Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?by Jeanette Winterson
“Magnificent . . . A tour de force of literature and love.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
Jeanette Winterson’s bold and revelatory novels have earned her widespread acclaim, establishing her as a major figure in world literature. She has written some of the most admired books of the past few decades, including her internationally best-selling first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents, that is now often required reading in contemporary fiction classes.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It is a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It is also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.
Witty, acute, fierce, and celebratory, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a tough-minded search for belonging—for love, identity, home, and a mother.
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is raucous. It hums with a dark refulgence from its first pages. . . . Singular and electric . . . [Winterson’s] life with her adoptive parents was often appalling, but it made her the writer she is.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“She’s one of the most daring and inventive writers of our time–searingly honest yet effortlessly lithe as she slides between forms, exuberant and unerring, demanding emotional and intellectual expansion of herself and of us. . . She explores not only the structure of storytelling by the interplay of past, present, and future, blending science fiction, realism, and a deep love of literature and history. . . . In Why Be Happy, [Winterson’s] emotional life is laid bare. [Her] struggle to first accept and then love herself yields a bravely frank narrative of truly coming undone. For someone in love with disguises, Winterson’s openness is all the more moving; there’s nothing left to hide, and nothing left to hide behind.” —A.M. Homes, Elle
“To read Jeanette Winterson is to love her. . . . The fierce, curious, brilliant British writer is winningly candid in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . . . [Winterson has] such a joy for life and love and language that she quickly becomes her very own one-woman band—one that, luckily for us, keeps playing on.” —Louisa Ermelino, O, the Oprah Magazine
“Magnificent . . . What begins as a tragicomic tale of triumph over a soul-destroying childhood becomes something rougher and richer in the later passages. . . . Winterson writes with heartrending precision. . . . Ferociously funny and unfathomably generous, Winterson’s exorcism-in-writing is an unforgettable quest for belonging, a tour de force of literature and love.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“A memoir as unconventional and winning as [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit], the rollicking bildungsroman . . . that instantly established [Winterson’s] distinctive voice. . . . It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her. . . . To confront Mrs. Winterson head on, in life, in nonfiction, demands courage; to survive requires imagination. . . . But put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds, but by their triumphs.” —Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review
“Jeanette Winterson’s sentences become lodged in the brain for years, like song lyrics. . . . Beautiful . . . Powerful . . . Shockingly revealing . . . Raw and undigested . . . Never has anyone so outsized and exceptional struggled through such remembered pain to discover how intensely ordinary she was meant to be.” —June Thomas, Slate
“Bold . . . One of the most entertaining and moving memoirs in recent memory . . . A coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, and a celebration of the act of reading . . . A marvelous gift of consolation and wisdom.” —Carmela Ciuraru, The Boston Globe
“Unflinching . . . That Winterson should have survived such a terrible early immersion in darkness at all is a kind of miracle. That she should have emerged, if not unscathed then still a functioning human being and a creative artist, is an even greater accomplishment.” —Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle
“With raw honesty and wit, Winterson reveals how she fought her way to adulthood, finding success, love—and ultimately forgiveness.” —People (4 stars)
“There’s always been something Byronic about Winterson—a stormily passionate soul bitterly indicting the society that excludes her while feeding on the Romantic drama of that exclusion. . . . Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? restores Winterson to her full power. . . . This is a book that will inspire much underlining.” —Laura Miller, Salon
“[Winterson’s] novels—mongrels of autobiography, myth, fantasy, and formal experimentation—evince a colossal stamina for self-scrutiny. . . . [A] proud and vivid portrait of working-class life . . . This bullet of a book is charged with risk, dark mirth, hard-won self-knowledge. . . . You’re in the hands of a master builder who has remixed the memoir into a work of terror and beauty.” —Parul Sehgal, Bookforum
“Riveting . . . Beautifully open . . . Why Be Happy is a meditation on loss, stories, and silences.” —Newsday
“Riveting . . . There’s a lot of flinty humor here, a lot of insight into the emotional legacy of adoption—and a generally refreshing admission that understanding life is as hard as living it.” —Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly (A-)
“Arresting and suspenseful . . . Offers literary surprises and flashes of magnificent generosity and humor.” —Valerie Sayers, The Washington Post Book World
“[Why Be Happy] very possibly [contains] the most honest writing Winterson has ever done: bone-hard, bone-naked truth that hides nothing about the discovery process of finding her biological mother, and going mad. . . . Her observations read as verses of the King James Bible: bold, beautiful, and true.” —Nicola Griffith, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Captivating . . . A painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss, and, ultimately, forgiveness.” —Huffington Post
“Raw . . . A highly unusual, scrupulously honest, and endearing memoir.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Clarion, courageous, and vividly expressive, Winterson conducts a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self and liberating power of literature.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“[Winterson] is piercingly honest, deeply creative, and stubbornly self-confident. . . . A testimony to the power of love and the need to feel wanted.” —Ellen Heltzel, The Seattle Times
“To read Jeanette Winterson’s books is to know the exquisite torment of envying every bloody word she writes on the page. . . . Winterson may be one of the bravest writers of our time.” —Nicki Richesin, Huffington Post
“Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. . . . Searing and candid . . . Winterson holds nothing back. . . . Written with poetic beauty.” —Stephanie Harrison, Bookpage
“Shattering, brilliant . . . There is a sense at the end of this brave, funny, heartbreaking book that Winterson has somehow reconciled herself to the past. Without her adoptive mother, she wonders what she would be—Normal? Uneducated? Heterosexual?—and she doesn’t much fancy the prospect. . . . She might have been happy and normal, but she wouldn’t have been Jeanette Winterson. Her childhood was ghastly, as bad as Dickens’s stint in the blacking factory, but it was also the crucible for her incendiary talent.” —Daisy Goodwin, The Sunday Times (UK)
“Unconventional, ambitious . . . The experience of reading Why Be Happy is unusually visceral. Winterson confronts her actions, personality quirks, even sexuality, with a kind of violence, as if forcing herself to be honest. . . . The prose is often breathtaking: witty, biblical, chatty, and vigorous all at once.” —Emily Stokes, Financial Times
“An extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography.” —Mark Lawson, The Guardian (Best Book of 2011)
“Searing . . . Winterson’s truth is just as compelling as any fiction.” —Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)
“Moving, honest . . . Rich in detail and the history of the northern English town of Accrington, Winterson’s narrative allows readers to ponder, along with the author, the importance of feeling wanted and loved.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Compelling, in fact, perhaps even more so when compared to the fictionalized version written by Winterson as a twenty-five-year-old. Then, passion and anger seemed to burn off the page. . . . Now comes [an] emotional excavation as a fifty-two-year-old looking back with a cooler, more forgiving eye. . . . The specifics of [Winterson’s] early abuse are vivid, violent, and no less horrifying for their familiarity. . . . If the memoir was begun as a final exorcism of the monster mother, it ends with a moving acceptance of her.” —Arifa Akbar, The Independent (UK)
“Stunningly lovely and fearlessly reflective, Why Be Happy is a reminder of what the project of remembering and recording can—and should—be.” —Norah Piehl, Bookreporter
“Exquisite . . . About survival and triumph but also about deep wounds.” —LAMDA Literary Review
“Winterson’s memoir is a brave and searingly honest account of how she reclaimed her childhood through the power of language. . . . Rich in autobiographical detail, it is as wide and bold an experiment in the memoir form as any so far written. Indeed, one of the most daring—and riskiest—experiments this book pulls off is a sudden fast-forward from the world of the lonely, adopted child that we think we know from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, to the recent present where, in writing that is astonishingly naked and brave, Winterson reveals the legacy of that difficult childhood. . . . Why Be Happy is proudly, and sometimes painfully honest. It is also, arguably, the finest and most hopeful memoir to emerge in many years, and, as such, it really should not be missed.” —John Burnside, The Times (UK)
“As compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s great memoir of friendship. . . . A tribute to the salvation of narrative.” —Holloway McCandless, Shelf Awareness
“At last—and essential new book by Jeanette Winterson. She is a natural memoirist. . . . Wry, urgent . . . Pressed on by the need for self-discovery, the prose doesn’t miss a beat. . . . Winterson is frank about her own oddness, her fierceness. . . . If the first half of the book has been polished by retelling, the second half is raw, immediate. . . . Gone is the Nabokovian memoir in which the exquisite past is presented under glass, skewered by a pin. This is the age of instant communication, of forthright, unmediated responses. Winterson has her finger to the wind.” —Hermione Eyre, Evening Standard (UK)
“Provides a vivid picture of the grotesque behaviors of the lunatic mother she refers to as ‘Mrs. Winterson.’ This is a detailed portrait of a life that saved itself. The hard work Winterson did to find her place in the world after growing up as an outsider’s outsider is not exaggerated. We are lucky she survived to tell the tale.” —Therese Purcell Nielsen, Library Journal (starred review)
“As beautifully crafted as any of Winterson’s fiction.” —Heather Seggel, Foreword
“Winterson makes the pages sing. . . . A moving, artfully constructed piece of writing that sustains tension until the last sentence.” —Sara Wheeler, The Globe and Mail (Favorite Book of the Year)
“Idiosyncratic . . . [Winterson] is intense on the page . . . [with] more charisma than a Pentecostal preacher. . . . A sad story, a funny story, a brave story.” —Chitra Ramaswamy, The Scotsman
“This is no narrative of victimhood, but one of gratitude. In its lugubrious humor, its striving to find virtue in unlikely places and in its willingness to try to understand the forces that damaged her mother, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? recalls a feminine version of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. . . . Winterson lends all [her] fierce poetry, intelligence, and epigrammatic punch to [the] prose. . . Thrilling as the author may be in the denunciation of her mother, the tale as a whole foregrounds the woman’s vulnerability; empathy keeps breaking through.” —Geordie Williamson, The Australian
“We are shown ‘how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness,’ and come to respect Winterson’s psychological courage and her rage to love.” —Sheena Joughin, Sunday Telegraph
“This difficult, spirited, engaging book, with its touching openness and maddening lack of candor, is a resonant affirmation of the power of storytelling to make things better.” —Jane Shilling, The Daily Mail
“Read this as an investigation into the creation of an author—a twentieth-century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it’s a memoir of striking honesty, realism, and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love.” —Gabrielle Malcolm, PopMatters blog
“Disarmingly dreamlike. We are guided through a frankly miserable youth, but coping in the aftermath is easy with Winterson’s charming and resilient prose.” —Eleanor Kriseman, Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY
Best Book of the Year:
The New York Times Book Review Notable
O, the Oprah Magazine
Barnes & Noble
San Francisco Chronicle Holiday Pick
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis) Holiday Pick
Winner of the Stonewall Award
New York Times Editors’ Choice
Minneapolis Star Tribune Holiday Books Roundup: Best Memoirs of 2012
A San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times best seller
An ALA Notable Book of the Year
BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week”
March 2012 IndieNext selection
A SCIBA and NEIBA bestseller
1 — The Wrong Crib
When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960—purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson—has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth—matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for “best.”
I do not know why she didn’t/couldn’t have children.
I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world—a way of saying that she was here—a kind of X Marks the Spot.
She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents—we don’t really have any choice.
She was alive when my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985. It is semi-autobiographical, in that it tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents. The girl is supposed to grow up and be a missionary. Instead she falls in love with a woman. Disaster. The girl leaves home, gets herself to Oxford University, returns home to find her mother has built a broadcast radio and is beaming out the Gospel to the heathen. The mother has a handle—she’s called “Kindly Light.”
The novel begins: “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.”
For most of my life I’ve been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.
We always walked. We had no car and no bus money. For me, the average was five miles a day: two miles for the round trip to school; three miles for the round trip to church.
Church was every night except Thursdays.
I wrote about some of these things in Oranges, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note in her immaculate copperplate handwriting demanding a phone call.
We hadn’t seen each other for several years. I had left Oxford, was scraping together a life, and had written Oranges young—I was twenty-five when it was published.
I went to a phone box—I had no phone. She went to a phone box—she had no phone
I dialed the Accrington code and number as instructed, and there she was—who needs Skype? I could see her through her voice, her form solidifying in front of me as she talked.
She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose).
She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. 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.
But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, “It’s the first time I’ve had to order a book in a false name.”
I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. I am an ambitious writer—I don’t see the point of being anything; no, not anything at all, if you have no ambition for it. 1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir—and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about “experience”—the compass of what they know—while men write wide and bold—the big canvas, the experiment with form. Henry James did no good when he said that Jane Austen wrote on four inches of ivory—i e. tiny observant minutiae. Much the same was said of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Those things made me angry. In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?
Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work. Books had been forbidden in our house—I’ll explain why later—and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize. . . and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism.
The pips—more money in the slot—and I’m thinking, as her voice goes in and out like the sea, “Why aren’t you proud of me?”
The pips—more money in the slot—and I’m locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It’s really cold and I’ve got a newspaper under my bum and I’m huddled in my duffel coat.
A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like
Inside our house the light is on. Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer.
We’re still on the phone in our phone boxes. She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib. She confronts me with the fact that I have used my own name in the novel—if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning. Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story—of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s 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.
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them. Rewrite the hurt.
It’s why I am a writer—I don’t say “decided” to be, or “became.” It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs Winterson’s story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.
She said, “But it’s not true. . .”
Truth? This was a woman who explained the flash-dash of mice activity in the kitchen as ectoplasm.
There was a terraced house in Accrington, in Lancashire—we called those houses two-up two-down: two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs. Three of us lived together in that house for sixteen years. I told my version—faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I told myself as hero like any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, and me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.
And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about the cover version that is Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.
I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is “true” and what is not “true” in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlor? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?
I can’t answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.
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.
I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn’t encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.
But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong. . .
If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.
Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.
I never believed that my parents loved me. I tried to love them but it didn’t work. It has taken me a long time to learn how to love – both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you?
I had no idea.
I thought that love was loss.
Why is the measure of love loss?
That was the opening line of a novel of mine—Written on the Body (1992). I was stalking love, trapping love, losing love, longing for love. . .
Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.
Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.
Do you remember the story of Philomel who is raped and then has her tongue ripped out by the rapist so that she can never tell?
I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.
I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.
God is forgiveness—or so that particular story goes, but in our house God was Old Testament and there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice. Mrs Winterson was unhappy and we had to be unhappy with her. She was waiting for the Apocalypse.
Her favorite song was “God Has Blotted Them Out,” which was meant to be about sins, but really was about anyone who had ever annoyed her, which was everyone. She just didn’t like anyone and she just didn’t like life. Life was a burden to be carried as far as the grave and then dumped. Life was a Vale of Tears. Life was a pre-death experience.
Every day Mrs Winterson prayed, “Lord, let me die.” This was hard on me and my dad.
Her own mother had been a genteel woman who had married a seductive thug, given him her money, and watched him womanize it away. For a while, from when I was about three, until I was about five, we had to live with my grandad, so that Mrs Winterson could nurse her mother, who was dying of throat cancer.
Although Mrs W was deeply religious, she believed in spirits, and it made her very angry that Grandad’s girlfriend, as well as being an aging barmaid with dyed blonde hair, was a medium who held seances in our very own front room.
After the seances my mother complained that the house was full of men in uniform from the war. When I went into the kitchen to get at the corned beef sandwiches I was told not to eat until the Dead had gone. This could take several hours, which is hard when you are four.
I took to wandering up and down the street asking for food. Mrs Winterson came after me and that was the first time I heard the dark story of the Devil and the crib. . .
In the crib next to me had been a little boy called Paul. He was my ghostly brother because his sainted self was always invoked when I was naughty. Paul would never have dropped his new doll into the pond (we didn’t go near the surreal possibilities of Paul having been given a doll in the first place). Paul would not have filled his poodle pyjama case with tomatoes so that he could perform a stomach operation with blood-like squish. Paul would not have hidden Grandad’s gas mask (for some reason Grandad still had his wartime gas mask and I loved it). Paul would not have turned up at a nice birthday party, to which he had not been invited, wearing Grandad’s gas mask.
If they had taken Paul instead of me, it would have been different, better. I was supposed to be a pal. . . like she had been to her mother.
And then her mother died and she shut herself up in her grief. I shut myself up in the larder because I had learned how to use the little key that opened the tins of corned beef.
I have a memory—true or not true?
The memory is surrounded by roses, which is odd because it is a violent and upsetting memory, but my grandad was a keen gardener and he particularly loved roses. I liked finding him, shirtsleeves rolled up, wearing a knitted waistcoat and spraying the blooms with water from a polished copper can with a piston pressure valve. He liked me, in an odd sort of way, and he disliked my mother, and she hated him – not in an angry way, but with a toxic submissive resentment.
I am wearing my favorite outfit—a cowboy suit and a fringed hat. My small body is slung from side to side with cap-gun Colts.
A woman comes into the garden and Grandad tells me to go inside and find my mother who is making her usual pile of sandwiches.
I run in – Mrs Winterson takes off her apron and goes to answer the door.
I am peeping from down the hallway. There is an argument between the two women, a terrible argument that I can’t understand, and something fierce and frightening, like animal fear. Mrs Winterson slams the door and leans on it for a second. I creep out of my peeping place. She turns around. There I am in my cowboy outfit.
“Was that my mum?”
Mrs Winterson hits me and the blow knocks me back. Then she runs upstairs.
I go out into the garden. Grandad is spraying the roses. He ignores me. There is no one there.
Guide by Barbara Putnam
1. “My mother tried to throw me clear of her own wreckage and I landed in a place as unlikely as any she could have imagined for me” (p. 225). How does Jeanette become reconciled to her birth story and adoption?
2. “It took me a long time to realize that there are two kinds of writing: the one you write and the one that writes you. The one that writes you is dangerous. You go where you don’t want to go. You look where you don’t want to look” (p. 54). How is Jeanette’s life reflected in “you go where you don’t want to go?”
3. Does Jeanette love her captor/tormentor who is her mother? In many ways Mrs Winterson is the powerful center of the book. Do you agree?
4. “Mrs Winterson was too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full three hundred feet, and towering over us” (p. 35). Lillian, Mr Winterson’s second wife, declared Jeanette’s mother, Connie, certifiably mad, with her Royal Albert collecting and displaying, her apocalyptic religion, and the beatings and locking up her daughter in the coal-hole. How does Jeanette deal with this likelihood of a crazy mother? “She was my mother. She wasn’t my mother” is her thought when she returns from her first term at Oxford and sees Mrs Winterson, “her back to the window onto the street, very upright, very big, playing her new electronic organ—‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ with a jazz riff and cymbals. . . . There was a barrier between us, transparent but real” (p. 99).
5. “She’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, and a fault to nature” (p. 29) is a refrain launched against Jeanette from her earliest memory, in the spirit of her being taken from “the wrong crib.” The Hamlet lines are words Mrs Winterson levels equally at the faulty gas oven given to explosion. If “that is a heavy load for a gas oven to bear,” what is it for a child (p. 29)? How does Jeanette’s irony, her ear for cant, save her–as well as provide marvelous material for her writing? (“I was writing the past and discovering the future” (p. 226)).
6. Instead of cringing under her parents’ abuse, Jeanette stiffens, develops a carapace and a sense of humor. She secretly reads books she sneaks into the house and hides under her mattress. Mrs Winterson thought “the trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late” (p. 33). The exception was the Bible, read out loud. What did the King James language give to Jeanette and to many others?
7. What are the results of Mrs Winterson’s cataclysmic book burning (pp. 40-41)? Think about the child in her nightgown, clutching at volumes before they go up in flames. “I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. And books have always been light and warmth to me” (p. 41). The next day she collected some scraps, “burnt jigsaws of books.” Now, as an established writer, Jeanette says, “It is probably why I write as I do—collecting the scraps, uncertain of continuous narrative. What does Eliot say? These fragments have I shored against my ruin . . .” (p. 41).
8. In the aftermath of the book purging, what does Jeanette understand about herself? She is on her own emotionally and intellectually, but does she begin to see that as a strength? “I had lines inside me—a string of guiding lights. I had language” (p. 42). “And standing over the smoldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. ‘:Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own’” (p. 43).
9. How does Jeanette relate her own reactions to violence, and some she is subjected to, in the context of a generalized brutality in working class northern England? Think of the ramifications of generations of poverty, lack of education, and angry frustration. About her own beatings, she says, “I didn’t respect them for it. I didn’t fear it after a while. It did not modify my behavior. It did make me hate them—not all the time—but with the hatred of the helpless; a flaring, subsiding hatred that gradually became the bed of the relationship” (p. 45). As Jeanette thinks back on her own violence, she recalls with ominous chill, “Kids were slapped most days. . . . Kids fought all the time. . . . I used to hit my girlfriends until I realied it was not acceptable. . . . Even now, when I am furious, what I would like to do is punch the infuriating person flat on the ground” (p. 46).
10. Literature—A to Z—gives the growing child a lifeline. How does Jack and the Beanstalk provide myths she can latch onto? Not only the fairy tales and comic strips about triumphant underdogs appeal to her, but why were quest stories so important? “The stories of Arthur, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Merlin, of Camelot and the Grail, docked into me like the missing molecule of a chemical compound. I have gone on working with the Grail stories all my life. They are stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition, of second chances” (p. 37).
11. Growing up in the best circumstances is hard, and Jeanette had a lion’s portion of challenges. “I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels” (p. 39). Why does the following passage from Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot resonate strongly with the author? “This is one moment, / but know that another / shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy” (p. 39) “The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family—the first one was not my fault but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely not my fault. . . . I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. . . . A tough life needs a tough language–and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place” (pp. 39-40). Does Jeanette’s own language reflect the toughness she seeks in her own reading? Does she spare herself?
12. The Pentecostal obsessions of Jeanette’s parents assure her of a most unusual childhood that is often very funny in the retelling. About her mother and father, “both smoked before they found Jesus” (p. 19). And despite battering religion around the clock, Jeanette says, “I was excited about the apocalypse because Mrs Winterson made it exciting, but I secretly hoped that life would go on until I could be grown up and find out more about it. The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection” (p. 23). Explain how Jeanette rolls us into both the calamity of her life and the joke of her own response. What other writers operate this way? Kundera? Beckett? Shakespeare?
13. What are incidents you remember that sharpened Jeanette’s interest in the role of women and their being recognized? “The school song at Accrington High School for Girls was ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ a terrible choice for an all-girls’ school, but one that helped turn me into a feminist” (p. 98). Who are some of the compelling women she writes about in the memoir? For instance, there was the cello teacher, “one of those electrical trapped women of a particular generation who are half mad because they are trapped, and half genius because they are trapped. She wanted her girls to know about music—to sing it, to play it, and to make no compromises” (p. 98). Remember, too, her perplexity and growing anger at finding almost no women on the library shelves.
14. Stories—an oral tradition—were alive in Jeanette’s often bleak midwinter world. “For the people I knew, books were few and stories were everywhere, and how you tell ’em was everything” (p. 30). “My mother told stories—of their life in the war and how she’d played the accordion in the air-raid shelter and it had got rid of the rats. Apparently rats like violins and pianos but they can’t stand the accordion . . .” (p. 31). Mrs Winterson desperately tried to limit Jeanette’s exposure to literature, but consider how her own affinity for storytelling contributed to Jeanette’s talent for narrative.
15. “Soon after that time I began to go mad” (p. 161). Thus Jeanette begins an account of a depression that immobilized her. It is a harrowing tale. How does madness intersect with the quest and her writing? “The psyche is much smarter than consciousness allows. We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury” (p. 162). Did therapy help her? What was her attitude toward medication? “I was thinking about suicide because it had to be an option. . . . It gave me back a sense of control. . . . On bad days I just held onto the thinning rope. The rope was poetry. All that poetry I learned when I had to keep my library inside me now offered a rescue rope” (pp. 162-163).
16. What are the other life lines Jeanette clings to in her despair? The bottoming out is dramatic: “But often I could not talk. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place” (p. 163). A love affair has failed, and she feels she will always be seeking home. But she has a persistent drive for life and the creativity that has gone underground. And more. “The countryside, the natural world, my cats, and English Literature A—Z were what I could lean on and hold onto. My friends [such as Ruth Rendell] never failed me and when I could talk, I did talk to them” (p. 163).
17. Talk about the quest for Jeanette’s birth mother. “I have opened a door into a room with furniture I don’t recognize. There is a past after all, no matter how much I have written over it” (p. 160). What are Jeanette’s reactions to her discovery in a Long John Silver treasure box after Lillian dies? What does she think of her blood mother and family? Are you surprised by her thoughts? For instance, “I am interested in nature/nurture. I notice that I hate Aann criticizing Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster” (p. 229).