In lesser hands, a memoir as heartbreaking as Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? would collapse under the weight of its own intensity. At the center of much of the story is Mrs. Winterson, the author’s domineering adoptive mother, a religious zealot who was “apocalyptic by nature.” For the author, growing up “different” meant not just suffering through the ritual abuse of finding herself but also coming out of the closet in an evangelical Pentecostal household. After the elder Winterson finds a teenage Jeanette in bed with another girl, she organizes a church-led exorcism that ends with sexual abuse at the hands of a fellow parishioner.
But the torment began earlier. Mrs. Winterson – as she is referred to throughout the book – would tell the young Jeanette that the devil had led her to the wrong crib when she adopted her. She punished Jeanette for her shortcomings by locking her in the coal room or outside the house to wait on the doorstep until her father returned from the graveyard shift to let her back in. “My mother never beat me. She waited until my father came home and told him how many strokes and what with … the plastic cane, the belt or just his hand.”
The turbulent first half of the memoir is familiar to anyone who has read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson’s first novel, published in 1985 when she was only 26. It became a bestseller and a beacon in gay culture. Although Oranges closely mirrors parts of Winterson’s own life, the author makes clear in her memoir that what actually occurred during her English childhood was much worse.
But to understand the real story, Winterson knows we must learn more about her mother, who had a repressed attitude toward sex. Mrs. Winterson regularly stayed up most of the night baking cakes so she wouldn’t have to sleep in the same bed as her husband. “I don’t know, and never will, whether she couldn’t have children or whether she just wouldn’t put herself through the necessaries,” Winterson writes.
Before Winterson became aware of or acted on her own sexuality, her subconscious need to find a place for herself as an adopted child was pressing, and helped develop a lifelong curiosity in her that revolved around books and language. For her, the void of love, identity, home and mother were filled by trips to the local library. “Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open – the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often toward an ending no one wants,” she writes.
The few books in her parents’ home included the Bible, which Mrs. Winterson read aloud to the family every night for half an hour. “When she got to her favorite bit, the Book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse, and everyone being exploded and the Devil in the bottomless pit, she gave us all a week off to think about things. Then she started again, Genesis chapter one.”
At home, Winterson was not allowed to read fiction because “the trouble with a book … is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” Mrs. Winterson would say. (She did read Jane Eyre to her daughter but changed the ending so Jane becomes a missionary.)
Winterson gradually acquired books of her own, which she hid under her mattress. One night, however, Mrs. Winterson found the books and went into a rage, throwing them out the window, dousing them in paraffin and then burning them as young Jeanette watched powerlessly. But to say she was powerless underestimates her mental fortitude. ” ‘Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’ ” She’s since written about 20.
Despite the upbringing (or perhaps because of it), Winterson learned to be emotionally resilient and open-minded from an early age. Born in Manchester in 1959 but raised in the working-class northern England industrial town of Accrington, she and her family had no phones, no cars, no indoor toilets and lived in a community where few had job security. Children, including Jeanette, often stood outside the dog-biscuit factory waiting “for sacks of oddments to eat.” She slept in the same room as her parents until she was 14 and finally fled home at 16.
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Winterson demonstrates a defiant stoicism that, ironically, has the effect of spiritual uplift. Following the exorcism, for example, she writes, “I would do whatever they wanted but only on the outside. On the inside I would build another self – one that they couldn’t see. Just like after the burning of the books.”
But Winterson also injects levity and wit into her narrative. She recounts a time when she was forbidden from the local sweets shop, run by two women from town. When Winterson pestered her mother to explain why she was no longer allowed to go to the shop, she was told that the women “dealt in unnatural passions.” “At the time,” writes Winterson, “I assumed this meant they put chemicals in their sweets.”
It’s not obvious whether Mrs. Winterson ever loved her daughter (“I never asked her if she loved me”), but it is clear that her intention to adopt was based more on a perverse need for co-dependence. “I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none).”
Still, the way in which Jeanette describes Mrs. Winterson is not without charitable fondness. She acknowledges that her mother also sought “home,” even if hers was in the form of the Rapture and Jesus. “We were matched in our lost and losing. I had lost the warm safe place, however chaotic, of the first person I loved. I had lost my name and my identity. Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go Home.”
Fast-forward 25 years: The anguish of love and the desire for home and place eventually catch up with the author when, in 2007, a long-term relationship ends, leading to a nervous breakdown, a near-successful suicide attempt and an urgent quest to find her birth mother.
In this second half of the book, Winterson draws lessons from her childhood and challenges former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “there is no such thing as society.” She laments the loss of the post – World War II “understanding that we owed something not only to our flag or to our country, to our children or our families, but to each other. Society. Civilization. Culture.”
It is because of society (in the form of affirmative action that allowed her to attend Oxford University as “the working-class experiment”), civilization (in the form of libraries) and culture (in the form of books and writing) that Winterson is who she is today. The author may continue to wrestle with her demons, but she appears to have made peace with her now-deceased adoptive parents and found a semblance of happiness and normalcy. And in the end, that may be her greatest self-discovery.