Adopted at six weeks old, author Jeanette Winterson grew up lonely, quiet, and afraid, a classic book escapist till the day she could leave home. Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, returns to the territory she addressed in her semi-autobiographical, award-winning debut novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Addressing her past and her coming-out experiences directly instead of through fiction, she crystallizes her complicated relationship with the upbringing that shaped her writing.
The Winterson household clung to the edge of respectability during England’s lean postwar years. Her father, a World War II veteran, worked double shifts and hardly spoke. Her mother, referred to throughout with the distancing title of “Mrs. Winterson,” was an insomniac whose social life revolved around the church. As punishment for any perceived sin, she locked Winterson in an outdoor coal bin. In defiance, Winterson raided the store of canned food intended for the apocalypse and hid in the outdoor privy for hours, reading forbidden paperbacks like Jane Eyre (whose protagonist should have become a missionary instead of waiting for Rochester). When Winterson was caught with her first girlfriend, she was taken to church to be exorcised, but refused to confess. After her parents locked her out of the house, enforcing their choice by borrowing a relative’s Dobermans, Winterson slept in her car while she worked on her application to Oxford.
One of the last stops in Winterson’s deteriorating relationship with her parents was a phone call in which Mrs. Winterson angrily admitted to buying The Only Fruit under an assumed name. As justification for using the cover of fiction in the past, Winterson explains that the memoir genre was not as open at the beginning of her career as it is now. Bestsellers like The Glass Castle and Running With Scissors, which turn the tables on parents whose neglect was a form of abuse, stress the acceptability of sharing those hard truths without shame.
But Winterson’s account isn’t about truth so much as perception. She conceives of Why Be Happy as adding an additional layer to her story instead of replacing it. Separating herself from logical fact allows her to get more in touch with the bewildering feeling of dislocation brought on by her adoption—Mrs. Winterson used to say she was from the “wrong crib”—and to find sympathy for the parents whose emotional rationing controlled her childhood. Addressing an environment where self-expression was a luxury, Winterson is able to acknowledge the secrets that were beyond her understanding then without pushing for a pretense of false objectivity.