A Martyr of Sorts, Punished for Our Imaginary Sins

A new Hebrew edition of Christiane F—the memoir of a 15-year-old German teenage prostitute and drug addict—has sent Dana Kessler on a reappreciation of one of the most influential books of her generation.

I bought my first copy of I, Christiane F., in Hebrew, in a second-hand book shop called Bibliophile on Geula St. in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when I was about 19 years old. More than 20 years later, I posted a photo of the first page of my old copy on Facebook. The original owner of the book had scribbled inside it. Her name is Michal Skop or Michal Laskop (it’s hard to tell), and she had written on the first page that she started reading the book on 1.1.1983. That same page also has scribbles by Vered and Sharon, who might have been friends who Michal lent the book to, or maybe other random readers who, just like me, had bought the same copy second-hand. I had hoped to find Michal Skop/Laskop through Facebook. I never did, but I got many comments from other Israelis who grew up on Christiane F. “The book was always in this condition,” one woman wrote about my crumpled paperback copy. “I remember borrowing it from the public library as a girl—torn, tattered and worn-out, like Christiane herself. And no girl who borrowed it read it only once.” Her comment was very true. While no literary masterpiece, this book—when discovered at the right age—sucks you in and never lets you go. Just like the drug it revolves around, one might add.

The original Hebrew edition of "I, Christiane F."
The original Hebrew edition of “I, Christiane F.”

The Hebrew translation of the 1979 German autobiography was first published in Israel in 1982. Generations of Israeli youngsters grew up with the book, which became a cultural phenomenon here as in many other countries Last year, exactly 40 years later, Christiane F. was re-published in Hebrew. The new edition is based on the original Hebrew translation by esteemed literary scholar Gideon Toury, who passed away in 2016. While the original translation was kept, it was re-edited by Yael Yannay and published by Keter Books.

Christiane F. was based on extended interviews conducted by two German journalists, Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck, with Christiane Felscherinow. Christiane was a 15-year-old drug addict, who supported her habit by hooking around West Berlin’s Bahnhof Zoo railway station—a well-known hotspot for heroin use and underage prostitution in the 1970s. Initially a series of articles in newsmagazine Stern about Berlin’s teenage drug problem, the story was finally published as a book. It’s a memoir of sorts, ghostwritten by Hermann and Rieck. The book opens with an extract of Christiane’s trial on charges of drug possession and use. Her story then unfolds into a chronological first-person account of her life, starting with her early childhood. Along Christiane’s own account, the book also includes testimonials by her mother and other authority figures.

In 1981, a film based on the book, directed by Uli Edel, was released. The gritty and realistic cinematic adaptation, which also gained a cult following, added to the popularity of the story. In the Hebrew editions of the book—both the original and the new one—a portrait of actress Natja Brunckhorst, who portrayed Christiane in the film, graces the cover. In the pictures section, on the other hand, the photographs are of real people—not of actors from the film. The book features authentic black-and-white documentary photographs of Christiane’s boyfriend Detlef and others from her social circle, which revolved around the drug scene at Banhof Zoo, but no photograph of the real Christiane F.

Those of us who continued to harbor our infatuation with her into later life have found out, through magazine articles and later online, that the real Christiane F. was no less beautiful than the actress who portrayed her. We found out her family name, learned that she became part of Berlin’s underground music scene in the early 80s and released a few singles, and other fascinating facts, all of which added to her mystique. Add to this the fact that David Bowie—Christiane’s favorite singer at the time (she took heroin for the first time at one of his concerts)—appeared in the film, playing himself, and wrote its soundtrack. Thus, an unbreakable connection was created in people’s minds between the young German junkie and the coolest rock star of the 1970s, adding to the story’s dark glamor and turning it into a twisted fantasy of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. As always, this (un)holy trinity is as seductive as it is destructive, as exciting as it is repulsive.

The book’s original title was Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (‘We, the Children of Zoo Station’); Hermann and Reick sought, through Christiane’s story, to expose the harsh realities of teenage runaways, rent boys, underage prostitution, and drug abuse in Berlin. Outside of Germany, Christiane was not a social problem; she was a singular protagonist with a fascinating story. So, the title’s first-person plural became singular. In Hebrew, like in French, Spanish, and various other translations, the title became I, Christiane F. (“אני, כריסטיאנה פ'”). This seemingly small change was crucial in the way the book was perceived by its international readership, Israel included. The first-person pronoun fit perfectly with the first-person narrative and enabled a generation of youngsters to identify with its tragic heroine, even though most of them had never experienced anything similar to what she had, and never will.

Each and every reader could truly become Christiane. One might compare this to another seminal teenage journal, The Diary of Anne Frank. Frank’s life circumstances were no less extreme or unfathomable than those of Christiane F.—and obviously, much more tragic and atrocious. And still. Her first-person account too has found an echo among generations upon generation of teens. Sensitive girls (and boys) can easily relate to stories of sensitive girls. It’s why we loved everything from Little Women to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. And if the stories were infused with tragedy and drama, that was even better. Perhaps a shortage of Israeli literature dedicated to teenage girls at the time steered us towards any book of that sort that had been translated into Hebrew, no matter where and when it was from—be it the French Des Cornichons au chocolat (“Chocolate Pickles”) by 13-year-old Stéphanie or, indeed, The Diary of Anne Frank, set in Europe during the Second World War.

 

The rationale for the book’s re-publication, aside from its 40th anniversary, was the ongoing interest  in teenage criminality and drug use in popular culture, including a recent German TV series based on the book itself, set in contemporary Berlin.

“The book was just adapted for television, and series like Euphoria and Pushers proved that young audiences are still interested in addiction stories,” Michal Paz-Klapp—supervising editor at Keter Books—told me, referring to two popular Israeli TV series (HBO has adapted the former into a series set in the United States). “At the same time the Hebrew translation turned 40. All this led me to read the book again and to discover how relevant it still is today.”

The fact that the world of high fashion continues to quote Christiane F. to this day (check out Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2016 campaign and Raf Simons’ Fall/Winter 2018 collection) shows that the world hasn’t forgotten this angelic, waiflike junkie. A new generation of readers is just waiting to be exposed to her, and to the cultural phenomenon that she represents.

Naturally, I opened the new Hebrew edition with no little trepidation. It was a relief to discover that it remained very true to the original version. The language was elegantly and carefully updated, the photo section was moved to the end of the book, and a short epilogue added—updating the readers on what became of the book’s heroine, and providing a list of Israeli organizations offering help to teens with drug addictions and emotional problems.

 

Officially intended as a cautionary tale, the book was compulsory reading in many German schools. But it may ultimately have had an opposite effect. Hermann and Rieck were accused of sensationalist “teensploitation”; both book and movie were blamed for glamorizing drug abuse and playing a major role in creating heroin chic. Various editions of the book boasted tabloid-like taglines. The cover of the first US edition, for example, declared “The sensational shocker that stunned Europe.”

However, for countless young readers in Israel and around the world, Christiane F. became something completely different from what had initially been intended—whatever that intention was. The practical side of things was secondary. Whether it scared the readers into never trying hard drugs, or in fact lured them into the experience, is not, and never was, the point. Christiane’s psyche intertwined with ours.

We longed for the same things that she longed for: a sense of safety and belonging. We dreamt of a love as pure as hers and Detlef’s. We shared the excitement of her first forays into young adulthood; discovering cool music, cool clothes, cool clubs, and cool people. We jokingly adopted the awkward translations of German slang expressions, secret code for the Christiane-initiated; mostly mixing Hebrew with English words like “happy,” “dope,” and “turkey”—which, not surprisingly, have disappeared from the new edition. We never wanted Christiane’s life, but we wanted to feel pain, pleasure, and pure bliss with the intensity that she did. And sometimes, just like her, we didn’t want to feel anything at all.

Like many of us, Christiane attempted to run away from her problems and unhappy homelife, only that her form of escape was much more extreme than any of ours. And it seemed that the reason for this was not anything extreme in her character or personality. She was intelligent but age-appropriately naïve, and just like us was fundamentally a good girl. The only difference was in her life circumstances. This is what made it so easy to identify with her, and to be absorbed by her story despite its essential foreignness.

The dangers of idolizing Christiane F. have since been discussed extensively. Most of the book’s fans, though, would probably agree that it was never about regarding her as a role model. The appeal was in the way the narrative constantly moves between darkness and light. Christiane’s innocence was restored each time she was in nature, while the squalor and sickness came rushing back when she returned to the city. She was pure of heart, driven down the wrong path by her surroundings. In one scene in the book, at a friend’s run-down drug den, the clean white sheets of the bed she had slept in with Detlef are juxtaposed against the filthy carpet, soaked with stains from spilled cans of fish and splattered with blood from used syringes. For us, Christiane was a martyr of sorts: punished for our imaginary sins, for the vice of curiosity and the audacity to want to feel good.

Obviously, very few decisions were made by her—she was mostly swept away by the scene she had fallen into, as is often the case in tales of teenage drug addiction. The reader can easily identify with her passivity, which is an integral part of being a teenager. The matter-of-fact tone of her account, similar to that of Anne Frank, shows how at a certain age one accepts one’s fate, as horrid as it may be; children are adaptable creatures, used to the fact that their life is navigated by someone else. Or, as in this case, by something else.

Looking back, I can see that one of the many appeals of I, Christiane F. was its transgressive nature. Transgressive fiction, per Wikipedia, is “a genre of literature which focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways.” I Christiane F. isn’t fiction; but being marketed as a young-adult book, for many readers it has served as an introduction to the world of transgressive literature. Christiane graduated at age 12 from smoking hashish to taking LSD, popping pills, and ultimately becoming a full-blown heroin junkie, all within a couple of years. So too her readers moved on, just as quickly, to rebellious and disturbing classics by William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr., Bret Easton Ellis, Anthony Burgess, J.G. Ballard, and Irvine Welsh. Many Christiane F. fans continued on an ever-escalating path of literary transgression, each time craving a stronger fix. Others never went past Christiane F.—forever regarding her as a teenage infatuation, a passing phase of toying with danger and darkness.

From what I gather, youngsters nowadays are much less into transgression as a form of rebellion than my generation was, and are interested in other issues, such as acceptance and identity. They are less excited about dirty little secrets than we were, and believe that everything should be out in the open. This doesn’t mean that I, Christiane F. is not for them—on the contrary. They will find the topics that interest them in the book, but will probably have a different experience reading it than we did.

 

Epilogue: Christiane Felscherinow is now 60 years old, living semi-anonymously in Germany, off-and-on drugs (one of her tragedies is the fact that she can sustain a drug habit with the steady royalty payments she continues to receive to this day). Every few years she reappears in an interview, mostly in Germany. In 2013, Felscherinow released a second autobiographical book, titled Mein Zweites Leben (“My Second Life”). So far, it hasn’t been translated into Hebrew.

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