New Evidence Shows That During the 1973 UpStairs Lounge Arson, Gays Had to Take Rescue Efforts Into Their Own Hands - *This post is part of **Outward**, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. **Read more here**.*
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Tea tries to rub the fuck you off the wall with her thumb. The wall bends in ominously. “Careful,” I say. “That could be load-bearing graffiti.”Holden worries in Catcher in the Rye that, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the Fuck you signs in the world. It’s impossible.” For him, this impossibility is depressing, a cause for despair. But Kristin doesn’t rub it out – she assigns irony to it, which subverts its obscenity. She hasn’t made the impossible possible, but she has disarmed it. It’s a great example of how Hersh discovers in her younger, troubled self the assertions of a deeper sanity.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “Are they trying to make us feel bad? Why? That’s not nice.” She thinks. “Should we feel sorry for a person who writes fuck you on a wall?”
We both look at it. “Could it be an ironic fuck you?” I ask. We continue staring. It doesn’t look ironic. “Fuck just means sex, though, right?” I say. She nods. “So maybe they’re talking about expressing love.”
“Yeah, probably,” she says. “Like love ya!”
“Love ya lots!”
I see the snake before I’m fully awake. By the time I sit up, it’s gone. You gotta be quick with a snake.This is about as good as a description of psychosis gets – not that I can vouch for it as an accurate or true description of psychosis, not from experience anyway. But as description, this and the scenes that follow ring true; they convincingly create the effect of how words break down. It’s not Hersh’s vocabulary that fails, but the syntax that holds vocabulary together. The paragraphs become shorter, sentences become fragmented, dialog becomes telegraphic, even semaphoric – just gesturing and flailing. Kristin can offer only a set of unanchored impressions or, in reply to something said by others, only “Huh?” The problem, she realizes, is that the symptoms of madness described by her clinicians are also her personality:
Then I see it again out of the corner of my eye. Shooting my hand out, I reach for it. For a split second, I see something that looks like an X-ray of a snake, but all I feel is the cool wooden floor. I stare at my hand, flooded with adrenaline. There is no snake.
My mind races. What’s the vocabulary for this?
They also say it didn’t happen suddenly.In the second half of the book, as the band’s fortunes improve, Kristin is trying to understand whether she’s sick and the “therapeutic level” of drugs makes her better or whether she’s a musician “muted by medication.” This dilemma is never resolved. Instead, Hersh presents a series of scenes that portray the struggle. After one particularly intense vocal in a studio recording a demo, she has this exchange with the producer:
“Are you sure?” I asked them. I went to sleep on Jeff’s floor and then woke up broken. That’s pretty sudden. But they say I’ve spent the last couple years living with symptoms like… well, like my entire personality.
“Are you okay?” Gary asks me in my headphones after a particularly yucky take.So who is the crazy person here? And if it isn’t Gary, who thinks that you can sound “terrible in a good way,” then is it the singer who talks to hallucinated rats? Isn’t it crazy to be happy to sound terrible in a good way? The impressive power of the book comes from Hersh’s insistence on depicting these problems without resolving them. There is no simple answer. There’s just the complicated, distinctive music of Throwing Muses.
“Whaddya mean?” A young rat stops and looks at me. “I wasn’t talking to you,” I whisper to it.
“You weren’t?” Gary whispers back.
“Yes. I mean no, I was.”
He pauses. “No, you were?”
“What did you mean, am I okay? Did it sound bad?”
“It sounded terrible,” he says. “In a good way.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m okay.”
“He was pissed off,” Leslie says.That she looks 13 is news to the 19 year-old Kristin, but the memoirist Hersh had made it clear all along that part of what makes her younger self so bizarre and exceptional is that she looks so young and her intensity can be not just unattractive but off-putting. The pregnancy, seen this way, is just another example of Throwing Muses’s knack for bad p.r.
“What the hell does that mean? What was he pissed off about?”
“Well,” she explains, “most people think teenage pregnancy’s a bad thing.”
I look at her. “It is a bad thing.” Leslie takes a bottle of pink juice out of the fridge, then sits in the seat across from me. She nods. “Nineteen is hardly a teenage, though,” I say.
“Yeah. But most people think you’re thirteen.”