Rachel Klein: The Moth Diaries (2002)

The Moth Diaries

Did you like being an adolescent? Looking back I can’t say it was much fun. I would even say it was pretty awful. A whole lot of insecurities, suffering and drama. When I studied cultural anthropology some years later we read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which was her first publication. At the time when she wrote it, cultural anthropology was seen as a means to better understand Western culture and society. When she went to Samoa Mead’s wish was to investigate adolescence in another culture and to see how much of what girls in the US went through was rooted in the culture. Pretty much everything that is experienced as awful when growing up in the US or Europe was missing in Samoa. While her research was later criticized for being to idealizing, it still contains a lot of valuable information. Maybe Samoa wasn’t the idyllic paradise she saw in it but the young Samoan girls decidedly didn’t suffer like many girls did and still do in Western societies.

The Moth Diaries depicts adolescence in its most dysfunctional forms. Obsessions, anorexia, self-inflicted wounds, suicide. It is an intense and intriguing book, a painful story told by an unreliable narrator, in form of diary entries. The microcosm of a boarding school, set in an old Gothic looking building adds further depth to the story.

Her psychiatrist later tells the narrator that she suffered from “borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis”.  The prologue tells us that she has left this behind. But is she really cured, is she really better? What prize did she pay for that? And was everything she experienced and witnesses just the output of a vivid imagination?

The narrator’s father has committed suicide. Her mother cannot deal with an adolescent and sends her to boarding school where the narrator forms a close relationship with another girl, Lucy. Returning after a longer holiday break, the narrator must realize that her best friend is more interested in the new girl Ernessa. Ernessa is pale and mysterious, she never eats or sleeps and the narrator is convinced that she is a vampire.

What is interesting in the way this is told is how the book manages to show that when you are alone during an important phase of your life, isolated even, and you are surrounded by suffering that you don’t understand, you may end up interpreting facts in a fantastical way. Or, to say it differently, you may have a psychotic episode.

While books like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, tell a normal college story spiced up with vampires, The Moth Diaries does exactly the opposite. What really goes on in this boarding school, the obsessive dieting that turns into self-inflicted starvation, the claustrophobic friendships that turn into erotic relationships, the mobbing, all this is much more painful than the vampires populating contemporary high school dramas could ever be. Whether or not Ernessa is a vampire, is ultimately not that important.

What made me feel particularly uncomfortable is how the grown-ups deal with the girls in this book. With the exception of one or two teachers, they are all dysfunctional and abusive.

The Moth Diaries is an eerie and uncanny depiction of adolescence with a very Gothic feel. It is full of  inconvenient emotions, told by a narrator who is confused but at the same time extremely wise and insightful. One could call The Moth Diaries a contemporary and female version of The Catcher in the Rye. I found it painfully poignant.

The Moth Diaries has been made into a movie. Has anyone seen it?