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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review What She Said Photographs by Deanna Templeton Reviewed by Odette England "Few are more excessively, irrationally obsessed over, nitpicked, and misjudged than the teenage girl. Teenage girldom and all its visible (and invisible) terrors are the subject of Deanna Templeton’s What She Said (Mack), which exposes the perky and murky realities we lived with at that age..."

What She Said by Deanna Templeton.
What She Said
Photographs by Deanna Templeton

Mack, London, UK, 2021. 168 pp., 7¾x9¾".

Cut through the cassata-like layers of my high school experience and you’ll find an Australian version of a John Hughes film. The jocks, preps, nerds, rebels, and “the rich and the beautiful” as uttered by Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful. I hovered in the middle of this hormone-rich cake. Not the uppermost cream with cherries on top nor the plain biscuit base. I was in the most forgettable of social groups — the group with no name — consigned by the alpha bitches of high school hierarchy. A chubby farmer’s daughter with short frizzy hair, cheap cross-bar gold-tone glasses, and freckles; as far my upper-crust peers were concerned, I’d eaten the cassata and the plastic plate, too.

Few are more excessively, irrationally obsessed over, nitpicked, and misjudged than the teenage girl. Teenage girldom and all its visible (and invisible) terrors are the subjects of Deanna Templeton’s What She Said (Mack), which exposes the perky and murky realities we lived with at that age. From the clothes we wore, concerts we snuck out to see, stuff we skulled, injected, torched, stole, carved, smoked, pierced, crashed, lied about, and lost. Templeton lays it out, raw and unplugged, including her own images and music ephemera from the 1980s expertly woven with her journal entries. Thus, the book presents as part diary, scrapbook, memoir, drama, biography, and handbook of trauma. It’s also an ode to teenage girls everywhere.

Unlike so many male-directed films of that decade — known for cashing in on the teen girl experience for sex appeal, anxiety, and crass jokes — Templeton’s eye is one of an empathetic and knowing observer. Her portraits, taken over a 20-year period on the streets of the United States, Europe, Australia, and Russia, are direct but sensitive. I can feel her care about the idiosyncrasies and all-too-familiar characteristics of female youth. I am especially intrigued by the varied ways in which these girls look back at Templeton, who gave them space to be, space to look like authorities on their own experiences (and it’s easy to forget that they are). It occurs to me that both the photographer and the photographed are acutely aware: a teenage girl is always being watched.

The book is a tough read, tough because Templeton’s teenage pen is so truthful and potent it made me shake and weep. Her words took me back to there, that place, that time I wanted to strangle everything and everyone, then shake the shit out of them until they came back to life and all was forgiven. Read aloud Templeton’s graphic observations and you’ll realize just how far her inner pendulum swung back and forth from irrational overexcitement to razor-sharp wit to gut-plunging pain. When Templeton puts a period at the end of a sentence, I feel her stab-stab-stabbing her lined pink paper. When she uses an exclamation point, I see her seeing stars and cupids. It’s these shhh-don’t-tell-a-soul details that make the book so relatable. I was once that girl, sprinting both toward and away from love as fast as my fleshy legs would allow.

Though the portraits are suggestive of personality and innermost thought, don’t overlook what’s happening at the surface level. The girl with the tattoo “if I die I won’t cry”. The girl with the skateboard adorned with stickers, including BUSH IS AN ASS CHUMP! The tiny scars, mismatched nail polish and socks, oddly placed seashells, a porn star button. They’re the important details a frustrated or bored parent might overlook, but also the doors toward understanding what might be going on inside.

What She Said takes its title from a song by The Smiths: “What she said was sad / But then, all the rejection she’s had / To pretend to be happy / Could only be idiocy.” If you don’t know the song, go listen to it immediately. It starts with a feisty fusion of drums and guitar, a kind of energy that is startling, intense, down-to-earth, miserable, deflating, and ironical. Which is to say: resolutely and unapologetically like the charged performance of a female teenager.

I must mention the cover. If you threw Pepto Bismol pink, Barbie pink, and bubblegum pink into a vat and gave it a good shake, this is what you’d get. It appears modelled on the color of Templeton’s own journal pages shown inside the book. For me, it is Wake-Me-Up-Before-You-Go-Go pink, the color of George Michael’s sweater in that music video. On the back cover is a replica of the little star that Templeton doodled over and over again in her notebooks and diaries growing up. It inspired me to ask several female friends if they had a teenage doodle, which all of them did: circles, figure-eights, spider webs, hearts, and cubes. Mine was a four-petal daisy; mom reminds me that I used to squiggle it inside our phone book while yapping to friends for hours.

The size and length of the book are spot-on, and I’m grateful for Templeton’s generosity and braveness in sharing her actual words and artifacts. It’s more valid and sensorial than simply relying on the standard courier-style font to emulate the past.

What She Said is full of self-deprecation and sarcasm, but also reality, devotion, and impressionable, rampant fun. For all the screwed-up memories and heartaches, Templeton and her friends now have this beautiful compilation to reflect upon.

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Odette England is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.