Tuesday August 31st, 2010

It’s Okay to Be Scared

Rat Girl: A Memoir by Kristin Hersh
Penguin, 336 pp., $15.00

Kristin Hersh started a band at the age of 14 and has since, for three decades, continued to create stunning, scary, sometimes loud, sometimes haunting, never less than compelling sound. She’s also a mother of four, has taken her family on the road with her, and doesn’t appear to be particularly concerned with making a statement about any of this, but just with making music—statement enough. She’s one of those people whose existence reminds you that the world doesn’t have to be a small, reductive place. Hersh has written exceptionally well about her life in the form of songs, engaging blog posts, and now a memoir.

Rat Girl is based on a yearlong diary Hersh began keeping at 18, in the spring of 1985—a year in which she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, became pregnant, and signed her first record deal, with her band, Throwing Muses. A tumultuous time, but remarkably, given the material, her account of it rarely sinks into self-pity or self-absorption. This may be due, as Hersh writes in her introduction, to the fact that she’s not “interested in self-expression—I don’t want people to listen to my songs so that they’ll care about me.” It’s hard, though, to listen to her charged and lyrically ambiguous songs and not care, not wonder, Who wrote that? This memoir goes a great distance towards illuminating not only the songs but the person behind them—at least the person she was then. Chronologically, Hersh’s retelling of events spans one year, stopping in 1986, but the story is interspersed with memories of her early childhood spent on a wooded commune in Georgia and snippets of resonant song lyrics.

Rat Girl doesn’t fall into the category of salacious and rollicking rock tell-all. Nor is it strictly a depiction of coping with mental illness while coming of age, the kind of Girl, Interrupted narrative that is either hailed as unflinching and honest or dismissed as privileged, glamorized whining. Hersh describes it as a “love story. One with no romance, only passion. Passion for sound, reptiles, old ladies, guitars, a car, water, weather, friends, colors, chords, children, a band, fish, light and shadow.” Which turns out to be transfixing, especially when the passion belongs to a young woman beginning to reconcile a kind of visionary talent with sanity and stability, adventure with responsibility, ambition with integrity, music with motherhood.

“I seemed awfully young that first spring and not so young the next,” Hersh writes. When the memoir opens, she’s staying in a squat in Providence, Rhode Island, enrolled early in college, playing clubs where her band’s underage members have to buy tickets to get into their own shows, dipping into strangers’ pools when she’s sleepless at 3 a.m., and driving around in her beloved jalopy, the Silver Bullet. She’s a shy, polite girl in a noisy band, gifted—or perhaps cursed—with a preternatural and synesthetic (she sees chords as colors) songwriting ability.

The way she tells it, after being hit by a car at 16 and sustaining a double concussion, “songs played of their own accord, making themselves up; I listened and copied them down.” Soon, though, the songs start screaming and “burrowing into my brain as electricity.” And yet, she confesses she’s “head over heels in love with these evil songs.” She compares it to “keeping a wild animal for a pet: gorgeous and terrifying, it lives in your house, but it’s never really yours. It’s an honor to stand next to this beast, and yet at the same time, you know it can kill you.” There comes a chilling point at which it nearly does: “I’m not writing songs anymore; they’re writing me. . . . And every time a song is done, it whispers, you can go now . . . you aren’t needed anymore.” Eventually, she takes a razor blade and tries to “cut the songs out of” her.

As she recovers from this suicide attempt, medical professionals explain to her that she’s “spent the last couple years living with symptoms like . . . well, like my entire personality.” Night swimming, “wanting to learn everything and live everywhere,” thinking she had a calling—all are emblematic of “a long-term manic state,” she’s told. “How embarrassing. So what’s left? What’s ‘me’? Anything?” To some degree, asking such questions is what everyone goes through as they grow up, though it’s obviously more acute in this case. But Hersh isn’t only concerned with the extremes. She vividly portrays the drama of losing one’s grasp on reality, but is equally adept at capturing, with a light touch and sharp comic timing, the friendships and connections that anchor her.

There’s her improbable bond with Betty Hutton, an aging former movie star who converted to Catholicism and pursued a degree at Salve Regina University, where the two met. Betty regularly attends Throwing Muses shows with her priest, “like everyday is Bring Your Grandma and Her Priest to Work Day.” She offers showbiz advice to a skeptical Hersh: “Betty sings about starlight and champagne. I sing about dead rabbits and blow jobs. When I say playing music is owning violence, she says it’s owning love; when I say it’s math, she says it’s tap dancing; when I say it’s my gun, she says it’s her dance card.” In a way, Betty sees through Kristin, whose stage method is to stare straight ahead without trying to entertain her audience. “It’s okay to be scared, sweetheart,” says Betty. “How’re you gonna give ‘em your heart if you don’t have one?”

Then, of course, there are her bandmates, Leslie Langston, David Narcizo, and Tanya Donelly (referred to by the nickname Tea), who transform what Hersh hears in her head: “They seemed to have worked out their musical responses in their hands, knowing intuitively to bypass their brains: a gut reaction poured through muscles. What kind of love is that? What kind of trust? I watch them as they play, touched and baffled. They work hard, temples throbbing with the effort, locked in to shifting time signatures they’ve never heard before. It’s like I’ve been playing with matches, my bandmates turning my sad little arson into a celebratory bonfire.”

While Hersh struggled to play with the same intensity on lithium, the band moved to Boston, generating momentum and critical attention. Cue the fancy, fish-out-of-water dinners with music industry execs (whom she compares to Las Vegas—“not funny enough”), and repeated questions from journalists about the band members’ gender. Hersh’s frustration with interviewers who failed to see gender as a “spectrum” and who asked her “Why do you have a male drummer?” or “Why did you decide to be girls?” could easily come off as naive or disingenuous. But it doesn’t, perhaps because it’s in line with her approach to music, which has been more visceral than analytical. Feminism, by Hersh’s example, is not an argument but an action.

In a twist of timing, just when Throwing Muses secure a deal with the British indie label 4AD, Hersh is forced to confront the failures of birth control. She’s eloquent and moving here—“I feel as if there is a light in my middle. One I shouldn’t put out”—as she determines with her doctor if she can stop taking her medication. She’s freighted with “the heaviness of guilt for bringing a potential being into the world who probably can’t stay and the heaviness of responsibility to do everything I can to keep it here. If an abortion is smarter than bad chemistry, then I’m going to have to rise to that occasion. If the light can become a child, then I need to reinvent myself as its mother.” She does reinvent herself, dutifully adjusting her diet and attending classes with yuppie moms-to-be, but also learning to play her guitar from the side to accommodate her growing belly. She discovers that the nothing-quite-like-it feeling of a baby’s fists and feet pummeling you from inside is not unlike the way a song impresses itself upon her—“fully engaged efforts toward life pummel the universe into a shape that suits them.” Babies and songs are “bad-ass”—“ready for forward movement”—and Hersh determines that she now has “to be as bad-ass as a song or a baby . . . I silently promise this baby that I’ll be ready for forward movement when the time comes.”

Hersh admits that this story is “riddled with enormous holes”—an obvious one, to me at least, is that there’s almost no mention of the circumstances leading to her pregnancy, there’s no sex, only an acknowledgment that “some boys like little rat girls. Not many, but a few. I’ve always been grateful for the ones that did. Now I’m not so sure.” Maybe a desire for more detail is voyeuristic, but it’s also the result of curiosity piqued by connecting with this person. “When music walks into a room,” Hersh writes, “we all know it. It isn’t delivered to an audience by musicians, it happens between people.” Reading this book is a lot like that, too.

Deborah Shapiro is a writer in New York City.