Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?", by Jeanette Winterson

I somehow have never read (or at least don’t remember reading!) Jeanette Winterson’s famous novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” nor any of her other work, although I have been aware of it for years. One day a couple of months ago on my way to work I was listening to a PBS-type talk show and heard her talking about her new memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” (Grove, 2011); something about the topic and about her persona as it came across on the radio made me decide to read this book. What a deeply sad story of a terribly unhappy childhood it is, and yet what creativity and, eventually, fulfillment and happiness have come out of it. Winterson’s voice is engaging even as she tells of the crazy religiosity (her religion itself was not necessarily the problem, or only part of the problem, but her beliefs and applications of those beliefs were) and mental imbalance of her adoptive mother, and her father’s apparent inability to stand up against the mother and her cruel treatment of the child Jeanette. When her mother found that Jeanette was lesbian, she saw it as a terrible sin and could not accept it. Somehow, amazingly, Winterson has found the right tone to tell her story: readers are very aware of the awfulness of her childhood, and of the despair, depression, and even violence that followed in her adult life as a consequence, yet we are also aware of an irrepressible resilience that keeps Winterson afloat and allows her to leave home at 16, find ways to survive on her own, study at Oxford, become a writer and even, after many bad relationships, enter and sustain a loving partnership with the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. The climax of the story is her finally deciding to look for her birth mother, and after much trouble and many struggles with the British bureaucracy as well as with her own doubts and hesitations, achieving success and a qualified sense of resolution. A strong theme throughout the memoir is the inspiring, life-giving, healing power of words and books. Although her mother thought non-religious books were sinful, the young Jeanette hid books under her mattress; when her mother discovered and burned them (yes, burned them!), Winterson started memorizing literature. Not having had a loving or secure home, she found that “books, for me, are a home…Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space. There is warmth there too – a hearth” (p. 61). This is a wonderful and very apt expression of one of the great aspects of books. At Oxford, where she could read as much as she wanted, she felt that “the more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated….Literature is common ground” (p. 144). Another theme is that a few caring adults who reached out to the author -- a friend’s mother, a librarian, a teacher -- made a big difference in her life. This memoir is highly recommended.

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