Jeanette Winterson describes her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, as a “flamboyant depressive.” She says that Mrs. Winterson was often angry with her when she was a child and frequently told Jeanette that the Devil had led her and her husband, Mr. Winterson, to “the wrong crib” when they adopted her. Jeanette writes that her mother kept a revolver with the cleaning supplies, stayed up all night to avoid sleeping in the same bed as her husband, and kept two sets of false teeth—everyday and “best” teeth.
From her early childhood, Jeanette’s mother told Jeanette a story of her wickedness and “wrong-ness.” Jeanette uses this as the first moment of her memoir in order to illustrate the effects that being told that story over and over again will come to have on her entire life. This beginning also suggests that, no matter how Jeanette had turned out as an adult, her mother would always have been dissatisfied.
Jeanette does not know why her mother could not have children. Jeanette believes she was adopted just because Mrs. Winterson wanted a friend. “I was a way of saying that she was here,” Jeanette writes.
Jeanette believes that Mrs. Winterson adopted her for the wrong reasons, and that perhaps this doomed their relationship from the start.
Jeanette describes the plot of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was published in 1985, as being “semi-autobiographical in that it tells the story of a young girl adopted by Pentecostal parents [who is] supposed to grow up and be a missionary [but] instead falls in love with a woman.” The first line of the novel reads: “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” Jeanette describes herself as a “bare-knuckle fighter” who was beaten as a child but “learned never to cry.” She was often locked out overnight, and was forced to walk five miles a day to school and to church.
Jeanette’s success has grown out of the acclaim she received for her first novel, which she published at a young age. Writing the novel, and living in the aftermath of having published something so personal, has shaped Jeanette’s adult life. Because of this, it’s important for Jeanette to reckon with the relationship between the content of her novel and the real facts of her childhood.
Jeanette recalls the “furious” letter her mother sent her upon the publication of Oranges in which she demanded a phone call. Jeanette, who hadn’t seen her mother in years, went to a phone booth in order to make the call, and pictured her mother far away in Accrington also sitting in a phone booth—her tall, nearly two-hundred-pound mother would have been dressed in a headscarf and light makeup and would have “filled the phone box.” She was, Jeanette recalls, “larger than life.” On the phone, Jeanette tried to explain the book to Mrs. Winterson, who complained she’d had to order the novel under a fake name in order to avoid embarrassment. A tone sounding through the receiver told Jeanette to put more money in the coin slot in order to continue the call, and this reminded her of getting locked out on the doorstep of her childhood home. Mrs. Winterson told Jeanette that any success she’d had because of the book was “from the Devil,” and asked why, if the story was fiction, would Jeanette have chosen to also name the main character Jeanette.
Jeanette describing her mother as a kind of giant will have larger implications later on in the book, as Jeanette compares her own life to the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and describes her mother as a “monster.” In this scene, Jeanette confronts her mother over their latest difference of opinions, which revolve around Jeanette’s success as a novelist. Clearly this disagreement has not escaped the effects of the tumultuous and painful relationship they shared during Jeanette’s childhood. It’s also notable that Jeanette’s mother read her daughter’s devastating autobiographical novel and could only feel anger and embarrassment, instead of empathy and remorse for what she put her daughter through.
Jeanette states that “adopted children are self-invented because we have to be,” and her whole life has been the process of “setting [her] story against [her mother’s.]” As Mrs. Winterson continued on the phone to question her about the “truth” of the book, Jeanette considered—and considers still in the present day—the fact that the version of her life that appears in Oranges is a less-painful story than the truth of her life. It is a version of her story she could “survive,” and that things were “much lonelier” in real life than they were for the Jeanette of the novel.
Jeanette’s mother does not understand her or her struggle. In order to cope with her suffering and loneliness, Jeanette has had to invent a fictionalized version of her childhood, which shows how storytelling enables Jeanette to process and overcome trauma. Here, Jeanette suggests that her novel was a sanitized version of her actual suffering, which is portrayed more fully in this memoir.
Jeanette recalls the friends she made in school, and the cruel ways she severed those friendships. Because she was adopted, and “adoption is outside,” she often found herself “act[ing] out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong.” She writes that it was “impossible to believe that anyone [could] love [her] for [her]self.”
Jeanette examines the ways in which the insecurities given to her by Mrs. Winterson’s cruel words about “the wrong crib” have affected her for her entire life—not just in her adult relationships, but in her childhood friendships, as well.
Jeanette continues to meditate on truth as she remembers the phone call with Mrs. Winterson. Her mother “objected to what [Jeanette] had put in” the book, but Jeanette feels that what she left out “says just as much.” What she had left out of her novel was the story’s “silent twin.” She has turned to fiction as a way to stop herself from being silenced—what her mother always wanted her to be. “Unhappy families,” Winterson writes, “are conspiracies of silence, [and] the one who breaks the silence is never forgiven.”
In breaking the silence about her family, Jeanette took one major step in her life’s journey of pursuing happiness. However, that book was still fiction. In revealing the “silent twin” of her novel through this memoir, Jeanette continues that work and is able to reckon with her past in a more direct way.
Though God, for many, is forgiveness, Jeanette writes that the God of her mother’s house was the Old Testament God, and “there was no forgiveness without a great deal of sacrifice.” Her mother was unhappy and waiting for the Apocalypse—her mother saw her life as a “Vale of Tears, a pre-death experience.” Mrs. Winterson prayed for death “every day,” which Jeanette comically proclaims was “hard on [her] and [her] dad.”
Religion controlled Jeanette’s circumstances from an early age. Her household was a strict and unforgiving one, just as her mother’s vision of God was strict and unforgiving. Jeanette’s desire to pursue happiness perhaps grows out of her desire to overturn her mother’s idea that life could not have any happiness in it at all.
When Jeanette was naughty as a child, her mother told her the story of the Devil and the crib: there had been a little boy in the crib next to Jeanette when Mr. and Mrs. Winterson had adopted her, and his name had been Paul. Paul was the paragon of goodness against which Jeanette was always held up.
Because Jeanette was always told that she was the wrong choice, the displacement she felt as a result of her adoption was magnified. The cruelty of projecting goodness onto this unknown infant in order to make Jeanette feel ashamed is profound.
Jeanette recalls a memory in which she is gardening with her grandfather. She wears a cowboy outfit—her favorite outfit—and a strange woman comes up to the garden gate. Jeanette’s grandfather tells her to go inside and find Mrs. Winterson. Mrs. Winterson and the woman argue terribly at the front door, and Jeanette senses that both women feel “animal fear.” Once the woman leaves, Jeanette asks whether the woman who came to the door was her real mother, and Mrs. Winterson hits her so hard she falls to the ground. When Jeanette returns to the garden, her grandfather is working peacefully.
This mysterious memory from Jeanette’s childhood will ultimately be a part of what drives her, later in life, to search for her roots. The fact that so much of Jeanette’s own life was kept from her, or misrepresented, also has had an influence on Jeanette’s desire to be a storyteller—to control and change the narrative of her own life for once.