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Coal to Diamonds
Cover of Coal to Diamonds
Coal to Diamonds
A Memoir

A raw and surprisingly beautiful coming-of-age memoir, Coal to Diamonds tells the story of Mary Beth Ditto, a girl from rural Arkansas who found her voice.

Born and raised in Judsonia, Arkansas--a place where indoor plumbing was a luxury, squirrel was a meal, and sex ed was taught during senior year in high school (long after many girls had gotten pregnant and dropped out) Beth Ditto stood out. Beth was a fat, pro-choice, sexually confused choir nerd with a great voice, an eighties perm, and a Kool Aid dye job. Her single mother worked overtime, which meant Beth and her five siblings were often left to fend for themselves. Beth spent much of her childhood as a transient, shuttling between relatives, caring for a sickly, volatile aunt she nonetheless loved, looking after sisters, brothers, and cousins, and trying to steer clear her mother's bad boyfriends.

Her punk education began in high school under the tutelage of a group of teens--her second family--who embraced their outsider status and introduced her to safety-pinned clothing, mail-order tapes, queer and fat-positive zines, and any shred of counterculture they could smuggle into Arkansas. With their help, Beth survived high school, a tragic family scandal, and a mental breakdown, and then she got the hell out of Judsonia. She decamped to Olympia, Washington, a late-1990s paradise for Riot Grrrls and punks, and began to cultivate her glamorous, queer, fat, femme image. On a whim--with longtime friends Nathan, a guitarist and musical savant in a polyester suit, and Kathy, a quiet intellectual turned drummer--she formed the band Gossip. She gave up trying to remake her singing voice into the ethereal wisp she thought it should be and instead embraced its full, soulful potential. Gossip gave her that chance, and the raw power of her voice won her and Gossip the attention they deserved.

Marked with the frankness, humor, and defiance that have made her an international icon, Beth Ditto's unapologetic, startlingly direct, and poetic memoir is a hypnotic and inspiring account of a woman coming into her own.

From the Hardcover edition.

A raw and surprisingly beautiful coming-of-age memoir, Coal to Diamonds tells the story of Mary Beth Ditto, a girl from rural Arkansas who found her voice.

Born and raised in Judsonia, Arkansas--a place where indoor plumbing was a luxury, squirrel was a meal, and sex ed was taught during senior year in high school (long after many girls had gotten pregnant and dropped out) Beth Ditto stood out. Beth was a fat, pro-choice, sexually confused choir nerd with a great voice, an eighties perm, and a Kool Aid dye job. Her single mother worked overtime, which meant Beth and her five siblings were often left to fend for themselves. Beth spent much of her childhood as a transient, shuttling between relatives, caring for a sickly, volatile aunt she nonetheless loved, looking after sisters, brothers, and cousins, and trying to steer clear her mother's bad boyfriends.

Her punk education began in high school under the tutelage of a group of teens--her second family--who embraced their outsider status and introduced her to safety-pinned clothing, mail-order tapes, queer and fat-positive zines, and any shred of counterculture they could smuggle into Arkansas. With their help, Beth survived high school, a tragic family scandal, and a mental breakdown, and then she got the hell out of Judsonia. She decamped to Olympia, Washington, a late-1990s paradise for Riot Grrrls and punks, and began to cultivate her glamorous, queer, fat, femme image. On a whim--with longtime friends Nathan, a guitarist and musical savant in a polyester suit, and Kathy, a quiet intellectual turned drummer--she formed the band Gossip. She gave up trying to remake her singing voice into the ethereal wisp she thought it should be and instead embraced its full, soulful potential. Gossip gave her that chance, and the raw power of her voice won her and Gossip the attention they deserved.

Marked with the frankness, humor, and defiance that have made her an international icon, Beth Ditto's unapologetic, startlingly direct, and poetic memoir is a hypnotic and inspiring account of a woman coming into her own.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    There was a time when Judsonia, Arkansas, was a booming metropolis keeping pace with the rest of the country. The people were hopeful--working, shopping, and living life. A women's college was teaching ladies, and the town cemetery kept a plot for fallen Union soldiers right smack in the middle of all the dead Confederates.

    That was back in the 1940s. Then in '52 a tornado swirled in and tore the whole place down, leaving a dusty depression in its wake. After that, time got sticky while the people got slower and stayed that way. Since then, Judsonia just hasn't moved on the way the rest of the country has.

    At thirteen years old, I was hanging out one afternoon in a pair of sweats and a hand-painted T-shirt, bumming around a mostly empty house. It was the early '90s, but there, in Judsonia, it might as well have been the '80s, or the '70s. I, Mary Beth Ditto, did not go to school that day. I stayed at home to laze around the house--a house that was normally crawling with way too many kids and a sick aunt, but which was miraculously empty that day, totally peaceful. Just because I played hooky, don't go getting the idea that I was a bad kid. I wasn't, but I wasn't a good kid either. I wasn't a nerdy square turning in homework on time and kissing my teacher's butt, and I certainly wasn't some juvenile delinquent ducking class to hunt down trouble. I just wanted to see what that big, hectic house would feel like full of unusual quiet.

    My three little cousins were off at school. Because they had the misfortune of being born to the world's shittiest mom, those three cousins--who all had names that began with A--had come to live with Aunt Jannie. When social services had finally been called for the fourth time, the social workers poked around to see if those three little A's had any family who could take them in, and when they found Aunt Jannie she, of course, said yes.

    The A's made their beds on couches and chairs at Aunt Jannie's, crawling next to one another in the night, hunkering down wherever there was space and warmth to snuggle into. Their arrival in Aunt Jannie's home was part of a grand tradition in my family. In a family so large that it tumbled and stretched to the edges of comprehension, every one of us came knocking on Aunt Jannie and Uncle Artus's front door eventually, looking for refuge. Something always pushed us there. For the A's it was their drunken, neglectful mother. For me it was my violent stepfather. For my mother it was her sexually abusive father. And there were countless other short-term squatters, like my cousins whose mother shot her husband in the head. Children came and children went as circumstance and tragedy dictated. Aunt Jannie just couldn't turn away a kid with nowhere to go, not even when her diabetes made her so slowed-down and sickly.

    Aunt Jannie took people in for so many years that her house probably would've felt empty without stray bodies on every spare bit of furniture. Jannie's heart--her original heart--was a good and giving thing, even though her life had fossilized pain around the outside. Deep inside, Jannie was secretly warm and caring, and that was the place that made her take in any person who was going through a tough time in life. She never sat down and calculated the costs of being the whole town's savior. Her impulse to help, plus the whole town's expectation that she would open her doors, and everyone loving her for doing it, meant that, eventually, Aunt Jannie just couldn't say no to anyone. Even when maybe she should have. When she was at the end of her mental rope, Aunt Jannie probably needed someone to reach out and give her a hand, but I don't know how she could've asked for that...

About the Author-
  • Beth Ditto is the lead singer of Gossip. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    September 15, 2012
    A memoir from the lead singer of the band Gossip, chronicling her upbringing in rural Arkansas. While it's true that rock musicians often front-load a lifetime's worth of excess into the first decade of their success, and write their memoir about it from old age--if they make it that long--Ditto's memoir, written with the assistance of Tea (Rose of No Man's Land, 2006, etc.), swings the focus around to the years before her band became successful. The author grew up deep in rural Arkansas, part of a large family that moved in and out of a generous (though also poor) aunt's house, with cousins and siblings and other relatives seeking refuge from alcohol, abuse or the law. Ditto shifted between experimenting with pushing the limits--such as they were, with little adult oversight--and trying to preserve the small pockets of safety available for her younger relatives. High school found her coming out and connecting with other gay students, only to see them leave--they were older and graduated first--and Ditto's senior year stretched out ahead of her. Even leaving school and Arkansas behind and rocketing into the music scene came with difficulties that reflected both the realization of her ambitions and the reality that you can't run from your problems. Ultimately, the book is a rags-to-riches tale that mostly rises above cliche and avoids tired tropes. "What I want is the same thing everyone wants," she writes, "the same thing you want--to hurl myself into this world and trust that it will catch me." A frank, forthright memoir that provides a new perspective on a familiar theme.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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