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Bookends: Bipolar exploration

11 February 2011

6:02 PM

11 February 2011

6:02 PM

Andrew Petrie has written the Bookend column for this week’s magazine. Here it is an exclusive for readers of this blog.

‘I’m not writing songs anymore; they’re writing me.’ Plagued by music in her head that arrived unbidden, drowning out conversation, Kristin Hersh was diagnosed with bipolar
disorder just as psychologists stopped calling it ‘manic depression’. Always on the lookout for a mentally ill musician to acclaim as a genius, the British music press adopted Hersh and
her band Throwing Muses in the late 1980s even as their native America remained indifferent.

Paradoxical Undressing is a memoir based on the diary Hersh kept as a teenager in the mid-Eighties,
and tells a good story: precociously bright girl attempts suicide, lands a record deal and finds herself pregnant, all within the space of a year. Whether that year was worth revisiting in such
punishing detail over 322 pages will be up to the reader, though lithium hasn’t affected Hersh’s turn of phrase: an antique synthesizer ‘sits onstage, drooling, like a demented
robot friend’; hanging out with aging record company execs is ‘like going to Vegas — not funny enough’.

The book has the slangy, spontaneous feel of something dictated rather than written down, and too much of it is taken up by endless conversations with friends about nothing. It’s a
teenager’s diary, after all. Ultimately, Paradoxical Undressing will be of greater interest to a student of psychology than a musician, much like her records. Those intent on proving the
fatuous theorem that creativity plus instability equals genius will have to look elsewhere.

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