Lisa Crystal Carver has been a lot of things in her 36 years. She’s been a performance artist who antagonized her audiences and urinated in litter boxes onstage. She’s been a prostitute and a sex writer. She was an early originator of fanzine culture whose handmade magazine, Rollerderby, was chockablock with smart, sassy commentary on sex, pop culture, and alternative rock. She was the wife of two controversial, much older artists, and is the mother of two children.
Through it all, this native of Dover, N.H., has been a deft and funny memoirist, who used her painful childhood and troubled past to explore our personal and cultural beliefs about parenting, sexuality, gender and class politics, and romance.
Her latest book, ”Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir,” covers her life between ages 18 and 32 — an era she hadn’t previously addressed — and documents a chapter in the counterculture that she hadn’t seen recorded elsewhere. ”I had noticed that there weren’t any books around about our era,” she says by phone from her home in Dover. ”It was over. It was gone, and all there was was like Lydia Lunch’s all caps, and Henry Rollins, with all of his exclamation points. And I just thought, ‘God bless these people, they’re performers, but they should put their pens down.’ ”
Her book coincides with the release of a DVD of the same title that includes visceral, sometimes disturbing, footage of her avant-garde band, Suckdog; operas staged with her then-husband, the French performance artist Jean Louis Costes; and recent film shorts made with friends. ”I think it’s an awesome, entertaining hour of stuff,” she says. ”I never see anything like this. And I know it has a real impact on people, because I played an old video one time at a party, and a good friend of mine sobbed and left, and it cleared the entire room. . . . And I just thought, you know, when was the last time there was a good room clearer? And I just thought that I should give this gift to the American public.”
Clearly, Carver can laugh about some of the over-the-top stunts she has pulled. But while the DVD and book contain some candid moments that a less exhibitionistic artist might not want to bring to light, Carver delights in pushing both her own boundaries and her audience’s preconceptions and comfort zones. In her book, Carver describes diving into topics that made her feel uncomfortable when she was writing, because she knew she was getting to the marrow of important moments in her life.
There are two areas, however, where candor has been especially difficult. The first is her tumultuous second marriage to musician Boyd Rice, a contentious figure often accused of having neo-Nazi leanings, whom Carver describes in her new book as an abusive alcoholic while she was married to him. In her book, she says she has never been entirely truthful about the marriage, because it was too difficult for her to reconcile the experience. ”I always completely avoided that in Rollerderby and in my other books, and everything was happy, happy,” she says. ”But, I think that all of my other ideas about writing, and life, and women, is that, if you tell the truth, then you can set somebody else partly free from having to follow some bad road all of the way to the end.”
Carver has also avoided discussing her children in print. After all, it’s hard enough having your parents reveal your baby pictures and childhood peccadilloes to a new beau, let alone to the whole world. But Carver has recently relented somewhat. In last month’s Glamour magazine, she candidly discusses the chromosomal deletion her son was born with, and the physical and developmental setbacks it has caused him. Carver says she hopes her story can help other parents in similar situations and help make her son’s life easier by raising public awareness about the condition. ”There might be a lot of people out there who would get their first exposure to it, and would deal with their child’s life, or their student’s life better,” she says. ”I weighed it, and I thought, ‘You know what, it’s worth it.’ ”
Her ability to present painful experiences without playing the victim is a unique and inspiring characteristic, says Jill Soloway, an Emmy-nominated writer and co-executive producer for HBO’s ”Six Feet Under,” who recently published her first book of humorous autobiographical essays, ”Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.” Even though she jokes that she was too much of a nice Jewish girl to seek out the counterculture that Carver embraced, Soloway is a longtime fan of Carver’s work who explores cultural perceptions of female sexuality and gender roles in her own writing.
”I’m always trying to be like her when I’m writing,” Soloway says. ”I’m always . . . writing to Lisa, writing for Lisa, even if, for a long time, I didn’t even know her. And you know, now I do, and I don’t have to literally think about writing to her. But that’s a lot of my voice, you know, ‘Would she think this is funny?’ ”
Carver is used to people addressing their writing and their confessions to her. Having bared all herself, Carver finds many people drawn to reveal themselves to her. Perhaps this is the key to her power as a writer and a cultural critic.
”I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any thought or impulse that crosses your mind, even the impulse to not like your children,” she says. ”I think we all get the worst ideas, especially if we’re trying not to. . . . I feel saddened if somebody is obviously not able to control their impulses, and there are kids involved, and they are putting their kids into a precarious situation because they’re so nuts. There’s nothing wrong with being nuts, but it just saddens me if there’s any kids there. But other than that, no, you could tell me anything.”