Despite not looking at it until now (the first week of 2022), Deanna Templeton’s What She Said hit my 2021 Best list as the “best for remembering my adolescence.” Despite being roughly a decade younger than Templeton, and roughly a decade or two older than her subjects, despite being male, I recognize myself in almost every bit of the book and I ordered it within seconds of first learning about it.
What She Said pairs Templeton’s juvenile diary entries and flyers she collected from various 1980s punk shows she attended, with portraits of girls and young women she saw on the streets and identified with, made in the late 1990s through the 2010s. The vast, vast majority of the women look like punk kids to me, punks or goths, a rockabilly chick or two, but all sorta alt, outside, willfully other, and exactly the sort of kids I hung around and identified with when I was their age; pretty much the same sorts of kids Templeton hung around and identified with too. The young women in What She Said are (or were, when they were photographed) still growing up, but in a more or less different time, mediated by technology and social media and all, but I bet it remains relevantly similar. With online opportunities to bully and harass come opportunities to find like minds and connect… in some ways, the kids these days may be even better off than we were, less alone-feeling anyway. And it’s still a rough time.
A big subtext of What She Said is “you’ll get through this,” and looking at the book as an adult, well, of course. Templeton got through it; I got through it. If you’re a teenager and reading this—is there anyone under 20 reading this? is there anyone, of any age, reading this?—you’ll get through it too. And no matter how alone you feel, there are people who love and care about you, even if they’re largely incapable of showing it in a meaningful way, and in a few short years you’ll be able to look back and laugh, look back with fondness, perhaps, and at least the relative hormonal ease that simply being older brings.
Now. Standing What She Said next to two other books with pale pink covers by female photographers that came out in the past two years, I get much more out of What She Said than I got out of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, certainly, and also more than I got out of Sabiha Çimen’s Hafiz. Or, rather, What She Said hits my memory, seems familiar, there’s a nostalgia to it, I recognize my younger self and my friends. Hafiz, by contrast, is, for me, much more current, much more normal: while I don’t recognize myself or my friends in it, I do recognize my nieces and some of my neighbors. If I gave it a chance, Girl Pictures might also seem sorta familiar too, though I discount it entirely due to Kurland’s recruitment process.* And, really, What She Said hits similarly, for me, to Jim Goldberg’s Raised By Wolves: the kids pictured, Templeton’s juvenile diary entires, and the flyers for shows I wish I could’ve seen, remind me of myself and my friends, of the “cool kids” I wanted to be, and the music we listened to, the dark thoughts we poured out into our poems and songs and journal entries.
I’m in my low-to-mid 40s as I write this, and that pain is mostly long gone. What writing I preserved molders away in a couple of folders in a box in the closet. Would I have a) the emotional strength to look at it, wincing or crying or otherwise and b) bravery to pair it with photographs and make a book or a zine that I shared with the world (or even another stupid blog post that very few people will read)? lol. It’s an idea, for sure, and maybe…. Templeton, though, did it.
Templeton talks about her process and the making of the book in a lovely discussion with Ed Templeton that’s totally worth watching. The making came in two parts, really. She hauled the diaries around with her for about 15 years, and when she finally sat down and read them, she saw that there was meaning in the juvenile writings, proof that she was there and, sitting there next to the now 50+ year old Deanna, proof that she got past it, and that you’ll get past it too. At the same time, over about 20 years, she photographed girls and young women that reminded her of her younger self (or who the young Deanna wanted to be). After some time, she recognized that this set of pictures that could be made into something, and then hit upon the idea to pair them with the juvenile writings.
Templeton is in her early 50s now, and is well and far beyond the teenage Deanna that wrote all that stuff, that went to all those shows, and she’s now comfortable with herself, as she should be. I expect that reading back at her diaries was less like looking in a mirror than it was like reading about someone else.
At 42 now, I’m far removed from the 14, 15, 17 year old that scribbled awful poems down and carried them, folded up, in a copy of Howl in his back pocket for a couple of years. If I read that stuff now, I wonder if I’d remember even writing it. I wonder if it would sound like me, if the voice of the author would be familiar, if I have the maturity to see it with distance and self respect. The older Deanna seems to have a genuine love her younger self, the person who did all the writing, a love for herself that the younger Deanna certainly didn’t have at the time, and it’s really beautiful.
I’m not sure I have that for myself at all.
Anyway. I didn’t mean to get so far into that, and I deleted about 1000 words where I got all weepy and then deep into the weeds of identity and continuity and all. smh. Suffice to say that I thoroughly enjoy, appreciate, and recommend What She Said.
Overall, I rate it an unreserved and unqualified “buy it now,” if you can find a copy, 4.4 stars.
Sadly, it seems that What She Said is largely sold out, at least on the Mack site. Various booksellers may still have copies, though, so hunt around. Templeton is active on Instagram and has a blog she doesn’t seem to maintain, but is otherwise largely invisible online. There’s a ton of press about What She Said, and she has a new book out with UmYeah Arts that I should buy before it sells out, though I’m on a book buying hiatus at present.**
*I keep mentioning Kurland’s process for Girl Pictures, but never go into it… In an interview with AnotherMag, Kurland describes her process as “…[cruising] through towns trolling for girls. Looking back it seems very creepy and predatory.” No shit, it sounds creepy and predatory, and the pictures are very much worse for it, despite being beautiful, well made, almost Crewdson-esque, fantasies of after-school-special girlhood.
**and that I guess ended when I went ahead and bought it just before publishing. Expect an unboxing and review, both at some far distant point…