In Jeanette Winterson's new memoir, "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?," the British author writes: "Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead." And that's precisely what Winterson has done.
The title of her memoir is a question asked of Winterson by her adoptive mother, a "flamboyant depressive" who kept two sets of false teeth (matte for everyday and a pearlized set for 'best'), a revolver in her dresser and bullets in a tin of Pledge. She was also a religious zealot who locked Winterson outside while she waited for the Apocalypse, steeped in her own misery and madness. Winterson's captivating memoir is about her struggle to break free from this "cosmic dustbin" and her search for her biological mother. It's a painful and poignant story of redemption, sexuality, identity, love, loss and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Winterson appeared on the literary map 25 years ago with "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," a bold, revelatory work that won her the Whitbread First Novel of the Year award and was later adapted to TV by the BBC. She went on to write a number of highly acclaimed books, many with themes that are central to Winterson's radically unconventional past. I spoke with Winterson about her memoir from her home in England.
The title of your memoir is arguably one of the best titles for a memoir, ever. Of all the accidentally witty and demented things your ever mother said to you, this is the most potent.
Mrs. Winterson didn't have much conversational style, but she did like to speak in aphorisms. And indeed "Why be happy when you could be normal?" is perhaps one of the best ones, and I had to live with it my whole life. When I went away that night after she said it, I thought: "Is this a genuine opposition? Is 'happy' the polar opposite of 'normal'?" It's actually a very deep philosophical question. As a teenager it troubled and interested me. I still, today, can't really answer it, because I think it's a false question.
Have you come to a point in your life where you accept that "normal" and "happy" don't necessarily have to coexist?
Yes. I've come to realize -- and it's one of the great things about getting older -- that everything that we think of as a truth is propositional. It's usually only passed off as a truth because it's reinforced either by society or by tradition or by assumption. In fact, once we take those truths apart we realize just how propositional they are. We realize we can change them, but that's difficult to do because we put such emphasis around these things. Quite a lot goes unchallenged in life. Even now when we're supposed to be much more democratic and there's more tolerance in the world, every day people still just crucify themselves over whether they fit in, whether they're right, whether they're appropriate or loveable or acceptable. It's the unspoken question that troubles many people.
One of the benefits of getting older is that we slowly start to not give a damn about certain things that had crippling power over us when we we're younger.
Yes, and I think an engagement with literature gives us tools for self-reflection and criticism in this regard. It gives you a point outside of the self where instead of always internalizing certain things and testing them against your own behavior, you start to realize that these things are not about you at all; that they are, rather, about some sort of conspiracy to keep everybody in the same kind of box.
The search for your biological mother is not really the core of the memoir. Its heft comes in exploring the world you lived in with your adoptive mother -- "Winterson world," as you call it. That said, did you feel as sense of closure when you did finally meet your biological mother? It opened a new door.
It did -- but another thing that I've realized is that there is no closure in life except in Hollywood. There's no point in hunting for it. And that's liberating, because you get some answers and you get some satisfaction and a kind of conclusion, but it's not closure. All the big things in life tend to lead you into another place, don't they? It's a feature of the Western mind that we like to have everything in boxes and we like to see how things begin and end. I don't think any that any of the really big questions in life ever get answered.
Speaking of big questions, at one point in your memoir you ask, "why is the measure of love loss?"
It's a good sentence, isn't it?
Yes, it's a fantastic sentence.
Well, that's the trouble. Sometimes you have to be careful about the things you say, because you get enchanted by your own writing. I still think it's a seductive sentence and a beautiful one, but I no longer believe it. If the love you experience early in life is unreliable, then you imagine that that's intrinsic to love, therefore it will always be about loss, and the concomitant of loss, which is longing. But I came to realize that love could be dependable. I talk about the daily rising of love that's as dependable as the sun. And that whatever you do, it will be there. And that's been a great surprise and a great discovery for me, and a rather marvelous one.
And did that come late in life as well?
Yes, it came around this time, partly through my relationship with Susie (Orbach), who is completely dependable. I've arrived at some other place in myself where I really no longer feel that love is a question of loss. That's a change, and one that I wouldn't have expected for me. (Winterson has been with Orbach, the writer and psychotherapist to Princess Diana, since 2009.)
To say that your adoptive mother was difficult is a vast understatement. Have you forgiven her?
Yes, I have definitely forgiven her. As I got older, I had more awareness both of the frustrations and bitterness and misery of her life -- what it was like to be her suddenly became clearer to me -- and also I understood her in her social context. I'm a child of Thatcher/Reagan and we always tended to privatize problems, because that's what we were taught to do. That's both empowering and depressing, because you were told that if there was a problem, you could solve it. On the one hand that's great, but it also means that it's your fault and that there's no social context. It's a very easy way of letting institutions and government off the hook for the way we live. But there is a social context, you can't change on your own when it comes to certain circumstances. And I think for my mother, as a post-war woman before feminism, she lived through a dreadful decade. Absolutely horrible. I didn't understand that when I was a kid growing up. I couldn't see the bigger picture.
We don't really understand ourselves, let alone our own parents, until we're old enough to be parents ourselves.
That's right. And you don't sympathize with them because they're the authority figures and they're always the ones who are making your own life difficult. You don't see how difficult their own lives might be, and often difficult for very good reasons.
In your memoir you quote the fabulous Mrs. Ratlow, who said to you: "When a woman alone is no longer of interest to the opposite sex, she is only visible where she has some purpose." Do you think that, despite strides in feminism, this is still true?
Yes. I think it's absolutely true. We can't say anymore that women are too stupid to do things, but we can make them feel completely insecure about the way they look. Women used to feel insecure about their brains -- people can't do that to women anymore -- so we go back to the body war.
You've broken many rules in life, but what's one rule you feel you can break with impunity now that you're older.
I can be bourgeois now. I can go eat in nice restaurants and have a nice car. That's one of the fun things about coming from a really grim place and having no money and nobody having any expectations of you. If you make it on your own, you think, "oh okay, I can do this now," which is kind of great.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
It was the belief that nothing need stop me; that nothing needs to get in my way. Both the librarian and Mrs. Ratlow believed in me. They didn't warn me. I went to Oxford and was so shocked. I'd never seen people who were so posh and so well-connected and self-assured. It was a place of privilege. And they didn't tell me about that because they knew that I'd be afraid. They just said, "you're clever enough and you should do this." They gave me this feeling that I could do it and not take no for an answer. And I think that I still never take no for an answer. Those two women who gave me a sense of myself, a sense that I could be somebody.
What is your biggest regret?
The things that I regret were not errors of judgment but failures of feeling. Whenever I've made the biggest mistakes, it's always been a failure of feeling. It wasn't that I didn't think things through properly; it was that I either hardened my heart or turned away or failed to see how much something meant to somebody else.
What's your greatest accomplishment?
That I'm still alive. It really was 50/50 that I wouldn't get through. So there's not a day that I don't get up and say, "Thank God." I'm so pleased that I got through it and was able to move forward, not in a false way but in a real way -- from a new place and new platform.
If you could say one thing to the next generation, what would be it?
Believe that you can change the world and don't be cynical.
If you could reincarnate as anyone or anything, what or who would it be.
Well -- why not aim high? -- I think it would be pretty good to go back and be Elizabeth I.
Winterson visits her childhood home and talks about her memoir in the video below.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated the title of Winterson's memoir as "Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?" The title is "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?"