Wanted/Needed/Loved: Viv Albertine’s Emotional Investigation
Before joining The Slits, I was to going to the Roxy Club and running around loose in the streets. That was when things in the so-called punk scene were at their wildest, and I remember I was on my way to the Roxy, jumping over the turnstile at the underground Tube station so I didn’t have to pay, and thinking I should be keeping note of all this, and then thinking I can’t be bothered, and also if you’re keeping a note of it you’re not living it.
Everything was happening so fast, and there were all of these interesting people, and I was aware that it was an interesting time because we stood out so much visually, mentally, in every way. But I never thought, “How am I going to remember everything?” And I never thought that years later I’d write a book about those times.
I read somewhere that humiliation is the emotion that stays with you the longest—and so I think a lot of what I wrote about in my first book, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir, what I remembered, was my most humiliating moments. I just went with what was lodged in my mind and my body.
When I set out to write my second book, To Throw Away Unopened, I thought I would write a novel about a middle-aged female protagonist because I think there’s not enough of them in books. I thought she’d have murderous thoughts and be full of anger and resentment, and it would be a murder-mystery, a thriller, and I would intertwine that model with non-fiction as I was living in East London and I thought it would be structurally interesting to bring in all of the streets and the people and the architecture of that area.
But as I wrote, I found the real stuff—the nonfiction—was so much more interesting to me as a writer and the novel part was just like doing homework, like, “Oh god, I’ve got to think up something to happen to her just to make the plot move forward.” It felt so contrived, so I gave up on the novel side, and just started focusing on writing about where I lived. But then something sent me in another direction entirely.
Many years ago, both of my parents had kept diaries on the advice of their solicitors, to be used as “evidence” in their coming divorce (in the 60s you had to prove adultery or maltreatment). My father’s diaries had been stashed away in my closet for a few years after his death, and I didn’t read them until right after my mum died.
As I began reading them I thought, “Oh yeah, let’s see how he twisted this or that to try and get custody of my sister and I.” But everything he wrote was very straightforward, and I remembered every single incident. That shocked me because I expected to doubt him, and instead I felt sad and sorry for him. What he wrote was poignant and quite heartbreaking, and although I had been close to my mother, I started to feel angry with her because she treated him so poorly.
But then as I was clearing out my mother’s flat, and sweeping out the top of the wardrobe, I came across an old Aer Lingus flight bag. It was a dark green poverty-stricken looking thing from the 60s that she likely picked up in a charity shop or something. Written on it in my mother’s hand, in Tipp-Ex (which I believe you call “Wite-Out” in the States), were the words: “To Throw Away Unopened.” And inside were her diaries from the same era.
Before she died, my mother had thrown away and shredded a lot of her stuff, and if she had meant for the diaries to be thrown away, she would have done it herself. So I read them, and they gave me so much more of the backstory of my parents’ marriage and lives together. And I remembered everything that happened from her diary as well, and I realized I had been emotionally manipulated quite a lot by my father’s diary. Even though he’d written factually about certain events, he very much put himself in as the victim in the story, and my mother’s diary reminded me of what a cruel man he actually was.
At first I was very angry with my mother for leaving her diaries behind, knowing that I would read them, and confront those difficult memories. I wasn’t so angry with my father because I expected that sort of thing from him. But the other effect reading the diaries had on me, and on the book that I was working on, was that I realized that this fictional middle-aged angry woman that I’d been writing about was me. So I became the detective of my own story, trying to find out where that anger came from.
Through the process of writing the book and searching for the source of my rage, I gained a deeper understanding of not only my anger and my mother’s anger, but my estrangement from my sister, too. I worked out that it’s not her fault or my fault that we’ve fallen out, and how our difficult relationship relates back to our upbringing.
A lot of people who’ve read the book ask me if I’ve made up with her. This is not a Hollywood movie. This is real life. You can love a person, but if it’s not mentally healthy to interact with them, you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. The concept of family is pushed and sold to us so hard, that the pressure to reconcile at any price is overwhelming.
As a writer, I’m aware that all of our family memories are shaky, and even when we set out to document the truth, we shorten things, put them together, and include our point of view but not always other people’s so you can never really get close to the truth. Reading my parents’ diaries helped me to understand my mother’s truth and my father’s truth, and that it’s okay that they’re completely different.
Writing about my upbringing and family has brought me closer to an emotional truth in a way, if not a totally objective recounting of the past.
At the end of the book I said that I intended to burn the diaries so that my daughter, who’s nineteen now, won’t have to inherit them. I think I have preserved enough of them in the book for her to know all she needs to know about her family history. I need to unburden myself of the diaries, too. I’ve worked through the pain, and made something useful and creative out of it.
I’ve channeled my anger. As Louise Bourgeois once put it, “To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.” So maybe due to writing the book, that fictional murderous middle-aged woman isn’t me anymore.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Punk legend Viv Albertine played guitar in the groundbreaking band The Slits, and her debut solo album, The Vermilion Border, was released in 2012. She chronicled her experiences in the music scene and life after The Slits, including marriage, illness, and motherhood, in her first memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., which was shortlisted for the National Book Awards in 2014. Albertine’s just-published memoir, To Throw Away Unopened, is a searing exploration of how family histories are inevitably fragmentary, but can nonetheless bring us closer to a truer and more holistic understanding of ourselves.