Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is one of those memoirs, like The Glass Castle written by another Jeannette but with the last name Walls, that leaves you feeling flabbergasted, angry, and sad at the way grown folks who choose to become parents treat their children. In the case of Winterson, she is the adoptive daughter of a woman whom she refers to as Mrs. Winterson.
Jeanette has a troublesome childhood because Mrs. Winterson suffers from depression, but mostly because she grows up in a strict religious (Pentecostal)—and loveless—home in England during the 1960s and 1970s. Not only does Mrs. Winterson sometimes lock her out—forcing Jeanette to spend the night on the doorstep before going to school the next morning, but she also rejects her when she reveals to her that she’s in a relationship with another girl. “You’re no daughter of mine.” (Same words my father spoke to me at 16). Her mother’s reaction to this revelation is where the book’s title is derived: “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
Reading this memoir several years ago was triggering, but also helpful. I suppose that was the point when my grad school writing advisor suggested I read it after reviewing early drafts of my thesis for my MFA in creative nonfiction writing. Personal essays were my forté and she wanted me to dig deeper. Throughout my tenure in the program, I often found myself writing about my not-so-rosy childhood and the tragedy of my mother’s death. The two are inextricably linked. I wouldn’t have gone through the abuses and trauma I went through had my mother been alive.
I could relate to Jeanette’s childhood and young adult experiences because I grew up with someone who was supposed to be a mother figure, but begrudgingly took on the role of caregiver. Simply put, she was toxic. The same can be said for Jeanette’s adoptive mother. They were stand-offish and mean. Four years after my mother passed away from cancer, my father handed me and my younger brother over to his twin sister. This was after living with another one of his horrid sisters for two years. Living with both aunts—separately—was a living hell.
Mirroring Jeanette’s experiences, my aunt often locked me out of the house. I’d arrive at the house after a day of working all day, working and attending school, or visiting my maternal side of the family to find the screen door locked. It could only be locked and unlocked from the inside. No amount of doorbell ringing, yelling up to her bedroom window, or calling on the phone would move her to open the door. I then would have to drive to my mother’s side of the family a half-hour away late at night. Dangerous to say the least.
Also, like Jeanette, I moved out of the house while still young and before I was ready. I moved out at 20. Jeanette moved out at 16. We both moved out for the same reasons: a quest for a happier, more peaceful life. Even though we struggled to take care of ourselves, we were content to be away from the negative energy and to have a place to call home. I could relate to Jeanette in that before moving out, even with a roof over our heads, we felt homeless and sometimes hopeless. The house did not feel like home, nor was it a refuge from the outside world. It was the opposite. We had to seek “home” in other places.
Jeanette writes: “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home–they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” Books were home for her (and for me), and by becoming a successful writer of several acclaimed books, Jeanette Winterson no doubt has provided home for thousands of readers. Thanks to these bestselling books, she’s purchased multiple homes in which to comfortably rest her head.
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