Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Memories of mothers lost and regained

Reviewed,Arifa Akbar
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:50

When Jeanette Winterson was 16, her adoptive mother arranged an exorcism after discovering that her daughter was romantically involved with a girl. Her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, dramatised this moment as a failed but harrowing attempt to break her will and restore her to "normality".

This memoir, written more than a quarter of a century later, sets the scene for another kind of psychic exorcism, as Winterson tries to make peace both with Constance Winterson, the "monster" mother of her childhood, and the spectre of the biological mother who gave her away when she was around six weeks old.

There has been a dramatic inversion in the status of the two mothers since the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: the adoptive mother who once loomed so large is now dead and unreachable, while the long-lost biological one, who was thought to be deceased, turns out to be living in Manchester.

Around half of the book retraces familiar ground and may be more shocking for those who happened to miss the great stir that her bold debut caused in 1985. For the initiated, it remains compelling, in fact, perhaps more so when compared to the fictionalised version written by Winterson as a 25-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. After its publication, she also wrote the screenplay for its TV adaptation. Now comes this emotional excavation as a 52-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye.

The specifics of her early abuse is vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for its familiarity. We read of Winterson's shivering incarceration in the coal-hole to which she was regularly banished, her mother's end-of-the-world sermonising and her parting, titular words as she left home, aged 16, when she declared herself happy in love with a girl. "Why be happy," replied her mother, "when you could be normal?"

While "Mrs W" appears no less a fruitcake - she is a fanatical, born-again Pentecostal Christian with a morbid interest in the Apocalypse and a farrago of undiagnosed psychoses - there is great pathos in Winterson's reflections. In one description, she writes: "She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone... Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her." In another passage, she remembers an episode in which Mrs W burned all the books she had bought and hidden under her mattress, and marks it out as the moment which forged the shape of her fiction. As she sees the detritus of burnt fragments of books lying in the yard, she reflects: "It is probably why I write as I do – collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative."

Yet it is when we move past her early years in Lancashire to Winterson's depression, her attempt at suicide, and her journey to track down her biological mother, that the life story becomes less familiar, and most moving. The breakdown that is triggered after the end of a relationship with theatre director, Deborah Warner, and subsequent suicide attempt, is described with lucidity, in calm, even tones: "In February 2008 I tried to end my life," she writes, describing an attempt at gassing herself in a sealed car before realising that her cat was trapped inside with her.

The search for love has been a lifetime's preoccupation, she says. Some lovers are named, others are not. The late literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, on whom The Passion is said to be based, does not get a mention.

She describes the beginnings of her current relationship with the renowned psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach, with whom she thought a romance would not develop, "because Susie was heterosexual and I have given up missionary work with heterosexual women. But something was going on... I had lunch with my friend, the writer Ali Smith. She said, 'Just kiss her.' Susie went to talk to her daughter in New York. Lianna said, 'Just kiss her, Mummy.' So we did." Orbach is portrayed in tender, maternal terms as she accompanies her on the search for her biological mother. Indeed, one senses Orbach's influence in passages on abandonment and the loss of mother love.

The quest to find her mother, Ann, and their first meeting in working-class Manchester, leads to a painful acceptance of the fact that a pre-adoptive identity - and its sense of wholeness - can never be regained. In some ways, this meeting takes her back to Mrs W and the dual role that she occupied as a mother and a non-mother: "I notice that I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster".

If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her.

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