"The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” That was a phrase bestselling novelist Jeanette Winterson often heard her adoptive mother say. Her mother said it when she was angry – which, Winterson writes, was often.
That fire-and-brimstone venom was just one of the ways Winterson knew her mother didn’t want her. Mrs. Winterson was a fearsome, Pentecostal woman who kept a gun in a drawer and prayed regularly for the apocalypse. Adopted as an infant, Winterson was often beaten and locked out of Mrs. Winterson’s tiny grey house in poverty-stricken 1960s Accrington, in England’s soot-coloured industrial north. Cold and alone, she would sit huddled on the stoop until morning.
Winterson soon left her inauspicious beginning in a cloud of dust. Turfed out onto the street at 16, she fought to be accepted to Oxford University – “because it was the most impossible thing I could do,” she writes – and went on to pen close to two dozen books as well as TV scripts, poetry and articles. This was not easy, as she battled the stigma carried by her class, gender and background.
“You are the working-class experiment,” her Oxford tutor informed her at her very first class.
Her dazzling debut novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, seemed to help exorcize her demons. In what would become her characteristically bold, experimental style, it told the story of her repressive childhood and her love for another teenage girl – the transgression that led to her mother rejecting her.
In 2006, Winterson was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to literature. She was a success, a queer icon and a giant of British postmodern fiction.
Yet despite it all, in February, 2008, plagued by thoughts that her “time was up,” she tried to commit suicide, sealing herself inside her garage and turning on the engine of her old Porsche 911.
Luckily, she failed.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is not a definitive account of Winterson’s life. It chronicles two periods that are indelibly linked: her childhood up until she escaped her adoptive mother’s clutches, and the most recent stage of her life, when those repressed, early wounds resurfaced and threatened to drown her again. Instead of applying her trademark magical-realist gauze to her early life, as she did in Oranges, here her trials are laid bare.
Linda Joy Myers, founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, describes a secret as “an infected wound that needs to be drained and opened to healing light and air.”
Winterson’s memoir of an abusive upbringing can at times give the sense of a therapeutic wound-draining exercise, a complaint session with primary benefits for its author. But she takes it further, talking about how literature can be a lifeline to isolated and abused children.
Winterson was not allowed to read many books other than the Bible, lest they corrupt her. “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” Mrs. Winterson would say.
Books proved to be Winterson’s support system – she literally slept on them as a teen, having to hide them under her mattress – and her way out. This is literature as a healing salve and rescue line, proof to those living cruel, grey lives that they are not alone.
“Fed words and shod with them,” she writes, “words became clues. Piece by piece I knew they would lead me somewhere else.”
Words do lead her to a new life, and, eventually, to uncover the mystery of her own origins, her birth mother – and a new lease on life.
The memoir’s bleak recounting would threaten to sink the reader at times if not for Winterson’s sharp sense of humour. Her tales of her mother, who posted Biblical sayings in the family outhouse (“He Shall Melt Thy Bowels Like Wax”), often go beyond depressing and straight into the laughably absurd.
Memoirs of childhood are as common as peanuts, but this one fulfills a greater purpose than most confessionals. It sees a celebrated author pulling back the curtain of her polished creative products and letting us see their gritty, ugly raw material. It is an attempt to answer not only the therapist’s query, “What was your childhood like?” but the perennial reader question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
Winterson deftly alerts us, in a distinctly unacademic way, to the personal, historical and social underpinnings of literature. What great forces lead a 25-year-old working-class woman from a cotton-mill town, rejected by her family and pronounced a sinner, to write a bestselling novel?
As Winterson’s oeuvre of ideas is evolving still, we can only hope for more memoir writing from her.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
Finished when Winterson was just 24 and had “no money, no job, no prospects,” Oranges tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl ostracized by her churchgoing community when she falls in love with another girl. Playfully funny, yet cut through with the harsh details of working-class English life, the book enjoyed high sales thanks to word-of-mouth popularity in small bookstores and won the 1985 Whitbread Prize for best first novel. Winterson’s BBC television adaptation of her novel won a BAFTA Award for best drama.
Sexing the Cherry (1989)
Breathtakingly non-linear in style, Sexing the Cherry is a wild 17th-century farce that left literature one of its most unique characters, a Rabelaisian giantess named the Dog Woman, who rages against the world’s hypocrisy. It garnered Winterson high praise for her ability to enfold her imaginative strangeness in deceptively plain prose.
Written on the Body (1992)
A woman named Louise leaves her husband for a woman, then leaves her new lover when she develops cancer. Written on the Body’s exploration of taboo subjects – disease and desire – as triggers of self-discovery won Winterson her first big American success.
Art Objects (1995)
A sparkling collection of essays on art, gender and politics, the title of Art Objects is a punning statement on art’s persuasive power to redeem, heal and change our worldview.
One of the many titles Winterson has penned for children, without toning down any of her trademark weirdness, Tanglewreck takes place in a world where time is whirling out of control, leaving a woolly mammoth on the banks of the Thames.
Sarah Barmak lives in Toronto and writes about culture and ideas.