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“Why be Happy when You can be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson

This is an extraordinary autobiography. It feels like a novel because of the vivid and persistent way she presents her mother to whom she only refers as “Mrs Winterson.” The latter is impossibly mad and cruel and just plain weird. And yet you believe that this is Jeanette’s mother or at least her adoptive mother. Her biological mother was “a little red thing from out of the Lancashire looms…from the village of Blakely where Queen Victoria had her wedding dress made.”

One can hardly imagine the writer would have been worse off had she not been adopted; sure, her real mother was just 17 years old and probably living in penury but at least she might have been loved. Mrs Winterson, if one wished to be compassionate, could be said to have been capable, to a modest degree and in a very odd fashion, of loving Jeanette but she certainly failed miserably to understand her. One instance of this abject incompetence relates to book-reading: “It never occured to [my mother] that I fell into the books – that I put myself inside for safe-keeping.” This failing is especially significant when we read that her mother burned all her books.

And this is just an example of how Mrs Winterson failed as a mother even back in the 60s when things were not as touchy-feely and PC as now. While “there were plenty of kids who didn’t get fed properly” there must have been few enough who were locked in the “coal-hole” or outside on the front door step all night. There isn’t time here to offer a definite inventory of Mrs Winterson’s parental transgressions; suffice to say that neither Jeanette nor her father believed for a moment that Mrs Winterson would be happy in heaven – not even for a second- that Mr Winterson had remarried. And then there was the issue with the fridge which is worth reading in isolation just in case you doubted how “out there” her mother was. See page 55.

Jeanette feels she had no home growing up: “For the refugee, for the homeless, the lack of this crucial coordinate in the placing of the self has severe consequences.”

This childhood led to problems with her adulthood: “another presence is hard for me,” she says; “I wish it were not so because I would really like to live with someone I love.” Again, like so much else, it goes back to her relationship with her mother.

But the experiences, often hurtful, sometimes even worse, inform her writing, even create it. She’s expert at providing profound insights into why she writes. Literature, she says, “isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” Reading allowed her to mend the tear that reality made in her imagination. Books were a place for her to get the buzz and the safe feeling that others get just being at home.

One has to wonder while reading “Why be Happy when You can be Normal?” how Jeanette would have fared without books, or if she had not left home at 16 like she did; anyone who needs to know or be reminded of why books are important and what reading them can do should read this book. And besides theorising about books, her life has allowed her to make observations like this: “I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things you must risk it.” What follows upon this assertion is scary and confusing like much of the book and yet there seems to be a whole other world in her mind some of which, for some of the time, we’d like to experience. Just as vehemently as her mother’s life was a “refusal of books, of knowledge, of life,” Jeanette’s is a brave and lonely absorption of all these. She says of religion: “I know that the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning.” And still she allows that it isn’t always so and some people’s lives are enhanced by religion.

Religion can give some people an outlet which is important for us as “meaning-seeking creatures.” In the midst of recounting some early experiences of her own, Jeanette can write something profound and relevant to all of us: “We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning – it is not yet clear how this will happen.”

Besides her own life or at least the intimate, dysfunctional side of it, Jeanette is interested in history and even engineering and, one suspects, a whole load of other things besides. She tells us that Richard Arkwright, “the Lancashire illiterate” was baptised in her hometown. She explains about Nori bricks, the hardest in the world, and about the pitch of roofs on the two-up, two-down houses and the relationship between the type of tile and the angle. This is a woman who’s interested in more than her own life in her autobiography: “There’s a lot of talk about social breakdown and alienation but how can it be otherwise when our ideas of progress remove the centres that did so much to keep people together?”

When was the last time you heard a politician speak thus?

Her lament for times past might appear at first to jar with the painful childhood she recounts but that childhood was made so by her mother mostly; her local town seems to have been quite a good place to grow up, if a little boring. Take the rag-and-bone man for instance, with his Jack Russell called Nip.

Things don’t improve over time between Jeanette and her mother much and all as the reader or Jeanette might have hoped. The end comes not with her death so much as with her offence when Jeanette’s girlfriend tells her she doesn’t like pineapples. Mrs Winterson had served nothing else because Vicky was black.

What followed were Jeanette’s attempts to find her real parents perhaps as a means to replace the mother she lost or to help make more sense of her life. Yet, she asks herself, “Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.” It reminds one of Philip Larkin’s “This be the Verse:” “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.”

There are broken relationships and a suicide attempt. There’s something of a chasm between her mother’s death in 1990 and the mid-noughties when her father’s second wife died. Her father entered a home and she was left to assess the contents of her childhood home. What might for many be cathartic appears to have been bruising for Jeanette. She relies on faith in books to get her through, writes a children’s book and takes refuge in Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Yet, despite all that, she still attempts suicide in 2008. She survives but curiously never explains how – did someone intervene? Did she come to?

Despite all this, books still manage to get her though it all. She reads the work of Neville Symington, a psychiatrist and works on “The Battle of the Sun.”

The discovery of her biological mother Ann isn’t like what happens in “Long Lost Families;” Jeanette is nothing if not uncompromisingly honest even if it’s only a version. She accepts that her feelings may not be simple or justified but she owns them. Her voluminous reading over the years informs her about her own pain, her own life. She’s complicated and leads us to suspect that she prefers it like that even though she “panics when [her] feelings are not clear.” On the other hand, “[she has] learned to see behind the image” and “would rather be this me – the me that I have become – than the me I might have become without books, without education.”

Books were the only family she had it seems. “Why be Happy when You could be Normal?” is a powerful testament to the value of reading and how it infinitely attests to the complexity of the human race: “There is still a popular fantasy, long since disproved by both psychoanalysis and science and never believed by any poet or mystic that it is possible to have a thought without a feeling. It isn’t.”

Anyone interested in mental illness should read this book. It is also a huge support for anyone who needs to relearn value of literature.

R.H.