(Vintage, 2012); pbk, £8.99
In the opening pages of her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson makes clear that this is much more than a “re-make” ofOranges Are Not The Only Fruit, her earlier fictionalised account of similar territory. This memoir is much bleaker, darker and, in the end, more redemptive. It is about the importance of love, about what makes us who we are, and about our capacity for healing. The pervasive cruelty and, at times, absurdity of her upbringing, the self-reliance and talents which were (inadvertently) nurtured , and Winterson’s seemingly innate resilience and wry sense of humour provide the framework for illustrating the maxim , “the nearness of the wound to the gift”.
For readers of Oranges, it transpires that the environment in which Winterson was raised was even more bleak, loveless and lonely than that the fictionalised account portrayed – Oranges was “a story I could live with”. Winterson reveals of her Oranges mentor and protector, Testifying Elsie, “I wrote her in because I couldn’t bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend.”“There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.”
With no Elsie, Winterson had to find her own ways to survive the cruelties, dangers and absurdities of, “a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.” She catalogues many traumatic incidents from her childhood – hours of punishment spent in cold solitude on the doorstep or in the coal hole; a three-day attempted exorcism of her lesbianism by the church, and sexual abuse by a church elder; and life in a Mini when she was forced to leave home at 16.
But it’s not all negative. For Mrs. Winterson, as her mother is referred to throughout the memoir, read the King James Bible aloud every night to the young Winterson, sensitising her to the lyricism, language and story-telling which are such hallmarks of her writing. As she states of her adoptive mother, “She was a monster but she was my monster.”
Following her years at Oxford, the memoir fast-forwards to the culmination of the anguish of her adult years – a breakdown and suicide attempt, the death of her adoptive parents, her successful search for her birth mother, and her relationship with Suzie Orbach, the renowned feminist psychotherapist and writer.
There is a multi-textured quality to the memoir, in part transmitted by the juxtaposition of pain with humour, childhood innocence with adult commentary. Winterson writes of the time she went deaf as a child, when Mrs. Winterson concluded that blindness and deafness stem from masturbation – “I thought this was unfair as a lot of people we knew had hearing aids and glasses. In the public library there was an entire large-print section. I noticed it was next to the individual study cubicles. Presumably one thing led to another.” This is a memoir packed with conversations from childhood, with adult perspectives on childhood incidents, politics and feelings, all of which give the book an interesting, shifting, enigmatic quality.
The memoir form allows Winterson to come to some sort of acceptance of her adoptive mother through the unfolding of her story. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’s dedication is to her three mothers – her “chosen” mother figure of her adult years, Ruth Rendell; her birth mother, Ann S; and her adoptive mother who, with understanding and forgiveness, can now be named as Constance Winterson.