Winterson says, ‘Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go home.’ A harrowing childhood of being locked in a coal-hole, punishment by means of sleeping on the front porch all night, undergoing exorcism for having an affair with a girl, and spending most of your life feeling like you didn’t belong. With sheer courage and honesty, Winterson in her personal memoir, talks about being adopted in a Pentecostal family bordering on religious fanaticism. Mrs Winterson, as the writer addresses her mother throughout the book, was suffering from depression, fighting demons of her own and waiting for the Apocalypse. She believed she was brought into the world to suffer.
Mrs Winterson despised happiness, as the word in itself was tainted with sins. Perhaps, she didn’t know how happiness felt like so she stopped her daughter from pursuing it herself. Jeanette’s love for the written word was soon stamped and punched to the ground by her mother who burnt all her textbooks. It didn’t deter the author because she started memorizing the texts. How can her mother snatch the words that were now written in her soul?
The title of the book is taken from Mrs Winterson’s admonition upon finding out Jeanette’s affair with a girl. She retorts, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’
But the author also talks of the way words saved her from herself. The more her mother tried to drown her, the more she felt liberated. The power of language, of stories, of escape, wasn’t lost to her. The first half of the book is a tale of a wounded childhood, of the desperate need to belong somewhere. It’s also filled with lessons learnt the hard way. The second half, according to me, was written hurriedly as if the author was trying to see how it ends. Winterson went on to becoming a successful author, falling in and out of love before finding the ‘one’. All her life, Winterson felt, she wasn’t loved. How could she? Her biological mother gave her up for adoption when she was six-weeks old, and she was brought up by a tyrant who couldn’t see her as human.
The quest to find her biological mother, Ann, turns into a rigorous path as Winterson comes to a painful realization; she maybe be adopted but her identity is shaped by her upbringing. She feels as far away from her own mother as she did with Mrs Winterson. She says, ‘ I notice that I hate Ann criticizing Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster.’
Despite the violent childhood and a series of ‘lost loss’, this memoir ends with acceptance. It directs you to march ahead, to always seek love where ever you go.