The Brilliant Diary of Mary Rose, Truthteller

By Jessica Willis 05/09/14

An addict youth's tell-all for a new generation from Legs Mcneil and Gillian McCain. “I think for parents who actually talk to their kids, this book is a great conversation starter. For parents who don’t talk to their kids, this is going to be a time bomb.”

Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.jpg
authors via Jonathan Marder + Company

What lies at the intersection of the best years of your life, the best writing some of you may ever do, and abject humiliation? Ladies, you already know the answer. Gents, you may only have experience taking a knife to its cheap little lock.

I’m referring, of course, to your diaries. 

There is a lot of fun and misery to be had when you crack one open after, say, 30 years of closure, and have a read. That’s some good shit right there.

"I wish I had a dick, so I could tell the world to suck it," is one of co-editor Legs McNeil's favorite lines in Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose (Sourcebooks), the new book under discussion today with McNeill and co-editor Gillian McCain.

Perhaps the modern batch of teen solipsists will quit the microblogging and go longhand, for a change.

A diary can equal some dollar signs, if you’re so inclined. There’s Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary from 2007. In it, she looks up the players who starred in her entries during her ‘tweens to twenties and tries to find out what they remember. The original entries and the updates play side by side in her book. Doesn’t that kind of pervert the purity of the diary, though?

Diaries don’t even have to be real in order to sell. They just have to reek of a lurid tell-all. When I was devouring the classic Go Ask Alice back in my wasteoid salad days, I assumed the entries from a nameless good girl gone way bad in the late 1960s were all real. It turns out the author (billed as Anonymous on the book cover) was a novelist named Beatrice Sparks. Knowing this now turns the diary writer’s death by O.D. at the end of the novel into a cheesy cautionary tale: One more “drugs are bad” rant.

Good thing I had my own real diary going, where the drugs were very, very bad indeed. That is, when they weren’t being gooood.

An addict without a diary is sorry indeed. For the junkie and boozer who cheats death every day and gets amnesia almost as soon as anything happens, the diary is a way to remember - or to rewrite history, if the first version didn’t suit you. 

It’s also a message to whomever - or whatever - follows in the wake of your certain death.

Which brings us back to Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, a teenage girl’s collection of diary entries written in the late '90s. Unlike Go Ask Alice, the entries are real; unlike Arfin’s Dear Diary, the entries stand alone without the author’s present-day meddling.

Mary Rose couldn’t meddle even if she wanted to. She died of cystic fibrosis when she was 17. As she journaled, she knew the disease would eventually kill her. And if the cystic fibrosis didn’t get her, her boozing and drugging - including heroin - may have finished the job. According to McNeil, Mary Rose didn’t bother sobering up because she knew she didn’t have long to live. Her illness “makes it kind of moot,” he says. “‘Oh, you should stay sober, you shouldn’t do drugs.' Why? Why not.”



Mary Rose owes a lot of her style to McNeil, who co-founded Punk, the seminal '70s magazine dedicated to soft-spoken, marginalized people who make loud music; he was also a founding editor at Spin and currently writes for ViceShe also owes a debt to McCain, the New York-based writer and poet who was at one time the president of The Poetry ProjectThe duo's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk is unarguably the definitive book about the culture of Punk.

Which turned out to be one of Mary Rose’s favorite books. This isn’t surprising; the spirit of Please Kill Me’s players in the seminal days of punk - by turns sweet and nihilistic - is mirrored in Mary Rose. Her writing has a gleeful “I don’t give a fuck” mentality without any preachy overtones.

“What I found remarkable about Mary Rose was that she knew she was an alcoholic and drug addict at such a young age and she wasn’t in denial about it,” McCain says. “I think that’s pretty rare.”

No, Mary Rose wasn’t in denial, and she was very funny about it. “My life has become a dormant haze of boredom and bad hygiene,” she writes at one point. In that one sentence, she captures all of the squalor of being young and fucked up.

One facet of Dear Nobody's inception is that while McNeil has an affinity for much of this material, his partner in crime McCain is coming from a somewhat more prosaic perspective. "Legs has had a much more wild past than me," she says about the process of co-editing Please Kill Me and, perhaps, of their current project. "And [he has] first-hand experience with addiction. But i think it was beneficial to have someone who hadn't been 'there' at the time to partner in the book. He was the seasoned professional who had lived the life, I was more like the wide-eyed girl who moved to the city in order to meet all of these people. And to write a book like this!"

Dear Nobody could have been consigned to the closet or the couch if McNeil hadn’t asked his postmaster’s daughter what she had been reading lately.

“She listed the popular titles of the day but then she said ‘but the best thing I’ve ever read were these diaries that my best friend’s older sister wrote,’” he says.

McNeil and McCain began reading the diaries and they were enthralled. Working with Mary Rose’s piles of spiral bound notebooks - filled with 600-plus pages of short stories, schoolwork, poetry, and diary entries - they edited the work down to 330 pages of teen joy and misery compressed: abuse, pleasure, fighting with her mother, being wasted, coming to terms with the reality that, in her words: “I will never be the happy, healthy girl with the nice boyfriend and the perfect home. This is my reality … I awake to the bitter veneration of nauseating medicine as the taste of a ‘treatment’ fills my mouth and lungs.”

“You could really see her experimenting and trying to become a better and better writer,” McCain says.

Would Mary Rose have wanted her diary to reach the public? McCain thinks Mary Rose would be tickled by it.

“She was such an extrovert,” McNeil adds. “She liked having all the attention.”

It’s true; at the end, Mary Rose writes that she hopes her death is mourned with honor and respect. She doesn’t want to be forgotten.

Or, as she whiplashed between the poles of love/hate about a boyfriend: “God I love him. It’s just like every once in a while, he’ll say something really brilliant and pretty … [t]hen he’ll say something really stupid and I’ll think he’s fucking retarded.” And her parting salvo to him, shortly before her death: “You’re a loser and a dickhead fag asshole. There is no life after Mary Rose. You’ll be sorry babe. Goodbye.”

And yet this is the same girl who could write “I’ve just got to remember to be nice and warm-hearted in my overall relations to people.” But of course.


Dear Nobody is being marketed to a young adult audience; this is a population that doesn’t get a great deal of non-fiction. Or they get something that looks like a memoir, like Go Ask Alice. It’s a “convoluted” terrain, McCain points out: some readers don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. 

So when Dear Nobody drops into a kid’s grimy hands, what will happen? Will this be the book that sends the kid down the vodka and heroin highway? The book that doesn’t glamorize addiction and abuse -but still makes partying in the woods, and being incoherent and angst-ridden, seem like the best solutions to the problems at hand.

“I think for parents who actually talk to their kids, this book is a great conversation starter. For parents who don’t talk to their kids this is going to be a time bomb,” McNeil says.

He didn’t think Dear Nobody would send anyone down a path they hadn’t already chosen.

“If kids are going to get fucked up and get high they’re going to find an excuse,” he says. “It’s like people who went and read Burroughs so they could do heroin. And all the people who read Bukowski who wanted to go drink. I think the kids that are not gonna get high are not gonna get high from reading this book. And the kids that are gonna get high - who have the genetic predisposition for alcoholism and addiction - will get high, sure.”

However, a good drug book may be found, not coincidentally, at the bedside of a dead addict.

“People died from heroin overdoses [while] reading Please Kill Me,” McNeil informs, adding that he believes Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin was reading the newly released book when he died of a heroin overdose in 1996.

Every generation needs its Go Ask Alice. Hopefully Mary Rose, with her big loopy girly handwriting (“she almost had hearts over the "is" but didn’t,” McCain says) and her sweet spirit in a damaged body will speak to a new generation of addicts, near-misses, or teen addicts-to-be. Perhaps the modern batch of teen solipsists will quit the microblogging and go longhand, for a change.

“Maybe this will spur other kids on to keep old-fashioned journals,” McCain says.

Along with Go Ask Alice, maybe Dear Nobody will be a Naked Lunch or Fear and Loathing for some other unsuspecting slob: It will be the book that sent you on your junkie boozer way. The manifesto for a very different and dirtier way of life. Perhaps it will be like Please Kill Me was for Mary Rose and so many of us.

“You surround yourself with things that make you happy,” McNeil says. “And if heroin makes you happy, then you surround yourself with Please Kill Me, you know?”

Jessica Willis, a former editor at Time Out New York, has written for the New York Press, New York Times and Black Book among others. 

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