Marianne Moore with her mother photographed by Cecil Beaton
Perhaps every autobiographical first novel serves its author as Jeanette Winterson’s did — as “a story I could live with”. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” buoyant and irrepressible, was published in 1985, for its author half a lifetime ago, and what one can live with changes over time.
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is a memoir as unconventional and winning as the rollicking Bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson’s youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the clear eyed free. At the center of both narratives is Mrs. Winterson, as the author often calls her mother in Why Be Happy. It would be easy to dismiss this formality as an attempt to establish retroactively something that never existed between Winterson and her adoptive mother: a respectful distance governed by commonly accepted standards of decency and reason. But, even more, the form of address suggests the terrible grandeur of a character who transcends the strictly mortal in her dimensions and her power, a monolith to whom any version of mother cannot do justice.
“Tallish and weighing around 20 stone” (in other words, about 280 pounds), Mrs. Winterson, now deceased, was “out of scale, larger than life, now and again exploding to her full 300 feet,” a force that eclipsed Winterson’s self-effacing father, who couldn’t protect himself, let alone his child, from the woman he had married. It wasn’t her physical size that tipped Mrs. Winterson from mere gravity toward the psychic equivalent of a black hole, vacuuming all the light into her hysterical fundamentalism, so much as it was her monumental derangement. “A flamboyant depressive . . . who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge,” Mrs. Winterson waited not in joyful so much as smug anticipation for the apocalypse that would destroy the neighbors and deliver her to the exalted status piety had earned her. Opposed to sexual intercourse, as she was to all forms of intimacy, Winterson’s mother adopted her in hopes of raising a friend, the author speculates, for her mother had no other. But the trouble Mrs. Winterson found in reading a book, “that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” is the same trouble that complicates parenthood. Or, as Mrs. Winterson explained it: “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
Thus began the story of a mother’s failure to revise what she found objectionable in the creature from whom she expected comfort. Beatings made no difference, nor did being “shut in a coal hole” or routinely locked out of the house all night. As for the three-day exorcism occasioned by Mrs. Winterson’s discovery of her daughter’s physical attraction to her own sex: no demon emerged to “set the curtains on fire or fly into the dog,” requiring that it be strangled.
It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?
“What we notice in stories,” Winterson answers toward the end of her memoir, “is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”
From Oedipus to Harry Potter, literature has provided unlimited examples of the wounded hero, a gallery in which Winterson places herself, having followed her own “blood-trail” back to its source, and the gift that would offer salvation. “My mother,” Winterson explains, “was in charge of language”.
To confront life head on demands courage, to survive requires imagination. Perseus avoids Medusa’s paralyzing gaze by looking at her reflection on the surface of his shield. The author must have been more inventive. Put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds but by their triumphs.