in sores, has become a beggar, but explains that things are looking up: “my leg’s messed up – I got hit by a truck – but I might get some money out of it…” (81).

  • 8 And it is revealing that Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary is also “An Account in words and pictures”, thoug (...)

10But ACL is not merely a book of confession or testimony, and its underage characters are not confined to the position of helpless victims. These semi-autobiographical, often disturbingly erotic narratives, the inscription, through text and image8, of the abused, repellent, as well as desiring and beautiful body can be read as reaction to, and counteraction of, such brutal inscriptions on the body.

Repulsion, attraction

11With her remarkably varying styles and approaches to similar stories, Gloeckner plumbs the potentialities of the medium of cartooning, where text and image share the same space, creating powerful dialogic relations; she develops a complex vision and occupies shifting positions with regards to her characters and stories, simultaneously expressing pain and pleasure, desire and revulsion.

  • 9 Chute 2010 (58)

12The stories in ACL, the representation of girls’ and women’s bodies, recall the work of Aline Kominski-Crumb, who has explained that her “rough” style and crude stories, her refusal to draw idealized female bodies in particular, was a means of expressing subjective experience as honestly as she could9. It is also, quite obviously, a reaction against the unabashed sexualizing and stereotyping of female bodies (and the corollary exclusion of those that do not conform) in a medium that has been predominantly male-created and male-oriented, and where female characters have appeared as sexual objects rather than sexual subjects.

  • 10 Phoebe Gloeckner was an early admirer of Aline Kominski-Crumb, to whom she wrote a fan letter when (...)

13With the exception of a few early stories, Phoebe Gloeckner’s style is quite different from Aline Kominski-Crumb’s, but the acknowledged influence of underground comix, and of Kominski-Crumb in particular, is manifest in her drawing style, often characterized by distortion, exaggeration, and in her choices of subject matter, notably in her blunt approach to sex, presented from a female perspective10. These traits are central in this collection of semi-autobiographical narratives, whose ambiguous characters also recall the contradictory features of grotesques, intended to reflect their indistinguishable vices and virtues.

  • 11 Linda Williams also notes the parallels between depictions of sex and cutting the body open: “Like (...)

14The intricacies of representing the body (and bodily inscriptions) reach a peak with the distorted, maimed or dissected bodies, the écorchés, partial écorchés, and body parts that make up a large proportion of the final section of ACL. In a metaleptic gesture that foregrounds the creative act, Phoebe Gloeckner tears the skin and reveals the innards, abolishes the separation between inward and outward, so that every inch of the body potentially becomes an orifice. She at once debunks and sexualizes the body by making it inextricably in and out, making it all surface; the recurring motif of this lifting of the skin results in fascinating revelations and brings to the fore a corporeality that is at once morbid and erotic11.

  • 12 For a detailed analysis of this picture see Chute 2010 (62-4)

15Even before the book proper opens, we are presented with a rent, gaping body12: in this “Self-Portrait With Pemphigus Vulgaris” (6, illustration 2) Phoebe Gloeckner’s body is covered in blisters and sores, and her skin bursts open; as stated in the introduction on the next page, this is a condition she has never suffered from.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

16The first image she presents to her readers is that not merely of a suffering body, but one that has introjected a multiplicity of emotions and images of the self. The drawing is simultaneously chaste, modest (her breasts are covered, only the face and bust are drawn) and sensual, somewhat obscene even: the facial expression is undecidable, suggesting both pain and pleasure, while some of the sores on her body recall open lips or labia; the ailing, aching body is also a signifying body, which expresses what the author and the characters in the stories are at pains to articulate solely with words; yet the expressive body Gloeckner displays is one to which we are unable to attribute fixed meaning, whose perception and reception are problematic. The fissured body is not merely shown as vulnerable, it is also open, offered, suffering and desiring, repulsive and fascinating in its decay, beautiful and desirable.

  • 13 « [T]out un peuple d’étranges créatures […] dans les planches d’anatomie : personnalisées par de no (...)
  • 14 « Il émane de ces représentations anatomiques, planches gravées ou collections de spécimens, un mys (...)

17Returning to the last section of ACL, the bizarre anatomical drawings which it is largely made of all hover on the line between realism and fantasy. In her book Écorchés, Magali Vène explains that the anatomists’ ambivalence toward their subjects resulted in uncanny compositions, conjuring up “an entire people of bizarre creatures […] individualized by numerous realistic details (clothes, hairstyles, various accessories) occupying minutely described settings, presented in a variety of poses and attitudes: they seem to have been reassigned to the task of living even while their corporeal depths are exposed through gaping holes.”13 She further quotes Roger Caillois for whom anatomical drawings are particularly troubling because the mystery that emanates from them “doesn’t come from an element external to the human world [but] results from a contradiction that has to do with the very nature of life, and which seems to abolish the line that separates it from death.”14

  • 15 This is true even when the image is the least troubling, as in the case of “The Breast” (142) which (...)

18Almost all of Phoebe Gloeckner’s anatomical drawings display female figures whose uncovering does not reveal bodily coherence or integrity but rather heightens a sense of alienation15. Her uncanny écorchés have a jarring effect which, in a different mode, is reminiscent of the discordant stories of the previous sections, often concerned with the entrapment of children in adult sexual fantasies and acts, literal or metaphorical strippings – bare, or alive – of a child, left exposed by the excoriating attacks, fantasies and desires of adults.

19Scenes of voyeurism and exhibitionism also point to the instability and vulnerability of the body, the self, the limit between interiority and exteriority. On page 1 (illustration 3), the words “A Child’s Life” appear against a blank background in the center of a broken pane through which the wide-eyed sisters seem to be gazing in happy anticipation.

Illustration 3

Illustration 3

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

  • 16 The woman’s vagina is the focal point in Duchamp’s piece, and in Phoebe Gloeckner’s drawing our eye (...)

20On page 28 (illustration 4), in a story entitled “Hommage à Duchamp, Or, étant donnés: ‘le bain, le pere, la main, la bitte’ ”(sic)16, the words are replaced with the figure of the naked, masturbating stepfather (whose open mouth seems predatory, and whose eyes appear to be directed simultaneously at the sisters and at the reader), which radically alters the meaning of page 1.

Illustration 4

Illustration 4

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

21The positions of voyeur and exhibitionist, observer and observed, are bewilderingly mis en abyme; the girls’ scopic impulse delivers them into their stepfather’s mesh, whose design is to capture their gaze and dispossess them of agency. The dynamics of the objectifying gaze turns out to be reversed, while remaining – in this instance – phallocentric. As discussed in the last section of this paper, the nexus between gazes and agency is fundamental to Gloeckner’s work; in a number of crucial panels, the gaze of the female figure brings to the fore issues of objectification, domination, knowledge and power.

22Elsewhere, Minnie’s sexuality is discussed publicly and presented as shameful; in a passage from “Honni Soit Qui Mal y Pense” (24-5), her exclusion and alienation are underlined in the transition between panels, from a wide framing that includes all three characters (the child on the stairs, listening to a conversation between her mother and stepfather), to the close-up on the child alone, and to the reverse view, as seen from her position on the stairs, of the two adults discussing her. Throughout the book, sexual organs are displayed and sexual acts are performed in public, and are at times a commodity that circulates, as in a scene where Minnie is further dispossessed of her own body, abused after she has passed out, while Tabatha (Minnie’s then friend/lover) and the abuser’s friend watch TV a few feet away in the same room (75); elsewhere in the same story, Tabatha trades Minnie’s body for drugs.

23ACL, like Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, is characterized by recurring representations of sex and transgressive (textual and/or visual) scenes whose reception is at times profoundly unsettling. In the comics collection, furthermore, we are repeatedly confronted with fragmented, de-narcissized bodies; the specular impulse that founds the creation of these semi-autobiographical graphic narratives evokes a mirror that has been shattered, depriving Minnie-Mary-Magda-Phoebe of a unified sense of body and self.

Guilty visual pleasures

  • 17 ACL has been banned repeatedly in libraries in the US and, according to Hillary Chute, banned or re (...)

24After rejecting the sexualizing of the child in the first section – the cartoons cause unease, but our moral position is rather comfortable – we are put in a less simple position in the following chapters, which have caused Phoebe Gloeckner’s work to be described as pornographic. Whether or not we agree with the term, it is a categorization that can’t be ignored17, and that brings to mind Linda Williams’s argument that such works are founded on and articulate a double perversion: the perverse acts which are displayed, and the perverse pleasure of viewing them.

25The small selection of images included in this article can hardly give a sense of the nuances and complexity of the more than twenty stories which make up this 150-page collection, and in particular of the troubling sensuality that often characterizes them – and which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why ACL has failed to reach a significant readership. Hillary Chute writes: “Images of sexual acts, and oftentimes images of menacing, enlarged genitals, are prevalent in A Child’s Life. Most mainstream bookstores do not carry Gloeckner’s work; her publisher has suggested to her that without the images of erect penises, her books would be easier to market.” (2010, 68)

  • 18 Chute 2010 (71)
  • 19 See for instance her interview for Rumpus: “A Child’s Life was banned. I know that people responded (...)
  • 20 Orenstein’s article goes on to say: “The most explicit images threaten to implicate the reader, tra (...)
  • 21 In sex research, the stimuli that participants are presented with are almost always visual, photos (...)
  • 22 The link between negative affect, and sexual and genital response, has long been a subject for rese (...)

26As Chute further argues18, and as Gloeckner herself has stated19, readers may experience titillation on viewing these scenes of abuse; Peggy Orenstein writes: “Gloeckner’s cartoons may be devastating, but they can be arousing as well, because that, too, is part of Minnie’s experience.”20 They thus produce physical, embodied reactions (and identification) which remind us of, or reduce us to, our own corporeality; these images, much more immediately than words alone21, penetrate the reader’s body and act on it. These image-based narratives engage the reader not only intellectually, but also physically, and we are made bluntly aware of our bodies, and of our limited control over them22. In turn, bodily sensations affect intellectual reception, forcing us to reinterpret the strips through our reaction to them, and to question ourselves: how can we be aroused by scenes of adults abusing or mistreating an underage girl, especially as the same character in the first part provoked empathy, and anger at the abusers?

27We are compelled to turn our gaze inward, and the titillation we may experience makes us morally suspect in our own eyes; it returns us to our corporeality and overturns an ideal/ized mind-over-body hierarchy – we are momentarily dispossessed of our body and of our sense of self by the realization that scenes and situations which we find reprehensible can be arousing. Or, as Peggy Orenstein puts it, our “sympathetic eye” is transformed into “a voyeuristic one” – a profoundly destabilizing experience. In the embodied mimetic world of graphic narratives therefore, such sexual content provokes the embodied identification of the reader/viewer, a symptom of introjection and projection, a back and forth movement between text/image and addressee, causing us to experience both gratification and alienation.

  • 23 Silverman (10, 2). In her discussion, Kaja Silverman refers at some length to Frantz Fanon’s Black (...)

28This is, at best, an uncomfortable process, which recalls Kaja Silverman’s “deidealized identification”, being forced to identify with an image of self that is negatively connoted, “culturally disprized”, an experience that is particularly obvious in cases such as that of “visible minorities” 23. The complex reactions that Phoebe Gloeckner’s work elicit place us in unstable and contradictory positions: we may identify with images of a sexualized and brutalized child that are profoundly disturbing (in part, probably, because the character is viewed and graphically created by an adult who herself has ambivalent feelings and memories); and, as our physical reactions inform us, it seems that we may also identify with the abusers. Engaging with ACL can provoke deidealizing identifications, can confront us with ambiguities in ourselves that we generally prefer to keep in the dark and that jeopardize our idealized self-image.

  • 24 Magali Vène explains that until recently, in the absence of a technique that made it possible to ov (...)
  • 25 « [R]éalisation d’un fantasme érotique, celui de l’extrême dénudation et de la pénétration ultime d (...)

29The shifting identificatory position, the uncontrollable translation between the senses (from vision to physiological activations) can be experienced as a form of transgression, and in ACL, the anatomical drawings also form a part of this network of transgressions24, putting into relief, as suggested earlier, the eroticism of the in-between, the troubled and troubling “erotic fantasies of extreme denudation, of absolute penetration of the body”, and also of abused and brutalized bodies and desires25.

30The anatomical drawings that exhibit manipulated and rent female bodies present us with figures that do not appear to be individual and singular: even when faces are drawn, they seem stripped of individuality because of their conventional features, as in the cross-section of the pretty blond woman performing fellatio (138), or the stereotypically attractive figure of the young female écorché on page 137, in stark contrast with the appearance of the characters in the first sections of the book. Yet to a certain extent Gloeckner’s use of very different graphic conventions and styles in the graphic narratives has a similar effect: contrary to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in ACL we are not presented with a coherent, identical protagonist from one episode to the next, sometimes from one panel to the next, and this has a diffracting effect, opens up the characters, and can paradoxically further the process of (de-idealized) identification.

31Phoebe Gloeckner’s excavating of the body clears the way not only for the penetrating gaze, but also for an investment of these bodies (which, even when torn open, are alive – with one possible exception on page 148). For her anatomical drawings do not merely return us to our biological essence and to anonymity; despite or beyond the fragmentation, or the reifying inclusion of chemical symbols which remind us that we are mere matter, they are indissociable from the living, indeed are embedded or enmeshed in varied situations and dimensions of human life.

32A 1990 drawing (136, illustration 5) representing the “Berry aneurysm of left vertebral artery” is an aerial view of a highway, with trucks and cars, intertwined with arteries and veins; Gloeckner’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner, which is very different from the one that appears elsewhere in ACL, is almost invisible, its supple lines seem to merge with the veins.

Illustration 5

Illustration 5

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

33The parallel with panels from “A Shoulder to Cry On” (18-9) discussed above, when Minnie is thrown out of the car by Pascal, brings together a traumatic childhood episode with an adult fantasy in the representation of disease, suggesting again that events and memories are inscribed on and in the body.

34Dissections, metaphorical and otherwise express a desire to reveal the invisible, the ineffable, to make disturbingly visible what is usually hidden away and inaccessible. Certain episodes and situations are returned to relentlessly in ACL: the affair with the mother’s lover is represented in the childhood section, in “Fun Things to Do With Little Girls”, in “Magda Meets the Little Men in the Woods”; it returns in the teen section with “It’s Mary the Minor”, “Minnie’s 3rd love” and “The Girlfriend from a Different World”; and again in the “Grown-Up” chapter, in “The Bob Skoda Story.” The perspective alternates, or is sometimes reversed, (“The Girlfriend from a Different World”), and so do the positions (“Quaker School Qties” is a story of brutality and abuse among children); in “Fun Things to Do With Little Girls”, in three separate panels, Minnie, Pascal and the mother’s later (unnamed) boyfriend, are alternately shown in the exact same position, having sex or brutalizing the little sister (67, illustration 6a; 68, illustration 6b); parent and children positions are reversed in “Cat Litter Caper”, and “The Bob Skoda Story” starts from a focus on Jill, the mother, who then leaves her daughter in Bob’s hands and is not a witness to his seduction of the teenager.

Illustration 6a

Illustration 6a

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

Illustration 6b

Illustration 6b

Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher

35The structure of ACL, the repetitions and shifting perspectives, point to the imperative necessity to come to terms with certain events; what in psychoanalysis is interpreted as a symptom of repression, the endless returning to an injury that will not heal, evokes, in this book of graphic narratives, the image of the kaleidoscope. And in ACL, the fragmentation of an image or a moment into multiple and tiny pieces which nevertheless come together, combine and take shape, is orchestrated by a figure of the author which appears in the first panel of “Fun Things to Do With Little Girls” (66) and “Minnie’s 3rd Love” (70), staring directly at the reader, or whose presence is signaled by the mordant irony of the titles. This complex persona occupies a combination of positions: character, narrator, author/cartoonist, witness, recorder and creator, channeling the story but also transforming it, inviting or daring the reader to enter her realm and join her in her exploratory excavations.

36These shattered views and unstable perspectives, the relentless repetitions, further suggest an insatiable need not only to prevent simple interpretations and comfortable (or idealized) identifications, but to delve under the surface and extract different versions of the same episodes. Phoebe Gloeckner’s urge to lift the skin and look under the surface does not merely present us (as in the cross-sections of fellatio) with the bodily materiality and mechanics of sex and self; she diverts or reverses the gaze, and thus modifies the discourse.

  • 26 Williams makes the point that the main argument of feminists who object to (heterosexual) porn is t (...)

37We have seen that “Honni” confronts us with a brutal male gaze, that of Pascal, in a position that makes him simultaneously voyeur and exhibitionist (28, illustration 4); but in “Fun Things to Do With Little Girls”, Minnie having sex with her mother’s boyfriend (67, illustration 6) is not the mere object of scopic pleasure (or turmoil and discomfort), she reverses the gaze, and more specifically the male gaze (exemplified on page 28) which is conceived by theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Linda Williams as being not only the target of eroticism and pornography, but its origin and raison d’être. Such passages force us to re-envision the character, her gaze is not that of a victim asking for pity or help, nor is it that of the exhibitionist, it is an empowering gaze by which she changes and chooses her position; the softness of her huge eyes (and her appearance of passivity in the embrace) does not cancel out their powers of subversion and defiance26. These constant displacements and repositionings also affect the reader, as is suggested on the threshold of the first section: the same setting is represented on pages 9 and 10; the child stands in the center of the first drawing, grinning, and stares at us; in the second, she has disappeared, leaving us with a gaping hole into which we are forcefully drawn.

38Beyond or alongside the uncomfortable titillation Gloeckner’s stories can elicit, these gazes directed at the readers challenge our positions – as observers, spectators, voyeurs. The figures that stare out at us, and into whose eyes and narratives we are made to delve, occupy positions of knowledge and power: they return the gazes that seek to possess and objectify, and place us in the position of those who have read, who have seen; our own gaze engages our responsibility.

  • 27 On this issue and its specificity in the context of the #MeToo debates, see Olga Michael, “Reading (...)
  • 28 Peggy Orenstein argues that “Minnie’s complicity doesn’t change the fact of her abuse, but it does (...)

39Phoebe Gloeckner’s often blunt, erotic graphic narratives are inevitably controversial27, they fly in the face of numerous feminist attacks on such representations as debasing to women who are objectified; they complexify and redirect the debate about child sexuality, which is often simplified, not to say negated28.

40Obviously ACL cannot be summed up in terms of exploitative objectification of women’s bodies, despite the depictions of scenes of abuse and self-abuse. In this relatively short book compiling much of her work, and despite the recurrence of characters, scenes and situations, Gloeckner succeeds in creating a semi-autobiographical persona who assumes very different, sometimes contradictory, roles and positions. These are never simplified (and are thus profoundly different from those found in underground “smut” comix), but rather incorporate conflicting emotions, relations to and perceptions of self and others. As Jennifer Wicke argues about pornography, it is “both the object and the subject of desire, the representation and the reader, the consumer and the consumed, in one inextricable package” (89). In ACL, what might appear as an objectification of (mainly female) bodies can be read as an empowering gesture of displacement and repositioning.

  • 29 In “Friendship as a Way of Life.”
  • 30 As developed in Histoire de la Sexualité: L’Usage des Plaisirs, and which John Champagne illuminati (...)

41In a Foucauldian mode, Gloeckner’s characters in ACL are not on a journey of self-discovery, seeking the revelation of an identity or essence; rather, to paraphrase Foucault29, Gloeckner’s discourse enables her to invent, multiply, modulate a manner of being. Phoebe Gloeckner’s cartooning can be read as a “technology of the self”30; a self which is also constituted in the connection ACL establishes with the reader-viewer, in the introduction, the self-portrait, the characters’ shifting gazes, the pornographic or erotic scenes that engage us inextricably.

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Notes

1 In the writing of this article, I am greatly indebted to Hillary Chute, whose book Graphic Women introduced me to Phoebe Gloeckner’s work, and whose reading informs my own here.

2 ACL hereafter.

3 In several interviews, in the introduction to Diary of a Teenage Girl, and in the short piece “Autobiography: the Process Negates the Term,” written for Graphic Subjects (Chaney)

4 The text in ACL is generally in capital letters, but will be quoted here in lower case; the underlined or bold type words appear as such in the stories.

5 Emphasis mine.

6 There is a parallel contradiction or duplicity in the speech bubble, which originates outside both the frame and Minnie’s room: the term of endearment is soon dropped and replaced by Pascal’s inappropriate and humiliating questions about her body, as mentioned above: “So, Minnie!! You’re almost nine years old now, nearly a woman. Your body will soon begin to change – you’ll get breasts, like your mother.” (50)

7 The instability of these bodies, whose integrity is constantly under threat, recalls the dolls mentioned above, and is also echoed in the title of an article in the paper Pascal is reading in “Honni”: “Upper Darby Paraplegic Woman Found Dismembered.” (22)

8 And it is revealing that Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary is also “An Account in words and pictures”, though the drawing style in the latter book is quite different, much more conventional and unvarying than in ACL. The importance of corporeality, embodiment, the material presence of the body are also suggested in a later work (“La Tristeza”), where the lives of abused women are represented in diorama-like compositions that combine photography and doll-like figurines in miniature settings.

9 Chute 2010 (58)

10 Phoebe Gloeckner was an early admirer of Aline Kominski-Crumb, to whom she wrote a fan letter when she was a teenager, shortly before actually meeting her and Robert Crumb. The introduction the latter wrote for ACL is both appallingly offensive and oddly appropriate – it is for the most part concerned not with her work, but with his attraction to the teenage girl – and what sounds like regrets for not having taken advantage of her: “I, too, lusted after [her] from the moment I first met her […]. I, too, desired to subject the beautiful, intense young girl to all sorts of degrading and perverse sexual acts. The only difference was, I never got any further than a couple of piggyback rides. And why? Because I was too nice a guy! […] P.S. Excuse me, Phoebe, for blathering to the world, and to you, how I used to lust after you. It’s the only way I could write about your work and be truthful.” (4)

11 Linda Williams also notes the parallels between depictions of sex and cutting the body open: “Like pornography, the slasher film pries open the fleshy secrets of normally hidden things. As Clover notes, in the genre’s obsession with maiming and dismemberment we see ‘in extraordinarily credible detail’ the ‘opened’ body.” Williams 1989 (40)

12 For a detailed analysis of this picture see Chute 2010 (62-4)

13 « [T]out un peuple d’étranges créatures […] dans les planches d’anatomie : personnalisées par de nombreux détails réalistes (coiffures, vêtements, accessoires divers), évoluant dans des décors minutieusement décrits animées d’expressions et d’attitudes variées, elles paraissent réaffectées à la tâche de vivre, alors même que par des ouvertures béantes s’exhibent leurs profondeurs corporelles. » (Vène, 21 ; translation mine)

14 « Il émane de ces représentations anatomiques, planches gravées ou collections de spécimens, un mystère bien plus troublant que des ‘plus délirantes inventions d’un Jérôme Bosch’, parce qu’il ne vient pas d’un élément extérieur au monde humain [mais] surgit d’une contradiction qui porte sur la nature même de la vie et qui n’obtient rien de moins que de paraître abolir […] la frontière qui la sépare de la mort. » Au cœur du fantastique, 1965, p. 160 ; quoted in Vène (28 ; translation mine)

15 This is true even when the image is the least troubling, as in the case of “The Breast” (142) which is – or very convincingly imitates – a medical chart for plastic surgery; it puts into ironic relief the reification and commodification of women’s bodies, overwhelmingly by and for men. Breasts are shown and described in nineteen panels, one of them labeled “ ‘Ideal’ breast”; the quotation marks, while suggesting a laudable hesitation in the use of the questionable, and unscientific, adjective, also point to the arbiters of taste in matters of female beauty.

16 The woman’s vagina is the focal point in Duchamp’s piece, and in Phoebe Gloeckner’s drawing our eyes are similarly drawn to Pascal’s penis; however, the two figures differ in many other respects, and in particular, Duchamp’s woman is not menacing: her head is invisible, her vagina looks like a tear, a wound; despite her slightly raised hand holding a gas lamp, she seems lifeless, and recalls, for contemporary viewers, the innumerable images of slain and abused women shown in the press, in films, on TV etc. The figure, made of plaster covered in pig’s skin, also evokes wax anatomical models, the “living-dead” of anatomy. The piece is profoundly troubling, but the malaise is more diffuse, and originates in part in the figure’s lack of a gaze, so that our own is pulled toward the exposed orifice that seems to promise access to her corporeal depths.

17 ACL has been banned repeatedly in libraries in the US and, according to Hillary Chute, banned or refused by publishers in a number of countries, including France. And as Peggy Orenstein points out in her New York Times article, although ACL “was confiscated at the French border […], interestingly R. Crumb’s comics depicting his sometimes violent sexual fantasies are readily available [in France]”.

18 Chute 2010 (71)

19 See for instance her interview for Rumpus: “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.” (Joiner)

20 Orenstein’s article goes on to say: “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.’ ”

21 In sex research, the stimuli that participants are presented with are almost always visual, photos and films mainly; cf. Janssen.

22 The link between negative affect, and sexual and genital response, has long been a subject for research according to Peterson and Janssen, who write, in conclusion to their own study: “If, as many researchers have proposed, sexual response involves a complex interaction of social, psychological and physiological factors, it should not be surprising that individuals often respond to sexual situations with complex or ambivalent emotional states.” (Peterson, 807)

23 Silverman (10, 2). In her discussion, Kaja Silverman refers at some length to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks. She further argues that in order to treat others humanely, to recognize the value and humanity of those we are afraid to identify with (she gives the example of the homeless people she feels threatened by), we must strive to become aware of the hierarchized values associated with body image, and shed them.

24 Magali Vène explains that until recently, in the absence of a technique that made it possible to overcome the opacity of the living organism, the interior of bodies only became accessible through injury, operations that were often fatal, processes of decomposition, or awe-inspiring dissections, so that bodily interiority was associated with death. Because such images, ostensibly created to obtain objective information and knowledge, were inseparable from the social, moral and religious values intrinsically associated with the body, they presented a broad field of reflection, and one that was always fraught with uneasiness because of a feeling of transgression. (5-6)

25 « [R]éalisation d’un fantasme érotique, celui de l’extrême dénudation et de la pénétration ultime du corps. » (29) Magali Vène also mentions the Marquis de Sade’s interest in anatomical wax models.

26 Williams makes the point that the main argument of feminists who object to (heterosexual) porn is that it presents female domination and brutalization as pleasurable, and as normal pleasure, to male viewers, and thus encourages and perpetuates the brutalization and objectification of women. But Williams finds the gendered role assignments – as well as the reading of active and passive positions in domination films as respectively male and female – problematic, and further claims that if women derive pleasure from domination, “it does no good at all simply to condemn or deny the experience. We need to try to understand what the experience of masochism is for women. The difficulty is that, as in so many other things, it has primarily been theorized by, and for, men.” (1989, 52)

27 On this issue and its specificity in the context of the #MeToo debates, see Olga Michael, “Reading Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life and Other Stories at the Time of #MeToo”, Life Writing vol 16. 3 (2019). 345-367.

28 Peggy Orenstein argues that “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.”

29 In “Friendship as a Way of Life.”

30 As developed in Histoire de la Sexualité: L’Usage des Plaisirs, and which John Champagne illuminatingly sums up: “Foucault's use of the word ‘technologies’ to describe the means by which subjects constitute themselves emphasizes that this process of self-making is not ‘natural’ but is something done to the self, performed on the self. It also suggests the radically antihumanist notion of the body as a set of relations for experimentation and invention that may be exercised for the purposes of constituting the self.” He further explains that these technologies must be understood “as discursive practices that suggest certain conditions of possibility for self-making.” (184, 187)

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List of illustrations

Title Illustration 1
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 139k
Title Illustration 2
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 51k
Title Illustration 3
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 103k
Title Illustration 4
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 128k
Title Illustration 5
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 90k
Title Illustration 6a
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 88k
Title Illustration 6b
Credits Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/docannexe/image/9647/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 48k
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References

Electronic reference

Hélène Tison, « Dissections in Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life (1998, 2000) »Sillages critiques [Online], 28 | 2020, Online since 01 May 2020, connection on 25 October 2020. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/sillagescritiques/9647; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/sillagescritiques.9647

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About the author

Hélène Tison

Université de Tours (Interactions Culturelles et Discursives ICD EA 6297)
Hélène Tison est maîtresse de conférences à l’Université François Rabelais de Tours. Après un doctorat en littérature américaine consacré aux romans policiers de l’auteur afro-américain Chester B. Himes, elle s’est tournée vers les études sur le genre et depuis quelques années vers la bande dessinée américaine. En 2007 elle a organisé une conférence avec Alison Bechdel à l’occasion de la sortie de son roman graphique Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, conférence qui a été suivie de la publication d’un numéro de Graat On-Line consacré à cette auteure.
Hélène Tison is Associate Professor in the English department at the University of Tours. After her doctorate in American literature, on the crime fiction of African American writer Chester B. Himes, she turned to gender studies, and has been focusing on comics and graphic narratives in recent years. In 2007 she organized a conference with and about Alison Bechdel, after the publication of her graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, then edited the first issue of Graat On-Line, devoted to Bechdel.

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