All Kinds of Exile: On Liz Phair’s “Horror Stories”

December 28, 2019   •   By Dean Kuipers

Horror Stories

Liz Phair

LIZ PHAIR’S 1993 DEBUT full-length album, Exile in Guyville, didn’t ask permission to rock; she just kicked out a space for herself among all the young dudes. She arrived fully formed and fully feminine: topless on the cover, coming at you snarling, laying bare male-female relationships with unapologetically sexual songs like “Flower” and painfully honest ones like “Divorce Song.”

Her powerful new memoir, Horror Stories, turns the full-frontal rock ’n’ roll life inside out. In beautifully crafted episodes, she trains her brutal honesty on herself and on American culture to look at what lurks beneath a life. It’s a book that side-steps the triumph of her music career in order to squarely confront shadow, and to own the darkness that is hers.

This is a tremendously risky literary strategy, but she’s doing something important with this book: exploring the ordinary struggle of working as an artist and a woman and a mother and a boss, and trying constantly to navigate love. Why is her desire sometimes blinding? Why does she so often screw it up? The one overtly #MeToo episode in this book demonstrates that she could have delivered the satisfying catharsis of using her whip-smarts to best the lumpen men who tried to drag her career into bed with them, but she does more than that. She keeps the power for herself. She turns away from blame to go somewhere more personal, working like a novelist, using story to reveal the shape of her own psyche. Because even though success is the lumber with which we build a life, horror is the lathe that shapes it with its knife.

In the opening piece, she’s a freshman in college at Oberlin, ducking into a bathroom at a party with some girlfriends. As they freshen their looks, they try to ignore another woman their age lying unconscious in a stall. Pretty, wearing a frilly miniskirt, she’s so drunk that she shit herself. No one checks to see if she’s breathing or needs help. They leave without doing anything. And decades later, Phair lives with the betrayal.

“I cannot exorcise her from my conscience or purge her from my past. She will always be lying in that bathroom in my soul, waiting for me.”

Horror Stories is a book of questions. “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.”

The monsters in these stories need to be dealt with, and Phair steps up. She wants to know what she’s done to conjure them. She acknowledges that she’s been given lots of good breaks in life. Her adoptive dad is a bigwig doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and her adoptive mom is an art historian, and the family is a pillar of suburban Winnetka, Illinois. She’s a pretty, middle-class white girl. Her first real album is a critical and commercial smash and makes her a rock star.

But as she wrote in her song “Fuck and Run”: “I can feel it in my bones / I’m gonna spend my whole life alone.” In these stories, she examines her own reaction to physical beauty, her need for approval, the recklessness with which she ruined her marriage, fixations on the wrong men, her assumptions about how old friends must view her — all get skewered. She feels the monster’s hot breath on her neck, but she won’t be a victim.

Horror Stories tracks her struggles with relationships, feeling a distance from everyone around her “thin as a layer of ice on an eyelash” but still enough to keep her lonely. She cried when she saw her original birth certificate, calling it “a snapshot of a fleeting moment of wholeness, before I carried in my heart this broken piece of glass, which I’ve been careful not to disturb lest it cut me.”

One of the most affecting and well-written pieces in the book is titled “Surf Therapy,” in which she confronts the “tension between independence and security” in her life as a divorced single mother, and how her ordinary desires betray her. She moves cautiously into a relationship with a man named Rory, who seems perfect: beautiful as a bronze god, very sexual, asking Phair to marry him, fatherly with her son Nick, she sees him as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a do-over.” She doesn’t understand why her friends have doubts about him. As they swim together in the waves off Manhattan Beach, she knows she’s missed something.

I suddenly get that tingling feeling, that dreadful sensation that I’m being watched, and it’s not by my boyfriend. My awareness flips upside down, and I can see myself as I appear from underwater: pale limbs dangling down from above. My subconscious is trying to tell me something, knocking on the door of my awareness with symbols and metaphors from the murky deep. […] I’m panicking. I have a vision of a solitary great white shark gliding in the gloom, its black eye darting, curious snaggleteeth aching to investigate.

It’s not a shark that’s lurking: it’s the fact that Rory has been seeing his ex on the side, and the ex is pregnant with his child, and other people can sense his double-dealing but Phair can’t. The image is haunting and seems to inhabit the book. She is so invested in the relationship that even when he finally tells her about the baby, two months after it is born, Phair still entertains the idea of trying to make it work. She feels disassociated from her own senses, floundering. How could she have not seen this? Is she so desperate for a “normal” family? The experience leaves her unable to date for years.

She only starts healing when her abandoned therapist agrees to take her surfing — not as a paying therapy client, but as a beginner surfer. “[T]hrough his willingness to climb into my nightmare and take that risk, he’s showing me how to trust men again.”

Of course, Horror Stories could have been a litany of such nightmares, the things men do to or for women, but her stories are more self-reflective than that, focused on her own role in success and failure. Instead, she saves up the bad man stories for one loaded chapter called “Hashtag,” in reference to #MeToo, in which the well-known musician who is producing her album is suddenly accused of sexual misconduct by a chorus of other female musicians. She never names him, but we can extrapolate. She states she doesn’t even want to write about this guy or the #MeToo “firestorm,” because most sexual misdeeds take place when no one else is around and thus they’re so hard to prosecute. But once she lets loose on this subject, it’s an avalanche of anger too long bottled up.

There’s the married advertising agency executive who felt her up when she was an intern and offered her jewelry for sex. The restaurant where the male staff pulled her shorts and underwear down. The old painter who pressed himself against her ass when she was working for him. The record label head who showed her porn and then asked her to show him what she liked. The other record label head who advised her to let the radio programmers fondle her. The other record label head who offered her $5,000 per month to be his mistress. The discussion of her body parts by label execs, the threats to get mostly nude in photo shoots or else never work again, the many “meetings” arranged by a manager where other industry professionals tried to force themselves on her. Plus, the drunk dudes on planes, the married men at parties, the unstable and very determined stalkers who doggedly threaten her security and that of her son, and on and on. Always it’s her responsibility to fend them off.

“Women have absorbed as much of this toxicity as we are capable of processing, and our anger is spilling over,” she writes, adding it’s not her job to police men. “We are full. We can’t hold any more.”

In that context, she found that the musician who was producing her album “is hardly the worst monster I’ve encountered.” Yes, he propositioned her. She refused, and she did think that he lost interest in her album as a result. But she defends him as a musician, saying he really did hear her songs, and was hilarious, and she hopes he gets his act together. It’s a gutsy thing to say, considering the amount of collective anger directed at the guy. But this is the point: it’s up to him to change, not her. Phair is lightly sisterly throughout the book, and generalizes her experience where she can so others can share it — but it seems clear that her objective is to reclaim the narrative. She wants to own what’s hers and move forward. This producer caused her to scrap her album, and now she wants to reclaim that time by making more music — that way she can dig into her own reactions, find her own expression. That puts the power firmly in her hands.

After an entire book examining her own psyche, tagging the shark that is her own blindness and desire, she is a reluctant politico. But she is empathetic, and ends this chapter with a few searing paragraphs about being part of an enraged sisterhood, beginning with “Every woman you know has stories as long as her arm” and ending with an extended hand.

“There are a lot of us women out here changing the landscape, one heart and one pair of ears at a time,” she writes.

It’s already better now than it was when I was growing up. And I’m benefitting from other women’s speaking out. So I guess it’s my turn to contribute some of my fuel supply to keep the collective flame alive. Fuck it. Gather around the warmth and firelight. Let me fortify you for a while.


Dean Kuipers writes on the environment, art, and politics and is the author of the new memoir, The Deer Camp. His work has appeared in Rolling StoneWired, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles TimesOutside, and many other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.