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The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer: Twin Peaks' problematic tie-in

Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer.
Dark back story … Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer. Photograph: Frost/Spelling/Rex/Shutterstock

Twin Peaks graced us with many a lingering image, though none more grim and resounding than Laura Palmer’s wan and traumatised body, half unpacked from the clear plastic wrap she was dumped in, in David Lynch’s landmark TV series. While the blue-eyed homecoming queen’s dark past and subsequent murder made for the show’s central mystery, she remained mostly voiceless. Lynch renders her a silent totem, rotting beneath the cheerful surface of small-town America.

As is mostly the case in crime dramas, Twin Peaks is more concerned with the identity of the murderer, not the dead girl left behind. So there is something radical about the Twin Peaks tie-in novel The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Published in 1990 and written by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer when she was only 22, the novel depicts Palmer’s transition from girlhood into adolescence and offers graphic accounts of her sexual abuse by Killer BOB and her father. The book is a harrowing reminder that beneath the kitschy aesthetic, the loopy surrealism and the damn fine coffee, Twin Peaks was a show about child abuse.

Forever a little late to the party, I didn’t get into Twin Peaks until the early 2000s. I read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer shortly after finishing the show. My copy was a gift from a friend, found in a charity shop. I can’t remember whether it was actually tattered or whether that was the intentional aesthetic of the design. What I do remember is lending it to someone, because I was dying to talk about it. (I never got that copy back.)

I wanted to talk about it because the novel is surprisingly profound. It is unflinching in how it depicts a teenager’s powerlessness in the face of adult male sexuality, and how abuse shapes her burgeoning sexuality. It also contains a complex depiction of how the abuse shapes Laura’s life: her burgeoning addiction to cocaine, which she funds with sex work, the self-loathing she feels as she imagines she invited the attacks.

“It is a confident book,” says Dr Kirsty Fairclough, a senior lecturer in film and media at Salford University. “But it is highly problematic.”

For Fairclough, one of the most unsettling things about the book is how it was marketed to and read primarily by teenage girls. “I was a kid when I read this,” she says. “It was a status symbol, a sort of rebellion. I totally connected with Laura Palmer.

“Twin Peaks was much tamer. The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer fills in the blanks in a way that can feel exploitative. It’s deeply disturbing.”

Much of the violence and abuse Laura experiences at the hands of BOB feels needlessly vivid. But Brad Dukes, author of Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, believes this discomfort is the point. “It’s a rocky and uncomfortable ride – but I think it was designed that way from square one,” he says. “It is Laura finally speaking for herself. We can follow her individual path – and there’s no avoiding [the fact that] that path was riddled with drugs, abuse and self-loathing.”

Dukes sees the novel as radical beyond its subject matter. Published before the second season had aired, the book came out just as Palmer’s diary was also being written into the narrative of the show – pre-empting the metatextual conceits of post-internet shows, such as Game of Thrones and Lost. “It succeeds in telling its own story while making the TV series and the film feel more layered, because the viewer can discover for themselves what is in the book that they see on screen,” Dukes says.

To coincide with the launch of Twin Peaks’ return to TV, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer is having its own revitalisation, with Audible set to release an audiobook voiced by Sheryl Lee, the actor who first portrayed Laura Palmer.

Lee, now 27 years older than when she first appeared as Palmer’s pretty corpse, brings a maternal tone to the material. Having an older woman narrate a teenage girl’s journal compounds the discomfort one might feel at the content, with Lee telegraphing worldly knowledge beyond young Palmer’s – and Lynch’s – understanding. It is sure to go down well with the Twin Peaks fans who read it at an age before they could comprehend the horrors within - as well as those who could all too well.

This article titled "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer: Twin Peaks' problematic tie-in" was written by Lara Williams, for theguardian.com on Friday 19 May 2017 02.00pm

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