Viv Albertine’s New Memoir Looks At Family Dysfunction, Aging, And Sexism
The devastating ‘To Throw Away Unopened’ is out now
It sounds like something out of a novel or a movie: A first-time author is at a venue getting ready for the start of her book launch party with her teenaged daughter as the audience arrives—but just before the event is about to begin, the author gets a surprise phone call from her sister who says that their 95-year-old mother is on her deathbed and only has 20 minutes left to live. The author and her daughter immediately leave the event and grab a cab, hoping to make it in time to say one last goodbye to their family matriarch.
This actually happened to Viv Albertine, the former guitarist for the '70s British female punk band the Slits, in 2014 when she was promoting her critically acclaimed memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. The incident provided the frame for her compelling new memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, published by Faber & Faber. Less music-focused compared to the first book and definitely more personal, To Throw Away Unopened is a meditation on dysfunctional family relationships drawn from Albertine's own childhood. Her father Lucien was physically and emotionally abusive to his family, and there was a sibling rivalry between Albertine and her younger sister Pascale. Meanwhile, Albertine's unconventional and feminist mother Kathleen encouraged her to be independent and not rely on a man. Years later, a grown-up Albertine discovered the details behind her parents' disintegrating marriage through the diaries they kept, revealing family secrets that are uncomfortable and heartbreaking to read now.
Not only does it delve into the past, but To Throw Away Unopened recounts Albertine's present experiences as a middle-aged woman and single mother following a painful divorce; she also touches on subjects such as feminism, misogyny, and bad dating experiences. Overall, “it's telling the truth about things, especially families and death,” Albertine says about the book. “There's this great weight on you to have a family and get on with your siblings. Of course, everyone knows underneath there's terrible tensions and abuse going on within families. I just think for the sake of everyone, can we start telling the truth about our brothers, sisters and parents, and also about death? Since I've written the book, the people I know who've read it started telling me, 'Well, this happened at my parents' deathbed,' 'My brother did this,' or 'My sister did that'—so many stories. The more people tell the truth about everyday life, the more that will filter through society.”
Frank and brutally honest, To Throw Away Unopened may shatter people's romanticized views about families and relationships. In this interview with NYLON, Albertine talks about the origins of her new book, her mother's profound influence on her, and why she has taken a hiatus on music.
After the success of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., did you think you were going to write another book?
I definitely thought the first book was going to be a one-off. I never thought I'd even write a book, not ever having aspired to be a writer. It's something that never occurred to me—a bit like it never occurred to me to play guitar when I was young. I just thought it was out of my league. Then people started saying to me I got to write all about the Slits and punk. I thought, I couldn't think of anything more boring than that, because I left it behind. I'm not a nostalgic person. I moved on with my life and that was just the past. But when I went back to music in my 50s, then I thought, Now, I could see the shape of a narrative, because it has come to almost full circle: I was back out there against the odds trying to make music. People were saying to me, "You're rubbish, you can't do it, you can't play, you're too old." It was the same sort of stuff I heard the first time around with the Slits. It made it much more an exciting prospect to write a book—not just about punk but about being older, coming back and trying to do it again, and what happened in between and how it shaped me.
The fact that your mother was on her deathbed on the night of your book launch seemed surrealistic in hindsight.
It was completely surreal. I had that awful feeling when you have for one second in your life that everything comes together, and you're a success. And all those times it has happened, something comes along and utterly crushes it within seconds. It's like when I got married, and I was really happy, and then I couldn't conceive [at first] and got cancer six weeks later. And that's what it felt like that night again. It's so weird. If mum is so willful, why would she die tonight? Looking back, I think she let go that night because me, my sister, and my daughter were going to be somewhere else—that she was going to slip off while we were out of the way. I sensed something in her knew that it would all turn nasty and messy with my sister and I together, and she tried to slip off. But it didn't happen.
Was the tension that blew up between you and your sister Pascale on that same night?
The children we were, the resentment we felt as children, the way that we were pitted against each other when we were young—all came to a head that night. It had been burning and bubbling for 50 years. That was what I was trying to explore [in the book]: I wanted to know, “Why did it come to this? Why could we not even hold it in at that most important moment and deal with it later?” If anyone else had my upbringing, my family, my genes, and my situation, they would've done the same. We're all products of our own environment. It's not to be good to be supercilious or think you're better than anyone else because you had a better start [in life].
Having experienced sexism and inequality in her own life, your mother instilled those ideas of feminism into you when you were growing up.
Her influence was so huge. [She was] constantly filling me with, “Never rely on a man,” “What do you need a man for?” And yet society was telling me the opposite, which was also quite confusing: “Get married,” “Settle down,” “You're nothing if you don't have a marriage and children.” I was completely pulled between the two. You can never erase what your parents put into your head, and it gradually got stronger and stronger until now. She made me into a little warrior.
After your parents' deaths, you came across their journals that each of them kept separately as evidence for their divorce proceedings, written at the time when you were young. Your father wrote about how mistreated he felt by rest of the family.
I felt sympathy for him at the time, but I was completely ostracized for feeling that [way] by my mother and sister. When I read his diaries, I recognized everything he said. He overplayed some bits and underplayed other bits, because he was really writing it for the courts, but it was heartbreaking. And I was sort of furious with my mother after I read my father's diaries because she had been so cruel to him, as my sister had. But then I read my mother's diaries, and it put it all back into perspective, as I remembered what a brute he was. The interesting thing that came from it was, no matter how much I delved for the truth, everyone has their own truth about the situation. You can't deny them that.
You had certainly gone through much in your life. Along with your parents and your time in the Slits, you survived cancer, went through a divorce, and raised a daughter by yourself. Those seem like definitions of a survivor.
I never thought of myself as a strong person until I wrote my first book, and people started to say, “You're a survivor, you're such a strong person.” It never ever occurred to me. So another thing I was exploring in this book was what made me that person. For instance, who picked up a guitar in '75, '76 when no girls were picking up guitars? I had no education, no musical talent. What made me this strong, angry, slightly rage-filled woman I am now? That was part of the detective story of the book. It all does come back to my mother.
You talked in the book about the challenges of dating as a middle-aged woman and described some of the bad dates you experienced. You even wrote, “Why is every man I go out with so bonkers?”
Whatever the answer is to that, the result is I've got to stop because it has damaged me for too long. Too much investment has gone into that with so little return. Yet somehow, because of the romantic love myths and societal pressure to be a couple and married, people expect you to keep on investing in this nonsense. I'm free of that, thank god, because all my life I have hankered after romantic love. I don't care what the answer is. I've utterly had it, and praise the Lord [laughs].
Other themes from the new book are feminism and sexism, the latter which you experienced when you confronted a group of men who were talking loudly as you were performing a gig in York, England, in 2010. You stopped mid-performance and threw a full pint glass of beer at them.
If it had been a guy singing or playing, they probably would've listened. They just didn't see me. I didn't exist to them because that's how middle-aged women—and often any aged women—are in situations where mostly men dominate. You can [voice an] opinion in a meeting, and it's not even registered or heard. And yet 10 minutes later, a man will say the same opinion and it would be listened to. That's what that felt like in York. And I had to decide very quickly whether I would do what the Slits used to do and stand there and play on through it—or whether I was going to fucking kick their heads in. I didn't care if it fucked up the gig. I felt it was more important as a piece of performance art to confront them. Anyway, I won.
The timing of the book seems so appropriate during the age of #MeToo. What do you think about this renewed focus on sexual harassment toward women and the protest it has generated?
It's exploding. You get men saying, “Oh my god, it's a witch hunt,” but the thing is, this has been going on for centuries and generations in women's lives. I think it's wonderful that it's being spoken about. I found myself in that position so many times, my daughter will find herself in that position. But unlike me, she will have some history and other people's stories to draw on, and it will help her deal with it better. She's got options now because women are talking about it. But also having lived to this age, I thought when I was in the '70s that feminism was well on its way—we were like the second wave. I couldn't believe the next 30 years that went by, it felt like no gains being made, no voices heard. So I'm glad that it's flared up again, but I also know it will die down again and be smothered—it's like one step forward, two steps back.
Are you still focused on making music?
Well, never say never, but I'm totally finished with it at the moment. I'm into writing now, and that's that. Music just doesn't do it for me anymore. It's a bit like romance—I invested so much. Music was like my religion, it saved me when I was young. I believed all the words in songs. I looked up to musicians because I had no one else to look up to... but then gradually getting into the industry, meeting them and finding out a bunch of them were creeps. Plus the treatment that the Slits got throughout the time we were in the industry—it still exhausts me to even think of it. And thank god, there was four of us because we couldn't have done it otherwise. Although I'm incredibly proud of what we did, the price we paid wasn't worth it.
After all you've been through, do you feel that you have mellowed? Or do still consider yourself a rebel?
No, I haven't mellowed, I'm afraid. I don't see that happening. My mother didn't really mellow either. She said to me, “Viv, you've got to fight until the last moment of your life.” And I said, “Oh mum, really?” And she said yes. Because she was still being moved around the ward, or put next to someone horrible, or this consultant wanted to do innovative tests on her. You have to keep saying no, and insist on being treated like a fucking person instead of a number or a little old lady. That was one of her last comments: You got to fight until your dying breath.
As you pointed out in the book, you lived your mother's un-lived life.
What made me so unusual, especially for the times, was her encouragement to do that. If you [had] a parent saying, “Go out there, you do that!” “You wear those crazy clothes!” “You go and play guitar!”—if you got a parent encouraging that all the time, it could only make you bold. Whereas all girls practically at that time would be brought up to be careful: “Don't do this, don't do that.” As I said, my mum indoctrinated me to be her little warrior, a risk-taker. Thank god she did, because I had no other way to make something out of my life.
To Throw Away Unopened is available for purchase May 8.