‘We Are the Granddaughters of the Witches that You Could Not Burn: A Review of Viv Albertine’s “To Throw Away Unopened”’, by Lisa MacKinney

(Image courtesy of Faber and Faber)

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Viv Albertine, guitarist and founding member of the Slits, has written two memoirs: the first, Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys (2014) established her as a riveting storyteller with a warm, intimate, brutally frank crabs-and-all style. This first book is an extraordinary chronicle told from the coalface of punk in London, but her tales of navigating life as an artist, mother, cancer survivor and inveterate castigator of inadequate men are equally compelling. Throughout, enough snippets emerge of childhood and la famille Albertine to indicate that hers was an impoverished upbringing over which the devastation of World War II cast a long grim shadow.

Most people with interesting lives and the impetus and ability to write a memoir will pen one, channelling all their autobiographical efforts into that single piece of work. In Albertine’s case, a bizarre convergence of events around the launch of her very successful and critically-acclaimed first book ultimately ensured that she would write a second. None of this was a given though: toward the end of Clothes Music Boys, Albertine relates an incident in which her then-manager calls to say he’s found a twenty-three-year-old music journalist (who’s only ever written articles) to ghost-write her book. After being escorted out of Camden Waterstones by security staff for yelling an expletive-laden response down the phone to this proposition, Albertine’s conditioning overtakes her instinct:

I’m scared he might be right. I can’t write. The book will be shit. But I ignore my fears. I feel a fool, I’m sure the answer will be ‘no’ — but I call my new agent and the editor at Faber and ask if they would still be interested if I wrote the book myself. They are. I can’t overemphasise how difficult and embarrassing it was for me to make those calls, but I’m so glad I did.

No bluffing here: this is a fearless punk pioneer unafraid to be insecure and vulnerable and let thousands of strangers know about it. And herein lies one of many truths that surface in both of Albertine’s books: women who appear strong, brutal, fearless creators of high-quality oeuvres are beset by the same fears, insecurities and doubts that you are. They may appear Amazons and on many levels are, but the reality, should you care to see it, is much more complex; so too their vulnerability to manipulative men. And while we’re at it, another truth from the manager-ghost-writer anecdote: a vicious reality of ageing for women is the realisation that others see us as irrelevant and a bit of a nuisance, or worse, don’t see us at all, despite a trail of high-quality accomplishments. There is no warning system for this: you’re just suddenly…invisible. I’ll never forget the first time this happened to me. It was bewildering more than anything because I’d never given a thought to the possibility that my perceived personal currency was dependent on my age (and its trappings). And if totally hot axe-wielding mouthy punk legend Albertine cops this shit, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Early in To Throw Away Unopened, Albertine relates that on the night of the launch for Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, with DJ, booksellers, drinks, panellists all in position and guests arriving, she receives a phone call from her sister Pascale:

I didn’t think it was anything serious. This was the one night I was certain I could relax. Mum knew what writing the book had cost me: three years of trying to find a bit more time, a bit more money, supporting my daughter, negotiating a divorce, moving home four times.

Why aren’t there more female artists?

Fuck off.

But no, Albertine’s ninety-five-year-old mother is turning blue and has twenty minutes to live. Albertine abandons the launch, bundles her teenage daughter into a cab and hightails it to her mother’s care home, where Pascale is already waiting. Thus ensues, over the course of some hours, a slow-motion deathbed showdown between the two sisters of such epic and shocking proportions that it propels Albertine into the deep past on a quest to understand how and why her family is so unutterably dysfunctional. To Throw Away Unopened maps those findings.

Significantly, both of Albertine’s books take their titles from utterances made by her mother Kathleen. The first, a “chanted refrain” that clothes, music and boys were all the young Viviane ever thought about; the second, a cryptic beyond-the-grave instruction written (in Liquid Paper) on the side of an old travel bag containing Kathleen’s diary, which Albertine found when sorting through her mother’s belongings. “To Throw Away Unopened”, knowing that—having vigilantly trained her daughters to question and defy—it would be understood as an invitation to do precisely the opposite. Simultaneously, this neatly absolved Kathleen of responsibility for any consequences.

Around the time To Throw Away Unopened was released in May of 2018, Albertine discussed her new memoir with award-winning writer Jeanette Winterson as part of the Manchester Literary Festival. This was a genius move, as Albertine’s book has much in common with Winterson’s own devastating memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? As well as having cryptic maternal utterances (again!) as titles, both works are attempts by daughters to make sense of extraordinary levels of family dysfunction largely meted out by their mothers in impoverished post-war British households. Although their Pentecostal (Winterson) and feminist (Albertine) mothers could not have been more different, the confusion and anger engendered in their daughters is palpable. It is at times uncontrollable and violent, as Winterson relates:

When I left the infant school in disgrace for burning down the play kitchen, the headmistress, who wore black tweed because she was in mourning for Scotland, told my mother that I was domineering and aggressive.

I was. I beat up the other kids, boys and girls alike, and when I couldn’t understand what was being said to me in a lesson I just left the classroom and bit the teachers if they tried to make me come back.

Albertine too has been grappling with anger for a long time. Much of To Throw Away Unopened navigates a course through this anger: where it came from, why, the various ways that the anger of women is silenced:

All the ugly emotions that should have stayed locked up inside me came slithering out. I could sense all our past resentments and rivalries vying for space, feel them pushing up against me in the little yellow room. Grotesque, thuggish, unforgiving creatures throwing twisted shapes and threatening shadows as they swung from the curtains and flapped around Mum’s head.

At the book’s core is the relationship between Albertine and her mother: from this all others spiral out. On one level this is no great surprise, since Albertine had little contact with her father after he left when she was thirteen. But for Albertine, this is essential context for the formation of the Slits:

It wasn’t just me; none of the Slits had a father. Both Palmolive and Ari’s fathers lived abroad and weren’t part of their lives, and Tessa’s father had died during the early days of the Slits. We dressed outrageously, behaved outrageously, and fought every obstacle that came our way with a zeal that would have been impossible at that time in history if we’d had fathers.

But although Albertine had an ostensibly ‘good’ relationship with her mother, who relentlessly encouraged her daughter’s creative pursuits (“to compensate for the freedom and opportunities she missed out on”) their relationship is revealed over the course of the book to be complex, contradictory and pathological. Structurally, the narrative reflects this, with two concurrent accounts interweaving in a dramatic arc that peaks on the night of her mother’s death. The pacing of these accounts is a triumph of contrast—episodic central narrative against frame-by-frame close-up—employed to powerful and hypnotic effect.

Albertine then found herself in the extraordinary situation of possessing both her parents’ diaries, which each had been keeping in stealth during the final few years of their marriage. This was documentation for divorce proceedings: in the late sixties, as Albertine points out, divorce required proof of adultery or maltreatment and a three-year wait. The diary entries are not easy reading. Albertine does not spare the reader nor herself, but the detail is essential for understanding the complex tangle of psychopathology at play.

The final chapter of Viv Albertine’s first memoir, Clothes, Music, Boys, opens with a quote from Winterson’s autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: “I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line.”

By the time I got to reading To Throw Away Unopened, I had completely forgotten this detail. Aside from its succinct metaphoric articulation of the autobiographical process, there is an inherent understanding that to comprehend the intricacies of your current finish line, you must go back to the blocks and run round that big track. As Winterson further observes:

When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that is the nature of love—its quality—to be unreliable. Children do not find fault with their parents until later. In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.

Reading those diaries and “finding out everything I ever wanted to know about my childhood” (I suspect there’s a very good therapist in there too) has allowed Albertine to reach a truce with the past, understanding and celebrating her anger and its complex origins rather than living in its thrall. To be fair, that all key protagonists and proponents of dysfunctionality are either dead or on the other side of the world is a great help.

Perhaps Albertine’s profoundest observation is that, as painful as it is and as much as she might wish it otherwise, the death of her mother is not unambiguously negative:

I’ve had to rebuild myself many times during my life, after numerous shocks and failures, but Mum was always by my side, helping and advising me. Now she’s dead I can build myself into anyone I want, someone new, if I like.

This completely unsentimental observation that her mother’s death might actually constitute a form of liberation and that this can be embraced is a position that can only be arrived at via a lack of guilt borne of genuine self-knowledge. None of this can happen without looking truth in the eye: few can, but Albertine is one of them. These are the words of someone who is, at last, unshackled from the past and its behavioural incarcerations and ready to bask in a messy peace.

Lisa MacKinney is a musician, historian and writer. She plays guitar and organ in Taipan Tiger Girls, Hospital Pass, Super-Luminum and solo as Mystic Eyes. Her PhD thesis is the first ever book-length study of New York pop group the Shangri-Las. MacKinney writes for Australian classical music magazine Limelight and occasionally for UK music magazine Uncut. She lives and works in Melbourne, Australia.