I’ve been interested in Jeanette Winterson ever since reading Written on the Body. She’s a compelling writer, and in that novel I was swept away to a place where readers long to go — an interior landscape where all is forgotten except the story we are being told. When I began her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, my initial experience was not one of being swept away. Instead, I found myself figuratively hanging on by my fingernails; I wanted simply to survive her childhood. Winterson was adopted, and grew up with a mother who was a Bible-thumping, End-of-Days Pentecostal fundamentalist. In reading the chapters that describe this agonizing childhood, I sometimes dreaded turning the page. Winterson’s mother beat her and burned her books. She was repeatedly locked in the coal bin and left outside on the doorstep through long winter nights. Half-way into the book, my dread became sheer admiration: in writing about going mad, Jeanette Winterson reveals the superb ability of the writer who took the literary world by storm in her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. She wields words with a power that is stunning, and crafts sentences into a language that breaks, then mends, the heart.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is, in part, about Winterson’s sexual and intellectual coming of age. But the essential story is about mother and daughter — the relationship with her adopted mother that helped form Winterson’s strength and steely spirit — and the search for her birth mother, a search that leads to the core love story in this life where love was found, first of all, in books.
“I had no one to help me,” Winterson writes, “but the T. S. Eliot helped me. 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. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.”
If I asked any of you reading this whether you had hard things to deal with in growing up, my bet is that all of you, or nearly all, would say, “Yes.” Jeanette Winterson’s memoir shows that it is possible to take the hard stuff that life throws at you and use it to shape and hone the work you are called to, whatever that work may be.