Punk Legend Viv Albertine Wrote a Thriller About Her Own Life
When the former Slits guitarist starting writing 'To Throw Away Unopened,' she set out to write a novel. Six months in, she realized the most gripping story of family turmoil was her own.
Kristian Buus/Getty contributor
“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear + tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”- Louise Bourgeois, diary entry, August 27, 1984
Viv Albertine’s latest book To Throw Away Unopened is a memoir driven by 63 years of anger and rage, as its opening quote from French-American artist Louise Bourgeois’s diary suggests. The book was initially written as a fiction thriller about “this middle-aged woman who commits murder and has very murderous thoughts and is full of anger,” the author said to me in a little room tucked behind the bar of Time Square’s Moxy hotel during the first warm day in April. But about six months into the process of writing, Albertine realized that she was actually writing about herself.
At first, you probably wouldn’t notice Albertine’s rage. Sitting on a couch and wearing a smart brown sweater, the 63-year-old former guitarist of the 1970’s British all-female punk band the Slits spoke softly with an occasion smirk while discussing these “murderous thoughts.” Her tone mimics that of To Throw Away Unopened, the thriller turned family-themed memoir and Albertine’s second book, released earlier this spring. Her first, 2014’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir, leads the reader through her childhood, her time as the guitarist with The Slits, and her life after the band split up in the early 1980’s. Albertine’s latest book picks up later in life where the first left off—after experiencing fertility issues, a battle with cervical cancer, and a divorce. This time around, Albertine zeroes in on her complicated family history structured around the death of her mother Kathleen in 2014.
Each chapter opens with a small taste of the story of Kathleen’s death. Albertine’s mother passed away at 95 on the same evening as the book launch for Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir. Tension builds up between Albertine and her sister Pascale through each snippet and explodes in a nail-biting, bloody crescendo literally over their mother’s deathbed.
To Throw Away Unopened is about a difficult time for the Albertine. The book begins two years before Kathleen’s passing, when the newly divorced Albertine was looking for a new house with her 93-year-old mother by her side. She was taking care of her teenage daughter Vida and rarely spoke to her younger and now estranged sister. Albertine served as her mother’s main caregiver during the last several years of her life, with help from her sister only twice each year. Albertine was growing increasingly tired of putting in the effort for men that was regularly left unreciprocated, including two men she dubbed “Pig” and “Fox.” She later wrote in the book, “And I know for certain that if men lived in a society that expected them to put that amount of work into a date, they wouldn’t bother dating. And now I feel the same. I can’t be arsed.”
The second half of the book reads like a thriller with the information Albertine learns through the diaries of her deceased parents spanning from 1965-1967 while she was working on the book. They were both written to gather evidence for their looming divorce. She found the diary of her mom in an old Aer Lingus flight bag with the words “To Throw Away Unopened” written on its front. “Well, if they read it, it’s their own fault. I left instructions for it to be thrown away,” Albertine wrote, imagining the voice of her mother.
By piecing together her family’s history through the diaries of her parents, Albertine steps back into her childhood and creates a timeline for her personal rage. Through her father Lucien’s diary, she discovered she was taken to a doctor in 1966 when she was 11 years old for having “fits of violence,” he wrote. Although Albertine has no recollection of this, she discovered through medical records that she was prescribed Beplete tablets, a heavy barbiturate, for “screaming fits.” Later on, she read in her mother’s diary about a time when Kathleen was eight months pregnant with her and Lucien threw an ashtray full of cigarette butts at her during an argument. Her mother wrote, “So I stood up, picked up my coffee cup and threw the coffee over him. He sat there absolutely stunned.” Albertine added in the book, “Oh, mum, there I am inside you, and there are my angry beginnings…” Each diary ends in 1967, when Kathleen left Lucien and took their daughters with her.
Albertine genuinely thanks her mother for her anger since it was all that she had while growing up in a working class, matriarchal home. “My mother had pumped me so full of her anger I couldn’t throw it off. She must of thought I needed some kind of fuel to fill me with the courage to kick down doors and gain entry to an interesting life. So anger it was,” she wrote in To Throw Unopened.
Now, Albertine still has that same 1970’s punk attitude. “There comes a time when you got to stop why the hell am I so full of rage and so angry?” she pondered with a hand nestled in her chestnut hair. “People say you mellow as you get older and I really haven’t.”
It’s not quite right to describe Albertine’s writing as pushing boundaries or confessional. “I hate the word confessional. I’m not confessing, I’m just stating the bloody facts,” Albertine explained to me with a sly grin and a laugh. Honesty should not have to be profound but an honest woman often is. Albertine aims to smash this taboo through writing her own truth.
Throughout the book, Albertine peppers in various experiences with men. She cites telling one man that her name was Mrs. Bollocks (“Mrs. Fuck Bollocks if you like”) after he complained about the noise of her seven year old daughter running down the stairs at her grandmother's flat. More recently, she told me about a male radio interviewer who threatened to give away the ending of her second book when she dared to openly disagree with him. The interviewer later revealed that he had a crush on her. “I said, Oh you have not grown up from that boy, have you? I think girls should be taught at school every man who’s nasty to you is scared of you or fancy’s you: every time, 100 percent, without fail. You look back and you realize they were attracted to you or they were scared of your power,” she said with fire in her voice.
As someone who was involved with the punk movement of the 1970’s in a heavily underrated all-female band, her rage should come as no surprise. During our conversation, Albertine said, “I was born in the ‘50’s. It was considered so ugly, like the hysterical woman, and there’s nothing more unfeminine than a woman with anger. I think a lot of girl punks found through the so-called punk movement a way to not be this fucking feminine caricature. That we could be angry, we could swear, we could look ugly, we could wear flat shoes.”
Today, much like her family story, Albertine’s relationship with music is complicated. “I fucking hate it,” she said with a laugh. “The trauma of being four young women in the music industry who have never seen four young women in a band before, being treated like utter shite everywhere we went, locked every hope of and I don’t mean material success but even trying to get your record played on a radio. I didn’t realize until years later how deep the trauma of it had gone actually. I found by three or four years after The Slits I couldn’t even listen to music anymore and it hasn’t gone away. I couldn’t bear to hear it.”
The musician-turned-writer is pleased, though, that women are beginning to get angry again. During this wave of feminism, she hopes they stay angry. “40 years ago I thought we were at the beginning of something,” she explained with noticeable frustration in her voice. “No doubt, the suffragettes thought they were at the beginning of something too. There was an angry wave in the 70’s, a strong feminist angry wave. I remember thinking oh my god, I thought it was the beginning of something and it all went quiet. Fuck. And then it suddenly got angry again about 5 years ago, 10 years ago.” Earlier in our conversation, Albertine casually mentioned, “I hate to say it, but one of the worst things you could be called when I was younger was unfeminine. Do you really think I give a fuck what you think? It’s been such a liberation but I just hope young women don’t take as long as I did at 60. It’s maybe in the last 5 years I’ve let that go. It’s changed the amount of work I do, the kind of work I do, the success of my work because it’s so much more hard hitting. It’s changed how I walk because I wear flat shoes and boots all the time. It’s changed my bank balance in the amount of body hair removal I don’t do.”