For some writers, mothers are everywhere. They slip off windy cliffs and fall to their death; they follow a star to an orphanage and choose a child in a crib. They are the Dog Woman, fleshy and unwashed and unafraid to kill. They rescue the baby who, like some kind of Moses, is abandoned in the Thames, and they bring him up as their own.
These particular mothers belong to British writer Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, which often employs fairy tales and fantastical stories to explore familial relationships and thwart gender expectations. The mothers in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? are different, though: They’re real. Winterson’s memoir attempts to uncloak her two mothers, birth and adoptive. Framed by the poverty and history of industrial England, the narrative is fragmented and at times clumsy, jumping between concrete scenes and philosophical ruminations. Nonetheless, it is a book about self-discovery through emotional and mental breakdown.
The woman who adopted and raised the author is referred to as Mrs. Winterson or Mrs. W. throughout the book. She is described as a “flamboyant depressive,” a Pentecostal evangelical Christian with an “insane theology” awaiting the End Time who saw the universe as a “cosmic dustbin.” Mrs. W kept a revolver in the duster drawer, used fly-spray air freshener to cover up the smell of her cigarettes, and weighed around 280 pounds because of a thyroid condition. She watched Jeanette for “signs of possession,” and when Jeanette misbehaved, her mother told her that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib.” To punish Jeanette, Mrs. W. would shut her in the coal bin or lock her out of the house all night and instruct Mr. Winterson on how and when to beat her. When Mrs. W. spied on teenage Jeanette and discovered her lesbian relationship, she had church elders conduct an exorcism. At 16, Jeanette left home, sleeping in a car until a sympathetic teacher lent her a spare room. Later, that teacher helped her get into Oxford.
The book then fast-forwards to present day, when Winterson tries to live out a fairy-tale ending to the abuse. “I liked best the stories about buried treasures and lost children and locked-up princesses,” she writes. “That the treasure is found, the children returned and the princesses freed, seemed hopeful to me.” In this case, the resolution is finding her birth mother. She does. Ann was 16 when she had Winterson and gave her up because she thought it was “better for [Winterson] to have a mother and a father.” Whatever the mixed emotions of the reunion—in an argument, Winterson points out that at least Mrs. W. was there—Ann finally tells Winterson the one thing she’s needed to hear her entire life: “You were always wanted.” It’s a sentiment Winterson has yearned for but which she only half accepts. “I don’t blame her and I am glad she made the choice she made,” Winterson writes. “Clearly I am furious about it too. I have to hold these things together and feel them both/all.”
Like the legend of the Holy Grail and other tales Winterson obsessed over, and like much of her own work, this memoir is a quest story—a search for mothers, for self, for love that is constant, for a way to love others. Abandoning the flying, dancing princesses of her fiction in favor of more straightforward autobiography, this book lacks the magic of Winterson’s experimental novels. In some ways, it spoils the imaginative tales; one wants Winterson’s novels to stand on their own and remain untarnished by the facts of real life. Though the emotional truth of her history always emerges in her fiction, the fantasy transforms the personal pain. But knowing the autobiographical details behind her earlier books ruins the illusion that the works are worlds in themselves. They may be symbolic of real life, but readers, and perhaps the writer, also want them to be an escape from it.
Why Be Happy also begins with awkward comparisons to Winterson’s first and largely autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. This work, published when Winterson was 25, largely overlaps with Why Be Happy (Winterson even sends Ann a DVD of the BBC production of Oranges “as a kind of ‘This is what happened while you were out’”). Indeed, the third chapter of Why Be Happy starts with a half-page excerpt from Oranges, as if Winterson knew she would just be rewriting. As a result, the memoir at times feels like a contrived deconstruction of that first book.
Winterson, however, defends the barely disguised autobiography of Oranges as a “cover version” that she “could live with.” The actual story, the one she tries to lay out in Why Be Happy, “was too painful. I could not survive it.” This dichotomy, the need to compare her fiction to her memoir, drops away as the middle of Why Be Happy gets rolling. The strongest sections detail scenes from her childhood and teenage years and show how, for someone whose birth mother abandoned her and whose adopted mother abused her, reading and creating books saved her. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,” she writes. “What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.” When Mrs. Winterson finds the paperbacks beneath Jeanette’s mattress—72 per layer—she burns the volumes in the backyard. Jeanette stares at the flames and realizes that only what is inside of her is safe: “’Fuck it,’ I thought, ‘I can write my own.’”
The memoir, though, has large holes that Winterson is reluctant to fill in. For instance, she skips over 25 years of her life and also writes about her suicide attempt without explaining how she gets out of the gas-filled garage alive. Like the semi-autobiography in Oranges, this memoir is another version of Winterson’s life story, and it’s the closest she can come to facing that history:
“There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. … When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold. When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
But if Why Be Happy is a quest, the discovery is Winterson’s realization that “all my life I have worked from the wound.” To recover, she must abandon that identity. “But the healed wound is not the disappeared wound,” Winterson writes, “there will always be a scar. I will always be recognizable by my scar.” This memoir is the courage of a new self struggling to move forward, and despite the narrative weakness of the book’s latter section—it’s more rambling reflection than crafted thought, something also characteristic of the later parts of her novels—the emotion is raw. The memoir is painful to read but difficult to put down, and it is impossible to finish without being affected.
“Suffering was the meaning of Mrs W’s life,” Winterson writes, but by the end of the memoir, Winterson has moved past fighting with her mother’s insistent question, the one about her desire to love a woman rather than a man: “Why be happy when you could be normal?”