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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.
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