Skip to main content

Thoughtful Documentary Brings Viewers 'Inside' The Mind Of Robin Williams

A new HBO documentary explores great work — and complicated private life — of the late actor and comedian. Critic David Bianculli says Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind is best when it gets serious.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on July 16, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 16, 2018: Interview with Viv Albertine; Review of the Robin Williams Documentary.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the first women bands to play punk and break into that world, defying the preconceptions about how women should look and sound, was the British band The Slits. My guest Viv Albertine was the guitarist and lyricist. Their 1979 album "Cut" was in Rolling Stone's list of the 40 greatest punk albums of all time. The Slits were described as, quote, "following Patti Smith in defining punk as feminist implicitly and explicitly. And like their U.K. comrades The Raincoats, they did it not merely by forming an all-women band - itself a radical move - but with music owing little to punk dude dogma," unquote.

Albertine says after the band split up in the '80s, she quit making music and living in squats and tried to stop being an angry young woman. She went to film school and became a TV director. She got married, was diagnosed with cancer three months after their daughter was born and nearly died. Now she's divorced. Her daughter is in college. And Albertine has become a writer - a really good one. Her first memoir, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." was published in 2014. Her new memoir is titled "To Throw Away Unopened."

Viv Albertine, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you have two great memoirs. I'm going to ask you to start with a reading from the first one, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys."

VIV ALBERTINE: Yeah. (Reading) I studied record covers for the names of girlfriends and wives. That's how I connected girls to the world I wanted to be in. I scanned the whole of the thank yous and the lyrics looking for girls' names, especially if I fancied the musician. What are these girls like who go out with poets and singers? What have they got that I haven't?

(Reading) I read the book "Groupie" by Jenny Fabian, and I'm ashamed to say that I thought it sounded OK being a groupie. But I knew I wasn't witty, worldly or beautiful enough to even be that. The only other way left for a girl to get into rock 'n' roll was to be a backing singer, and I couldn't sing. Every cell in my body was steeped in music, but it never occurred to me that I could be in a band - not in a million years.

GROSS: Why not? Why didn't it occur to you that you could be in a band?

ALBERTINE: It wasn't part of our society. I mean, you know, obviously, there's no Internet, no way to sort of hear or see of a young woman somewhere in the world who might play an electric guitar. So if it didn't make its way to my little, you know, apartment with my family in North London, you know, some other way, I never heard of anyone - any female playing guitar. Eventually I heard of Suzi Quatro and Fanny and then The Runaways.

But because I read the music press so avidly, I was aware of how constructed they were by male managers. So even they didn't really tweak in my brain a little part of me that let me think I could do that. They were American. They were, you know, exotic. They were put-together. They were beautiful. And, you know, a man was in charge.

GROSS: So getting back to the reading that you did, when you studied record covers looking for the names of girlfriends and wives, was that your goal, to become the girlfriend or wife of a musician?

ALBERTINE: Sadly, it was my goal to become a girlfriend or wife of a musician. I honestly couldn't conceive of any other way of being amongst creative musical people, men, because I didn't know women could be part of that group. So, you know, it's sad looking back. But I'm just so glad that I with other people formed something that was then later called punk where there was a door for young women.

And of course, the young women, especially us, The Slits, who were drawn to being in a band, couldn't play because we'd never had role models and never occurred to us to sit in our bedrooms playing electric guitar. And actually, that turned out to be a real bonus, I think, because the music The Slits made was so intuitive and self-taught. There's such a sort of authenticity and a truthfulness to it.

We weren't attempting to copy boys' music. We were very deliberately not playing 12-bar structures, blues structures which, you know, rock musicians had turned into such cliche - and normal chord progressions. We tried to literally go inside our bodies and listen to the rhythms within ourselves and take the normal words we used every day in our normal thoughts, which girls hadn't written about before.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a track from The Slits' first album? And this is a song that you initiated, that you brought to the band. And then the members of the band expanded the song. And it's called "So Tough." So I'm going to play the 2009 remastered version - I think it's from 2009 - of the song because it sounds clearer. And the original version of this was recorded in the late '70s. So here's The Slits' "So Tough."


THE SLITS: (Singing) Don't take it serious. You can't take anymore now. You're getting weak. Don't stop playing hide-and-seek. Why do you think he got like that? Don't think about it much 'cause it's just a rut. You had fun experience. Nothing he does ever make sense. He is only curious. Don't take it serious. Don't take it serious. Don't take it serious. They say you're acting like a star. They say not everything's wunderbar. You want money, girls, urgently. Too much, too soon, you wait and see. You hang around her 'cause she's a good mate.

GROSS: That's The Slits performing "So Tough," my guest Viv Albertine on guitar. And she's written two great memoirs. The first one about her early years and getting into music is called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." And the new one which picks up after that - way after that, actually - covers a lot of her life. But she's writing it from the vantage point of looking back on her life from ages 59 and 60. And that one's called "To Throw Away Unopened."

So what was it like to actually be onstage with The Slits? You wanted for so long to be in music, to have the power of, like, being the guitarist onstage. Did it feel like you wanted it to feel?

ALBERTINE: Well, don't forget, I hadn't wanted it for so long. You know...

GROSS: Well, that's true. You didn't think you were capable of doing it. That's right. That's right.

ALBERTINE: No. I didn't think girls did that. So I hadn't yearned - I'd yearned to be amongst musicians and be part of an artistic circle. So within sort of moments of me having the thought that I can pick up a guitar, which is - came to me when I saw the Sex Pistols play live in about '76. The next day, I was going out to buy one. So I was, you know, very aware of breaking down the sort of tropes of being a musician and wanting to go against them, not wanting to fall into old, male habits. But at the same time, I didn't know what to replace it with. So The Slits took a lot of time out of our rehearsal periods, which were in old, squat, sort of broken-down houses around London, talking about, how should we stand? What position should we put our legs in? Does it look odd to have my skirt this short with a guitar, or should I have it a bit longer so it sticks out the bottom?

You know, people say, oh, why haven't women done this more or that more? But it takes so much longer to get to the stage where a man is because all the bands in punk that I knew or were beginning to form had all spent years and years practicing with a hairbrush in front of a mirror, with a tennis racket, you know, looking at pictures of other guys they wanted to be. They skipped all that. We could have skipped it if we just copied them. And girl bands still do just copy the way men move onstage. To me, that is so backwards, so unradical.

So we took a lot of time thinking about how we were going to stand, what we would wear to make the proportions of the guitar and the dress look good or look crazy - we didn't care either way - thinking about the chord progressions we'd use, the timbre of voice we sang in because most girls at that time and women, unless they were sort of Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield, someone really amazing, sang in high, breathy, girly voices - you know, the pop singers. We didn't want to sing in those voices.

I used to say to the girls, sing in the same register of voice that you would use if you were shouting across a playground at school to someone right on the other side of the playground. And it's not that different to the register of a male voice.

GROSS: It seems like you consciously decided not to sexualize yourselves onstage, to dress, you know, in clothes that would be considered, like, really sexy and arousing.

ALBERTINE: Well, the most wonderful and refreshing thing about what we conjured up between us and between Vivienne Westwood or Malcolm McLaren and the other young girls and boys who hung out at the shop was that we weren't going to try and be this constructed ideal of femininity - or masculinity, come to that - that had been put upon us for not just decades but centuries, you know, to be sort of tittering, sort of giggling, smiley, appeasing, you know, young women who wore clothes to emphasize our figures and attract male attention, the male gaze.

We absolutely, no, weren't going to do that. And therefore, the clothes we wore were, again, very considered but also lots of humor in it. So we would jumble up something like, you know, S&M dog collars with rubber stockings mixed with a little girl's tutu mixed with men's construction boots you'd wear on a construction site, hair matted, black eye makeup. It was all thrown together, all parodying all the clothes and the symbols you were supposed to wear as a woman and then mix in things that weren't meant to go with it at all.

We just stopped people in their tracks as they walked down the road. They couldn't believe it. A lot of the response from men - straight men especially - in the streets was if you're not going to look like a woman and play the game and act like a woman as we've prescribed, we're not going to treat you as women. And we're going to beat the hell out of you, abuse you, spit at you. We were assaulted everywhere we went. We had to go everywhere in a band four astride, sleep on the floor of each other's flats at night otherwise, we wouldn't - we're not safe on the streets. I mean, our singer, who was 14, 15 when we first got together, was stabbed twice in front of me by men, stabbed for looking like she looked.

GROSS: What did this do to your feelings about men?

ALBERTINE: Well, I was raised to have very, very little respect for men by my mother. That was before I had a say in, you know, how I was raised. She did indoctrinate me against men - well, against patriarchy, to be fair.

GROSS: And against your father, who left you both when...

ALBERTINE: And against - yeah...

GROSS: ...You were a child...


GROSS: ...And abused - beat you with a belt and abused your mother, too.

ALBERTINE: Yeah. So she was not cool with men and not for no reason. She had not only been stymied in her work - you know, put down and not promoted, et cetera, et cetera - not even got jobs. I mean, after the war - I was born nine years after the war - you couldn't get a job if you were married. I mean, women used to take off their wedding rings and have to pretend they weren't married to even get any little job. It was part of a government drive to make sure men coming back from the war had work.

I mean, it made sense, but women had tasted freedom because they'd work during the war - you know, building the planes, doing the rivets, the - you know, the whatever. And then it had been taken away from them. So, you know, there were many resentments in women of my mother's generation, and I think they brought up their daughters to be quite militant and to carry the resentment of their mother's generation within them. And I think that's why we had such a strong feminist surge amongst my age group.

GROSS: People would tell you, like, you've got no talent. You can't play guitar. And in fact - I mean, you picked up a guitar at the age of 22. You'd never even touched a guitar or studied any form of music before. You taught yourself. It's not like you'd become, you know, a technical guitar wizard. So, like, your abilities on guitar were, in fact, limited. Your passion knew no bounds. So when you were insulted for lacking talent and not knowing how to play, did that hurt you? How did you respond to it?

ALBERTINE: It didn't hurt me for one reason, and that's because there were a group of us who thought that we knew more than the people saying it. We knew there were people - you know, classical music school - who could play properly and play better than us. We knew there were songwriters who'd been going for years - who could, you know, roll out a song at the drop of a hat. But we knew that amongst us, we were doing and saying something that hadn't been done and said before. And between us, we gave each other the sort of impetus and the confidence to shut out that noise, take no notice of it, deride it, even. We thought, you fools. You are so behind the times. You know, I had friends who went to classical music school who couldn't write a song. They were so crippled by their own knowledge of great music that they were hampered. And they would sit and watch me bang a song together in an hour - a good song.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your life. If you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine, who first became known as a member of the girl punk rock band The Slits. And that was in the late '70s. She's written two memoirs, and her new one has just been published. It's called "To Throw Away Unopened." Her first one was called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine. Who became known in the late '70s as a member of the band The Slits, one of the very first punk bands of women musicians. And now she's become known as a great writer. She has two memoirs. The first is called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." The second is written from her perspective of the second half of her life from the vantage point of being 59 and 60, and that new one is called "To Throw Away Unopened."

So you mentioned, you know, the lead singer in The Slits was 15. And you write in the book that, like, she was a virgin when you started to play. She hadn't had boyfriends. And what did she know about the kind of life that you were supposed to be singing about onstage? And also, because she was the singer, she became, like, the spokesperson for the group. So what was it like to be in a band fronted by a 15-year-old? And how old were you?

ALBERTINE: So I was seven years older than her, so I can't remember. That made me 22 - 21 or 22 or something. But Ari, the singer, was 15. The thing is she was such an extraordinary person even at that age. I think she probably had a personality disorder. And I think possibly most people in punk did have some sort of personality disorders, which were not recognized at that time. There were no names for ADHD or Asperger's or even autism. I never heard those words. So you would just be considered annoying and troublesome. But we found an outlet for it through music, through the band. But what was good for me about Ari being 15 - and I'm not worldly wise at all - was that I could sort of through her become the spokesperson because I wrote the lyrics. But on the other hand, she was an extraordinarily natural musician who had a fantastic ear like so many people on the spectrum do have, so - and she, being younger, was happy for me to be the lyricist.

GROSS: So you said that you think a lot of people in punk had a personality disorder. What leads you to that conclusion?

ALBERTINE: Well, as I was writing the second book it sort of occurred to me literally as I was typing that none of The Slits had a father. And I don't think we could have been - I know we couldn't have been those wild, wildly dressed, crazy, opinionated, noisy, going-against-the-grain girls who drew such violence towards us from ordinary men if we'd had fathers at home because even fathers we'd loved, let alone the sort of authoritarian father I had, for instance - because they wouldn't have allowed it. They would have crushed it. And if you'd loved your father very much, you would have wanted to please him because that was the sort of society we were in at the time.

You know, if you were a daddy's girl and loved your daddy, you'd want to please him and appease him. So you would have worn things that made him pleased and proud of you, and you would have done things at school that would have made him pleased and proud. And if you had an authoritarian bully like I had, you would have been frightened, and you would have been locked in that home. And you wouldn't have got out that way. So it was just extraordinary as I was typing to have the words come out of my fingers - the realization that not one of us had a father at home.

GROSS: But that's not a personality disorder.

ALBERTINE: No, that's not a personality disorder, but we all came from broken homes and, you know, those are the sort of things that start making unstable children and unstable young people. You know, we had violent homes. We had very neglectful parents, or we had, you know, bullying. And that's part of what allowed us to rebel against such a very strict society because often it is people who can think outside of that, and often it's because you have - you're on the spectrum that you can think outside what's being pushed into your brain and, you know, what you're being sort of considered is normal to do. So I think we couldn't have been those people without being on some sort of spectrum, most of us and - all of us, even, I'd say.

GROSS: Well, in your new memoir, you come to the conclusion that you're probably on the autism spectrum. What led you to that conclusion?

ALBERTINE: Oh, well, reading much more about it, having learned about the spectrum and the word, you know, which didn't come - I don't even know if even in the 1980s I'd - beginning to hear about spectrums and the autistic spectrum, et cetera, and then sort of looking at my father who absolutely 100 percent was autistic. And my mother I think was on the spectrum and my sister. And, you know - and actually it's the way I sort of am now that's made me believe that, well, if all my family were and - you know, I did go for quite a long time thinking I was the only normal one in the family like Marilyn in "The Munsters"...


ALBERTINE: ...Who's - thinks she's normal where everyone else is sort of a monster. But I've actually come to think I'm not Marilyn. I'm not the normal one. I am also on the spectrum because, yeah, it's just the normal things, you know - finding social life very difficult, thinking sort of differently to other people, not being able to bear authority. There's a whole list, you know, that's led me to believe I'm on the spectrum. And it is a kind of relief to realize I don't have to keep trying so desperately hard to fit in anymore, I can accept who I am. I mean, it's come late in life. I'm over 60 now. But it's sort of made sense of things. But without it, I wouldn't have been able to transgress like I did.

GROSS: My guest is Viv Albertine, who was the guitarist and lyricist in the all-women British punk band The Slits. Her new memoir is called "To Throw Away Unopened." Albertine is single now, and after a break, we'll talk about why she wants to stay that way. And David Bianculli will review a documentary about Robin Williams that premieres on HBO tonight. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE SLITS: (Singing) Typical girls get upset too quickly. Typical girls can't control themselves. Typical girls...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Viv Albertine, who was the guitarist and lyricist in the British band The Slits. It was one of the first punk bands of women musicians, and they defied preconceptions of how women should look and sound. The band split up in the early '80s. Albertine became a TV director. Now she's a writer. Her first memoir was called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Boys, Boys, Boys, Music, Music, Music." Her new memoir, called "To Throw Away Unopened," reflects on the anger of her punk days and her emotional life since then. She's been through a lot since her days in The Slits. She's in her early 60s now. She was diagnosed with cancer three months after her daughter was born and nearly died and became a single mother after her divorce.

You were married for a bunch of years. I forget how many. You had a daughter.

ALBERTINE: Seventeen.

GROSS: Seventeen years - you had a daughter together, divorced when she was 8. At some point, your husband said to you, either give up music, or it's over; I'm leaving. And considering the feminist statements you were making with your music and with your life, what was it like to hear that from your husband, and when was this in terms of the place that music had in your life. Was this, like, long after The Slits?

ALBERTINE: So when my husband and I got together, I had - I was a filmmaker then or a director. He liked that very much about me. I was earning good money. He was 10 years younger than me. He'd been a fan of The Slits, had a poster of us on the wall. So he was kind of excited he was going out with - dating, you know, the guitarist from The Slits. But at the same time, he was very pleased I'd put it behind me. I didn't know why until 20 years later when I picked up the guitar again and said I'm going to start playing again and realized that he was frightened of losing me. There was this whole concoction in his head of a young woman or a woman onstage is just attracting male glances, you know, wants to sleep with them or have loads of groupies. For someone younger than me and an illustrator and a - you know, a surfer, it was very, very reactionary, and I was incredibly shocked.

And you never know a person, you know? We'd been through my cancer together. We'd been through years and years of infertility. We'd had a daughter. We'd stood up to all those things, but me picking up a Telecaster broke down our marriage, and that's what made me walk away from the marriage. And I was very sorry to do that because I wanted my daughter to have a steady family, the one I didn't have. So it was not an easy decision.

GROSS: You know, you write in your new memoir, "To Throw Away Unopened," that you'd been married, divorced, in between had seven years of infertility treatments, 13 operations, 11 IVF attempts, one miscarriage, one ectopic pregnancy, a gallbladder removed, cancer, which was diagnosed three months after giving birth to your daughter. Did all this give you a feeling of vulnerability about yourself and about things that could go wrong with your body after presenting this kind of angry, invulnerable image onstage when you were younger?

ALBERTINE: Yeah. The image onstage was angry and invulnerable, and I kept that with me even though I had those years of feeling lost after the band broke up. But when I got hit with all that physical illness and problems which went on for about 10 years, it did make me feel scared. I'd never felt scared before. My mother brought me up to be very reckless. And then suddenly my mortality was staring me in the face so literally that I was lying in bed at night thinking, you know, I'm probably going to die. I've got a 6-month-old baby. They're saying it's not looking good.

And, you know, to face the specter of death on your own at night - there's no other feeling like it. It's the most alone you'll ever feel. And people say after cancer, you know, you come back fighting, and you come back grabbing every moment as if, you know, you've got no tomorrow, and it gives you this courage. It didn't do that to me maybe because I'd lived those years already feeling that. I suddenly felt all my courage taken away from me. And it probably took a good 10 years to gradually build it back up, and I wasn't the same person. I built a different person - a more circumspect, a more compassionate person but certainly not the daredevil I was before.

GROSS: What happened to all the anger that you had?

ALBERTINE: That remained (laughter). And so that to me was the thread of the second book. Why has this middle-aged woman - so full of anger? Why am I so full of anger?

GROSS: So it's interesting. Initially as a young woman, you dealt with your anger through punk rock and expressing it through the music. It was a real in-your-face kind of music. And now you're expressing your anger, and its derivation in your writing - two really different ways of expressing it 'cause you're writing; you're doing it quietly when you're alone, and there is no audience.

ALBERTINE: Yes, and I love that. I mean, I love that it's just me and the page at the kitchen table, and I love this directness of just writing. And I really like the long form of it as well, whereas with songwriting, it's three-minute bursts. And they repeat every minute, and they have to rhyme. And I haven't got brilliant health anymore. I'm not terrible. I'm OK. But it suits me better to be able to work not in collaboration. I mean, I'm not going to apologize for it. I love not collaborating. Is exhausting and frustrating, and it waters down a project.

GROSS: Well, a lot of your new memoir, "To Throw Away Unopened," is about your relationship with your mother, which was a very complex relationship. You were very close also. And I'm going to ask you to read a section that's titled "Do Not Resuscitate," and this is about what you were thinking as your mother was dying.

ALBERTINE: (Reading) I never asked Mom what she was thinking during her last few months in hospital. I didn't want to stir up thoughts of death in her, not when it was so imminent, in case she was frightened. We'd talked about her dying in the past, but when the looks between us signaled that death was getting close, I didn't want to appear too interested in the actual process and treat her like a specimen to be analyzed. But what was she thinking? I was surprised that she kept ordering books from the hospital's mobile library. Why did she still want to read and increase her knowledge? She only had a few days left as far as she knew. What did she care about the Second World War or the history of slavery in the Southern USA? Although I've got 30 years left if I'm lucky, and the thing I most look forward to is all the books I can read in that time.

GROSS: I think it's so interesting that your mother was still reading...


GROSS: ...At the very end of her life. And I think it's interesting that you wanted to know why. Why did she still want to learn? It's a very existential question, I mean, because we're all going to die (laughter). Do you know what I mean? It's...

ALBERTINE: We're all going to - yeah.

GROSS: So at what point does - do things like that lose their meaning, if ever? Is there anything else that you want to say about that? I think it's just such an interesting thing to...


GROSS: ...To think about.

ALBERTINE: It was just so extraordinary to watch her because she loved the radio and listened to the radio. And I would have thought naturally you could still lie in bed and listen to the radio as you passed. But to keep soaking up knowledge - because where were you going to take that knowledge? There was nowhere - you know, she was still putting in her brain, knowing she had hours or days left, and where was she going to take that knowledge about slavery or the Second World War? It's still mind-boggling to me.

GROSS: Do you have - you know, in that passage, you say that you didn't want to actually ask her about the process of dying even though you really wanted to know what she was experiencing 'cause you didn't want to scare her or turn her into, like, an anthropology project, a specimen. Do you think you did the right thing? Do you have any regrets about not having talked to her about it?

ALBERTINE: No, I don't. I mean, I think it was sensitive. There's plenty I do regret that I didn't say to her more, I should have said to her. They always say, say everything. I wish I'd thanked her more. At one point, she said to me, what do you remember about all the things I've told you, all the advice I've given you? And she wanted me to tell her back, you know, all the things she told me. My mind went blank - absolutely blank. I just stared at her open-mouthed. I had nothing. You know, so there are moments I regret but not that one. I'm glad I didn't probe too much into what it felt like to die. I mean, you know, she was my mom and my best friend, and there's only so far you can take that.

GROSS: My guest is Viv Albertine. She was the guitarist and lyricist in the all-women British punk band The Slits. Her new memoir is called "To Throw Away Unopened." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine. She was the guitarist and lyricist for the all-women British punk band The Slits. Now she's a writer and has just written her second memoir called "To Throw Away Unopened." Albertine is in her 60s now. When we left off, we were talking about her mother's death.

After her death, you found one of her airline bags that she'd saved on which she'd written to throw away unopened, which of course became the title of your new memoir. How did you decide whether to open that bag or throw it away as directed?

ALBERTINE: There was absolutely no decision. Of course I was going to open that bag.


ALBERTINE: And I've spoken to lots of people and said if you had found a parent's bag and it said to throw away unopened on it - is it just me, or would you have opened it? And every one of them, who are not as rebellious as me, have also said, of course we'd open it. My mother knew I would open that bag. She knew me. She knew how inquisitive I am - that I don't do what I'm told. It was a provocation, and I think - in a way - she did that to absolve herself of responsibility for what was inside the bag - because in the ether, she could always call back to me, I told you not to open it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ALBERTINE: But of course I did.

GROSS: What was in the bag?

ALBERTINE: In it was diaries of the last two years of her marriage because in those days, you kept a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of every moment of your day when you were getting divorced - because a divorce wasn't easy to come by and that became part of the court process. And it was very painful to read because of course I recognized it. I was about 11 years old at the time, and it was very fraught and very violent and emotionally violent. And my mother was actually - even though I didn't really realize it at the time - not consciously - she was incredibly cruel to me particularly and more than my younger sister. And that was incredibly painful. But it made sense of the fact that from the moment my mother died, I didn't feel grief. I felt fury with her. And it's as if your body stores emotions that you can't consciously cope with, and they came flooding out and overwhelmed me - this anger and fury with my mother. And I didn't know where it had come from.

GROSS: How many years ago did she die?


GROSS: How do you feel about her now?

ALBERTINE: Well, because I delved like a detective through her past papers - through her life, through the environment, through the divorce laws, through her secrets - I've completely pieced together what made her that person - what made her react like that to me at that time. It makes perfect sense. It doesn't mean it hasn't had its effect, but there's certainly no anger left towards my mother, my father and my sister, you know, because of writing the book.

GROSS: The book ends with you deciding that you're going to burn your mother's diaries that were in that bag that was marked to throw away unopened because you didn't want to leave your daughter with them. Did you actually follow through on that and burn them?

ALBERTINE: No. I can't do it. It's terrible. And on top of that, the two books I've written - it's me, in a way, leaving two more bombs for my daughter. And she can't...

GROSS: Yeah, I was thinking that, too (laughter).

ALBERTINE: She can't read the books. She finds them too upsetting. She's tried a couple of paragraphs of each one, and it's ended up in tears. So, you know, me thinking, I'll be the bigger person. I'm going to throw away my mother's and father's diaries. First of all, I haven't done that. And secondly, I've left two more. So yeah - not good.

GROSS: You write about the skepticism with which you now enter into relationships with men now that you're in your 60s and the different considerations you have now entering into a relationship than you did when you were younger. Can you talk a little bit about those differences, including what the image of growing old together meant to you when you were young and what that means to you now in your 60s?

ALBERTINE: Well, the thing is I don't intend to enter into any more relationships. I absolutely have had it. And I'm pleased and feel privileged to be in that situation because I'm solvent. I have a very interesting life. I have a daughter. I have my imagination. I have friends. I - in no way I'm going to louse that up with some idiot man, frankly. They drag you down. I'm talking about my generation of men, OK? I'm sure out there, there are some good ones. And I say in the book, either I can't pick a good one, or there aren't any around. Either way, I'm out. And I really think it's a complete and utter con. I feel sorry for girls getting caught up in it and still thinking they have to define themselves and their success by being in a relationship - straight women, straight girls - by being in a heterosexual relationship or being in any relationship as if that's in any way a mark of what kind of successful human being you are.

And in the last eight years, I've written two books, made two records. I've moved house four times. I've bought and sold a couple of properties all single. And that is because my energy is just pulsing through me. It's not distracted down, wasteful roots - honestly, a utter waste of energy. And I know I sound a bit born again about it, but it is absolutely not in any way an asset for a woman or a girl to pursue that route. Amen.


GROSS: I understand what you're saying, but I have to say, not all relationships are bad, and there are some really good relationships out there.

ALBERTINE: Well, you can imagine at my age...

GROSS: And it can be - it can affect the - like, a very fulfilling thing. I totally respect your point of view.

ALBERTINE: I disagree.

GROSS: OK. All right (laughter).

ALBERTINE: I'll just say for my age group - and I know a lot of people in relationships. I look at everyone, and I think about the woman, especially - poor you. You are blinkered. You don't really realize how shuttered you have been, how compromised you have been in your one go on Earth by desperately hanging on to that relationship. I don't know one that I am envious of, and you can imagine how many I know of. So...

GROSS: Are you - is this categorically heterosexual relationships? You're including lesbian and gay relationships in that?

ALBERTINE: It's categorically heterosexual because I think lesbian and gays are redefining what makes a relationship, and it's more interesting.

GROSS: Do you still think of yourself as heterosexual?

ALBERTINE: No. I think of myself as asexual, actually, and I think I possibly always have been, which is someone who actually is - hasn't got very much of a sex drive. And it wasn't really allowed when I was young to be that, and it's lovely to have a word for it, actually.

GROSS: Your first book - your first memoir starts with a chapter about why you've never masturbated.

ALBERTINE: I know. I never had any desire to masturbate again. You know, I was considered a freak. But, again, I think that's what's so good about young people now talking about gender fluidity and gender identity - that you're not considered a freak even amongst your friends for, you know, not having that kind of sex drive. And, in fact, you know, I dated a lot, and I've had a lot of boyfriends and a lot of, you know, men friends or whatever. I was always trying to find out what it is about them I could learn so I could have more of a life like a man. It wasn't really about a communion of, you know, emotions. And I put that a lot down to how I was brought up.

GROSS: So since your music in The Slits was in part a way of expressing your anger and your new memoir is in part about trying to understand the source of your anger, how it's affected your life, how you've dealt with it over the years, how you deal with it now, what did you try to teach your daughter about how to deal with anger?

ALBERTINE: Well, the interesting thing is, my daughter doesn't have that anger. She has a different personality to me, much more grounded. But also, different times - the fights for her are different. She doesn't have to literally kick down doors - which I have done in the past in my Dr. Marten boots - to get heard. There are other parts of society and the world who do still have to do that - women and men. But for a young white woman in London, it isn't so hard as it was for me, so I don't think she has the same level of anger. She may feel it on behalf of other people, and I think a lot of young people do feel anger on behalf of other people in the world. And I hope that generation, in a way - and I think they will - a lot of them become sort of enablers, to sort of - rather than being the people who jump up onstage and show off, that they'll actually help people less advantaged have a voice or even just step back and let someone else talk and sing and paint whose culture hasn't been heard, you know, in the sort of dominant world.

GROSS: It has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ALBERTINE: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Viv Albertine's new memoir is called "To Throw Away Unopened." After a break, David Bianculli will review a new documentary about Robin Williams that will premiere tonight on HBO. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, HBO presents a biographical documentary called "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind." Our TV critic David Bianculli says it's very funny but gets even better when it turns serious.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is the second time this year HBO has presented a thoughtful, well-researched, intimate documentary biography about a comedian who built a singularly successful comedy career, then died suddenly. The first was Judd Apatow's fabulous inspirational appreciation of Garry Shandling. The new one premiering today is called "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind." It's directed by Marina Zenovich, who is beginning to specialize in biographies of artists who have done great work but have complicated private lives. Her subjects have included Richard Pryor and Roman Polanski and now Robin Williams, whose onstage approach as a stand-up comic, whether he was changing subjects at warp speed or exploring one idea until it was a perfectly polished gem, was a wonder to behold.


ROBIN WILLIAMS: This is Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen. (Impersonating Elmer Fudd, singing) I'm driving in my car...


WILLIAMS: (Impersonating Elmer Fudd, singing) I turn on the radio. I pull you a wittle (ph) closer. You say no.

BIANCULLI: After being diagnosed with what ultimately was identified as an Alzheimer's-like ailment called Lewy body dementia, Williams committed suicide in 2014 at age 63. But "Come Inside My Mind" is more about his life than his death. It explains, sometimes using audiotape of Williams being interviewed, including on FRESH AIR, how and why Robin Williams pursued acting and laughter as a young man, how he got into Juilliard, where he learned from the esteemed John Houseman, how he got his big break playing an alien named Mork on a guest appearance on ABC's "Happy Days" and how his sudden fame on "Mork & Mindy" in the 1970s led to years of excessive drug and alcohol use, how he crossed over from TV actor to movie star scoring with such films as "Good Morning, Vietnam," "The Fisher King" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" and how he teamed with Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg for annual Comic Relief benefits for the homeless.

There are samples from all these phases of his career, and there are outtakes, too - plenty of them, including some very raw comedy. But what's even more interesting are the comments from other very funny comics who drop their guard here and speak very seriously about both the comedy and personality of Robin Williams, like David Letterman, who started as a stand-up about the same time in the same comedy clubs and watched Williams with awe...


DAVID LETTERMAN: In my head, my first sight of him was that he could fly because of the energy. It was like observing an experiment.

BIANCULLI: ...And Steve Martin, who starred with Williams in a stage production of "Waiting For Godot"...


STEVE MARTIN: His character was interestingly hurt. And he played it very vulnerable, as I think he was in life, too. On stage, he was the master and charge and funny and quick. And in life, you know, he wasn't onstage anymore. I just felt a little bit of a - I think he was really comfortable onstage and less comfortable off stage. I always felt him holding himself together.

BIANCULLI: ...And Billy Crystal, who shares and talks about some of the private phone messages his old friend would leave on his answering machine.


BILLY CRYSTAL: Wherever I was, when the phone would ring and I'd look at it and I'd see the 415 area code, I knew it was him. I knew it was going to be something really good.


WILLIAMS: Hello, Mr. Crystal. My name is Sam (ph). I'm calling on behalf of the Syphilis Society. It's a group of us who work to help people with their syphilis. I don't have syphilis myself, but I represent those who do. Thank you. We'll try calling back. (Unintelligible) Thank you.

BIANCULLI: We also hear from some of the people from Robin Williams' private life - his brother, his first wife, his son Zak and even from the son of Garry Marshall, the TV producer who made Williams a star with "Mork & Mindy." The crazy energy described by Letterman, according to Scott Marshall, led to a change in the way live TV sitcoms were filmed.


SCOTT MARSHALL: He would run around the stage, you know? He would run around and do crazy things all the time. And there was, like, union cameramen. He would do something great. My dad would go, did you get that? Did you get that? The cameraman would say, he didn't come by here. You got to capture this. He's a genius. And the cameraman said, if he's such a genius, he can hit his mark. And so my dad said, wow, this is - got to figure this out. The sitcom up until then was always three cameras. So he brought in a fourth camera, kind of a hand-held camera just to follow Robin. And that became the standard. Now every sitcom has four cameras now because of that.

BIANCULLI: When ABC was about to launch "Mork & Mindy" in 1978, it introduced the show's star at TV critics during the ABC portion of the press tour not with a press conference but with this unknown comic performing a mostly ad-libbed standup act. Every critic there - and I was one of them - left that night convinced that whatever might happen to "Mork & Mindy," this Robin Williams guy was a comedy force to be reckoned with. You'll laugh a lot as you watch "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind." But at the end, you'll feel a sense of loss, too, which I suspect are precisely the goals this biography had in mind.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific." He reviewed "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind," premiering tonight on HBO.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Wisconsin went from blue to red. Our guest will be Dan Kaufman, author of "The Fall of Wisconsin," about how a state long known for progressive politics came to embrace a governor who attacked public employee unions and helped send Donald Trump to the White House. It's a story of dark money, gerrymandering and Democratic complacency. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue