Speaking with “American Psycho” screenwriter Guinevere Turner about her book When the World Didn’t End: A Memoir and her films that have changed the face of independent cinema, like “Go Fish” (1994), and “The Watermelon Woman” (1996), was an absolute dream to me. This year, Guinevere Turner came out with a book about growing up in the cult of the Lyman family in the 1970s and 80s. The book is pieced together by the diary entries that she wrote at the time, as well as her entries she wrote after she got kicked out of the Lyman family in her teens. Guinevere was committed to presenting the events from her perspective as a girl, and keeping the entries as they were wrote at the time. Because of that, it’s fascinating.
Reading the book felt similar to Anne Frank’s diary with the wit and promise of a talented writer on the rise, but it also exuded the sort of vulnerability that only a child can communicate. I felt connected to Guinevere’s voice as a young girl in ways that caused me to recall what it felt like to be lonely and wanting to fit in. When the diary shifts to her time as a teen living with her mother and stepfather, we see the complications of a girl stuck in a hellish trauma of sexual abuse, yet still having the typical experiences inherent in being a teenager. I spoke with Guinevere about her book, and her trajectory into cinema as a screenwriter and actor. It was an honor to speak with her and elevate our conversation for Cinema Femme.
Guinevere Turner’s book ‘When the World Didn’t End: A Memoir’ is available to purchase online and in book stores. “The Watermelon Woman”just re-released on Criterion, the film is directed by Cheryl Dunye, and co-stars Guinevere Turner. “Go Fish” can be streamed here, Guinevere wrote the script and co-starred in “Go Fish”.
Reading your book made me think of Anne Frank. I know that may seem like a weird connection…
Not at all. Reading Anne Frank’s diary when I was nine or ten very much influenced me as a ten-year-old writer to make my writing matter. It made me want to have my diaries be important, which is funny because I went through years of being like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a kid who’s writing stuff.’ And only through the last few years, I’m like, ‘they’re useful in a specific way that illustrates the kind of kid I was.
Something I’ve been learning from reading the Anne Frank diaries along with your diaries is that they are funny, and very visual, and I was very engaged. Can you walk me through the process of your assemblage of these entries.
One thing that is interesting to note is that half of the diaries that I’m quoting from are from when I was inside the Lyman family, and the other half of them are from when I was out. I kept them, and I read them to myself over and over. I studied them and I preserved them. They were like this precious object I’d taken with me. It was the only thing besides me that I’d taken from one dimension to another. It’s not like I was unearthing these old things and by the time I was writing the book, I wasn’t sure what I had written. I had forced myself to read every single page, and read the diary every year after during my adult years. I wanted to keep it the way it was written for the book. I knew that something I was going to be confronted with was, ‘How do you remember all of this stuff when you were so young?’ A lot of people have asked me that along this journey. People who’ve read the book say to me I don’t remember anything until I was like nine or ten. What they don’t realize is that reading my diaries was a coping mechanism for me. It was like I was crying out to the future, ‘I’m a trauma survivor,’ and that is why I remember.
So I wasn’t sure how I was going to use the entries, and I realized that my veracity was going to come into question, especially with the people who I grew up around. So my way of approaching this project is that I didn’t write this, this kid wrote it, who was me. And I built a story around it, so by the time we get to these diary entries, you have context, you realize who I am, and you understand the way that I thought I needed to write. What I wrote is slightly fake news because I needed to toe the line.
I am friends, and friendly with a couple of the women that were in my life when I wrote these diaries. I had to stop talking to them for about a year because I left and they had much more of a story to tell. I didn’t want to hear anything that I didn’t know or have access to. That was difficult for me. I had to go into that child’s mind and live within these diaries and all of the details I remembered. I needed to build something that is true and iron clad. I had to build something where adult me is not present. Because if I’m just talking from my perspective, and I have these diary entries to back me up, and I’m never adult me, then I’m not saying this is a journalistic endeavor, or this is what happened. What I am saying is that this is the way I experienced it and this is what I remember. And if I lay it out in this way where you’re really feeling me as a kid going through it day to day, without much reflection really because I’m a kid, then you can’t argue with it.
This is how I experienced it. And I think that it wasn’t so strategic as that, but as it started to emerge and make itself known, it felt right. I’m not preaching, I’m not giving you any wisdom, I’m not even telling you how to feel about it. The one criticism I’ve gotten from the people I’ve grown up with is they thought I made it sound too idyllic. Somebody described it as “cottagecore.” I was like, ‘Did you get to the part about the violence and the child brides?’
I really appreciated the perspective from the child, which I found relatable. Obviously they are both really different stories, but I could relate to those feelings of wanting to fit in, and the feelings of isolation you have as a child when certain people leave you out of things. At least that’s how it was for me. What do you hope people grasp from this book, or take away from it?
A couple of things. One, I’m the first person from this family to ever write about it. I’m fifty-five years old, and my generation is around my age. I’m sort of a middle-child age-wise. One of my main things was that no one is going to tell this story, and why have I not told this story? I know why I haven’t told this story, because there is a chip inside of me that says, ‘Don’t tell this story,’ forty years later. But it’s a fascinating story, and no one else is going to do it. Although the minute I said I was writing a book, then someone else was like, ‘So and so is writing a book.’ But I was the one who finished it.
So I wanted to write the book for them. That’s why I dedicate the book to my sister Emily, and all the women who I grew up around. So I wanted to get our story out there. Also, in the past, I hadn’t talked about my time with the Lyman family because the kind of interest it gets. The fact that it is cult, and the questions you get, like, ‘Was it really fucked up?’ I always want to reply, ‘Was your childhood really fucked up?’ It was different from what they may understand, but a nuclear family could be just as fucked up. Growing up in the Lyman family it was like patriarchy on steroids. There were more people around, and less oversight, but it’s the same shit.
Part of the reason why I was writing this book was because I wanted to debunk, subvert, surprise, and engage expectations regarding stories of cults. In a larger sense, this is about a traumatic childhood, but it’s not that different from anyone who comes from any type of trauma. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part, not every day and every minute is horror. Like it might have been a beautiful house where you have experienced some kind of abuse, or you might have had a really good friend who you had a beautiful day with, and then something horrible happened. So I really wanted to challenge people with that.
Arguably, I’m a happy kid, but I’m not. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around this thing. And most importantly it was true of the people around me. It wasn’t like I was going to a school and seeing people who had a different life that I would aspire to. This was everybody, this was my life. So arguably, and weirdly–maybe this is a controversial thing to say–it’s not as traumatic as it sounds. Until I got out, and it was insanely different, but then I got into this other abusive, fucked-up thing. I wanted to bring the reader through my perspective on it, like my longing and wanting to go back to it so much. And even though I was getting older, I blinded myself to what it was really like. I also want to challenge the reader to think that it was kind of worse after I left [with the abuse of my step-father]. But if I hadn’t have been kicked out of the Lyman family, more terrible things might have happened to me in the same vein.
As I get older at some point later in the book, I start to remember things that are actually horrible and scary that at the time I didn’t have context for, or I didn’t really dwell on. So it’s sort of all of that, challenging trauma narratives, challenging cult expectations, and speaking out for the girls and women that I grew up with. I always call them girls first, which is funny. That’s how I knew them, although I know several of them now as women. And I’m hoping that people won’t give up halfway through, and be like, ‘This is not a juicy cult book.’ (laughing)
I’m interested in your trajectory after when the diaries take place in your teens, and what brought you into these groundbreaking independents films, like “Go Fish” and “The Watermelon Woman,” as well as your work with Mary Harron. It’s interesting to me because I see reflections of your story in your work. Can you talk about that?
The connective tissue is that writing has always been my response to things, and it’s just what I do. As a kid, I was writing, because it felt like my friend. Writing for me is a survival tool. I ask myself, ‘How can I make this better with writing?’, or, ‘How can I help myself with writing or calm the chatter in my brain by making it coherent somehow?’
As a young adult, at twenty-two, I saw no lesbian community that represented mine. I mean, I had a community, but never saw it in film. So I just felt like I could write the thing that I wished I could go to the theater and see. My girlfriend at the time, Rose Troche, who is the director of “Go Fish”, was just getting out of film school. I told her, ‘I can write a script.’ But I’d never even read a script. And she was like, ‘I can direct a feature,’ but she had only directed short experimental films. But off we went.
The success of “Go Fish,” just by the sheer kind of access it got was a complete surprise to us. We just hoped that we might go to one or two LGBT film festivals. Rose and I made a promise to ourselves that if we get invited to any gay and lesbian film festivals–back then it was gay and lesbian–we’re not going to say ‘yes’ unless they fly both of us out. Cut to us being flown to Spain, Germany, Japan and all over the world with two dollars in our pocket. Along with being flown all over the world, we were doing all of these press junkets, and it was exciting.
This was the early 90s, so I had boxes and boxes of fan mail from all over the world from mostly young women saying that the film changed their lives, and it helped them come out to people like their grandma. Some of the letters said that watching the film made them realize they were gay, because they had never seen themselves onscreen. There was so much affirmation around us that this was the right choice. The film was such a simple concept, just us living our dumb lives with our little dramas. But seeing that onscreen was just a life-changing thing for people.
Before “Go Fish,” almost all of “lesbian cinema” had been a lone woman suffering while questioning, ‘Am I or am I not? Maybe I should or maybe I shouldn’t?’ That kind of fainting couch solitude. And I’m like, ‘If I thought that was what was in store for me, I would have not wanted to be a lesbian’. Those onscreen depictions made you feel like you were the only lesbian anyone knows and it’s going to be really sad.
The film is so refreshing to me. I feel like I haven’t seen much of that since then.
Well what’s crazy is that Rose and I ended up working on The L Word, which was kind of like the granddaughter to “Go Fish.” But for cinema – in the 90s when we made “Go Fish” – independent film wasn’t really a thing yet. We were like, ‘Let’s make a movie,’ and we read Sight and Sound. Ruby Rich had written about Christine Vachon, and saw how she was starting to make independent films as a producer. Kevin Smith had just made “Clerks,” which was when we became friends. And then came “Chasing Amy.”
Have you seen “By Hook, or by Crook” ?
No, and I should probably see that movie!
“By Hook, or by Crook,” is to transness what “Go Fish,” is to queerness. These two guys [Harry Dodge and Silas Howard] wrote it, directed it and starred in it. At the time that they did it, they had not transitioned. They were very mask presenting in the movie, and they switched pronouns. I just saw it and thought it wouldn’t hold up. But it really holds up. I highly recommend it.
I’ll seek it out.
I was at an event here in New York for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and they were doing an anniversary screening of “Go Fish.” These two young women who were in their undergrad in college came up to me. They had just seen “Go Fish” and “The Watermelon Woman,” and I guess somebody was teaching them in a class. One of them was queer, and she was like, ‘Oh I think it’s so great, and we have the same issues today.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s incredible to me that a young person could even connect with it because it’s so analog, it’s black-and-white in style, and everything about it is so dated.
No, I disagree, it is so now and so relevant, just like “Born in Flames.” Like you, Lizze Borden had her book that came out, and I was like, ‘This is my in!’ I had to talk to her about this film, and her book, like yours, was so good!
Pre-pandemic, I did an event where I interviewed Lizzie. She is so fun and so cool. It is one of the only other independent films that really showed a queer community before ours. Of course, it’s a whole different vibe, but there are exceptions, and this is one of them.
With your work, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
It’s interesting, and I think this is why Mary and I kind of intersected, and started working together. It was “The Notorious Bettie Page,” that brought us together, even though we stopped, and then went back to it when we did “American Psycho.” The way she told Valerie Solanas’ story in “I Shot Andy Warhol” was not designed to glamorize her, or the women who killed for Charles Manson [in “Charlie Says”]. She’s creating an entire project that’s reframing how we think about that–to humanize it, basically. Same with the Bettie Page movie. It came with so many huge expectations on who she was. But actually, in Bettie’s case, she was just a weird Christian girl who had two senses of self, which is why it took so long to get that movie made. People were like, where’s the T&A? But the film is an examination of who she is, and that is the same thing with the women who killed for Manson, and Mary’s work with the Valerie Solanas story. To connect it with the book, it’s about reframing cult expectations, and even with “Go Fish,” it’s not like being a lesbian is super-serious, nor is it what we’re thinking about every second. It’s like a reframing of the cultural imagination of a given person or community.
What’s next is that I’m adapting the book into a screenplay.