The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that genius and creativity were literal spirits, both apart from and outside the artist’s body. The artist’s role was to serve as conduit, and one’s output could only be as good as the input.
In Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl, we get a glimpse into the mind of a musician and songwriter who experiences the creative impulse in just this way: as a force that acts upon her and through her. For a fan (full disclosure: that’s me!), it’s as though nanny-cam footage from Marilyn Monroe’s bedroom suddenly turned up—many questions answered, but plenty left inscrutable.
Hersh has been releasing albums since 1985—first with Throwing Muses, then as a solo artist, and most recently with 50Foot Wave. Her first book-length work, Rat Girl, follows Hersh through one year of her life, starting in the spring of 1985. In that year, while turning 19 and spending much of her time “not living anywhere,” the band begins garnering major label attention, she finds out she’s pregnant, and she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Yet, somehow this manages not to be a book about bipolar disorder, teenage pregnancy, or “Throwing Muses: Behind the Music.” Through snippets of bandmate banter, advice from unlikely confidants, flashbacks to her nonconformist childhood, and snatches of lyrics, we feel the supportive shape of Hersh’s external world, even as her internal landscape shifts and distorts. While I loved the ah-ha moments when little mysteries from her often enigmatic lyrics were solved, this book succeeds in being more than just the key to a map of a corner in the late ’80s indie rock scene.
In the preface to Rat Girl, Hersh describes the book as being “based on” her diary from that time. Yet, she eschews the tell-all format that coarsens many other rock ‘n’ roll memoirs. Readers will not find lurdid tales of sex, drugs, and band melodrama. Instead, we get front row seats on the ride that is her mind as it pitches from inspiration to desperation and beyond. This broadens the appeal of the book past the boundaries of Throwing Muses or Kristin Hersh fans, casting its net around anyone interested in the ways in which a creative process can manifest itself.
Kristin Hersh believes that the holes in the story—some small, while others, frustratingly large—allow light to shine through, illuminating the most important moments. What we are left with then is a story told by a poet of a young woman fighting to keep her mind amid the waking dreams of squalor, wild animals, ghosts, and music—terrible, beautiful, amazing music.