Acne by Laura Chinn tells the story of the television writer/actress’ tumultuous childhood and young adulthood and how her struggles were reflected in a severe case of acne.
Laura Chinn created and starred in the 2019 Pop TV sitcom Florida Girls (think Broad City with Florida Woman adventures) that unfortunately received the ax during the Covid-19 pandemic. The entertainer, who has written for shows like The Mick and Children’s Hospital and acted in shows like Grey’s Anatomy and My Name Is Earl, actually was born in the Los Angeles area where she lived with her “hippie” parents and older brother Max. Though her mother is White and her father is Black, she doesn’t get a sense of her biracial identity until she’s eight-years-old. She never noticed the concept of race since everyone in her house has a different complexion. While Max has brown skin and is often confused for “Mexican or Hawaiian,” Laura has fair skin and dirty blonde curls, so she’s considered outwardly White. Growing up in La Crescenta, she is homeschooled with other kids in her neighborhood. Her childhood is disrupted when her mother announces the family is moving to Clearwater, Florida, the best place for Scientologists like themselves after Los Angeles. Laura, Max, and their mother move to Clearwater while their father stays behind to tie up loose ends.
Laura’s father never moves to Clearwater as Laura navigates her new preteen life in a new place. She starts to notice red pimples erupt on almost every surface of her face. How can this be? She and her family eat a strict healthy diet. Her father blames his genetics for the acne since he says he had the same skin condition as a teen. Scientology tells Laura and her family that internal toxins are clogging her pores. She tries to cleanse the acne that is putting a damper on her social life as she befriends girls like Tori who also have lopsided family situations.
At thirteen years old, Laura is going through the abandonment issues stemming from her father’s decision to not join them in Clearwater. To make matters worse, Max moves back to Los Angeles and stays with their father. There, her brother is diagnosed with a brain tumor. He has to have a surgery that he may not wake up from. Laura and her mother fly from Tampa to Los Angeles to be by Max’s side. He survives the surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, but he has a mountain of health issues that keeps Laura and her mother in a hotel as they witness her father parading his barely-adult, chicken nugget-addicted girlfriend Chardonnay around the intensive care unit. Laura returns to Clearwater alone to go back to school. She gets picked up by her mother’s alcoholic boyfriend Joe who drops her off at home with some money for food.
In the short time of raising herself as her parents deal with Max’s cancer diagnosis, Laura is stealing and drinking alcohol with Tori and other friends who are already having sexual relations with boys at school. Laura’s acne is still on a volcanic level as she uses makeup to cake up her face and go on living her unsupervised life. Then Max’s cancer progresses in other parts of his brain, so the family who again tap into their Scientologist teachings to find alternative healing methods decide to move to Tijuana for a form of chemotherapy not approved in the U.S. Laura drops out of the ninth grade to join her family in Mexico.
After realizing she’s better off finishing her education rather than helping Max who has their mother as a caregiver, Laura moves back to Clearwater to finish her freshman year. This time, Joe moves in, but Laura is still raising herself de facto. Due to the miracle of Accutane, teenage antics progress like her losing her virginity.
Accutane had healed my face, neck, chest, and back; it seemed like a wonder pill until, like with all pills, the side effects kicked in. First it was dry skin, then peeling skin, then every day I would shed my entire face like a snake. My lips were painfully cracked and bloody, so for the third time in my life, I didn’t smile for months. Then my vision started to get weird.
Her quick-fix cure makes her think she has cancer like her brother, whose diagnosis came from blurry vision, but she doesn’t. She develops suicidal thoughts while on the medication and while watching her friends find boyfriends she can’t seem to attract. She’s realizing her neighborhood is full of dysfunctional people, including the woman next door who burns her house down to cover up her husband’s murder, as her own mother and brother return to Clearwater unchanged by the failed treatment in Mexico. Laura has to put aside her acne and adolescence to help her mother care for her dying brother, but she still finds herself caring more about what her friends are doing and how her skin is doing.
The older she gets, the more she sees being a high school dropout is not enough. Her father agrees and invites her to live with her half-sister and her niece in Woodland Hills, a section of Los Angeles. Laura finally feels like she’s being supervised but again she can’t help but think what’s going on in her Clearwater social circle. She eventually moves back to Clearwater. Then she gets her GED and tells everyone she’s going to be a famous actress in Hollywood, so back to Los Angeles she goes. But she breaks her arm, so that means back to Clearwater. Despite what’s going on with her family and friends and her face, she has a knack for acting that slips behind the pages.
Once she permanently stays in Los Angeles, makeup artists on sets complain about her acne. Thanks to her father, she heads to the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre to undergo a rehab experience to clear up her acne. She feels imprisoned by her acne. It’s not until she realizes all the physical and metaphorical losses she has experienced over the years had somehow manifested into an extreme case of acne.
Now I forgive with a deep intensity and a passion. I take all the money, effort, and time I was putting toward microdermabrasion, facials, and benzoyl peroxide and I put it all toward learning how to forgive. I honestly wish I could bottle forgiveness and sell it; I’d put Proactiv out of business in a week.
If you ever watched Florida Girls, you will see the comedic messiness there in the pages of Laura’s memoir except her real-life version of events seem more depressing as she details her life as a teen practically unmonitored because of her brother’s unthinkable disease. Her friends experiment and indulge in drugs and sex at a very young age that the peer pressures stunt their growth. The conflict of being a selfish teenager while having to care for her family is deeply realized since most teen girls would be the same way with wanting to focus on boys and controlling their acne to avoid what’s going on at home.
We see Laura’s mother as the main caregiver for Max despite her alcoholic boyfriend turned husband in the house and her ex-husband unable to cope with his son slipping away. Laura helps as much as she can, especially when her brother’s health deteriorates to the point he is blind, deaf, and immobile. It’s heartbreaking to see the transition of her athletic, skateboard-loving brother becoming a very sick young adult who can’t take care of himself. With her life divided between two places that can be difficult to survive in, Laura sees more tragedy within her family and her friend group as she tries to establish herself in Hollywood.
Overall, the memoir connects the dots on a common skin condition that has been relegated to teenage hormonal activity. The author spends her lifetime digging deeper for the reason why her face is covered in pimples on top of pimples, quickly recognizing that her friends who are the same age as her are not dealing with the exact issue but they do have their own issues. It takes years for her to classify acne as her visible issue as she overcomes abandonment and loneliness growing up in an interracial, Scientologist, bicoastal, divorced family. Her love for acting, even in the book, is weaved in and out because her environment is overwhelming her. It’s impressive that she, like many people who had announced they were heading to Hollywood to be a big star, actually overcame the obstacles to achieve her dream that’s still in incubation.