Kristin Hersh

Going away is my only real talent. Betty’s right: I’m a reluctant performer…not a performer at all. I need to go away so the song can play itself.

Paradoxical Undressing is a memoir by Kristin Hersh, the lead singer and guitarist from Throwing Muses, based on a diary she kept at the age of eighteen. She was very bright as a teenager, forming a band at fourteen and going to university at fifteen. The book is about one year in her life, around the time her band started to become well-known and were offered a record deal, when she began to suffer from mental illness and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and then bipolar. It is about her life as a musician, her creativity and the way she experiences the world, and explores in a very personal way the boundaries between mental illness and artistic talent.

First, I have to tell you that this book is very funny. Despite what you may expect given the subject matter, it’s not miserable or self-pitying in any way; it’s above all an amusing read written in an idiosyncratic and passionate voice. From her time living in an empty apartment along with constantly arguing tribes of painters and musicians and a mysterious Animal none of them have ever seen, to an art therapy class full of hippies she attends at university, this book is full of entertaining scenes. Her observations and her turn of phrase really made me laugh.

It is also quite inspiring because, even as a teenager, Kristin Hersh was so dedicated to her work and sure of her own vision. I have actually never heard any of her music and just thought the book seemed interesting from what I read about it – both because of the story of her recovery from mental illness, and because of the title’s meaning and its relation to performing as a very shy person:

There is a phenomenon known as ‘paradoxical undressing’ that affects those dying of hypothermia. Freezing to death, people tear off their clothes as they’re overcome by imaginary heat. Lost in blizzards, on snowy mountains, in frozen forests, their bodies become convinced that they’re burning, not freezing.

Honestly, I’m so shy that I find most contact with people deeply unsettling, but songs – the kind alive in the air, injected with evil from the Doghouse – mean that I’m burning with sound, not frozen with fear. ‘Cause they’re my way down to where we all are.

I didn’t ask to go down to where we all are, but as it turns out I’m a member of a deeply social species in which the only truths worth speaking are the most naked. In other words, I had planned on wearing all my clothes into those freezing woods – songs ask me to wear none.

As I’m quite shy myself, I found it really interesting to read about how a person who already often feels uncomfortable with others would choose to perform in such an emotional and intense way on stage. Of course, some shy and reserved people may have a conflicting desire for attention or be happier performing in certain, very specific circumstances than they are socialising, and some apparently extrovert perfomers are probably privately quite shy. However, it seems as if, in Kristin Hersh’s case, the expression of the song itself is what matters to her, not that she (as a person) is communicating with the audience. If she manages to lose herself, the song is expressed through her, whether the audience is there or not. In fact, she finds it easier to pretend the audience is not there, and, just to make this easier, both she and the drummer take out their contact lenses so they can’t see clearly while they’re performing.

Not seeing is a very important part of playing music for me. I stare into space and get lost in a warm, fuzzy sensory deprivation tank of sound. No audience, no club, just my best friend: noise.

Around this time, Kristin begins to experience frightening hallucinations and becomes isolated and out of touch with the world. She describes how she heard music constantly and couldn’t escape from it, suffered from terrible insomnia, and saw snakes and bees which she later describes as sound-images, suggesting that her illness is linked to her creativity. The music in her head seems to have been caused by an accident some time previously in which she was knocked off her bike by a woman in a car (who she sees as either a good or a bad witch), experienced concussion and was given the gift or curse of hearing songs. During her breakdown the music seems to become more intrusive and unbearable. She also sees these songs as evil or coming from an evil part of her, which she doesn’t control. However (and this is where the book is interesting about the madness/creativity boundary), once she has recovered from this extended manic episode, she is able to stop taking her medication and her symptoms seem to become less threatening, even though they are still there to some extent. She begins to see them as part of her as a musician rather than something that threatens to ruin her life.

One scene from the book I liked was when she went to see a psychiatrist who was very perceptive and was the first person who thought her explanation of the ‘snake’ in her bag as a ‘sound-image’ made sense. I liked what he said to her: ‘Art and dreams are very closely related and they’re worth listening to, as long as your hold on reality remains intact.’ It’s also interesting that she finds the sympathy and attention of the doctors to be a more important contribution than medication to her recovery:

This may be the real medicine they offer and it’s powerful. I watch them administer both their drugs and their kindness and the kindness seems just as effective to me, if not more so. Chemicals in the form of medication are interesting, ham-fisted tools, but humans themselves engage in myriad processes we haven’t yet measured. We really are a deeply social species.