As a child playing a game in which “the rug [was] a sea and the drawer was a ship,” Jeanette climbed into a drawer and found a birth certificate bearing the names of her parents. She never told anyone, and never had an interest in finding her parents. When adapting her novel Oranges for television, Jeanette renamed the main character “Jess”—her birth mother’s name had been Jessica. Oranges won several high-profile awards in England, at Cannes, and all over the world. Jeanette believed that her birth mother would see the film and “put two and two together,” but this did not come to pass.
Jeanette has been longing for years for a way to connect with her birth parents, but a combination of fear—and Mrs. Winterson’s repeated warnings that Jeanette’s birth mother had been a bad person, and was already dead—kept her from ever putting more than a small amount of attention toward the search.
In 2007, Jeanette has done nothing to discover her past except to “repaint” it and write over it. She is in a “rocky and unhappy” relationship, struggling to write a book, and helping Mr. Winterson to deal with the death of his second wife, Lillian. Jeanette goes to Accrington to help him clear out his house so that he can move into an assisted living facility. In a locked trunk, Jeanette discovers a cache of her mother’s Royal Albert china, her father’s war medals, letters from her mother to her father, and her own formal adoption papers. Her name has been “violently crossed out,” and the top of the form has been torn off—she cannot read the name of the doctor who evaluated her or the adoption society which brokered the adoption. Jeanette feels trapped, and wonders why her parents would never have given her any keys to her “biography [or] biology.” She has been writing “love and loss narratives” all her life, and wonders if she will ever be able to find her lost mother again. She contemplates a line from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which refers to “that which is lost”—not “that which was lost” or “that which has been lost.” Loss is serious and present, Winterson argues, and “still wound[s] each day.”
In the middle of a very difficult moment in her life, marked by loss, tumult, and difficulty in love, Jeanette finds a clue to her own past. Though the adoption form has been mutilated, it represents both a way forward and a reminder of her dark, claustrophobic past. Jeanette ruminates on the nature of her life’s work and finds that it is centered around loss, love, and loss of love—she knows intimately that loss has the power to resonate throughout one’s life for years and years, and to destroy everything that attempts to fill the gap it has made.
Jeanette writes that soon after she finds the ruined birth certificates, she begins to go mad. She separates from her partner, unable to “make [a] home with someone,” and, in the wake of this new abandonment, is thrown backward into a regressive state. She wakes in the middle of the night, sweating and calling for “Mummy,” and finds herself unable to leave her house. The only rope connecting her to sanity is poetry and literature, but she is unable to write her own work—“language [has] left” her.
Jeanette’s loss of the only remaining stable thing in her life—which she admits was not very stable to begin with—pushes her over the edge of a precipice she perhaps didn’t even know she was on. She clings to literature, as she always has, but even stories are not enough now to keep Jeanette afloat as she succumbs to the demons of her past.
After a while, Jeanette is able to write, and publishes a children’s story which is turned into a picture book. She flees to Paris, where she lives and works above the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop, but she is still not getting any better. In fact, she is getting worse.
Though Jeanette experiences some positives in her career and writing life, she cannot fool herself: she is struggling, and failing to keep herself afloat.
Jeanette decides to commit suicide, and writes notes to her friends. She decides to gas herself in the garage with the help of her Porsche—she does not “want to vacate life,” but feels it is “too precious not to live fully.” She thinks that if she cannot live fully, she must die. She attempts to kill herself in February of 2008 but is unsuccessful.
Jeanette loves life so deeply that she wants to end hers—she feels that not living it fully is an affront to life itself. The pursuit of happiness and love has always been so important to her, and her inability to continue in that pursuit makes her feel as if life is not even worth living.
Lying on the ground after her failed attempt on her own life, Jeanette hears a voice: “Ye must be born again,” it says. Recognizing the quotation as a Bible verse, Jeanette contemplates the fact that though she has already been technically twice born, she must now choose again to be alive.
While Jeanette doesn’t reconnect with the concept of being twice-born in a religious sense, she does reclaim the notion of being born-again for herself and her own sense of purposes. She recommits to living her life and to pursuing happiness with the strength and vigor she once did.
By March, Jeanette has begun to recover, and contemplates the suppression of feelings that occurs every day for many people, but specifically for herself—“it takes courage to feel the feeling,” she writes. She realizes that there is a damaged, hateful piece of herself that has been hiding away, ready to “stage a raid on the rest of the territory” of her body. Jeanette begins to grapple with that self as she begins writing a story for children. Jeanette is unsurprised to be working in children’s literature, as “the demented creature [inside is] a lost child.”
As Jeanette confronts the creature within herself, she builds up “courage”—the lack of which has kept her from really connecting with the truth of herself and her past. As she realizes that it is her own inner child which impedes her path forward in the pursuit of her own happiness, she wonders how to appease the child inside and conquer her demons once and for all.
Jeanette begins to talk to the “creature” inside of herself, though it is strange, difficult, and, she admits to herself, “mad.” The talks work to contain Jeanette’s fears, though, and she no longer experiences night terrors. She attempts to go to therapy, though the “creature” tells her that therapy is a waste of time. She finds a “priest-turned-shrink” who helps her to better communicate with the creature inside, and, eventually, by referring to the creature as an “us,” not a “you,” Jeanette is able to convince herself that together, she and the creature “will learn how to love.”
Jeanette’s commitment to conquering her inner demons forces her to descend all the way into her madness in order to work her way back out. As she makes peace with the destructive, childlike force within herself, she recognizes that that force is a part of her, not a separate entity—this allows her to work together with it, and reorient herself in her pursuit of love, happiness, and understanding.