In a Panic About Love

Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson and her adoptive father at the beach in Blackpool, England, 1964
The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven.
—Jeanette Winterson

Surprises abound in Jeanette Winterson’s painfully candid and often very funny memoir of her girlhood in a North England household ruled by an adoptive Pentecostal mother—the “flamboyant depressive” Mrs. Constance Winterson. (“Mrs. Winterson” is the name by which the memoirist speaks of her adoptive mother: a way of distancing herself from the monstrous woman.) The memoir itself is a cri de coeur of doubleness: a story of her terribly unrequited love from “the wrong crib”; a lament not so much for a wretched childhood as for the adopted daughter’s failure to have rescued both herself and her mother from the wretchedness of life not lived.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? collapses time in the way of a recurring nightmare in which a single traumatic incident is envisioned from a variety of perspectives that come to the same (compulsively reiterated) conclusion: “I never felt safe in [Mrs. Winterson’s] house and when she made me leave it [at the age of sixteen] I felt betrayed.” And:

I walked around for most of the night that I left home…. I was in a night that was lengthening into my life. I walked away and I was trying to walk away from the dark orbit of [Mrs. Winterson’s] depression. I was trying to walk out of the shadow she cast. I wasn’t really going anywhere….

The adult Jeanette Winterson, born in Manchester in 1959, and best known for her first, autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), writes still with the vehement reproach and hurt love of adolescence. This is not a memoir of the acquiring of maturity but a memoir lamenting the inaccessibility of maturity. So fiery—so unabashedly adolescent—a document inevitably burns itself out, and may seem to the sympathetic reader abruptly terminated rather than concluded. The memoirist remains in thrall to her early, contentious life, set beside which her present life, that of a middle-aged writer of reputation and controversy, seems to lack direction and coherence. The book’s final terse paragraph is: “I have no idea what happens next.”

The quirky title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, like so many brilliantly bizarre turns of phrase in the book, repeats Mrs. Winterson’s question to her daughter, when Jeanette reveals to her that she is a lesbian:

“Mum…I love Janey.”
“So you’re all over her…hot bodies, hands everywhere…”
“I love her.”
“I gave you a chance. You’re back with the Devil. So I tell you now, either you get out of this house and you don’t come back or you stop seeing that girl…. It’s a sin. You’ll be in Hell. Soft bodies all the way to Hell.”
I went upstairs and started packing my things. I had no idea what I was going to do.
When I came down my mother was sitting stock-still staring into space.
“I’ll go then…” I said….
“Jeanette, will you tell me why?”
“What why?”
“You know what why…”
“When I am with her I am happy. Just happy.”
She nodded. She seemed to understand and I thought, really, for that second, that she would change her mind, that we would talk, that we would be on the same side of the glass wall. I waited.
She said, “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

The wonder of the question is that it is utterly sincere and not ironic. Why seek happiness when, despite a lifetime of misery, and the creation of misery in the lives of others in your family, you might be perceived by your narrow-minded neighbors as “normal”—in the case of Mrs. Winterson, nominally heterosexual, though in fact deeply repelled by the very thought of sex, even within “sanctified” marriage.

Winterson’s memoir has the unsettling air of the most disturbing fairy tales—those in which there would seem to have been a happy ending, after much fearful struggle; yet the happy ending turns out to be a delusion, and the old malevolence returns redoubled. Mrs. Winterson is an ogre of a woman to set beside any mythical devouring stepmother:

She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone [280 pounds]. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf…. 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.

When we are first introduced to Mrs. Winterson she seems to us a Dickensian comic character:

A woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all nights baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my [adoptive] 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.”

Mrs. Winterson is beset by problems with the body—her own, her husband’s, their bodies together, and the adopted child’s:

She had muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mix of nicotine and Jesus, dosed it with purgatives that made her vomit, submitted it to doctors, who administered enemas and pelvic rings, subdued its desires for ordinary touch and comfort, and suddenly, [as a new, adoptive mother] she had a thing that was all body…. A burping, spraying, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life.

Mrs. Winterson is tyrannical, suffocating, willfully obtuse, and self-righteous; a messianic anti-intellectual who is, in the Winterson household, in which books are forbidden, “in charge of language.” Every night she reads the Bible aloud to her husband and her daughter, always standing up before them:

She read…for half an hour, starting at the beginning, and making her way through all sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. When she got to her favorite bit, the Book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse, and everyone being exploded and the Devil in the bottomless pit, she gave us all a week off to think about things. Then she started again, Genesis Chapter One.

Yet Jeanette Winterson notes in an aside that her familiarity with the 1611 King James Bible has been immensely valuable to her, like the plays of William Shakespeare; that such a rich language was readily available to the English working class was a great resource, in the later decades of the twentieth century,

destroyed by the well-meaning, well-educated types who didn’t think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern Bibles with the language stripped out. The consequence was that uneducated men and women…had no more easy everyday connection to four hundred years of the English language.

Winterson discovers belatedly that her mother had deceived her in the matter of the ending of Jane Eyre, which she’d read to Winterson when she was seven: “This was deemed suitable because it has a minister in it—St. John Rivers—who is keen on missionary work.” In Mrs. Winterson’s bowdlerized version of the Brontë novel, Jane Eyre doesn’t marry Rochester but marries St. John Rivers and accompanies him into the missionary field: “It was only when I finally read Jane Eyre for myself that I found out what my mother had done. And she did it so well, turning the pages and inventing the text extempore in the style of Charlotte Brontë.”

As Winterson presents her formidable adoptive mother, in a succession of vividly delineated scenarios, we are led to wonder if Mrs. Winterson isn’t merely an eccentric bully who uses the threat of eternal damnation to frighten her willful young daughter but also a mentally ill woman beset by physical ailments, a seemingly chronic insomnia, and a raging paranoia. Here she seems a “humor” character out of Dickens—

We went past Woolworth’s—“A Den of Vice.” Past Marks and Spencer’s—“The Jews Killed Christ.” Past the funeral parlor and the pie shop—“They share an oven.” Past the biscuit stall and its moon-faced owners—“Incest.” Past the pet parlor—“Bestiality.” Past the bank—“Usury.” Past the Citizens Advice Bureau—“Communists.” Past the day nursery—“Unmarried mothers.” Past the hairdresser’s—“Vanity”

—yet there is really nothing funny about a parent who is quite literally “waiting for the Apocalypse” and for whom life is

a burden to be carried as far as the grave and then dumped…a pre-death experience.
Every day Mrs. Winterson prayed, “Lord, let me die.” This was hard on me and my dad.

Mrs. Winterson tells her young daughter that the universe is a “cosmic dustbin” from which no one escapes except in Armageddon—“the last battle when heaven and earth will be rolled up like a scroll, and the saved get to live in eternity with Jesus.”

Everywhere in the house Mrs. Winterson has posted pious exhortations:

Under my coat peg a sign said THINK OF GOD NOT THE DOG.
Over the gas oven, on a loaf wrapper, it said MAN SHALL NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE.
But in the outside loo, directly in front of you as you went through the door was a placard. Those who stood up read LINGER NOT AT THE LORD’S BUSINESS I.
Those who sat down read HE SHALL MELT THY BOWELS LIKE WAX.

When her daughter goes to school, Mrs. Winterson inserts scripture quotes in her hockey boots. At mealtimes she places little scrolls beside plates: “THE SINS OF THE FATHERS SHALL BE VISITED ON THE CHILDREN.” Her comprehension of the physical world is so uninformed that Mrs. Winterson explains mice activity in the kitchen as “ectoplasm.” She locks her young daughter outside the house, or in the coal-hole; there, Jeanette “made up stories and forgot about the cold and the dark.” (“The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.”)

Speaking obsessively of the Devil and the “wrong crib” (Mrs. Winterson and her husband had apparently planned to adopt an infant boy, and not the infant girl who turns out to be Jeanette Winterson), Mrs. Winterson isn’t speaking in any way other than literal; if she’s in charge of language in the Winterson household, it’s a grim, grinding language against which the young Jeanette has to establish a defiant if shaky identity. Lacking friends, Mrs. Winterson had hoped naively to achieve a “friend” in her adopted daughter; but the daughter instinctively rejects the sick mother’s negativity, in favor of “the pursuit of happiness”—a “salmon-like determination to swim upstream.”

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.


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.

Writing Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is clearly an act of exorcism on the part of the writer, a way of assuaging her “radioactive anger” as well as a blackly comic valentine of sorts in commemoration of the upbringing that, after all, has resulted in Jeanette Winterson.

In particular, the story of an adopted child is a special sort of story, for adoption “drops you into the story after it has started…. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you—and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.” Mrs. Winterson is perceived, by the adult Jeanette Winterson, as herself a wounded person, who had had to “sever some part of herself to let me go”—“I have felt the wound ever since.” A late chapter of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a quick, cursory summary of wound-and-quest stories, of Odysseus, the centaur Chiron, the fire-stealer Prometheus, the Fisher King: “The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to a single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony.” These are brave platitudes to pit against the prevailing horror of the blighted childhood.

It is not surprising that Jeanette Winterson’s salvation is books:

Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make home—they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door,you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.

Winterson is a fierce and eloquent supporter of the literary arts, having lived through Thatcher’s England as a university student at Oxford, and beyond:

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. 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.

Books quite literally result in a major crisis in the Winterson household, when Jeanette is caught with dozens of contraband volumes hidden beneath her mattress:

Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that seventy-two per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor.

Mrs. Winterson discovers a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and knowing that Lawrence was a “satanist” and a “pornographer” throws the books out into the yard and burns them. Determined to outwit the monster-mother, Jeanette begins to memorize her favorite texts.

Of course the most severe crises in the adolescent Jeanette’s life are those involving her affections for other girls, which were, as Winterson says, not primarily sexual but emotional; looking at women’s bodies “was a way of looking at myself and, I suppose, a way of loving myself.” The great trauma of Jeanette’s life with the Wintersons is an exorcism to which she has to submit in the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington, which had been “the center of my life for sixteen years”; the exorcism follows a sermon by the minister in which it is announced to the congregation that “two of the flock were guilty of abominable sin.” (See Romans 1:26: “The women did change their natural use into that which is against nature….”) Jeanette’s friend Helen, with whom she has been intimate, runs out of the church, but Jeanette can’t escape, presumably because Mrs. Winterson has captured her. The circumstances of the exorcism are not clearly described by the author, but don’t seem to have involved the more lurid rites associated with exorcisms in the Roman Catholic Church:

When I was locked in the parlor with the curtains closed and no food or heat for three days I was pretty sure I had no demon. After three days of being prayed over in shifts and not allowed to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, I was beginning to feel that I had all Hell in my heart.
At the end of this ordeal, because I was still stubborn, I was beaten repeatedly by one of the elders….
He shoved me onto my knees to repent those words and I felt the bulge in his suit trousers. He tried to kiss me. He said it would be better than with a girl. A lot better. He put his tongue in my mouth. I bit it. Blood. A lot of blood. Blackout.

That the exorcism in the Elim Pentecostal Church doesn’t provide a comical episode for Jeanette to transform into prose seems to suggest it was too damaging. Following it, the sixteen-year-old “went into a kind of mute state of misery.” Soon, she is expelled from the Winterson household and never returns.

Yet Jeanette Winterson cautions the reader not to judge the church as a crude and primitive religious sect, but a place of contradictions:

The camaraderie, the simple happiness, the kindness, the sharing, the pleasure of something to do every night in a town where there was nothing to do—then set this against the cruelty of dogma, the miserable rigidity of no drink,no fags, no sex (or if you were married, as little sex as possible), no going to the pictures…no reading anything except devotional literature, no fancy clothes…no dancing…no pop music, no card games, no pubs—even for orange juice.

Winterson asserts that the principle of this extreme form of Protestantism, which draws its congregation together no less than six evenings a week, is a valid one overall:

I saw a lot of working-class men and women—myself included—living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning….
The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives….
For the members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington, life was full of miracles, signs, wonders, and practical purpose.

Unfortunately, as we can’t forget, one of these practical purposes is the casting out of demons from unruly adolescent bodies.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is, in a less original and engaging way, a kind of self-help manual. Winterson has obviously been in therapy and would seem to have benefited enormously from it, judging from the fact of this memoir, as much as its literary quality. The subtext of her story is love—her perpetual quest for love, the perpetual bafflement and disappointment in love, her panic at believing herself incapable of either giving or receiving love. A woman lover tells her that most women are trained to “give” love but “find it hard to receive” and that she, Jeanette, daughter of Mrs. Winterson, is particularly handicapped in receiving love, and she thinks:

No…I am the wrong crib…this will go wrong like all the rest. In my heart of hearts I believe that.
The love-work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything.

Yet her legacy from Mrs. Winterson is a profound distrust of love from any quarter:

Add to that my own wildness and intensity and love becomes pretty dangerous. I never did drugs, I did love—the crazy reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health…. Love is vivid. I never wanted the pale version. Love is full strength…. I never shied away from love’s hugeness but I had no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun. The daily rising of love.

Winterson’s suicide attempt is bluntly recorded, without embellishment and with little of the narrative setting of the Mrs. Winterson chapters:

In February 2008 I tried to end my life. My cat was in the garage with me. I did not know that when I sealed the doors and turned on the engine. My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face.

Yet with the doubleness that characterizes much of the memoir, Winterson has casually remarked that her mother, who’d loved “miracle” stories in the Bible, had overlooked a “miracle” in her own adopted daughter:

I was a miracle in that I could have taken her out of her life and into a life she would have liked a lot. It never happened, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there to happen.

So many years later, after Mrs. Winterson’s death, the middle-aged memoirist is fantasizing, like a rejected lover, the ways in which she might have made the resolutely unhappy adoptive mother happy. Nothing in the memoir is so touching, as it seems to the reader so utterly improbable.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? concludes with the author’s discovery, after much bureaucratic stalling and frustration, of her birth mother, a former machinist named Ann who’d given her infant girl (“Janet”) away to assure her of a better life, and who lives in a Manchester suburb twenty miles from Accrington. Their meeting is not overly emotional, though Jeanette’s birth mother is “bright-eyed, with an open smile”; the antithesis of the scandalized Mrs. Winterson, Ann is not only unruffled by Jeanette’s lesbianism but proud of her books. Ann is from a family of ten children. She has had four husbands: “I like men myself, but I don’t rely on them.” Jeanette is relieved and grateful to meet her, but doesn’t want to become a part of her birth mother’s family: “I don’t feel a biological connection. I don’t feel, ‘Wow, here’s my mother.’”

The concluding chapters of Winterson’s memoir have an air of the improvised and hastily written, as if, after the death of Mrs. Winterson, the intransigent and fundamentally unknowable soul of the text has vanished. The memoir loses its energies of narrative discovery, incredulity, and hurt and shifts to the self-help mode of impersonal benevolent wisdom:

Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kinds of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.

One feels that this is the sort of consolatory advice the author has been told rather than something she has discovered herself, as she’d discovered the curious interweaving of love and hatred in her childhood. Winterson sees her biological mother again, and they quarrel: “I am shouting at her, ‘At least Mrs. Winterson was there. Where were you?’”

Yet there is poignancy in Winterson’s discovery, from her birth mother, that Ann’s mother, too, was emotionally distant:

When her own mother was exceedingly old Ann found the courage to ask the question, “Mam, did you love me?” Her mother was very clear. “Yes. I love you. Now don’t ask me again.”