Jeanette Winterson describes the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington—a place which was “the center of [her] life for sixteen years.” An unconventional place of worship, “it had no pews, no altar, no nave or chancel, no stained glass, no candles, no organ.” Instead it had fold-up wooden chairs for congregants to sit on, and a pit that could be filled with water for baptismal rites in order to fully immerse those being baptized.
The Elim Pentecostal Church was a place for raw worship, not done up in elaborate décor or filled with any distractions from the task at hand: witnessing God and being saved. It also noticeably reflects the general poverty of its congregation.
Jeanette describes Mrs. Winterson’s belief that bodily resurrection was “unscientific,” despite the fact that she believed fully in the reality of the apocalypse. Mrs. Winterson claimed that witnessing the effects of the atomic bomb forced her to see that life is made of energy, not mass. Mrs. Winterson failed to realize, Jeanette comments, that her life on earth “did not need to be trapped in mass” either.
Jeanette points out the cruel irony of her mother’s life: Mrs. Winterson believed that she would be delivered in the afterlife, and took no care to make her life on earth feel as if she were anything other than “trapped.”
Jeanette returns to describing the baptismal ritual, in which the candidate was covered in a white sheet, fully submerged in the water, and then treated to a hearty supper. Infants were not baptized—only adults, who understand the weight of giving their lives over to Jesus Christ. Jeanette considers the advantages and pitfalls of the “second birth”—on the one hand, the congregant chooses consciously, through self-reflection, the religious path; on the other hand, Jeanette writes, “the whole process [can] very easily become another kind of rote learning where nothing is chosen at all.” Jeanette writes that religion allowed the members of her working-class town to live fuller, deeper lives—as they were uneducated, the Bible was what “worked their brains.” Every life needs “some higher purpose,” she argues.
Religion served an important purpose in Jeanette’s hometown, and the idea that members of the Elim Pentecostal Church were able to choose their faith consciously contributed to the devoted, Evangelical atmosphere within the congregation.
Commonplace incidents—a fox in the henhouse, rain after hanging laundry out to dry—were seen as signs, and bad omens were remedied with collective prayer. Mrs. Winterson, however, always prayed alone—and standing up rather than on her knees. Jeanette remembers church, during her childhood, as “a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility,” and notes that no one there, including Jeanette herself, “felt trapped or hopeless.” The promise of eternal life kept her otherwise poor, downtrodden community uplifted.
As Jeanette contrasts the way her mother prayed versus the way the religious community she was a part of prays, Jeanette further illustrates how alone Mrs. Winterson always was—because of her own choices. There was refuge, community, and help to be found in the Church, but Mrs. Winterson excluded herself from others and created a world only for herself.
The church held events every single night, and Jeanette attended them all except for Thursday night meetings, which were for men. In the summertime, the congregation traveled with the “Glory Crusade,” a tent revival which took trips to other nearby churches. Jeanette describes “the fact of being in a tent [with other churchgoers]” as “a kind of bond.” The tent was a time when “ordinary rules didn’t apply,” and a “common purpose” overtook those within the tent. Jeanette, as a child, was an active and willing participant in these Glory Crusades.
It makes sense that the bright spots in Jeanette’s childhood—the tent revivals—were marked by an abandonment of “ordinary rules” and a sense of community. Jeanette was constantly immobilized by her mother’s many rules, and isolated from others—so the times in her life when these things broke down and gave way to community and freedom were joyous ones for her.
Jeanette writes that there were many contradictions in the church’s role—there was camaraderie and “simple happiness,” but also “the cruelty of dogma [and a] miserable rigidity,” and that these contradictions are admittedly difficult to understand “unless you have lived them.” She loved traveling to the Glory Crusades by bike, while her mother rode a coach “so that she could smoke.” One day, Mrs. Winterson brought a Methodist convert called Auntie Nellie to the revival—Auntie Nellie lived in a tenement, was unmarried, and had no family to speak of. She fed local children when they had nothing to eat, and was a generally loved member of the community. One day, Auntie Nellie was found dead, and had to be cut out of the coat she always wore—she wore no clothes beneath it, and Jeanette and the church-women who attended to her could not find any clothes at all in her apartment. The women taught Jeanette how to prepare a body, and Jeanette writes that she would never “give up [her] body to a stranger to wash and dress” as Auntie Nellie’s body was given to strangers. Preparing the body of the kind, generous Auntie Nellie, Jeanette writes, was her “first lesson in love.”
Through her description of Auntie Nellie, Jeanette reveals that it is not only those who exclude themselves and see themselves as better than those around them who suffer and die alone. In contrast to Mrs. Winterson, Auntie Nellie was a devoted member of both her religious and secular local communities, and she died in poverty and squalor without anyone at her side. Jeanette receives her first lesson in love and compassion from witnessing Auntie Nellie’s tragic end—a major point in her story, as there are very few “lessons in love” to be learned in the Winterson household.
Though “unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent, it rarely works out that way,” Jeanette writes. Unable to relax at home or to make friends at school, and with her whole life saturated with visions of the apocalypse, Jeanette felt unsure of her mother’s love, and never asked Mrs. Winterson whether or not she loved her. Jeanette writes that Mrs. Winterson loved her “on those days when she was able to love.” This unreliable sense of love led to Jeanette developing the assumption that “the nature of love [is] to be unreliable.” Jeanette wonders whether her mother’s love of the vengeful Old Testament God, “who demands absolute love from his ‘children’ but thinks nothing of [harming] them” led to Mrs. Winterson’s poor treatment of Jeanette, her only child. Mrs. Winterson “never did reform or improve,” unlike the God of the Old Testament, and would instead make Jeanette a cake after striking her, or take her for fish and chips after locking her out of the house all night. Jeanette writes that she developed a “wildness” that made love “reckless, dangerous, [and full of] heartbreak”; she grew up with “no idea that love could be as reliable as the sun.”
As Jeanette reflects on the tumultuous, unloving relationship she had with Mrs. Winterson, she delves into larger questions of how people model the love they give on the love they have seen demonstrated. Just as Mrs. Winterson modeled her love on the Old Testament God—perhaps the only source of “love” she had ever known—Jeanette has come to model love on what her mother’s love was, which was selfish, unreliable, volatile, and noncommittal.
One day, after a prayer meeting at church, an older girl named Helen kisses Jeanette. Jeanette describes it as her “first moment of recognition and desire.” She fell in love at fifteen years old, and the two girls met secretly, passed notes, dreamed together of running away, and slept together at Helen’s house. One night, the two spent the night at Jeanette’s. After the girls had fallen asleep together in Jeanette’s bed, Mrs. Winterson came into the room with a flashlight—“it was a signal,” Jeanette writes, of “the end of the world.” Jeanette willed herself to believe that nothing had happened—what she did not know was that Mrs. Winterson had agreed to let Helen sleep over in an attempt to “look for proof” after intercepting the girls’ letters.
Jeanette’s love affair with Helen provides her with her first moment of self-recognition, but the happiness she feels is short-lived and will ultimately come at a great price. Mrs. Winterson draws Jeanette into a trap, looking for proof of sin in the daughter she has mistrusted and maligned since infancy.
The “air raid” happened on a Sunday morning at church—when Jeanette walked in, the entire congregation was looking at her, and soon the pastor’s speech turned to Romans 1:26: “The women did change their natural use into that which is against nature.” Helen burst out of the church crying, and Jeanette was sent out with the pastor, who informed her that “there was going to be an exorcism.” Jeanette insisted that she was not possessed by a demon—that she loved Helen—but this only “made things worse.” Helen admitted to having a demon, and Jeanette “hated” her for not having stood up for their love.
The fallout of Jeanette and Helen’s choice to pursue a relationship results in their public shaming and private torture. Jeanette is angry and hurt when Helen denies their love and instead blames it on demon possession—more than that, she is left alone in her defiance of the church and her commitment to the truth of her feelings and the pursuit of her own happiness.
Jeanette was forced to undergo an exorcism: she was “locked in the parlor of the Winterson house with the curtains closed and no food or heat for three days.” She was prayed over and deprived of sleep, and was beaten by one of the church elders, who also sexually assaulted her—he taunted her for liking girls and when he attempted to kiss her, she bit his tongue, blacked out, and woke up in her room. Mrs. Winterson brought Jeanette food, told her that her birth mother “was going with men at sixteen… ‘What’s bred in the bone comes out in the marrow.’” Mrs. Winterson made Jeanette promise never to see Helen again, and Jeanette agreed.
Jeanette was essentially tortured in her own home by members of her religious community. The attack was approved by her mother, who was also responsible for orchestrating the exposure of Jeanette and Helen’s affair. Mrs. Winterson, in the aftermath of the exorcism, further berates Jeanette as well as her birth mother, attempting to demoralize Jeanette and shame her even further.
That night, Jeanette goes to Helen’s house. Helen tells Jeanette that she confessed everything, and when Jeanette asks Helen to kiss her, Helen refuses, and sends her away. Jeanette asks Helen to write to her, but Helen again refuses. Jeanette, speaking from the present day, writes that Helen eventually married an ex-army man training to be a missionary—she saw Helen again, just once, and she had become “smug and neurotic.” After the exorcism, Jeanette writes, she “went into a kind of mute state of misery”—her parents, too, were “unhappy [and] disordered.” The three of them, she writes, “were like refugees in [their] own life.”
In the aftermath of the exorcism, Jeanette is profoundly hurt and disappointed by everyone around her—Helen, her church, and her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Winterson, she writes, are both subject to the emotional consequences of the ordeal, too, and the Winterson household becomes an even more miserable and “disordered” place.