Has there been a more urgent time in recent history to upend preconceived notions of self-identity? The late Genesis Breyer P-Orridge regularly contemplated this question while raging against authoritarian censorship laws. On the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, the artist was living out h/er last days in a hospital with leukemia, writing h/er life story. More than any other project, this new memoir published by Abrams — simply titled Nonbinary — provides h/er candid perspectives on gender, sexuality, art, and love.
P-Orridge’s cultural contributions include coining the term “industrial music” and popularizing nonbinary identity. H/er best-known musical acts, “Throbbing Gristle” (TG) and “Psychic TV,” continue to confound what constitutes “rock” and “pop.” To h/er, the status quo was akin to social suicide.
Nonbinary is a memoir very much concerned with death — the artist’s many near-fatal experiences, the spiritual expiration of h/er birthname, and h/er final year with cancer. P-Orridge writes with an awareness that the end is near, and memories unfurl in Proustian fashion.
The book begins with a seemingly anecdotal story of meeting iconic beat writer William S. Burroughs in London. P-Orridge was interested in the cut-up technique, developed by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, that deconstructs pieces of writing to arrive at new meanings. Like any impressionable 20-year-old, P-Orridge was fascinated that Burroughs was just an ordinary guy nursing a steady whiskey buzz in a dark, desolate apartment.
Early in the memoir, it becomes clear why this experience was so formative: P-Orridge’s own theory of change, guided by the idea that nothing is truly static, was inspired by the cut-up technique. P-Orridge frequently altered and reconceptualized h/er beliefs, relationships with others, and even h/er own body. Nothing was off the table for a smashing and restructuring, especially if it inhibited artistic growth.
P-Orridge was born Neil Andrew Megson to a burgeoning middle-class family in 1950. H/er father served as a motorcycle delivery driver in the British Royal Army and cheated death during the Battle of Dunkirk. The family’s indifference toward P-Orridge led h/er to leave home, drop out of college, and survive on the “dole” — a federal payment for up-and-coming artists. The memoir is very matter-of-fact in detailing how this small incentive granted many British artists with stable early careers.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, P-Orridge squatted in abandoned buildings in Hull and Hackney with a ragtag group of bikers, artists, and punks, putting on controversial performances with COUM Transmissions. For their 1976 Institute of Contemporary Art show, Prostitution, s/he invited mainstream critics to ensure publicity. During the performance, they projected pornographic images of group members who were making commercial adult films at the time, displayed alongside rusted knives and bloodied tampons. A striptease artist gave opening remarks in place of a gallery director, and all socializing took place during a thrashing performance by punk band LSD, which would later become Chelsea and then Generation X. The opening ended with an angry Evening Standard reporter smashing a beer glass over P-Orridge’s head and Queen Elizabeth II subsequently ordering h/er work to be censored for “causing too much embarrassment to the crown.”
The memoir elides overly detailed accounts of the TG years, as much of that period is documented in Simon Ford’s book, Wreckers of Civilisation (titled after a description of the group by Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn). Nonetheless, P-Orridge traces the evolution of COUM to TG via h/er romantic relationship with bandmate Cosey Fanni Tutti. P-Orridge claims their initial goal was to create “anti-music,” tearing apart anything resembling structure to get at something raw and uncharted. S/he recalls channeling the spirit of a troubadour as a vocalist:
Whatever can be in a newspaper or on the TV news and is considered newsworthy and dramatic and sensational enough for them should also be fair game for the lyricist of a song. And part of that message … is just how corrupt and fucked-up human beings really are and what they will and won’t do given the opportunity and the belief that they’ll get away with it.
P-Orridge made several famous friends, and these experiences are surreal to read — from wandering a Nazi memorabilia shop with Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, to whom P-Orridge was one of few confidantes before his suicide, to sitting bedside with dying psychologist Timothy Leary. The memoir also pays tribute to lesser-known cultural figures. S/he cites the Sonic Arts Union and German sound poet Ernst Jandl for inspiring h/er vocal stylings. Magazines like Oz, International Times, and FILE point to underground networks of writers resisting corporate media.
In the mid-’90s, P-Orridge started traveling back and forth between h/er home in Northern California and New York City. While visiting, Terence Sellers introduced h/er to queer nightlife in the East Village, including the Blacklips Performance Cult at the Pyramid Club. Sellers also introduced P-Orridge to Lady Jaye Breyer, a registered nurse and professional dominatrix who would become h/er life partner.
P-Orridge had two daughters, Caresse and Genesse, with ex-wife Paula, but s/he believed that Breyer was h/er greatest love. Jaye and Genesis were virtually inseparable and dressed alike. While living together in Ridgewood, Queens, they developed their “Pandrogyne” project, which fused male and female identity into a third being. Gender was not just a social construct for P-Orridge but a power dynamic solidified over millennia. S/he believed in escaping “linearity” in order to “break” deep-seated hierarchies:
Most animals that we might even think are primitive have most of the same physical characteristics in terms of how their bodies work. They just don’t have the pretension of being concerned with their bodies somehow imposing meaning on their existence … It’s all part of that same deliberate brainwashing that’s been going on for thousands of years to maintain economic, political, and social control … They’re in place because they maintain tension between one community and another, or between one community and the environment.
P-Orridge embraced a principle of striking first — whether it was instigating brawls to win over the Hell’s Angels or assaulting neo-Nazis to express disdain. This evolved into striking while the iron was hot: Breaking up TG at its height, revoking British citizenship, and embracing a nonbinary physique. P-Orridge never succumbed to despair in death, instead speaking triumphantly of good fortune in life. “Ideas ultimately win,” s/he writes, leaving behind a legacy of new meaning.
Nonbinary: A Memoir by Genesis P-Orridge is published by Abrams Press and is available on Bookshop. The book was co-written by Tim Mohr.