I remember the moment Jeanette Winterson entered my life. It was the summer of 1995, upstairs in a dusty used-bookstore called The Book Peddler in downtown Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I was lost somewhere in the philosophy stacks when my friend Anderla came over holding a paperback reverently in her hands.
“You have to read this,” she said.
I took the book from her. “Why?”
“We read it when I was abroad. It’s amazing. She never reveals the gender of the narrator. You have to read it so we can talk about it.”
That was all the selling I needed. I took Written on the Body downstairs, paid for it, and started my adoration of Jeanette Winterson that day. It was, undoubtedly, the best $2 I ever spent in my entire life.
Over the next six months or so I spent most of my free reading time catching up on her back catalog. All of them. Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, Art & Lies, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Once I’d caught up, I’d re-read Written on the Body every year and wait eagerly for the next book to be released.
You can probably imagine my delight when Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? landed in my hands, and I loved every word of it.
If you’ve read ‘Oranges’ a semi-autobiographical novel, you probably have some knowledge of Winterson’s story. Adopted and raised by Pentecostal parents who were not too keen on Jeanette’s homosexuality. The memoir covers that territory in relentless, horrifying detail. Jeanette does not have a happy childhood. Her mother, always referred to as Mrs. Winterson, is an abusive, religious maniac. She often tells Jeanette how Satan led them to the wrong crib. She’d lock her young daughter out of the house over night or punish her by locking her in a coal shoot.
When Mrs. Winterson finds teenage Jeanette canoodling with another girl, she takes Jeanette to church where they perform an exorcism. An exorcism. In the 1970s.
The Wintersons are depressingly poor, and often the chapters read like they’re straight out of Dickens and not taking place in modern-day England. The subsist on boiled potatoes and onions, and use an outhouse since there is no indoor plumbing. But Jeanette finds salvation in books, and sets to reading all of the books shelved under English Literature in alphabetical order.
“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 at 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.”
And Jeanette, says how it is. Her writing has the ability to bend space and time. She does that here too.
Eventually, Jeanette has enough of her mother’s abuse and intolerance and her father’s passivity, and leaves home before finishing high school. She spends some time living out of a borrowed car until her English teacher offers her a room. She goes on to Oxford, and wild success, but still feels that old sting of not being wanted, worthy of love, and that sense of abandonment that haunts so many adopted children.
This leads her to search for her biological mother in the hopes that it will heal something within her. The search is frustrating and needlessly difficult filled with ridiculous bureaucracy, but Jeanette perseveres, just like she’s persevered her entire life.
This is a good one. While often I think memoirs are only for fans of the memoirist or those who have similar life experience, I wouldn’t say the same for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. In fact, I’d say it’s a good entry into the Winterson catalog if you have yet to experience her writing. And if you haven’t I feel sad for you, and you should rectify that as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.