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How Writing Her Feminist-Punk Memoir Put Kathleen Hanna on the ‘Happiness Train’

13 minute read

Kathleen Hanna has always been dead serious and slyly funny at once. More perspicacious than angry invective alone, that alchemy of tones has been her signature since the early ’90s, when a 20-something Hanna fronted Bikini Kill, the punk band that became the most visible act associated with the third-wave feminist movement known as riot grrrl. “Suck my left one,” she growled, in the face of an abuser, on one of their most famous tracks. Her subsequent solo project, Julie Ruin, conjured visions of a subversive, scrunchie-wearing “valley girl intelligentsia” over a bouncy surf beat. And at the turn of the millennium, she pivoted to dance-punk with the trio Le Tigre, executing synchronized choreography while channeling Fred Flintstone (“Yabba-dabba-dabba-doo, man”) in a song with the sarcastic title “Mediocrity Rules.”

Hanna’s new memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk, out May 14, applies that same caustic, introspective, politically astute, and often mischievously playful voice to the ups and downs of her own life story. “There've been a lot of situations where I felt like I could roll up in a ball and just cry and cry and cry,” she explains, over the phone from Southern California. “And I do cry. But then I start to find the funny in the tragic.” In the book, “I hope I struck a balance between being able to laugh at myself and be serious, because I didn't want to make light of stuff like I usually did.” In her first draft, “all the rape stuff was really funny.” But the final product, achieved only after an overdue stint in trauma therapy, contains moving yet incisive, generously frank passages about the sexual assaults she survived as a teen and young adult.

This is one aspect of her origin story that will likely be familiar to fans, who have over the years gleaned a sketchy timeline of her life, from difficult childhood to ’90s notoriety to a diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease that sidelined her for years following Le Tigre’s dissolution in 2007. In the last decade, all three of Hanna’s major musical projects have made triumphant comebacks. Once she’s made the promotional rounds for Rebel Girl, the 55-year-old artist and activist will follow up last year’s Le Tigre tour with an international Bikini Kill jaunt this summer.

Candid and reflective, Rebel Girl tells the stories behind her best-known songs (“Suck my left one” was her older sister’s catchphrase) and reframes her most mythologized brushes with the mainstream—like that time she accidentally titled Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Hanna also writes about aspects of her life she’s kept mostly private in the past: her marriage to Adam Horovitz of Beastie Boys, a miscarriage, the adoption of a son.

Arduous as it was, the writing process turned out to be a voyage from pain to joy. “I wrote all the bad sh-t first,” Hanna recalls. “Then I had to be like, ‘I’ve got to temper this with some happiness.’” She stared at a blank page for a week before the good memories started flowing, “and it was miraculous. Once I unburied the trauma, look what I found: a f-cking rose garden underneath a grave.”

TIME: You’ve been a public figure for more than 30 years now. How long have you been thinking about writing a memoir?

Kathleen Hanna: I first started talking about it when I was maybe 40 with one of my best friends, [Also a Poet author] Ada Calhoun. Then I got sick with Lyme disease, and I was like, “This is too big of an undertaking for me with the place that my health is at.” When I got better, I immediately was like, “I want to get back to that.” I was moving [from New York] to Pasadena to be closer to my mom, which was a big change. And I wanted to release the me who I used to be—to write it all down so I could move on. It was a long time coming. But I'm glad I waited 'til I was 50 to start, because I think I had a better perspective than I would have when I was 40.

Now that you’ve written the book, do you feel like you’ve entered a new phase of life?

I think once it's out, I'll feel more complete about that, but yeah, I do. I feel like I'm finally grown up—which is weird, that I didn't feel grown up till I was 55. But something about putting the word author after your name makes you feel like an adult all of a sudden. And I do feel like I achieved what I set out to do, which was to get on the happiness train. I really want to learn how to be happy. And it's way harder if you have PTSD and trauma and all that kind of business.

One of the things that came up for me, while writing, was that I started realizing all of this trauma that I had not dealt with. I just kept moving, I just kept making stuff—or I got sick. Keeping busy was my way of not looking at my own trauma. And I finally was like: “I jump every time my husband walks in the room. I'm constantly in a state of stress, and I need to figure this out.” I started getting serious trauma therapy, because I had to—because I would have to stop [writing] for months at a time. I would walk around with weird, crazy eyes, just staring into the distance. It was awful. I feel like I jumped in a life raft off the Titanic, and I just hit land.

The cover of Kathleen Hanna's memoir Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist PunkEcco (Photo by Leeta Harding)

One of the biggest themes in the book was this tension between the responsibility and obligation you felt, beginning when you were in your early 20s, as a highly visible representative of feminism and your personal needs as a human being. At this point, have you learned to strike a balance between those two aspects of yourself?

Definitely. If you’re an abuse survivor, you learn how to dissociate and check out of your life in order to survive. You turn your intuition off. I was great as a frontperson in a band, because I would shut down and take on what everybody else wanted me to take on and try to be who they wanted me to be. I was always present when I sang, but I wasn't always present for the rest of it. That allowed me to get through some very difficult touring, but it also kept me from taking care of myself. When you don't feel your body, you’re not really cognizant of everything going on; you can end up just people-pleasing, because it's the route of least resistance. I'm still working on being more present and enjoying the little moments of life that I neglected for a long time.

In the prologue to Rebel Girl, you write: “My war has never been with sexism, but with how sexism has warped me.” Can you explain the distinction you’re making there?

One of the things that has hurt me the most is when I'm trying to be generous and a man ends up abusing that generosity. When I was a teenager, an adult man who was really smart gave me a bunch of cool books, and we talked about them together. I thought, “Wow, finally an adult who sees how intelligent I am.” Then he hit on me, and then he started stalking me, and it felt like now I can't open myself up to that experience, because I'm just a f-ck doll. Then I started thinking every situation was going to be like that. These men teach you not to be kind, not to trust people or let your guard down—and then you're penalized for not being nice. 

The part of sexism that has wounded me the most is that my personality is warped by it, to not be able to open up to new experiences. I'm sick of being told to be thick-skinned and let stuff roll off my back. You know what? These f-cking a--holes should stop being sexist jerks. It's on them. But I don't have any control over that. And I don't sit around and think about sexist men all the time. Because they're not worth the space in my head. I just think about, how can I stay open to critique and to new experiences, despite the fact that I live in a sexist world?

Riot grrrl was not a term you chose to describe yourself, but you have consistently and conspicuously—in everything from song lyrics to the subtitle of this book—identified as a feminist. How has your relationship to that word evolved over the years?

My definition of it has evolved over the years—mainly thanks to younger people and older scholars, who have taught me the [blindspots] in my own life. I have never experienced racism, so I need to educate myself on, how has my white privilege shaped my life? In the beginning, while I paid lip service to being intersectional, I don't think I was putting it into practice. My feminism is way more expansive now. I feel like economic things are very tied to feminism, healthcare is very tied to feminism; I see it as connected to so many other issues. 

And I get scared about mainstream feminism saying things like “Believe all women.” Because rape [claims] have been used in North America, sometimes by white women, as a way to enact oppression on Black men and children. I don't want to have slogans that encourage that legacy to continue. We need to not victim-blame or tell people they're liars. But in certain situations, it’s important to get to the truth and not just throw out a believe all women blanket.

As you’ve expanded your understanding of social justice, did you ever worry that feminism, as a concept, had outlived its usefulness?

No. As long as women, especially women of color, are making so much less on the dollar than white men. As long as the domestic violence shelters are filling up. As long as abortion is not legal [in parts of the country] and women—disproportionately Black and brown women—are being jailed for having miscarriages. Thinking that feminism doesn't matter is not even a concept I entertain. But you can call it whatever you want. I'm not going to take somebody else's action in the world and define it as feminist. They can define it, and I will use their language.

You write candidly about your childhood, growing up in an unhappy home with a father you say “terrified” you. How did discovering art and music, as a kid, change your life?

I found singing very young—singing along with Jackson Five records or whatever we had in the house. That was a secret place I could go to, away from my dad's meanness. I played with Barbies 'til I was 14 years old, in the attic. I didn't really do the typical things with Barbie. I built her houses a lot. That was sort of my first art-making practice: saying I'm playing with Barbies, but I'm really building these weird Barbie apartment complexes. I was in the un-air-conditioned attic, in the summer in Maryland, being hot as hell, making something to get away from my dad. I had these magical experiences, because my home didn't feel safe. I ventured out or I hid in the attic and pulled the ladder up behind me, so nobody knew I was up there. And I created these imaginary worlds of my own. I think it served me as an artist.

There are parts of your life covered in Rebel Girl that you rarely discuss in interviews. Why did you decide to write about your relationships with some of the famous men who’ve played major roles in your life, from your husband to Kurt Cobain, who was your friend when you were both indie musicians in the Pacific Northwest?

Obviously, I'm a feminist artist. There's already a lot of people who are just going to talk about me in terms of my relationship to these famous male artists. So there's these sexist stereotypes that you have to contend with. But this is my book. And in my world, I want to write about the people who actually have affected me. The truth of the matter is: Kurt, Adam—because I'm married to him, but not so much as a musical collaborator—and Ian MacKaye from Fugazi and Minor Threat were people who played really big roles in my life. I don't want to diminish that.

Many fans who read the book will find out, for the first time, that you have a son, Julius Horovitz. Did you make a conscious decision to keep him out of the public eye, and has it been difficult to maintain that privacy?

We're not followed around by paparazzi. There was a picture that got taken of him and we were like, “That's Adam's brother's kid.” It's for his safety and wellbeing. Because I still have crazy men who want to murder me. So I want to be safe with his life, and also I don't want him to be [overshadowed] by who his dad is or things that I've done. It’s very easy to keep it close to the vest because we have a lot of lovely, supportive friends who don't take pictures of us and put it on Instagram, unless they ask. We're not in a very Hollywood universe.

From anti-trans legislation to the end of Roe to the attack on antiracist education, the past several years have been one of the hardest periods for women, LGBTQ people, and people of color in the U.S. in decades. Amid so much oppression, have you managed to hang on to some optimism about the future?

I am optimistic. Moments that people in community with each other create—where people see themselves reflected and have places to go where they're seen and heard, and where we can enjoy the beauty of stuff each other creates—form the basis for the society we're going to create. Artists don't make legislation happen, and it's corny to say you have to vote, but you gotta vote. I don't necessarily like the choices I have in terms of my health care or the President, but I'm gonna vote anyway, because people fought and died for my ability to vote. And I would much rather see a maniac like Trump not get in power again. 

I hate the fact that young people have everything [older generations have done wrong dumped on them to fix]: “You guys got to change the world because we f-cked it up.” But I do feel like intergenerational working-togetherness could change the future. I get educated every day by somebody younger than me, whether it's on a TikTok video or in person, and that gives me a lot of hope. My kid crying at an Olivia Rodrigo show is pretty beautiful.

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