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Book Review

Kristin Hersh: Rat Girl: A Memoir

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Rat Girl: A Memoir

By KristIn Hersh

Penguin Books, paperback

Coming up in the 1980s and into a certain level of success in the ’90s, the Rhode Island band Throwing Muses has always been a tribe. And if this tribe had a queen, it would be singer/songwriter/guitarist Kristin Hersh, who started TM in high school. Rat Girl is her memoir, based on journals she kept and song lyrics that she wrote the year she was 18, bipolar, and, turns out, pregnant.

The book is impassioned with visual cues to her songwriting. Music has color to Hersh; her drive to play guitar started when she was learning the instrument at nine but she heard her first song, which she describes as, “a metallic whining, like industrial noise, and a wash of ocean waves, layered with humming tones and wind chimes” when she was lying in a hospital bed with a double concussion after getting hit by a car early in her teens. Songs would come to her this same way forever after.

Raised by intellectual hippie parents in Providence, R.I., Hersh had trouble staying still. A wanderer by nature, her restlessness and insomnia were only slightly healed by an addiction to swimming and moving around. One of her hangouts was called the Doghouse, and being there gave an evilness and charge to her music, not an altogether bad thing: “The Doghouse was the last place I played music on purpose, of my own volition,” she writes. Throwing Muses’ 1985 demo, in fact, is titled The Doghouse Cassette.

From then on, music wasn’t just inside her but out of her control. You could call Hersh overly sensitive, but she goes from loving snakes to seeing them just out of the corner of her eyes. And it’s the subtle changes in her perception of things—of thinking music is stuck inside her until she cuts it out, of needing to be rained upon suddenly—that cause her to see she’s displaying manic behavior. She writes, “How embarrassing. So what’s left? What’s ‘me’? Anything? I’m gonna find out by doing these drugs.” Pharmaceuticals. They numb her but she can still produce music, a baby even.

Which is surprising—not because she got pregnant at 18 and kept the baby but because she doesn’t talk about boys. This is the sole quote on the subject of them post pregnancy test: “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.” Rat Girl ends up a fascinating look at the mind of an artist filtered through her own eyes, and translated into writing almost as abstract as her music.

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