Singer Marianne Dissard‘s memoir Not Me is just like her lyrics: witheringly insightful, harrowingly direct, disarmingly self-aware and stylistically exquisite. That her story’s scathingly funny asides and spot-on musical and social commentary are just as gripping as the grim central narrative reaffirms the argument that great songwriters are also great prose writers.
Dissard’s musical career was on many levels a very unlikely success story. A filmmaker by training, living in Tucson with her musician husband, the French expatriate didn’t get her start as a performer until the zeros, in the wake of a bitter divorce. By then, she was already in her thirties. Yet she hit the ground running, hard, possibly out of revenge. From the beginning, her tunesmithing had a stunning level of craft: part cabaret, part desert rock and, as you would expect from a French girl who grew up in the 80s, part new wave. And her lyrics were top-tier, packed with puns, clever wordplay, historical and literary references. Although most of them are in French, she also writes competently in German. And her command of English surpasses 99% of Americans writing in their native tongue.
In a decade where the music industry lost 90% of its income and sales of digital music plummeted to zero, Dissard did what every musician needed to do to maintain a career: she toured, relentlessly. And recorded a consistently brilliant series of albums, a handful of them made on the fly in cities around the world on the rare off-day. She got great press and has an adoring fan base, neither of which she mentions in this humble and humbling story. In 2012, in many ways, she looked like she was on top of the world.
Then she crashed.
Looking back, she reflects, bandmates knew something was wrong, but they chalked it up to the wear and tear of the road. The truth is that Dissard, a lithely muscular, pixieish woman, had been a bulimic for twenty years, and it had finally caught up with her.
In context, many of her lyrics ought to be a dead giveaway. The most obvious one, which she quotes in the book, is from the song Mouton Bercail, with its images of “drooling blood.” Considering what she’d been going through at the time, one of her most shattering songs, Am Letzen, makes more sense than ever. Dissard’s muted, half-whispered portrait of complete emotional depletion on the New Years Eve from hell reaches even greater depths of despondency.
She acknowledges how lucky she was to survive – and also how unlikely it was that she managed to keep a career going, as a singer, of all things. Her teeth suffered, but somehow her vocal cords escaped any permanent damage, although she alludes to the occasional problematic show: “Ah, but my voice? Glazed by juices more acrid than turned wine, what sounds would this throat make, words boiled unintelligible from raspy syllables, a wheezing flow of tepid weakness disguised as demure coquetry. It doesn’t fucking matter. You sing in French. They’re Americans. Make sounds, any sounds. It all sounds the same, exotic and sexy, Parisian. Still, wouldn’t someone notice you’d gone awry? They know you, some of them, and some of it. And the photos? You sure don’t look like your press shots anymore. You look simply ravaged.”
This is a typical passage. Dissard has an extraordinary eye for detail and a laserlike sense of the mot juste, whether recounting the gory blow-by-blow of a night of purging where she thought she’d gone blind, or more hopeful days after she’d put the touring on hold to pursue….a degree in teaching yoga.
Which ultimately saved her. She may have tormented her digestive tract for a couple of decades, but she’d also maintained a rigorous, daily yoga practice. And when not bingeing on forbidden treats (the list will shock you), she ate well, drank little if at all, didn’t smoke or do drugs, enjoyed a close relationship with a beloved cat and remained active, perhaps hyperactive. The impetuosity and steely self-determination that drove her career may have confounded some of the people who knew her, but those qualities also kept her alive in every sense of the word.
Tellingly, Dissard’s first encounter with eating disorders came after her parents moved her to America Discovering the calorific, processed American diet – and no doubt wanting to fit in with the other kids – the svelte, petite teenager suddenly had weight issues. Then became anorexic, and after that summer was over – with only a pointed, mostly wordless encounter with her mother about it – the forty pounds she’d lost from not eating returned with a vengeance. She would discover bulimia and the thrill of guilt-free food indulgence a little later.
Ultimately, bulimia is all about control, mind over matter: giving in to the most basic desire for nourishment, then pulling the plug right at the moment where it could be metabolized. Dissard had it down to a science and doesn’t spare any ugly bits. Through sheer force of will, finally having hit rock bottom, she was able to sublimate the need for control and channel that resolve in life-affirming directions.
There are innumerable messages implicit in this story. That a French woman – you know the cliche, they’re all beautiful because they never eat between meals – could practically kill herself with bulimia speaks to how prevalent, and underreported, it is. That such a strong-willed, seemingly fearless artist could be leveled by the perception that others might find her unattractive is another genuine shock, and a cautionary tale. As usual, Dissard lets the details fill in the blanks: there’s no self-help instruction manual here.
And those details offer a delicious contrast against a haunted backdrop. Dissard’s powers of perception are formidable, whether offhandedly commenting on how an audience perceives an artist, to her contempt (a recurrent emotion in her songwriting, less so here) for digital audio: “I can’t stand these joints with tiny, lousy ceiling speakers that filter out prefab songs to their crash cymbals and hi-hat hits, a glass-fiber sort of sound, deathbed-gasping mp3s.”
Her account of yoga training, and what she seems to have considered surprising success at it, is just as vivid, particularly for non-yoginis. Most poignantly, it’s a weight gain after putting an end to the binge-and-purge cycle that brings her closer to her students, where a loss of flexibility suddenly helps her relate to their muscle fatigue and resistance to difficult poses. Just like her songs, the story’s changing milieux – from Tucson, to Paris, to Italy and back – are ablaze with color, sparkling with imagery.
Dissard considers herself a recovering addict, and that the pain had come in many ways to define her (just listen to a couple of her songs and you’ll figure that out fast). Ultimately, this is a story of transcendence, with what appears to be a happy ending. It will keep you up all night and then make you dream about it. That could be a nightmare, but it could also be immensely inspirational. Dissard, as usual, doesn’t come out and say that explicitly, testament to her prowess as a wordsmith. This book is reason to look forward to whatever narrative might be her next: a film, a novel, or if we’re lucky, maybe even a 2020 concert tour.