The Week of Wordstock: Kristin Hersh’s ‘Rat Girl’

This coming weekend, Portland’s convention center once again hosts Wordstock, a weekend (and more!) of readings, signings, discussions and other literary events. All this week on EW! A Blog, we’ll review books by authors appearing at the festival, which is super-affordable, should you happen to be a book-nerd with weekend plans that involve PDX: $7 per day, or $10 for both festival days.

If memory serves — and it doesn’t always — my introduction to Throwing Muses was the video for “Bright Yellow Gun,” from the Boston band’s 1995 album University. In hindsight, the concept of a Throwing Muses video seems faintly absurd, but I’m glad it was out there. University was an eerie blessing of a record, resonant and cryptic in all the right ways, and it led me to singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh’s solo album, even more oblique and beautifully ungainly, and to a summer spent wearing out the Muses’ Red Heaven, which still sounds like the background noise to getting my feet under me as a sort-of adult.

I was 19 then. Hersh was just 18 when she had one hell of a year — a year that’s the subject of her fantastic memoir, Rat Girl (Penguin, $15). In a brief intro that comes across as if she’s a little suspicious of herself, Hersh explains that Rat Girl is based on a diary from that year. “That girl isn’t me anymore,” she writes. “Now it’s just a story.”

It’s a really good story. Hersh weaves together the narrative of her year with snippets of song lyrics and scenes from her childhood with the hippie parents she refers to as Crane and Dude. She’s telling a straightforward story about a young band that finds its first successes, but she’s also telling a complicated, emotional tale about a young woman grappling with mental illness and major change.

Rat Girl is never sentimental; Hersh might not be capable of sentimentality. She’s perpetually wary, certain that while she and her bandmates like her band, there’s no reason for anyone else to feel the same way about them. Ordinary things have unexpected outcomes: An apartment fuels the songs she hears with “an evil energy.” The songs, she explains, started to come after “a witch” hit Hersh with her car. In the hospital with a double concussion, she began to hear noise that later resolved into notes, melodies and words. “It’s not me,” Hersh writes. “I don’t talk that way because I’m not always ‘right now.’ A song lives across time as an overarching impression of sensory input, seeing it all happening at once, racing through stories like a fearless kid on a bicycle, narrating his own skin.”

Hersh’s observations about music scenes, music writers and the recording process are fascinating and specific, and all the more so for Muses fans. Her tone is never gossipy, though, and she leaves out identifying details, opting instead for impressions and entertaining descriptions (one music writer is referred to as the Newspaper).

Right in the middle of the book — which runs 1985-1986, roughly spring to spring — Hersh becomes manic. There’s no build-up and no romanticization: “I’m falling into a hole in my head — been tripping over my brain not working, a mess.” It’s not long after she’s diagnosed as manic-depressive (doctors use the term, then explain that it’s not called that anymore; she has bipolar disorder) that Hersh finds herself pregnant. The pages leading up to her hospitalization are frenzied, scary and beautiful, but there’s little context for the pregnancy. “Some boys like little rat girls,” she writes quietly in explanation. “Not many, but a few. I’ve always been grateful for the ones that did. Now I’m not so sure.”

Rat Girl is a book like a Throwing Muses song is a song; it starts in unexpected places, is full of peculiar and unforgettable images and has deceptive staying power once it gets under your skin. You might pick out pieces of the narrative and think it’s about a band, or a musician, or a mental illness, or being a teenage mother with a record deal, but it’s a book about the particular way a talented, sometimes troubled young woman walks through the world — a coming of age story, comforting, disconcerting, intense, unfamiliar and, amid all the vivid descriptions of sound and color and light, relatable. Hersh’s world doesn’t look or feel like everybody else’s — for better and for worse. Rat Girlisn’t tidy and inspirational, but chaotic and true.

Kristin Hersh reads at 3 pm Saturday, Oct. 9, at Wordstock’s Columbia Sportswear Stage.

Also at Wordstock and (semi) recently reviewed in EW: Eugene native Robin Romm reads at 11 am Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Powell’s Stage, and Portland writer Robin Cody reads at 1 pm Sunday, Oct. 10, at the Mountain Writers Series Stage #1.

All listed Wordstock events take place at the Oregon Convention Center, Portland.

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