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Feminist punk icon Kathleen Hanna confronts her troubled past in a new memoir

Kathleen Hanna Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.JPG

In her new memoir, “Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk,” Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna tackles her dysfunctional upbringing and fundamental need to be understood.



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By Lesa Hannah Special to the Star

As a kid growing up in 1970s suburban Maryland, Kathleen Hanna never felt heard, much less understood. In her new memoir, “Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk,” she offers a moment that crystallizes this neglect. Hanna’s older sister, whom she refers to as “Goodtimes,” ingests jimson weed seeds she acquires from a junior high drug dealer. Swallowing enough to render them poisonous, she comes home acting strange (“screaming ‘Kill me! Kill me!’ in a demon voice,” Hanna writes), prompting the alarmed 12-year-old Hanna to call her mother at work pleading for her to return.

After being brought to the hospital, Goodtimes falls into a coma, and though she eventually wakes up, Hanna’s parents act like nothing happened. Her sister’s reckless behavior continued, worrying Hanna so much that she slipped a note in the family suggestion box. In response, her father called her a drama queen and her mother remained silent, leaving Hanna confused and feeling like she must have been unintelligible.

“When I talked to people in my family, they were either pretending they didn’t understand or as if I was talking like the Charlie Brown (adults) to them,” says Hanna, now 55, over Zoom. “Like, I’m saying something’s wrong and no one’s doing anything. Is something going wrong that I don’t understand?”

That feeling of invisibility ultimately put her on the path to becoming the frontwoman of feminist punk band Bikini Kill, which she formed in Olympia, Washington, in 1990 with Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren and which broke up in 1997. It gave her a platform where she could finally be heard and, more importantly, understood. “I’m so glad you picked up on that,” says Hanna. “As I was writing, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so obvious.’ It makes perfect sense that I’m in Bikini Kill.”

This fundamental need to be understood again came to the fore when Hanna was giving lectures in the 2000s. “I would be talking to an audience and look at them and be like, ‘Do you understand?’ ‘Are you hearing what I’m saying?’ I would say things so clearly.”

And last year, when on tour with another of her bands, the electro-punk Le Tigre, Hanna had the words to the songs projected on a screen behind them, similar to how, decades earlier, she’d hand out lyric sheets at Bikini Kill shows. “This book is part of that, making sure everyone understands exactly what I want to say.”

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Kathleen Hanna felt ready to write her memoir a few years ago, when she moved to California with her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, and their son.

She felt ready to write her memoir a few years ago, when she moved from the East Coast to Pasadena, Calif., with her husband, Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, and their son, Julius. “I wanted to start a new life,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about the ’90s right now. But after the book comes out, I can refer people back to it.”

Hanna insists she’s not trying to shove her past into a closet, which, she says, “takes a lot of energy to keep closed.” She just doesn’t want to have to keep talking about riot grrrl, the feminist punk movement Bikini Kill helped spearhead through their confrontational, political lyrics and concerts where Hanna would direct “girls to the front,” so they could be close to the stage.

Before she began writing, Hanna looked through her college journals for guidance, where she had interrogated her own privilege, obsessed over her crushes at the time (“I’m a Scorpio, so I’m a permanent, sexy teenager,” she says) and did drawings on tour of girls in cool outfits at their shows, like the one she saw in schoolgirl pigtails while on the road with Huggy Bear in England. That’s how she got the idea to wear the same style when she appeared in the 1994 video for Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather.”

But embarking on this “archeological dig” to revisit her past was ultimately a painful endeavour, unearthing a lot of trauma she had tried to contain. In addition to the dysfunctional home life, Hanna was sexually assaulted, including being raped by a close friend, for which she’s done so much therapy she feels her assailant owes her money. While writing, Hanna ended up being diagnosed with CPSTD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). “That’s part of the reason this book took five or six years to write,” she says. “I kept having to stop because I was having nervous breakdowns.”

These days, she is still in trauma therapy twice a week, tries to do yoga every morning and takes care of herself when on tour — Bikini Kill reunited in 2019 and is playing Toronto in September — doing vocal warmups and avoiding sugar. And at home, she is strict about setting boundaries. “In the morning, I don’t read social media,” she says. “I don’t read emails. I don’t do anything. I sit in my chair for at least 10 minutes, and I pet my dog in complete silence with a cup of coffee and just give myself that time.”

Through time, therapy and reading, Hanna has amassed an admirable level of self-awareness; she’s good at being accountable in ways many adults aren’t. She says books have been key to this and allowed her to recognize the part of herself that has been “a colonizer” and how she’s benefited from being “a white person.”

Despite actively working to understand the ways she’s been unknowingly complicit in systems of oppression, there is no doubt she is a survivor. Of abuse, of assault, of misogyny. But she’s learned how to use all her past trauma and make it into art. “It’s like turning lemons to lemonade,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Thank you for being an a—hole and inspiring me.’

Like Christina Aguilera said, ‘Thanks for making me a fighter.’”

*****
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