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The two-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter behind the groundbreaking album Exile in Guyville traces her life and career in a genre-bending memoir in stories about the pivotal moments that haunt her.
When Liz Phair shook things up with her musical debut, Exile in Guyville—making her as much a cultural figure as a feminist pioneer and rock star—her raw candor, uncompromising authenticity, and deft storytelling inspired a legion of critics, songwriters, musicians, and fans alike. Now, like a Gen X Patti Smith, Liz Phair reflects on the path she has taken in these piercing essays that reveal the indelible memories that have stayed with her.
For Phair, horror is in the eye of the beholder—in the often unrecognized universal experiences of daily pain, guilt, and fear that make up our humanity. Illuminating despair with hope and consolation, tempering it all with her signature wit, Horror Stories is immersive, taking readers inside the most intimate junctures of Phair’s life, from facing her own bad behavior and the repercussions of betraying her fundamental values, to watching her beloved grandmother inevitably fade, to undergoing the beauty of childbirth while being hit up for an autograph by the anesthesiologist.
Horror Stories is a literary accomplishment that reads like the confessions of a friend. It gathers up all of our isolated shames and draws them out into the light, uniting us in our shared imperfection, our uncertainty and our cowardice, smashing the stigma of not being in control. But most importantly, the uncompromising precision and candor of Horror Stories transforms these deeply personal experiences into tales about each and every one of us.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Horror Stories
We left her there. That’s the part that haunts me. We saw her need, and we ignored it. The bathroom was crowded. It was hot. I was waiting for my turn at the mirror to put on lipstick. I don’t know why I only see the scene from two angles: looking down out of the corner of my eye while I do my makeup, and waiting with my back against the wall for my friends to finish washing their hands.
I don’t know if she was a blonde, a brunette, or a redhead. I know that she was at the party. I think she was wearing an olive-green jacket, but actually, I might have made up that detail. I seem to be assembling her outfit partially from fact and partially from fiction, as if I’m trying to dress her the way I used to dress my old Barbie dolls, make her look presentable, give her that dignity. My conscience is a fantastic prosecutor. After so many years, only the damning evidence remains. I was there. I saw it. I did nothing.
Fear is an exhausting emotion, and I was scared so often that first semester in college. It was overwhelming trying to find my classrooms in a maze of unfamiliar buildings. I was afraid to ask the other students what the professor meant when she said our reading was reserved in the library. I was too scared to use my zip card in the cafeteria line, in case there was a trick to it. Trying to look like I knew what I was doing was my constant priority.
Looking back, I feel compassion for my younger self. I was just trying to get by. I was only eighteen, and my brain was still forming. I have to have something to say to the jury in my defense. The truth is, I was happy that night. I had met some girls I liked, finally. They all knew one another from a private school in Manhattan. They smoked clove cigarettes and smelled like patchouli. They had boyfriends and were trying to set me up with a guy from their group. One by one, they each took me aside and whispered something nice he’d said about me. They raised their eyebrows when they spoke about him, like I was lucky.
He wasn’t my type. He was okay. I went to a movie with him a week later, and we sat silently in the theater waiting for the lights to dim, having nothing to say to each other—just breathing slowly, acutely aware of the proximity of our limbs. He was nervous, I remember, because he blurted out, “If you’d ever hit somebody over the head with a baseball bat, you’d never forget it.” I agreed.
I’ve linked these memories together because, after I turned down the chance to be his girlfriend, my new friends looked for someone else to fill the vacancy and round out the octet. I didn’t see them much after that, which was probably for the best. Though we never discussed the girl in the restroom, I blamed them for not taking responsibility just as much as I blamed myself. How could we, how could any of us who were there, have turned a blind eye to what was happening? We can be monsters, we human beings, in the most offhand and cavalier ways.
It reminds me of those sociological experiments that expose how fundamental cruelty is to the establishment of society. A family, a clan, a nation, can’t be described without drawing a line around those who are included and leaving others outside the boundary. When researchers ask a group of students to single out and ostracize a member of their pack, someone always brings up William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, that story of shipwrecked children who devolve into a primitive tribe. But the shunning instinct doesn’t require isolation on a desert island or captivity in a science lab to find expression. It’s much, much closer at hand. Scratch the right tender spot and people turn savage.
It’s instinct, and that’s that. Not everyone regrets the unkind things they do. Guilt is the poisonous flower that springs up after a selfish act. In order to grow, there has to be soil present to begin with. The most impressive blooms get pressed into your book of recollections, and every time you go back and reread a chapter, their dry, skeletal remains drop out and fall into your lap. Decomposition marks the pages, and when you’ve interred too many bad memories, the book itself begins to smell.
We dig our disgrace by inches. Some of the meanest things I’ve done have been fleeting, momentary offenses. I only recognize their malignity once they’ve lingered overlong in my imagination. The painter Ed Paschke used to say, “They’re the bugs that get stuck in your grille.” I’d call them aftershocks of missiles lobbed from a safe distance. I’ve been carrying around for decades the tiny, toxic shards of souls I’ve casually shattered.
Late at night on a train, for instance, a man smiles at me, and I sneer—like he’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. I’m scared. I’m nineteen, and I don’t want to get raped. But as his face falls, I know instantly that he meant instead to reassure me that everything was okay. He was there. I was safe. If you think that’s the bad part, it isn’t. Everybody makes mistakes. My culpability begins the moment I turn my face away and stare out the window, pretending that I am better than he is. I let him think that he is repellent, allow him to sit there in shame and dwell on how poorly he was perceived. When he gets off the train, he looks as downcast as any man who hates himself will be. Wondering what kind of day he’d had, what situation he was going home to, what cares and worries weighed on him, this is my burden to bear for as long as I have a memory.
“If I Had Only” is the hit song I’ll never release. When quantum physicists talk about entanglement, I know exactly what they mean. When Einstein calls a phenomenon “spooky action at a distance,” I want to leap up out of my seat and shout, “Amen, brother! Preach!” It’s a lonely universe, and the void takes up so much of it. Why are we surprised to find dark matter residing within ourselves? Emptiness is filled to the brim with anti-starlight. Spread out a towel, lie down, and bleach beneath the not-done, the not-said, the not-redeemed.
A famous comedian left his dog on the back porch of his Mulholland Drive aerie. He lived in New York and rarely made it back to Los Angeles. His assistant would drive up twice a day to feed the crippled old Newfoundland and walk him for ten minutes along a dusty arroyo where no grass grew, on a bare gravel path along the scrubby side of a mountain. I visited the dog three times. I didn’t know the owner, so I just stood there beneath the tiny deck where this big creature lay all day, panting from the heat. I said nice things to him, like Romeo wooing Juliet. He had the sweetest, gentlest disposition despite being, for all intents and purposes, abandoned.
I had the chance to adopt the dog, but he was too big and too old for my narrow house, and he’d have had trouble climbing up and down all the stairs. I asked around at the stables where I rode horses. Nobody was interested. Many months later, after I’d given up hope, I got a call from someone who knew of a farm for Newfies that might be able to help. I didn’t respond. I never called back. I was on tour, I was busy, it fell through the cracks. And now I carry this dog around with me forever. He comes back and visits me like a ghost, that sweet face of his, to remind me that I am forging chains like Ebenezer’s, and they grow heavier as I go.
So who was the girl in the bathroom? I’ll never know. What were her dreams? Why was she there? What made her get so drunk? She was dressed the same way we all were, in a frilly miniskirt and ankle boots. She looked like she’d be a nice person to meet on another day, under different circumstances.
I could tell by her shape and the quality of her skin that she was pretty. But she had to be lonely, because where were her friends? Where were the people who were supposed to keep track of her? Where was the roommate or the boyfriend who was supposed to make sure she could stand up and get home again? She must have come alone to that party. It must have taken courage, a lot of liquid courage, to stand around not knowing anybody. Her unconscious body on the floor was proof of just how nervous she’d been.
Her legs were sticking out of the stall. We stepped around and over them. It reminded me of that scene in The Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch of the East lies prone after Dorothy’s house lands on her. People coming into the bathroom tittered and pointed at first, then gasped. Then they shut up.
The line right inside the door was still lively, still revved up from the party atmosphere outside, but as you moved deeper into the inner sanctum of the lavatory, it got silent. People went about their business with a grim, thin-lipped efficiency. Eyes darting, cheeks pale. Faucets turning on and off. Nobody saying anything. Nobody doing anything about it.
She was lying facedown, passed out, her head resting on the floor next to the toilet, a big smear of excrement extending out from between her sprawled legs. I’d never seen someone who’d shit themselves before, let alone publicly. The humiliation of it was extreme.
Liz Phair is a Grammy-nominated singer songwriter whose debut album, Exile in Guyville, is considered by music critics to be a landmark of indie rock. She has been a recording artist and touring performer for over twenty-five years, paving the way for countless music artists, particularly women, who cite her among their major influences. She began her career in the early 1990s in Chicago by self-releasing audio cassettes under the name Girly-Sound. The intense viral response to these early tracks led to Phair signing with the independent record label Matador Records. More than two decades after the release of her debut, Phair’s influence in contemporary music can be felt today more than ever. Liz Phair is also a visual artist who majored in studio art and art history at Oberlin College. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Atlantic. Horror Stories is her first book.