The Measure of Love's Loss
I recently reviewed Jeanette Winterson’s terrific new memoir — WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL — for Truthdig.com. Here’s the first bit:
Jeanette Winterson’s novels circle round the same themes—the power of story and mythmaking, the fluidity of gender, monstrous mothers and the loss of love. Her pages are filled with references to the Bible and to fairy tales, and are often artfully disjointed. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” for which Winterson is rightly famous, was directly inspired by the author’s life. “Sexing the Cherry” is less overtly autobiographical but still contains some autobiographical elements, such as the echoes of Winterson’s mother in the giantess character, The Dog Woman, and of Winterson herself in Jordan, the orphan The Dog Woman rescues from the river. “Written on the Body” is a rage-filled cri de coeuragainst the betrayal and flimsiness of love. These themes return in her poignant memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,” as does the duality of Winterson’s work—fact and fiction, love and loss, male and female. “I know now,” she writes in her memoir, “that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are live, till the very end, there is always another chance.” Here is a terrible fragility, but a fire-forged strength as well.
The first section of the book deals with Winterson’s years as a child in Lancashire, England. She was adopted as a baby by a woman referred to throughout the book primarily as “Mrs. Winterson,” an evangelical Pentecostal Christian who hung a plaque with the words, “He Shall Melt Thy Bowels With Wax” in the outhouse. Winterson describes her mother this way:
“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.”
If Winterson upset her mother, which she frequently did, Mrs. Winterson told her the devil had led her to the “wrong crib.” She should have adopted the other baby, a perfect little boy. She also detested books because, she said, “You never know what’s in a book until it’s too late.” (Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to make books irresistible.) She locked Winterson alternately in the coal cupboard and out on the stoop regardless of weather, regularly deprived her of food and had a violent exorcism performed on her daughter when Winterson fell in love with a girl. When Winterson refused to give up the girl she received an ultimatum from Mrs. Winterson and chose to leave home at 16. As she left she told her mother the girl made her happy. Her mother responded, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
You can read the rest of the review on Truthdig’s site by clicking here.
Lauren, thanks for doing such a comprehensive review of Winterson’s memoir, and clarifying the links between experiences in her life and the books she has written. I had the pleasure of reading the full review on Truthdig, and enjoyed it immensely. Nicely done!
Jeannette Winterson sounds like she’s had a terribly difficult upbringing, and it sounds like she’s found effective ways to leverage or mine her own life experiences in her writing. Based on some of your past essays, it seems like this is what many writers do, isn’t it?
Thanks for the interesting review!
Lucky8 — well, having a challenging childhood isn’t an absolute necessity for a writer, but it doesn’t hurt. If one does the hard work necessary to ensure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated, overcoming early hardship forces one to learn self-reliance and empathy, tools that serve the writer well.