Nathan Rabin

Nathan Rabin, author of "You Dont Know Me But You Dont Like Me" (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / June 18, 2013)

Nathan Rabin once had two distinct personas.

The first was a snarky master of detachment hoping to score points off people with jokes and jabs. The other was a compassionate champion of underdogs who yearned to connect with his fellow man. That first persona died in a field of Phish fans.

It was May 27, 2011, and Rabin was in Bethel Woods, N.Y. It was the start of his second summer following the fans of Phish — a jam-band known for its hippie, drugged-out followers — and the Insane Clown Posse — a horrorcore rap duo from Detroit that paints their faces with clown makeup and are notorious for their riotous fan base. 

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Rabin was working on a book about those fans that he increasingly believed he would never finish, he was drowning in debt and he was on the verge of emotional collapse.

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat," he writes in "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me," the now-published book. "I trembled with anxiety. I nursed fantasies of collapsing in a fetal ball and waking up weeks later, a new man. I thought about committing myself to a mental institution."

Instead he took some LSD and gave himself over to the music and to the community of fans rocking out in a field in upstate New York.

Rabin then saw his book come into focus - and his snarky side die.

"I finally figured out that this story wasn't about me having superior distance from these people," he said during a recent interview at Logan Square's The Brown Sack. "This is a story about me connecting on a profound emotional level with these people who I wouldn't have imagined I had anything in common with."

Rabin, former head writer for The AV Club, chronicles in his book the more than two years he spent following the fans of Phish and the Insane Clown Posse. In the memoir, he describes the insanity of the Gathering of the Juggalos (Insane Clown Posse fans) and sleepless days spent crisscrossing the United States via Greyhound bus to get to remote stops on Phish's tour. He provides detailed histories of the bands and recounts the people he met (and the drugs he took) along the way.

He also chronicles his breakdown and his eventual diagnosis with bipolar disorder. Most touchingly, he tells the story of falling in love with his wife, a Phish fan who ultimately inspired the book.


Some background: Rabin's mother abandoned him as a toddler. His father, who developed multiple sclerosis and lost his job, was unable to care for him. Rabin would spend time in a mental hospital and a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents.

Rabin, now an Albany Park resident, said he used to lean on comedy to "create detachment from the intense, painful experiences" of his life.

"I grew up thinking that I wasn't good enough and I wasn't worthwhile unless I was really, really funny or really, really smart because (I thought) there was so much at my core that just wasn't good," he said. "I kind of felt like I have to make you laugh or you're just going to be like who is this weirdo."

While his 2009 memoir, "The Big Rewind," was raw and personal, "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me" goes further, Rabin said.

"I feel like it is maybe more embarrassing," he said. "It makes you more vulnerable to write about being in this weird place in your life when you're 35 versus when you're 17 because I feel like everybody can identify with kids, with adolescence, but once you are an adult, you are on your own. You make bad mistakes, it is on you."

At a book signing at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Rabin read a particularly hard-hitting portion of his book that features his darkest, most anxiety-ridden period, but also a moment of transcendence.

After the reading, Rabin tweeted: "Reading aloud from 'You Don't Know Me' I realize how achingly sincere it is. Is it too late to add ironic quotation marks around the book?"