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Why Is the Measure of Love Loss?

Posted on Mar 29, 2012

By Lauren B. Davis

“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”
A book by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson’s novels circle round the same themes—the power of story and mythmaking, the fluidity of gender, monstrous mothers and the loss of love. Her pages are filled with references to the Bible and to fairy tales, and are often artfully disjointed. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” for which Winterson is rightly famous, was directly inspired by the author’s life. “Sexing the Cherry” is less overtly autobiographical but still contains some autobiographical elements, such as the echoes of Winterson’s mother in the giantess character, The Dog Woman, and of Winterson herself in Jordan, the orphan The Dog Woman rescues from the river. “Written on the Body” is a rage-filled cri de coeur against the betrayal and flimsiness of love. These themes return in her poignant memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,” as does the duality of Winterson’s work—fact and fiction, love and loss, male and female. “I know now,” she writes in her memoir, “that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are live, till the very end, there is always another chance.” Here is a terrible fragility, but a fire-forged strength as well. 

The first section of the book deals with Winterson’s years as a child in Lancashire, England. She was adopted as a baby by a woman referred to throughout the book primarily as “Mrs. Winterson,” an evangelical Pentecostal Christian who hung a plaque with the words, “He Shall Melt Thy Bowels With Wax” in the outhouse.  Winterson describes her mother this way:

“She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father.”

If Winterson upset her mother, which she frequently did, Mrs. Winterson told her the devil had led her to the “wrong crib.” She should have adopted the other baby, a perfect little boy. She also detested books because, she said, “You never know what’s in a book until it’s too late.” (Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to make books irresistible.) She locked Winterson alternately in the coal cupboard and out on the stoop regardless of weather, regularly deprived her of food and had a violent exorcism performed on her daughter when Winterson fell in love with a girl. When Winterson refused to give up the girl she received an ultimatum from Mrs. Winterson and chose to leave home at 16. As she left she told her mother the girl made her happy. Her mother responded, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” 

With just the sort of droll understatement Winterson does so well, she tells us Mrs. Winterson “did not have a soothing personality.” “Every day Mrs. Winterson prayed, ‘Lord, let me die.’ This was hard on me and my dad.” Even in so devastating a memoir as this, it is a testament to Winterson’s talent that I laughed out loud on a number of occasions.

This first section is familiar territory to those of us who read “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” when it was published in 1985. But, Winterson tells us here, “Oranges” was not as autobiographical as it might have appeared. Rather it was “the story I could live with at the time.” 

book cover


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


By Jeanette Winterson


Grove Press, 230 pages


Buy the book

“Mrs. Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story’s silent twin. There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. … When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

Now, things have changed and this memoir is Winterson’s attempt to finally face her demons head on. 

“[W]ounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. There is value here as well as agony. What we notice in the stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out—literally and symbolically—by the wound.”

One of the discoveries she makes is that it was her monster of a mother who made her into a writer. The cadence of the King James version of the Bible, which her mother had steeped the household in, is the melody of much of Winterson’s prose, and she acknowledges this in the memoir. This is difficult for the reader to stomach, since Mrs. Winterson is so hard to love. One does not wish to credit her with anything. However, her very suppression of all passion and of books—she actually burns some she finds hidden in her daughter’s room—contributes to the author’s desire for them. Rather than bowing to her adoptive mother’s insistence on one essential apocalyptic biblical truth and nothing else, she learned to love words. “Fuck it, I can write my own,” is Winterson’s response to the book burning. The reader cheers for her.

Regardless, however, of how plucky and smart and strong Winterson is, a childhood like that leaves damage. She says, “When love is unreliable and you are a child, you assume that it is the nature of love—its quality—to be unreliable. … In the beginning the love you get is the love that sets.”

To see long excerpts from “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” at Google Books, click here.

In the second half of the book Winterson turns her gaze onto the consequences of that unreliable, indeed toxic, love. After a 25 year gap, the memoir continues. The gap is a sort of elephant in the room, and one wonders whether Winterson simply isn’t ready yet to look at those years under the same bright light as those on which she has concentrated. She does tell us that the search for love has been a lifelong preoccupation. (She does not, however, mention Pat Kavanagh on whom “The Passion” is purportedly based.) She picks up the thread when she endures a devastating romantic breakup with theater director Deborah Warner, and traces the resultant suicidal breakdown, which leads her to find her birth mother. 

She says, with characteristic bluntness:

“In February 2008 I tried to end my life. My cat was in the garage with me. I did not know that when I sealed the doors and turned on the engine. My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face.”



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By Salome, April 2, 2012 at 5:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How has this endless pursuit of “love” hurt us?  Let me count the ways.
From syrupy songs, to mindless movies, to tit(tering) tv, commercial interests ceaselessly drive us to buy the clothes, the cologne, the car, etc. that will finally capture the ultimate prize “love”.
How about peace?  Let’s pursue peace for a change.

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By Anarcissie, April 1, 2012 at 7:11 pm Link to this comment

Of course one might use an odd construction precisely in order to snag the readers, to make them read twice, because of the importance of the sentence.

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By tentaculata, March 31, 2012 at 9:20 am Link to this comment

“Why is the measure of love loss?” is the first line of Winterson’s novel, “Written on
the Body.”  She also uses it quite early in her autobiography in talking about her
relationship with her mother.

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By gerard, March 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment

Anarchissie:  I had similar language problems with this title—the idea of loss as the measure of love.  What finally settled me was the idea that everyone has a capacity for loving and being loved, and when that capacity is unfilled, the loss is profound and lasting and can only be “satisfied” by loving and being loved.
  Which raises some questions:  Why do so many Americans over-eat and overindulge?  Why are those monstsrous “cooking TV programs with the squoozey foot-high hamburghers so popular?  And the mile-higih cakes?  Why is America’s tendency to over-indulge in just about everything we do so conspicuous and out of control?  And why is this emptiness so unrecognized?
  And are we going to “render up” our entire country to the greed of Wall Street guzzlers and the obscene excesses of political exploitation?
  Are we the people who have everything and yet have nothing? Is it some kind of “love” that is missing from our lives—an emotional/spiritual emptiness that is making us suicidal?

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By Anarcissie, March 30, 2012 at 8:30 pm Link to this comment

By the way, it took me a couple of scans to parse the headline (‘Why Is the Measure of Love Loss?’)  which now seems to mean ‘Why is loss the measure of love?’  I kept putting ‘love loss’ together as ‘love-loss’ but then the foregoing sentence is ungrammatical.  Linguistics bloggers call these constructions ‘crash blossoms’, I believe.

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By John Poole, March 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yikes:  Many of us have had convoluted and unhealthy upbringings and somehow
managed to abide in some fitful manner.  We try to make sense of our
unhappiness and move on vowing to not pass on the hurt and mistreatment.

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By Anarcissie, March 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment

And thank the cat.

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