We can be monsters, we human beings, in the most offhand and cavalier ways.
I don’t much like celebrity memoirs unless they’re about escaping Scientology or Tina Fey’s. The writing can drag and I don’t care about behind-the-scenes stories, so I’d planned to skip musician Liz Phair’s. Plus I haven’t paid her recent projects any attention even though I loved her something fierce during that pivotal high school/college-age time that she reached so many of us.
So I’m glad I read an NPR review of Horror Stories that highlighted some lines and changed my mind. It’s imperfect but ends up being pretty meaningful anyway. I don’t know why I’m surprised, her songs were always like that, with some totally gut-punching lines. It wasn’t what I expected, in a good way, because it’s not a musician memoir – although there are some such stories here (actually my least favorite among the topics covered).
Every time I recorded an album, I was writing my memoirs. When I listen to the music I created in my twenties and thirties, I instantly travel back in time to inhabit those moments again: how I felt, what I thought, what hurt me, what I longed for. I wrote straight from the heart so the truth would ring like a bell, and resonate in the listener’s heart as well.
And it does. But if you’re looking for the stories behind her songs, that’s not really here. As she says, she wrote those memoirs in the music. The general concept, rather, is parsing the awful things we do to each other all the time, the everyday horror stories that end up lingering longer than the big obvious ones:
It’s about the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures that we make toward one another. Horror isn’t necessarily the big, ghoulish creature waiting to pounce on you in the dark. Horror can be found in brief interactions that are as cumulatively powerful as the splashy heart-stoppers, because that’s where we live most of our lives.
Her horrors are of greater and lesser varieties. One began with a concert in Paris where she was surprised to find concertgoers could smoke inside. She asked if they could refrain as it hurt her voice and their response was to smoke more. Perfect. It was the beginning of a health deterioration that led to her getting sick and messing up at a Today Show Christmas performance (wearing a poodle-curl hairdo to top it all off).
Not a life horror, obviously, but something that struck her and led to deeper considerations about her industry and role. It ended up being a decent mix of true emotional wreckage stories with career reflections, always showcasing the depths of her sensitivity.
I have spent decades shielding myself from thoughts of what has happened to me in my life, and now that the box is open, I feel like I have no control.
She covers a lot about love and relationships and how they affected her for better or worse, one of the most powerful being her meditation on an affair: “I wrecked my marriage, and he wrecked his—essentially for nothing.” Some are meandering, not unexpected given similar storytelling in some songs (“I was talking, not two days ago, to a certain bartender I’m lucky to know”, etc.). Her thoughts are a fun place to meander.
She carefully gives her side of working with Ryan Adams (unnamed but obvious) before his downfall, her take on #MeToo, misogyny and sexual harassment in the music and visual arts industries, and the trials of just being a woman and all the horrors that entails: “Where does my list start, and where does it end? Where does your list start?”
I wish I didn’t need to have the knowledge and skills I’ve acquired from navigating the treacherous waters of the male appetite. But I do. And if my sharing this helps one girl not feel sullied or ashamed of the way she’s been treated by a selfish dickhead, then maybe it was worth it.
It made me remember why I loved her in the first place. And something I was completely unprepared for (sorry Liz, this is about me now): I even felt some little forgotten piece of myself coming back, with the thoughts or memories she stirred up, or my own horror stories that mirrored something in hers (those things that become “haunting melodies I hear over and over again in my head”); or in the events, emotions, and interactions that affected her and I could feel why so viscerally. I am so grateful for that. Whatever flaws or weak spots this has, it’s incredible art that can bring you back something of yourself and this did it.
She mentions the woo-woo more than I expected considering how grounded and realistic she comes off elsewhere, there are a few too many scenes on airplanes, it can be melodramatic (but who among us doesn’t have those moments where some emotion unexpectedly overwhelms reason and before you know it you’re forever scarred by something small or stupid). Mostly I really wish editors would go a little harder on celebrities or even big authors – I get the impression they’re afraid to touch their work sometimes, and this could’ve benefited from some editing tweaks (can’t we all just agree to banish the adding of extra letters to a word for emphasis? We’re collectively better than that!)
But I was moved by it. I think this’ll speak to sensitive, empathic types. It’s confessional, funny, silly, painfully honest even when it makes her look bad or shallow, and… strangely healing? Is that what I’m trying to describe here? I’m not sure. But a lot of it resonated, sometimes surprisingly so. I’m so glad she wrote it. 4/5
Some favorite lines out of a bunch of them (lots of quotes but ultimately that’s what convinced me to read it, so passing it along):
“Many generations of inherited survival skills still reside within you, thanks to the reproductive success of your ancestors. Then they appear, as if by magic, to close the impossible gap. You’re never truly alone. Relatives who faced innumerable trials and tribulations are in you always, ready to come to your aid when the crucial moment arises.”
On selling her parents’ home: “My heart aches to think of never coming home again, never seeing that specific light in those specific rooms, never looking out at the same views again.”
“My regret is as deep as the ocean.”
“There are a lot of lonely people out there— stumbling through the daily grind, moved to the point of tears by somebody’s unexpected interest in them. It feels like a cold world sometimes. We can go days without anybody touching us or noticing how we’re feeling. ”
“I will miss everything I can never have back again, like my youthful obliviousness.”
“We’re afraid we will be defined by our worst decisions instead of our best.”
On exiting long relationships: “The only thing you know for sure is that you can’t go back the way you came. You must go forward, or sideways, or up, or down; anywhere except home again, because that’s not your home anymore. You are temporarily homeless. Losing love can turn you into a ghost in your own life. You go to all the same places, do the same things, but you’re not really there. You’re surrounded by friends and family, people with whom you intimately belong, but because your heart is broken, you listen to their laughter and conversation as if from a great distance.”
“Time will refasten what’s come unmoored inside you.”
Horror Stories: A Memoir
by Liz Phair
published October 8, 2019 by Random House