Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is an intense autobiography that explores the need for love and home, the insights of an adopted child and the pursuit for happiness

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?/ De ce sa fii fericita cand poti fii normala?

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape, 230p/ In Romania a fost publicata de Editura Hecate, 2015

 

 

When I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit I was overwhelmed by jumbled feelings – a general sentiment of bitter sweetness sprinkled with sadness to discover that there are women who adopt children only to annihilate them as individuals, contempt to see that a child can survive through imagination and a persistent self-inquiring whether the adult Jeanette Winterson could find her happiness considering her childhood.

25 years after she had published Oranges, in an attempt to fix and accept her own past, Jeanette Winterson wrote Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, a turbulent autobiography; I read it and I received the answers I was still expecting. Sometimes hysterical, sometimes extremely sad, the book is a deep confession of an adult woman who had to learn to love and look for meaning after she had grown up in a disordered house where they were like refugees in their own lives. The title reproduces a question Mrs Winterson asked Jeanette, an adolescent happy to discover the world:

“I was living in my own world of books and love. The world was vivid and untouched. I felt free again – I think because I was loved. I took Mrs Winterson some flowers.” The only reaction she could get was: “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

Jeanette was abandoned by her biological mother and adopted by a depressive, fanatical Pentecostal woman who hoped to raise a friend as she had none; often locked outside because she was becoming the Devil and forbidden to have access to books, Jeanette felt abused, became suspicious and reserved, suffering of an acute sentiment of anxiety.

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.

The beatings, the locking out, the burning of books and the exorcism sessions after Mrs Winterson found out that Jeanette was a lesbian were painful episodes but every time the girl managed to find escape. Books became her home and reading turned out to be her salvation.

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. There is warmth there too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.

[……]

I had no respect for family life. I had no home. I had rage and courage. I was smart. I was emotionally disconnected…. I was a loner I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography. I believed in myself. Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.

Many years later, after she was left by her girlfriend and tried to commit suicide, Jeanette found her birth certificate and decided to bring balance in her life. She began a new relationship with a calm, supportive woman who encouraged her to contact her natural mother.

Jeanette Winterson’s honesty and strength are impressive; as a child, as a teenager and also as an adult she had to confront not one but two mothers – one that was extremely abusive and one that had left. She had to carry her vulnerability in her personal relationships and in her social life as well.

She found her biological mother and tried to understand her but could not accept her as family.

Why is she an individual to recommend? Because she is frank, she is determined and she didn’t wait for the Apocalypse but learnt to celebrate love and all the accomplishments in her life.

 

Complement Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a bildungsroman based on Jeanette Winterson’s biography.

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