“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney. I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
When I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, I couldn’t wait to start the first page. I’ve been fascinated by Winterson’s novels for years, but never imagined she would narrate her life in the coherent, linear style associated with memoirs. In Winterson’s fiction, she constantly manipulates the boundary between fantasy and reality, integrating personal experience, mythology, and philosophy into a fluid conglomeration. Although Why Be Happy does feature some of Winterson’s trademark structural experimentation, it is also an engrossing story about one woman’s experience of dysfunction, madness, violence, love, and religion.
Even as a young child, Winterson was a constant source of disappointment to her new family. Mrs. W was especially intolerant of her daughter’s inquisitive and rebellious impulses. Mrs. W was a stern and domineering woman who intended to transform her child into the perfect Pentecostal missionary.
When Winterson’s burgeoning identity began to revolve around forbidden literature (anything that wasn’t scripture), a defiant sense of autonomy, and romantic relationships with other girls, Mrs. W decided her daughter was possessed by the devil. In order to “reform” the wayward Winterson, Mrs. W forced the teenage girl to undergo a traumatic exorcism. Afterwards, she was cast off from the family and forced to fend for herself at age 16.
Winterson worked and suffered but eventually earned a chance to study at Oxford. Her arrival at the prestigious institution marks the end point of Why Be Happy’s first half. When the narrative resumes, several decades have elapsed and Winterson is once again trying to figure out who she is and how to live a sane, stable life.
In 2007, Jeanette Winterson began to fall apart. Despite her literary successes, she was crippled by a sense of personal inadequacy, questioning her worth and value as a human being. As a consequence, the second half of Why Be Happy focuses on Winterson’s mental disintegration and the gradual process of re-forging her identity.
Fortunately, Winterson is no stranger when it comes to re-inventing identity. Her resilient and fierce nature allowed her to adapt to the terrible conditions of her childhood and confront the unanswered questions about who she really is and, as an adopted child, where she really came from. Winterson’s description of the way adoption impacts identity formation is especially striking: “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.”
After negotiating an endless bureaucratic nightmare, Winterson was finally able to locate and meet her birth mother. While on some level the meeting resolved some of her internal instability, it also generated new questions and emotions. Rather than embracing the reunion as a simplistic happy ending, Winterson wisely recognizes how the various facets of her fragmented self can never be tied up by another person. Her experiences, terrible as some of them were, made her who she is. Consequently, she can’t reject them, or the tyrannical Mrs. W, without rejecting herself.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is highly recommended for readers who have some familiarity with Winterson’s novels, especially her literary debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. However, her memoir would also appeal to those who are interested in accounts of dysfunctional families, adoption, and/or overcoming childhood abuse.