To Throw Away Unopened (2018)
Words by Violet Ames
To Throw Away Unopened (2018)
When we think of narrative triumph in the face of adversity, we often turn to the myopic vision of the hero’s journey. Often overlooked are the sort of slow-burning battles that fill our days, containing our hopes and fears. Going off to war can be just as scary as confronting the death of one’s mother or forming a punk band alongside your best mates at a time when girls just didn’t do that. Viv Albertine proves that there is equal parts fear in the former as there is in the latter, and that the best approach is head on, as she illuminates in her 2018 memoir, To Throw Away Unopened.
Being that this is a story spun by the legendary Viv Albertine of The Slits, you can be sure to expect a devil-may-care spit in the face, a spirited and unladylike shout of defiance of these misconceptions. In her retelling of this transitional period of her life, Albertine cues us into the little known secret that true bad girls don’t live-fast-die-young, but rather go kicking and screaming through life, despite the implicit pressure that aging is supposed to render us contrarians, more mellow and unassuming. Maternal and domestic and normal, as it were.
Albertine, like myself and many women, has a fraught relationship with her mother. At times unbearably close, she acts as the ‘golden child’ of the family dynamic. Ever devoted, and a lifelong friend to her mother—she recalls how at the height of her hedonist tendencies during The Slits, she would invite her mother into this seedy world of hers with explicit storytelling and gossip over a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits.
But the namesake and impetus of this text comes from an item that Albertine finds in her mother’s possession: an aged Aer Lingus flight bag, with the words TO THROW AWAY UNOPENED, scrawled in white ink. Ever the rebel, what does Albertine do? She opens and exposes the contents. Inside this unassuming bag are the pages of her late mother’s diaries. This feigned furtiveness, however, is actually an invitation from the grave, taunting Albertine to learn the full truth of their genealogical saga.
The text bounces back between the discoveries found in viewing her mother’s possessions, and surrounding recent events of her life: divorce, moving out of London, raising her daughter, dating and fucking again, as well as the larger picture of grappling with becoming invisible. These ‘ordinary’ transitions are awakened by Albertine’s brilliant insights that still speak to her rebel past. Calming and reassuring, like an older sister, she gives you the lowdown on life in a way that no one actually tells you.
The structure of the novel is at times disjointed, with sections numbered according to a scheme that is not immediately well understood, intermixed with images of the mundane that are reminiscent of the ones you keep in your camera roll. Digitized ephemera, because they seemed important at one time or another. There is a sense of urgency in how it is all displayed, almost as if she is collecting the clues in her quest towards truth. It reminds you of all the archival material and mental notes contained in your notes app. It’s within this documentation of the journey towards discovery that lie nuggets of gold.
The content of the book bounces around at times, shuffling from flashes of Viv’s blue-collar upbringing and speckled with mentions of her largely absent father, the men she has dated, who she was as a child. As well as coping with loneliness, ambivalent feelings towards romantic love and beauty standards, and the way that Albertine finds herself dancing between extremes. Rather than painting a clear cut picture of her mother, Albertine is nudging us towards the experience of this period of her life, like the sort of running inner monologue and conflicting thoughts and beliefs we carry with us. And with that she imbues a threadline of her mother’s lasting influence.