October 20, 2014
Why Is the Measure of Love Loss?
Posted on Mar 29, 2012
By Lauren B. Davis
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”
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:
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.”
Now, things have changed and this memoir is Winterson’s attempt to finally face her demons head on.
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.”
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:
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