In a Panic About Love

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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 …

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