Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Most misery memoirs are first books penned by people who are often not primarily writers, but who simply have extraordinary tales of woe to articulate. It is a very commercially-driven genre, where writing quality is not paramount, sometimes involving ghost writing; and it’s become a bandwagon that the ever expanding ranks of celebrities are wont to climb onto, as their names alone will sell books.
This makes Jeanette Winterson a special case with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as she’s an established writer of long standing, and way back in her twenties she already addressed her turbulent and troublesome early experiences in her semi-autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. So why revisit this territory and de-fictionalise it? Why re-clock the car to zero, so to speak?
It’s partly down to the changed perspective of middle age, where all becomes recast in a historical rather than an immediate context; and not only her own life but also her surroundings – Manchester and Accrington and their industrial heritage. She paints a picture that certainly supports the adage ‘it’s grim up North’, involving austere little houses with outside lavvies and no central heating or fridges or telephones. I am four years older than Jeanette, but as a southerner whose childhood was surrounded by ‘all mod cons’, hers feels like it belongs to an earlier generation.
Similarly she redrafts the almost 19th century figure of her stepmother, whom she refers to as ‘Mrs Winterson’ and who uses the matrix of her religious beliefs as an enabler of her abuse. Jeanette’s childhood involved corporal punishment, dished out by her father on the instructions of the dominant mother, nights spent of the front doorstep having been locked out of the house, and the burning of her hidden and forbidden book collection after it was unfortunately discovered.
Nevertheless Jeanette absorbed enough literature to get to Oxford to study English, become a successful writer and leave all that toxicity behind. But of course it’s never that simple. And so we come to what Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really all about – the spectre of unfinished business, the part of her story that serves as a corollary to Oranges.
As time went on, Jeanette hit forty-eight, the dangerous age, that period in the run up to the big five-O when youthfulness has all but drained to the last drop, older age beckons and demons from the past tend to make their way out of the woodwork. Many people, often creative people, have breakdowns and commit suicide at this time of life – for example Diane Arbus, Richard Brautigan, Sara Teasdale and Wendy O. Williams.
In the wake of a relationship breakdown, Jeanette became depressed and a touch psychotic, and she tells of a much nuttier version of herself who conversed with a voice she perceived as external to her own head and whom she dubbed ‘the creature’:
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.
Eventually Jeanette did attempt suicide, using as a means the exhaust fumes of her Porsche 911 – how more exotic than Sylvia Plath’s gas oven and a highly ironic indicator of her now vastly improved economic status! In the aftermath, an important part of the existential rebuilding involved unlocking the mystery surrounding Jeanette’s real mother and how Jeanette came to be adopted by Mrs Winterson. The bureaucratic struggle to get the right information is a tale in itself, an incredibly tortuous process, and the mixed emotions when Jeanette finally got there and discovered her real mother are very telling:
I did not know how I would feel about finding my mother. I still don’t. I do know that the TV-style reunions and pink mists of happiness are wrong. We need better stories for the stories around adoption.
Though Jeanette says that psychotherapy didn’t work so well for her, her narrative is nonetheless very therapy-savvy, and she marshals Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing to the cause. Moreover her therapist-friend Susie Orbach became her new partner, so the structure of therapeutic healing in her life is stronger than in most.
Finally Jeanette leaves us with an ending that is ultimately satisfying in its inconclusiveness and its acceptance that there is no final ending, no ‘happy ever after’ wrap-up to such matters, and any written account can only ever be a snapshot from its particular point in time. But as such an accomplished writer, Jeanette’s snapshot is naturally better than most, really getting to the guts of ‘misery’, its complex etiology, its all-pervadingness in the lives of sufferers and the methods of redemption.
Why not write a novel about it? you may well ask. I think part of the process was Jeanette’s realisation that it had to be done for real, and any fictional enveloping would only detract from the impact. With Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? she has enriched the misery memoir genre and done something which no novel could ever quite achieve, which in itself is a testament to the power of the genre.
(Photo of Jeanette Winterson by Mariusz Kubik.)