A review of Kristin Hersh's memoir, Rat Girl.

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Sept. 2 2010 6:54 AM

The Secret Life of the American Teenage Rock Star

A review of Kristin Hersh's memoir, Rat Girl.

Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh.

When Kristin Hersh was 18 years old, her indie rock band Throwing Muses recorded its first album, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she became a mother for the first time. In Hersh's new memoir, Rat Girl, based on her diary, she chronicles an extraordinary year. I'm willing to bet that there are very few budding teen rock stars who have to figure out how to avoid the smoke in clubs, how to position their guitars over swollen bellies, and what maternity clothes are best for headlining concerts. (Hersh says '50s style dresses, if you were wondering.) Her original journal entries appear to have been fleshed out with dialogue in the published version, plus there are vignettes from her early childhood and snippets from her songs inspired by real-life events.

But Rat Girl is not really a chronicle of music or mental illness or even teen motherhood. Hersh writes that her book is a love story, "one with no romance, only passion." It is not about her baby's father, nor is it about falling for music: It's about the exaggerated passion of adolescence. For Hersh that means breaking into pools, driving around in old cars, dressing like a grandmother, befriending aging former Hollywood starlets, living in comfortable semi-squalor in punk houses. It's going to the park and dyeing your hair blue with Manic Panic because "real is a dumb color for hair." By describing the particulars of her atypical experience, Hersh evokes the bored-but-excitable mindset of most teenagers.

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Not only does Rat Girl benefit from avoiding adolescent autobiography clichés, but Hersh also stays away from rock memoir banalities by focusing on just one year in her life. She doesn't just reel off formative events, lovers, and excruciatingly detailed discussions of recording sessions like fellow indie rockers Juliana Hatfield and Dean Wareham do in their memoirs. In fact, with its reined in plotline and ethereal prose style, Rat Girl reads more like a novel.

Her story, which is "riddled with enormous holes and true," begins in the spring of 1985. Hersh is in college in Providence, R.I., where her father is a hippie philosophy professor—he teaches courses on dream symbolism—whom everyone calls "dude." Throwing Muses was formed while she was still in high school, with her stepsister Tanya Donelly (who would go on to play in Belly and the Breeders). The two are "boy-girls, independent and gender-free." They take pride in rejecting such pedestrian things as eyeglasses and coats in the New England winter. Hersh's other close friend is Betty, a star from Hollywood's golden era whom she meets while taking classes at a local college. Betty's diva antics involve showing up at Throwing Muses concerts with a full face of makeup and her priest as her date. Hersh and her bandmates live a bohemian-flavored adolescence: Drinking beer, working part-time jobs in the service industry, driving beat-up old cars at night while reading aloud from a quiz in a women's magazine.

Everything—love, fights, ennui—feels amplified during the teen years, and for Hersh, music is a vocation in the most pious sense of the word. "You can't call what I do singing or entertainment. I hiss and yell and wail. Sometimes I make seagull noises, unfortunately. Music is something I have almost no control over. Like well-rehearsed Tourette's." The wailing that seemed so odd coming from a teen girl in the mid-'80s influenced other women who would go on to success in the following decade, from Liz Phair to Courtney Love. For fans of Throwing Muses, it's a pleasure to read about the year when the band's fortunes changed: They go from playing Providence bars to larger clubs in Boston, from a demo cassette to recording a full-length album.

After getting hit by a car while biking to a summer job, Hersh begins to hear songs in her head. Before the accident, music played when she wanted it to; now she can't turn it off. What follows is a vivid depiction of mania: Chords carry the impression of color; songs originate as moans and rattles, shaping themselves into discernable parts. "The noise," she says, "is brutal." The diary entries go from being several pages long and telling stories to just a paragraph or two. She thinks she sees hundreds of bees and a snake; she feels like she's "Falling up, on a high that's spun out of control. A wacky fucking tornado of heat, electricity and energy."

Hersh is eventually diagnosed as bipolar and prescribed lithium, which makes her swollen and shaky and broken out. A doctor describes the experience of being properly treated for the disease as being reborn. But the larger question it leaves her with, like so many people who seek medication for mental health issues, is, "What's left? What's 'me'? Anything?" She must sort through the traits she had seen as parts of her personality—the need to swim every day or the ability to write music—to figure out which are just elaborate coping mechanisms for her mental highs and lows, and which are really her. This is not far from the kind of musing about identity common to most teens, but it's exaggerated in light of the bipolar disorder.

None of this proves to be enough to break up the band and eventually, after moving to Boston and recording a demo, they sign to the legendary British record label 4AD. Hersh's phone conversations with the plummy label head Ivo Watts-Russell are one of the book's highlights. He will take her call at 4 a.m. while she's having a difficult time recording vocals for the album and distracts her with stories about old men feeding birds in the park: "He's got like a dozen pigeons on him. And these are filthy London pigeons, mind you."

Just as things seem to be taking shape and taking off, Hersh becomes pregnant. (She doesn't say by whom; she merely explains that "some little boys like rat girls. Not many, but a few.") But Hersh continues to play live, yell at journalists who ask sexist questions, and records the band's first album while having very little clue how she's going to navigate motherhood. Besides, she decides that "babies are so punk rock: bald and drooling, yelling and grinning, learning how to work their new spaceships made of bone, muscle and skin." It's probably her invincible adolescent mindset that helps her, in a way; she seems to have no real idea what she's up against. She knows that she doesn't want to be like the staid yuppie couples in her birthing class; instead, she and the band make a group decision to figure it out on the fly.

Rat Girl stops just as everything seems to be starting—the album is about to be finished, she gives birth. Hersh will not pander for our sympathy or satisfy our need to hear how things turn out. Her story is about what it's like to live and to think as a teenage girl, not a book about what happens when she finally grows up.

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