Jeanette Winterson has written an autobiography of such exquisite honesty that it rates as the best autobiography I have read in many years. It is essentially a book about Winterson’s pursuit of happiness, an emotion that her adoptive mother did not believe in. It is a book about searching for love, an identity, a place to call home, and the need for a real mother.
Winterson was adopted by a couple who should never had had children and who live in the grim, industrial working-class part of Manchester. She describes her adoptive mother as a ‘flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer and bullets in a tin of Pledge.” This was a woman who would stay up all night baking so she didn’t have to share the bed with her husband, and who had two sets of false teeth, one for everyday life, the others for guests. She and her husband were the worst sort of religious people – fervently Christian, avid bible-readers and abusive to their adoptive daughter. The husband does not appear much in the book, as he did not have great an influence on Winterson’s life. It was her mother who when angry would say, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” It was her mother who would lock her out the house, leaving her to sit on the front step all night. She sent Jeanette to school a year late, because it was the ”Breeding Ground’ – like the sink would be if she didn’t put bleach down it.‘
Winterson writes: “My mother, Mrs Winterson, didn’t love life. She didn’t believe anything would make life better. She once told me that the universe was a cosmic dustbin.”
There were a total of six books in their household, one of which was the Bible. Her mother believed books would have a secular influence on Winterson and banned her from reading fiction (although she would send Jeanette to the library to collect her stash of murder mysteries). As a result, Winterson began to read books in secret, escaping into stories that took away from the grimness of daily life. “Books, for me, are a home...,” she writes, “…I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”
As a result of such a dysfunctional relationship with her parents, Winterson tells us how her need and her search for love began and how she sought for it through her life. “Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent….I didn’t have that and I was a very nervous, watchful child…..I never did drugs, I did love – the crazy reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health.”
At 15, she does the worst thing possible in her mother’s eyes – she falls in love with another girl. When her mother finds out, ‘then the air raid happened.’ Jeanette was locked in the parlour for three days with the curtains closed, with no food, or heating. One of the elders of the church forced her to repent, by pushing her to her knees, and trying to kiss her because it’s better with a man than a girl, it’s normal.
She leaves home at 16, lives in various places, survives and most of all, though, applies to Oxford to read English, ‘because it was the most impossible thing I could do.” She does get in, despite being told by her tutor on her first evening there that she was the working class experiment, and another woman was told she was the black experiment. “We soon realised that our tutor was malevolently gay and that the five women in our year would receive no tuition. We were going to have to educate themselves.” Winterson finds happiness in her studies, being amongst women with similar passions for reading, thinking, knowing and discussing.
She leaves university and starts writing, achieving success, yet her life is never happy. After a break up with a girlfriend, Winterson descends into ‘madness’ and tries to commit suicide, although she survives. As a reader, I was almost flattered to be allowed to read Winterson’s understanding of her mental state and sometimes psychosis: “There was a person in me – a piece of me – however you want to describe it – so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace…she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life…This misshapen murderous creature with its supernatural strength need to be invited home – but on the right terms.”
Winterson starts working again, and slowly pulls her life together. She decides to try to find her biological mother and starts a long journey that does, in the end, result in meeting her. That is the end of the book, in a way, although there is no linear form to this story, and we grow with Winterson as she discovers herself. I wish there were more, or that she would write another – I became so invested in her life.
This book is an autobiography, but I found it more than that. It is a psychological insight into a person who has been so damaged by relationships with family that she battles to relate to anyone; it is also a reflection of the redemptive power of words, fiction, and poetry. It is about the deep need for love and affection that humans have, and for a place to call home. It is also – luckily – very funny in parts.
- Why be happy when you could be normal? by Jeanette Winterson (independent.co.uk)
- VIDEO: Winterson: ‘My mother was a monster’ (bbc.co.uk)