Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Often people reach a point in their adult lives when they get down to blaming their parents for everything they are and are not. Some of these feelings are well-founded and some are bunk. Many of these slights and hurts get sorted out, placed in perspective, accepted, forgiven. Some do not. Jeanette Winterson certainly has the right to lay blame for days.  

Given up for adoption at birth, Winterson is adopted by Pentecostal fundamenalists in 1960's Manchester. Her new father was a passive shadow. The woman whom she refers to alternately as her mother and as Mrs. Winterson is an absolute monster, a woman whose deep religious zealotry causes her to say and do the most hurtful things. She believes she is righteous and justified in her actions and opinions when, in truth, her life is small and deeply shrouded in ignorance.

The title is a quote from Mrs. Winterson when Jeanette told her mother she was gay and she was leaving. Her response and it's absolutism was striking to me. In Mrs. Winterson's world, there was no gray; only black and white, good and evil. Fuck you.  

Jeanette was a fighter. If she was locked out for the night, as she was quite frequently, before going to school she'd drink the two bottles of milk that were delivered each morning and leave them on the porch as an act of defiance. Ultimately, she left at 16 and made a life for herself with little more than smarts, determination and pluck. She became a graduate of Oxford and a prize-winning novelist

Having been shown so little love, much of the memoir has Jeanette trying to understand love as both a concept and an action. Is love finite? How does one love? How can one be loved or so unloved? She manages to answer some of these questions through her work and relationships while others elude her. She does search for her biological mother and even that leaves her a bit cold. However, the questions she raises are among the most intriguing, thought-provoking portions of the book. Because most of us are never faced with the horrible Mrs. Winterson and the attendant damage she wreaked, because we ARE loved, because we DO love, we don't have to consider these questions but it certainly made me think hard on the answers. 

Jeanette Winterson's memoir is an odd bird much like I imagine Jeanette to be. However, it is a striking work of such immense honesty that it made me hurt for her and root for her. 

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