The title of Jeanette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, refers to a question put to her by her adoptive mother on the day that she threw her 16-year-old daughter out of the house for falling in love with a girl.
The book chronicles what came before and what came after this cataclysmic event, and is a companion piece to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, written 25 years ago. Where Winterson's debut, a tragic-comic tale of a young girl who is adopted by Pentecostal missionaries in Accrington, offered us a semi-fictionalised version of her childhood, her latest describes the reality. And what a hellish reality it was. Winterson's story is one of abandonment, loneliness, madness and defiance. It is both inspiring and appalling, its cruellest details only made digestible by the restrained elegance of Winterson's prose.
Her mother – referred to throughout as Mrs Winterson – was a depressive who kept a revolver in her duster drawer, and would pray to the Lord in front of her family to "let me die". She hoped that her adopted child would join her on her island of misery, but it wasn't to be. Punishing her daughter's shortcomings, Mrs Winterson would put her in the coal hole or lock her out of the house for the night, to be retrieved from the doorstep along with the milk in the morning.
Mrs Winterson spent her life anticipating the end of the world, and had prepared a "war cupboard" of tinned food that would see her and her family through while they waited for Jesus. Books were outlawed, with the exception of six titles that naturally included the Bible. On discovering her daughter's secret collection of paperbacks, Mrs Winterson took the offending material into the back yard, covered them in paraffin and made a bonfire.
If literature threatened to upset Mrs Winterson's godly regimen, then Jeanette's burgeoning sexuality dropped a bomb on it. When she discovered that her daughter was in a relationship with a school- friend, she called for an exorcism. The ritual was attended by a church elder who beat Jeanette and then offered a corrective to her deviant ways. When he tried to kiss her, she bit his tongue, resulting in "Blood. A lot of blood. Blackout".
There is a certain matter-of-factness in the way that Winterson relates these tales; a dryness and economy in her language that serves to distance her from the actions of her oppressors. You sense that, to an extent, these are now just stories to Winterson, made easier to bear in the frequent retelling.
By contrast, pain seeps from the page when she reflects on the psychological consequences of her adoption, something that it has taken her nearly 50 years to confront. Being adopted is, she says, "like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It's like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can't, and it shouldn't, because something is missing."
The fact of Winterson's adoption is woven into her efforts to understand the subsequent narrative of her life. Self-knowledge is something that few attain but here Winterson comes closer than most. For much of her memoir she places herself on the therapist's couch, cogently joining the dots between her childhood traumas and her adult inadequacies – encouraged, one presumes, by her partner, the writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach.
Winterson talks of sabotaging friendships, and her distrust of those who profess to love her. Keeping a lid on her anger is a constant struggle. "I used to hit my girlfriends until I realised that it was not acceptable," she remarks, bravely risking our judgement. But she is also defiant in the face of accusations of arrogance following her professional success: "For a woman, and a working-class woman, to want to be a writer ... and to believe that you were good enough, that was not arrogance; that was politics."
If Winterson's torment at the hands of her adoptive mother makes for disturbing reading, her recounting of her efforts to find her birth mother in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown is painful in the extreme. As if the anticipation of finding one's true identity isn't enough to contend with, there's the crushing bureaucracy of social services, adoption agencies and judges whose edicts seem unrelated to the needs of real and often traumatised people. On one occasion when she reads a letter denying her access to crucial documents, her bladder gives out.
Winterson does find her mother eventually, though their reunion, while therapeutic, offers no great sense that her struggles are over. Unlike her fiction, Winterson's memoir is at the mercy of real events that rarely reach a neat conclusion. As she acknowledges at the close: "I have no idea what happens next."
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