Jeanette begins to look into her adoption records, but feels rattled by the process. She endures several confusing communications with the court—she describes all of the court’s correspondence as being conducted in the “dead and distant language of the law.” Jeanette finds the protocol that must be obeyed “difficult to follow,” and she wishes the process were “simpler and less insensitive.” She wants to stop the process, but with the support of her new partner—a psychoanalyst and writer named Susie Orbach—she presses on. “Adoption begins on your own… Therefore, the journey back should not be done alone,” she writes. Susie stands by her side each day of the difficult ordeal.
Jeanette highlights the difficult process of reconnecting with one’s heritage in order to show that many obstacles still stand between her and her birth mother—despite all the personal emotional work Jeanette has done to make sense of her past and her relationship to loving and being loved. There is more to the pursuit of happiness, she is demonstrating, than one’s personal journey—other things can crop up, get in the way, and need to be overcome.
Also at Jeanette’s side is Ruth Rendell, a longtime friend. Jeanette refers to her as the “Good Mother.” Ruth is well connected, and reaches out to her friends in the government on Jeanette’s behalf. All of her connections believe Jeanette should “proceed with the utmost caution” due to her public profile in the UK, lest a journalist uncover Jeanette’s mother before she does. Ruth helps arrange a meeting with the chief of the UK children and family court advisory service, who meets with Jeanette and agrees to help her track down her mother “without the risk of the whole thing leaking.” Jeanette gives Anthony the names of her parents—Jessica and John, and their surnames. Weeks later, Anthony calls to tell Jeanette that her file has been found, but that the names of her birth parents do not match the names she gave him. Jeanette wonders whose birth certificate she found in the drawer.
Jeanette must reconcile her desire to investigate her own past with the fact that, as a public figure, someone else might get the answers to her heritage before she can. Luckily, Jeanette has connections that allow her to proceed discreetly. Once she receives her first answer, yet another mystery begins to unfold—the mystery of whose birth certificate her parents have held onto all these years.
Next, Jeanette must meet with a social worker at the Home Office. She and Susie meet with Ria Hayward, who looks through the documents that Jeanette has, and reassures her that her mother always wanted her. She passes Jeanette a piece of paper with her birth mother’s name on it. Jeanette contemplates her lifelong struggle to learn how to love, and is overwhelmed by the love that is all around her now and her own struggle to “dissolve the calcifications around [her] heart.”
Jeanette has put up walls to combat the years of intense trauma she was subjected to as a child. Now that she has love in her life—love all around her—she is beginning to learn how to accept that love, and how to accept the fact that just because she was given up for adoption does not mean she was not wanted in the world. Jeanette must rewrite the stories she has told herself about herself for so many years.
On the train home, Jeanette is shell-shocked and stunned, and turns to a remembered Thomas Hardy poem in order to “find the feeling” she needs to have.
Once again, Jeanette finds refuge in storytelling and literature.
Ria helps Jeanette to put forward another request for information in to the court that might hold Jeanette’s original adoption records. The court locates the file, but must place Jeanette’s request to see it before a judge. Jeanette is upset and angry. A few weeks later, another letter from the same local court arrives; the judge has issued a clinical advisement for Jeanette to fill in the “usual form” and send it back. The letter also advises Jeanette to hire a lawyer. Jeanette is overwhelmed with frustration and confusion, and wets herself in a panic. After calming herself down, Jeanette contacts Ria, who comforts her and tells Jeanette she will take matters into her own hands. Jeanette remains enraged by the court’s “legalese” and unwillingness to help her. She has been “thrown back into a place of helplessness.”
As the search for her adoption records becomes more and more fraught and difficult, Jeanette fears she will give into the worst parts of herself—the violent, insecure bits of herself that she has just begun to really reckon with. Jeanette has worked so hard to get to the point she is at in her emotional and artistic life, and the feelings of “helplessness” that marked her childhood, as they resurge now in her adult life, are even more flattening and debilitating.
Ria, Jeanette, and Susie continue to struggle against the courts, who demand that Jeanette follow strict and obscure procedures. Jeanette and Susie make an appointment at Accrington Court, where an official has all of Jeanette’s papers but will not allow her to see them. Jeanette experiences a “pre-language physical pain,” but Susie talks them both through negotiations with the court manager, who agrees to tell Jeanette the name of the adoption society which handled her case. When Jeanette presses him for more information, he clams up, unsure of what he is and is not allowed to tell the women, and Susie instructs Jeanette to leave the room. Jeanette leaves the courthouse and stands on the sidewalk outside, wondering for the umpteenth time who the woman in the garden from her childhood could have been.
As Jeanette continues to struggle against the courts in search of her adoption records, she regresses to a kind of pain and sorrow that is “pre-language.” The stories and poems that have helped Jeanette to cope have no bolstering effect on her now—she is feeling a deep, primal frustration at being denied the right to understand where she comes from. When Susie shoulders the burden for Jeanette, it is an act of love and support which is still new to Jeanette, relatively speaking.
Susie extracts a promise from the court manager to meet with the judge in session, find out what he is allowed to tell the two of them, and meet up again in forty-five minutes. Jeanette and Susie head to a café that used to be the Palatine—Mrs. Winterson’s favorite. Jeanette has not been here since Mr. Winterson’s funeral some years ago. Jeanette interrupts the narrative to reminisce about her father’s funeral—after her check payment for his burial wasn’t received, she had to convince the cemetery that she was not going to stiff them—she produced a copy of her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit from her purse (she had intended to bury her father with it but changed her mind), the men were impressed, and they allowed Jeanette to write a new check on the spot. Mr. Winterson was buried with his second wife Lillian, far away from the plot that held Mrs. Winterson’s body.
As Jeanette visits and reminisces about the familiar places in her hometown, she is taken back into different stages of her past. As she remembers her father’s funeral, she recalls how it was her own role as a celebrated storyteller which allowed disaster to be averted. The symbolism of Mrs. Winterson lying in a grave far from her husband confirms that she was isolated from everyone around her not just in life, but in death as well.
Susie and Jeanette meet with the court manager once again. He is able to tell Jeanette her birth mother’s age at the time of her birth, but not her mother’s actual birth date. Her birth mother was seventeen—the same age that Mrs. Winterson had always told her. As the two women drive back to Manchester, Jeanette wonders if every woman she sees is her mother—and whether her mother is even still alive, as Mrs. Winterson had always told Jeanette she was dead.
Jeanette must attempt to sort out what information Mrs. Winterson gave her that was true, versus what information was false. Jeanette still must negotiate against her mother’s word even years after Mrs. Winterson’s death.
After hitting more and more dead ends, Jeanette takes her search into her own hands via the internet, and wonders what made her birth parents give her away. She says it had to have been her birth father’s fault, “because [she] couldn’t let it be her [mother’s.]” The adoption society eventually contacts Jeanette and tells her they will allow her social worker—not Jeanette herself—to view her file. Jeanette begins to worry that her birth mother is dead, and that her whole search will have been in vain.
Jeanette realizes that just as she has always been in charge of her own happiness and her own story, she must take charge of this chapter of it as well.
On a trip to New York City, Susie tells Jeanette that Jeanette doesn’t know “how to be loved.” Jeanette admits that she does not trust Susie to love her, but admits she must do the “love-work” of allowing herself to stay with Susie. This conversation echoes Ria’s entreaty of Jeanette to believe that she was always “wanted.”
Everyone in Jeanette’s life tries to show her the ways in which she is good, loved, and wanted. Jeanette is still working to allow herself to be loved in the wake of her massive mental breakdown years earlier.
Jeanette meets with Ria in Liverpool. Ria divulges details about her birth father, and also reveals Jeanette’s mother’s date of birth. Ria reveals that the Wintersons had planned to adopt a baby boy named Paul—Mrs. Winterson had already purchased baby boys’ clothes, and Jeanette, for the first few months of her life, had no doubt been dressed in those clothes. Jeanette finds humor in the situation, and when she relays it to Susie, a psychoanalyst, Susie tells her that “mothers do everything with boy babies differently,” and that if Mrs. Winterson had “psychologically prepared herself for a boy, she would not have been able to shift her internal gear when she got a girl.” Jeanette and Susie believe that this, combined with the abandoned baby Jeanette’s attempts to survive a loss, might have shaped Jeanette’s identity from an early age. Jeanette feels “freed” by this information, but is “no nearer” to finding her birth mother.
The revelation that Paul was not merely in another crib, but was the baby her parents had planned to adopt all along, is “freeing” to Jeanette because it allows her to see the ways in which her earliest moments with Mrs. Winterson entrapped her in a vicious cycle of attempting to please a woman who could, by default, never be pleased. The information, however, does not influence Jeanette’s search—it is merely another filled-in gap in the story of Jeanette’s life.
One of Jeanette’s friends, attempting to help her by combing through ancestry websites, eventually is able to contact an uncle of Jeanette’s. Jeanette develops a cover story and calls the man, who tells her that her mother, Ann, is alive. Jeanette, whose “whole identity [has been] built around being an orphan,” now has a mother and perhaps a whole family. She writes a letter to Ann, and sends it to her through the uncle she contacted. A week later, she receives a text which begins “Darling Girl”—Susie leaves the room with Jeanette’s phone, calls the number, and then comes back upstairs to announce that she has just gotten off the phone with Jeanette’s mother.
As Jeanette closes in on the search for her mother, she grows more and more nervous. She is afraid to actually meet the woman who gave birth to her, but is also afraid to interrupt or change the narrative of her own life. Having always told herself one story about herself, she must now begin to consider that that story is on the verge of changing completely.
A letter arrives several days later with a baby photo of Jeanette enclosed. The letter explains that Ann was sixteen when she got pregnant, looked after Jeanette for six weeks after her birth, and had a very difficult time giving her up. Ann writes in the letter that Jeanette was “always wanted.”
The confirmation that she was loved from birth and “always wanted” provides Jeanette with proof, in a way, that she deserves to be able to “love well,” and always has.