“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin. “They may not mean to, but they do.” If Phil thought families in Hull were bad, he should hear what they get up to in America’s rural Deep South. Beth Ditto’s frank and heartfelt memoir starkly captures the seemingly endless permutations of emotional and physical abuse that her extended family handed down to one another. It’s heart-wrenching to read the litany of awful things that can happen when children are left to raise children and even incest becomes routine. In one devastating scene, she tells her first boyfriend she can’t remember a time before her uncle abused her. Back in 2006, Ditto caused a minor uproar from animal rights organisations after telling NME that when she was a child her family had shot and eaten squirrels. Seen in the context of her childhood, it’s baffling that people were more upset about the animals than the welfare of the children hunting them for food.
With all that behind her, one of the many remarkable things about this book is just how normal Ditto is. For such a bold and confident performer, her coming-of-age story is quieter and more thoughtful than you might expect. Ditto is compassionate to a fault. She writes matter-of-factly about the cycle of abuse she lived through while making it clear that although people did terrible things, it was the world that made them that way.
Ditto’s voice grows funnier and more confident as her story goes on. She describes the seismic impact that grunge had on her tiny hometown and the tight-knit punk scene that she made into her surrogate family. Then follows the easy realisation that she is gay and the much harder reconciliation of that fact with her family and religious upbringing. She sketches her first band, Little Miss Muffet, and the discovery of riot grrrl that tied her proto-feminism to her passion for music. After escaping Arkansas for Olympia, she forms The Gossip with her friends and it’s not long before her talent takes her around the world. She pinpoints the moment that “things got weird” as being named Number One on 2006’s NME Cool List. She finally realises that she’s become a celebrity, in Britain at least, midway through the interview that accompanied her now-iconic naked NME cover shoot in 2007.
It’s impossible not to be even more awed by the confidence it took to appear on covers like that one after reading about the extreme dieting that left Ditto’s own mum hospitalised. Her candour makes you realise anew what she overcame to make her way in the world. Her story stands both as a ‘personal is political’ manifesto, and as testament to the power of music to make sense of the world, no matter how fucked up it might seem.
Kevin EG Perry