Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2012) is titled after the question her adoptive mother asked her after finding out that she likes women. The title is telling of Mrs. Winterson’s opinion and politics; and in reading the book, one discovers the irony in her statement. Mrs. Winterson is unlike any other person, with her praying that God let her die, her hanging paintings with the frames’ backs to the front, among others.
The memoir’s narrative unfolds to two paths. One path is the story of Jeanette’s life at home: how she had to deal with Mrs. Winterson’s bleak attitude towards life (“the universe is a cosmic dustbin”), and how Mrs. Winterson raised her and made her feel unwanted. (“When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” “I was beaten as a child.”) The other path is of her sexual and intellectual awakening—falling in love with women and finding comfort and pleasure in literature. The two narratives cross as Jeanette’s family life affects her relationships, and as Jeanette processes her failed relationships by looking to her family life, as well as to stories she’s read.
Jeanette often refuses the love that is given to her. The psychoanalyst and writer Susie Orbach, who would be Jeanette’s partner, observed that Jeanette knows how to love but doesn’t know how to be loved. Sure enough, when Susie told her, “You are generous and you are kind—I wouldn’t want to be with you otherwise, no matter how brainy and impressive you are—but our conflicts and our difficulties revolve around love. You don’t trust me to love you, do you?” Jeanette said to herself, “No.” She then recited what Mrs. Winterson told her several times when she was a kid: “I am the wrong crib…this will go wrong like all the rest. In my heart of hearts I believe that.”
When a social worker named Ria explained to Jeanette that she was wanted because she was breastfed by her biological mother when she didn’t have to be since she was being given up, Jeanette rejected the possibility of being wanted: “No. I have never felt wanted. I am the wrong crib.”
Even in her childhood, Jeanette pushed people away. She shares:
When I did make friends I made sure it went wrong…
If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.
Jeanette doubts that love can be given freely, even if she longs for that kind of love. Shortly after sharing how she let go of friends, Jeanette writes: “How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea.”
That she doesn’t trust others to love her for who she is hints that she doesn’t know how to be loved; trusting keeps one from demanding proof after insufficient proof of the lover’s affection. Once, Jeanette’s distrust extended to a kind of paranoia: Soon after stumbling upon her adoption papers with her name “violently crossed out,” she “began to go mad” and her relationship with the theater director Deborah Warner ended:
Deborah left me. We had a final fearful row, triggered by my insecurities and Deborah’s detachment, and the next day we were over. The End.
Deborah was right to go. What had begun with great hope had become slow torture. I do not blame her for anything. Much about us together was marvellous. But as I was to discover, I have big problems around home, making homes, making homes with someone. Deborah loves being away from home and thrives on it.
Jeanette has her insecurities. Whatever these are, like all other insecurities, these make her question her worth. Sure enough, she writes that there’s a creature in her who tells her, “No wonder Deb left you—why would she want to be with you? Even your own mother gave you away. You are worthless. I am the only one who knows it but you are worthless.”
How, then, does one learn how to be loved?
After a nerve-racking search for her roots, Jeanette reunited with Ann, her biological mother, and learned why she was given up for adoption. Ann “had no money and nowhere to go and Pierre wouldn’t bring up another man’s child.”
She too learned that Ann has no problem with her being gay. Shocked, Jeanette wondered:
What would my life have been like if [Mum] had said, ‘Oh, your dad and I don’t have a problem with that’?
What would my life have been like if I had been with Ann? Would I have had a girlfriend? And what if I hadn’t had to fight for a girlfriend, fight for myself? I am not a big believer in the gay gene. Maybe I would have got married, had the kids, and then gone off to get the spray tan, etc.
Jeanette began to tie her identity—her sexuality, her being educated, her attitude toward life, and so much more—to her background, inevitably making her realize that her other life would most likely be different, and not necessarily in a good way: “Ann had to work all the time because Pierre left her when the boys were little. And I suppose I would have had to look after my brothers. And I would have resented that.” She also considered that she would not have been educated if she had remained in Ann’s family; the family didn’t have much.
She mused further on how she, Ann, and Mrs. Winterson were all wounded by their circumstances and by chance. She was wounded by the rage and brutality of Mrs. Winterson, all the while nursing the emptiness of being separated from her biological mother and feeling unwanted and worthless.
Ann was wounded by a choice she made but did not want to make: She gave Jeanette up for adoption in hopes of having good parents to take care of her daughter and raise her. And she is distressed that Jeanette was adopted by a “flamboyant depressive” mother who locked Jeanette out of the house or in a coal bin throughout the night, and a father who did as he was told and didn’t ever fight for Jeanette.
As for Mrs. Winterson, she was expecting adopting a boy. According to Susie, this means that in the long adoption process Mrs. Winterson was psychologically prepared to have a son and wasn’t able to “shift her internal gear” when she got a girl. Jeanette writes that Mrs. Winterson was “gloriously wounded…[thrown] into rage and pain” perhaps by the mother of the boy she was supposed to adopt.
Jeanette started to grasp the pain Ann and Mrs. Winterson carried so she developed sympathy for them, allowing her to forgive her past and her two mothers, especially Mrs. Winterson.
She dislikes Ann criticizing Mrs. Winterson (“She was a monster, but she’s my monster.”). Jeanette even writes that she would rather be the person she’s become than the person she might have become “without books, without education, and without all the things that have happened to [her] along the way, including Mrs. W.” One can sense her acceptance, if not contentment, of her past and who she is precisely because of her background, experiences, and what she made of them. Love, or at the very least appreciation, for oneself is realized, and this assures her that there is something about her that other people can truly love.
The key seems to be in the reconciliation. Following her understanding of Ann’s and Mrs. Winterson’s pains, her forgiveness of her broken and flawed self and everything and everyone that contributed to it resolves the persistent feeling of loss and chaos. Known intentions and reactions deemed plausible provide closure. The reconciliation then catalyzes a new chapter for her, one where she is settled and at home, a state where she no longer leaves and through which she can find peace and happiness, and be loved. This echoes Jeanette’s words after letting Susie’s assurances of her being wanted sink in:
The love-work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.