Rat Girl by Kristen Hersh

When I was in high school, one of my favorite bands was the Throwing Muses. Not that the love ended at 18, but the burning fever for obsessively playing on repeat did die out eventually. So, with that in mind, I’m not sure many people would be as entranced by Kristen Hersh’s recent memoir regarding the year she turned 18, got diagnosed as bipolar, got pregnant, and got her rock band signed to a label. Phew! Most of the time, life just sort of wanders along, but there are some stories in our life that have a beginning and an ending.

She scatters song lyrics throughout the book, and at first this seemed gimmicky, but as I read on, it was pretty great to see that these crazy lyrics actually had meanings behind them. When several months of mania left her hallucinating, a she-wolf, a snake, and bees started following her around. And these images pop up in lots of her songs. There you go.

If you are the kind of person who knows a lot about 1980-90’s era female musicians, you’ll know that Hersh is pretty famous for a few things. One is going on tour with tiny children, which I think is pretty badass. Another is for having songs appear to her, and being forced to write the songs down as they come to her, because they get louder and louder if she doesn’t obey them.

“I know most people haven’t noticed songs banging around in the air, but clearly, songs do bang around in the air; I’ve heard them. If I could measure and publish my findings…I wouldn’t seem so antisocial” And months later, at the doctor’s seeing her baby for the first time, “Do you know what a sonogram is? It’s seeing sound. So other people do this, too.”

I have been blessed with a brain full of very mellow chemicals. But, I have witnessed a few people descend into mental illness, and most have clawed their way back to healthy again. This book does an amazing job of showing the crazy behind the sane behind the crazy, and how smart people can be about hiding their illness, and how tough they have to be. As Kristen says, “Lots of people carry bags. [Mine] just happens to have an invisible snake in it.” There is something precious and amazing about the burning fire of mania, and the fresh and beautiful ways it can reveal the world to you.  But when the metaphors turn real and start sitting next to you on the bus ride home, it’s time to ask for help.

Kristen Hersh is a fun writer, and despite the weight, this book has a lot of joy in it. I think that we would be friends. In the spirit of showing not telling, here’s a last quote from the book, regarding babies:

“Tiny, beautiful and disarmingly honest (they’re even honest about lying), they’re like little space creatures who just moved here. The babies are so punk rock: bald and drooling, yelling and grinning, learning how to work their new spaceships made of bone muscle and skin. And the toddlers are all far more graceful than their mothers, even when they fall over, which they do a lot. All motor development aside, gravity’s a bitch goddess….Maybe being alive is a child’s reason to be here, since they aren’t asking to prove their worth in any other way. They’re here, here on purpose and the celebrate here by feeling it out, gravity and logic be damned.”

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