Telmo Rodrigues

For some reason, Patty Schemel’s autobiography has let me down. Schemel’s narrative holds its pace along the way (although lackluster towards the end), it is packed with good descriptions, it has many emotional turnabouts, and it details private moments of some of the most important stars of the last decades without seeming gossipy or in any way deceitful — so there seems to be no particular reason for my feeling. If the disappointment is not located in the writing, I must account for it in some other way. To do so, I would like to explain the two moments in the book where I would say Schemel’s adopted style seems to flutter: the description of the relationship with Kurt Cobain and the final chapters concerning her life after her last rehab.

The many considerations one goes through in order to tackle the task of writing down one’s story are naturally diverse. These days, many go after potential financial gains — a very noble reason by any account, but also one that can have its impact on the story told. That the book cover holds the sentence “Drummer of Hole” to describe its author is just one of the ways in which the economic potential of publishing Schemel’s biography shines through: for one, the immediate connections with some of the most well-known people of the 90’s musical scene, particularly Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, are very appealing; but the sentence also gives meaning to Schemel’s name, which, in itself, might not be familiar to the majority of the potential buyers of the book. Selling the book requires that associations between the author and other more famous people are clear from the onset and, as so, there is an in-built promise that it holds accounts of those relationships.

Ironically, the lowest moments of Schemel’s story are the descriptions of her relationship with Cobain. While they do not seem false or opportunistic, they drag beyond what is strictly necessary and feel as though they are serving the purpose of justifying the commercial interest of her life. A particular apt moment in which this can be perceived is the description of Schemel’s feelings after losing her friend and band mate, Kristen Pfaff: “When Kurt died, it changed the landscape of rock ‘n’ roll itself, but when Kristen died, it just changed our band. And her lack of fame meant that few people knew [she was dead]” (p. 82). As she is aware of the different impact both these deaths have, so she seems aware of the low impact she has as an individual, in some moments placing herself beneath other events taking place around her. Even if her relationship with Cobain was in fact close, we cannot shake away the feeling that that is the selling point in which she has to concentrate on in order to make her book matter. The tone is particularly unnatural when describing private scenes between the two, as if the privacy of those moments might shine a different knowledge not on her own life, but on the publicly known life of Cobain; those moments seem to serve someone else’s biography.

Foremost, an autobiography seems to require considering the reasons why one’s life is worth telling. It is not just a question of knowing if our life is of any interest to anyone else, it is a matter of understanding why at a certain point we decide to write it down. Schemel is clearly uninterested in explaining herself; but because telling one’s story is so interwoven with the reasons for telling it in the first place, one cannot but feel she has took upon the task as a way of registering a past from which she has distanced himself, namely her addiction to drugs and alcohol and the consequences of such addiction. Schemel’s narrative is direct and concise, set on removing any visible sentimentality from the story by describing events in the most detached way. She is not interested in finding justifications for anything in particular but rather in moving forward with the events leading her to the brink of death (before she redeems herself and rebuilds her life far from the influence of abusive substances).

While justifying one’s life requires the story of said life, it is not clear the mere telling of the story serves the purpose of justification. This is why the long running struggle Schemel undergoes in order to keep her tale away from the self-help and new-age bookshelves is eminently lost when we reach the last chapters: she has no justification for telling her story, but she has a reason. Having gone through all she tells us, the early abuse of alcohol [starting as early as twelve years old (p. 7)], the coming out as gay by her early twenties [to her mother when she was 15 (p. 21)], the hard drugs and the endless schemes put in motion to feed her addiction — from selling her belongings to prostitution —, the friends’ deaths and her overdoses, it is hard not to let her long sigh of relief at making it out alive fill the narrative with the optimism of people who feel as newborn. The reason to tell her story seems obvious by the end: she has survived. That this is probably the first reason why one should tell his or her story does not come immediately to mind, particularly in stories taking place far from war or natural catastrophes scenarios; but that is the case here and, for as much as we might want to relate, the feeling we have been deceived still lingers: it is not the story of Hole’s drummer we have just read, it is the story of a recovered drug addict. There’s nothing wrong with the story, it is the marketing that is misleading.