Saturday, November 15, 2014

Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: A Booknote

This is a booknote I've been meaning to share with all of you for some days now. I call it a "booknote" rather than a review of this book deliberately: I'm not really seeking to comment on the book as a whole, but to share with you some reflections (perhaps idiosyncratic ones, at that) that struck me as I read Jeanette Winterson's memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (NY: Grove Press, 2011) recently.

To say that the memoir is, to a great extent, about a daughter seeking to deal with mother issues is to state the obvious. But in Winterson's case, the obvious is complicated not only by the fact that she was raised by an erratic and sometimes violent religious-depressive adoptive mother: it is complicated also by the fact that, until very recently, she knew nothing at all about her birth mother. Nothing, that is to say, other than what her adoptive mother, the mother Winterson insists on calling "Mrs. Winterson" throughout the memoir, told her.

Much of which, including the hint that her birth mother had died, turns out to have been false . . . .

Mrs. Winterson: 

She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge (p. 1).

Mrs. Winterson was a convinced Pentecostal who loved nothing better than to greet the missionaries of what she considered off-brands of Christianity at her front door, and then set them straight about how they had misread the bible. Mrs. Winterson was a convinced Pentecostal who liked to pin lugubrious bible verses, lugubrious reminders of the fleetingness and fragility of human life and the certainty of final judgment, to the walls of Jeanette Winterson's childhood home.

Mrs. Winterson appears positively to have enjoyed locking her adopted daughter into dark places, the house's tiny dank hole reserved for coal storage, or out of the house in freezing weather. Because There's An All-Seeing Eye Watching You. And Judgment Is Coming.

And so:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning. Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives (p. 5).

You can, I suspect, imagine how Mrs. Winterson handled the revelation that her adopted daughter, the one to whose crib the Devil had led her, she insisted as she punished Jeanette, when she would have preferred that other child, the good one — you can imagine how Mrs. Winterson responded when Jeanette informed her adoptive mother that she was a young woman who loved women. (At several points in the book, Winterson drops hints that she now prefers to avoid the label "lesbian" in favor of more open-ended, perhaps more free-wheeling, ways of talking about her sexuality, and so I'm deliberately avoiding using the term "lesbian" here.)

Why be happy when you could be normal? Mrs. Winterson responded. Why take a chance on happiness, that frill, that fleeting frippery, when there's normalcy to consider?

The All-Seeing Eye That Watches You. The One Who Will Rain Fire and Brimstone on the World. And Who Can Stand in the Face of His Wrath?

So it's little wonder that Winterson has spent her adult life searching for meaning, for a way through the wilderness, for any signpost at all that might make some sense of the mess she has been handed in the form of a birth mother who chose to give her up for adoption, and an adoptive mother who was downright off the charts of what most psychotherapists might call normalcy. It's no wonder that her life has gone like this:

I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it. And here is the shock – when you risk it, when you do the right thing, when you arrive at the borders of common sense and cross into unknown territory, leaving behind you all the familiar smells and lights, then you do not experience great joy and huge energy. 
You are unhappy. Things get worse. 
It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We bullet ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded. 
And then all the cowards come out and say, "See, I told you so." 
In fact, they told you nothing (pp. 63-4).

And this brings me to the part of Winterson's memoir that I find (perhaps idiosyncratically, I say again) most intriguing: her search for her birth mother. A search she recounts in "real time," telling readers about how she conducted it and what she found as she searched for her mother in the years right before her book was published in 2011 . . . .  

It will be no surprise to you that one of my passions is ancestor-tracking. It's a passion on which I have gotten my husband Steve hooked, so that we both enjoy few things more than finding a juicy new digital copy of . . . well, here's my own latest find: a digital copy of the original will of one William Godwin, a man I suspect may be my ancestor, which he made in 1779 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina.

Nothing about this find will interest almost anybody reading this blog. I mention it only to underscore the thrill some of us strange people feel when we see these original documents, and in the case of said William Godwin, discover that published transcripts of his will have misled researchers for sixty years now because they invent a fictional wife Tabitha for this man — a wife who does not appear in the will. A wife who belonged to a William Goodwin who died testate around the same time in the same county, and is named in his will . . . . 

To my surprise, Jeanette Winterson tells readers that this is, to a great extent, how she went about searching for her birth mother: she logged onto the Ancestry website, and, using such sparse clues as she had at her disposal, identified possible matches to her mother. When she could isolate a handful of plausible matches, she then began to reconstruct family trees for these folks and discover living relatives, including a probable half-brother — if her guess about the several birth mothers she had identified as possibilities was correct (and one of these did turn out to be correct).

Her book tells us about her tortuous road to obtaining information about her mother. I had no idea that it remains so difficult even now for someone seeking a birth parent in England to access files and documents. The book also tells us what happened when she met her mother, her half-brother, other relatives, and found she had a whole other family living not at all far from where Mr. and Mrs. Winterson brought her up.

It tells us about her surprising discovery that she could feel intense defensiveness on behalf of Mrs. Winterson, her lifelong bête noire, when confronted with the mother who had given her up for adoption — who had not wanted her, Winterson had always felt, even though her mother reassured Winterson that she had wanted to keep her daughter, but had not known how to do so when the birth father did not want to assist, and when the man who wanted to marry her did not want to raise another man's child.

This is a story that may interest some of you. It intrigued me. Steve and I are pushovers for any of those television series in which genealogical researchers report about what happens as they seek the ancestors of some star or public figure. We're watching the PBS series airing right now with Henry Louis Gates, whom we both like very much. 

We guffaw when these programs tell those watching, "And then we turned to and entered the ancestor's name, and look what turned up!" We laugh because we both know from our own experience that it's never quite so simple, that wills not mentioning a Tabitha will be transcribed with the non-existent name interjected into the will, and that family trees will proliferate at the Ancestry site, full of non-existent ancestors and fictitious names.

Even so, there are those documents out there to be found, like the will of William Godwin I was able to discover in a digital copy just this week. And like the treasure trove of documents to which Jeanette Winterson was finally able to have access, as she sought her birth mother, and which led her to meeting her mother.

Who knew that Ancestry, a website so many of us now use to find new leaves for family trees, can also be put to such valuable use by adoptive children seeking information about their families of origin? And that such a quest would figure in Jeanette Winterson's powerful, painful memoir about growing up with that revolver in the duster drawer and the bullets in the tin of Pledge?

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