INTERVIEW with singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh on RATGIRL: a memoir

RATGIRL: a memoir, by Kristin Hersh. Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (August 31, 2010). Memoir. Paperback, 336 pages.

Rock stars operate on their own time schedule. I once waited to interview Vanilla Ice until 2 a.m. at a Worcester venue. Why? I have no idea. It wasn’t worth the wait. So I was pleasantly surprised when singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh emailed me with answers to questions I sent her way four months ago. No worries. It’s worth the wait. Hersh wrote a memoir, RAT GIRL, about having bipolar disorder. Kristin is lead singer and guitarist for alternative rock band Throwing Muses and the hardcore punk-influenced power trio 50 Foot Wave.

Amy Steele: I’ve never heard the label rat girl for bipolar. When did you first learn of the term and what do you think about it?

Kristin Hersh: I’m pretty sure I made it up. And *before* I knew I was bipolar. I just figured there was a sub-species of human that wore wretchedness on their sleeves.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write about being bipolar and why did you want to write about this year in particular?

Kristin Hersh: This was the year where the major themes of my life were put into place. It was interesting to me that real lives have so much foreshadowing, so many story arcs intertwining, but I was most attracted to the idea that no journey was completed that year, none really even embarked on, just begun. It’s a book about beginnings.

Amy Steele: What is your best memory of that time?

Kristin Hersh: My beautiful friends: my beloved bandmates and Betty Hutton, the aging movie star who gave me “show biz tips” in grungy rock clubs.

Amy Steele: What is your worst memory of that time?

Kristin Hersh: I don’t like the psychotic section in the middle of the book, for obvious reasons. Every draft, I was tempted to just skip that part.

Amy Steele: How does being bipolar affect creating music & performing and how does music affect being bipolar? [I have depression and I know that a lot of other writers are and were depressed or bipolar but I don’t have others counting on me as you did/do]

Kristin Hersh: Personally, I think it gets in the way. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that point, but I tend to believe that both mania and depression color my material unnecessarily and inappropriately. I prefer to work when I’m balanced and seeing clearly, though I do admit that bipolar gives one an expanded emotional vocabulary which could help a song’s authenticity.

Amy Steele: Was seeing music the first time you thought something might be wrong?

Kristin Hersh: Hearing music was the first time I thought something might be wrong. And it took me a hell of along time to figure out that my excessive energy was a disease.

Amy Steele: I like the principle for starting Throwing Muses—“people should be able to touch one another and feel each other’s pain.” Can you explain that a bit more?

Kristin Hersh: Music happens between musicians and listeners. Therefore, it’s a collaboration and in order to collaborate successfully with another, you must respect and care for them. We send sound out to them and they send energy back to us: a cycle of impact and resonance.

Amy Steele: What do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?

Kristin Hersh: I hope the moral, if there is one, is that kindness is more congruent than self-involvement.

Amy Steele: What does this statement you made mean to you: “The songs’re keeping me alive so they can be alive?”

Kristin Hersh: I felt that the songs were parasites unwilling to kill their host.

Amy Steele: When you hit bottom you described how you didn’t feel like you belonged or weren’t good enough. Was that a constant feeling and was there anything you could do to alleviate it?

Kristin Hersh: Shame was the only feeling I had left at that point. I wasn’t even sure who was *feeling* the shame, as I had very little functioning personality.

Amy Steele: How did it feel to get the bipolar diagnosis?

Kristin Hersh: At the time, I felt nothing because I was numb. They told me that post-mania, I was on my way to a depression and that’s what the numbing was.

Amy Steele: Once on meds, how did your creativity change?

Kristin Hersh: My songs didn’t change, but I no longer felt compelled to play them.

Amy Steele: Who or what helped you most?

Kristin Hersh: My pregnancy, the psychiatrist who helped me off of meds for the duration of the pregnancy, Betty, my bandmates, our producer, the president of our label and the music itself.

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