Mrs. Winterson did not often welcome guests to her home, Jeanette writes—“part of the problem was that we had no bathroom and she was ashamed of this.” An even larger “challenge” were the Bible quotes written out and scattered throughout the house. Jeanette would be sent to school with Bible quotes tucked in her boots and in her lunches by Mrs. Winterson—“cheery or depressing,” Jeanette writes, it was reading, and “reading was what [Jeanette] wanted to do.”
Mrs. Winterson made her home hostile to guests and strangers to the family, while insulating the members of her household with nonstop religious dogma. Jeanette was okay with the constant barrage of religious aphorisms and Bible quotes, though, as she loved stories and words of any kind (and had never lived in a home without them).
Mrs. Winterson did like to answer the door when Mormons came to call, in order to wave her Bible at them and “warn them of eternal damnation.” On the rare occasion that Mrs. Winterson did occasionally invite visitors, Jeanette hid upstairs with a book. Jeanette recalls that her mother did read to her when she was young, but as Jeanette got older, Mrs. Winterson hid the books she’d once read to her. Jeanette searched for the books, and notes that she and her mother were “endlessly ransacking the house looking for evidence of one another,” constantly circling one another feeing “wary, abandoned, [and] full of longing.”
The idea that Jeanette and her mother were constantly circling one another, looking for ways to understand the other, speaks to the claustrophobic but non-communicative dynamic between them. They were obsessed with one another, but unable to love one another, and thus unable to fulfill what the other needed in any way.
Once Jeanette did find a hidden book: a 1950s sex manual entitled How to Please Your Husband. Jeanette describes the tone of the book as “terrifying,” but realizes, flipping through it, that it is “flat, pristine,” and likely unread. Jeanette thinks that her parents never—or very, very rarely—had sex, and her mother always told her to “never let a boy touch [her.]” Jeanette wonders if, had she fallen for a boy rather than a girl, would her mother have been as enraged—she thinks yes, because her mother was fearful of and disgusted by sex. After Jeannette’s relationship with Helen, Mrs. Winterson waited and watched anxiously for Jeanette to take another lover, and “inevitably,” Jeanette writes, “she forced it to happen.”
The ways in which Mrs. Winterson demonstrated—or rather failed to demonstrate—what healthy romantic and sexual love should look like impacted Jeanette’s approach to her own relationships, which were always secretive. Jeanette writes that her mother “forced” her into the relationships she had with other girls by refusing to educate Jeanette or communicate with her, and by attempting to exert an anxious kind of control over Jeanette, which of course backfired.
Jeanette entered a technical college to prepare for her A levels, or college entrance exams, and Mrs. Winterson insisted she could only go if she worked nights in order to bring in some money. As Jeanette’s desire to live her life flared, Mrs. Winterson attempted to “wall [her] in.”
The bizarre struggle between Jeanette and Mrs. Winterson continues, as Mrs. Winterson both tells Jeanette she needs to get out of the house and broaden her horizons but continues to attempt to control Jeanette. Mrs. Winterson prizes work over education, and doesn’t allow Jeanette to freely pursue her own dreams.
Jeanette’s family always went on an annual holiday trip to the seaside, but the year of her exorcism, Jeanette was ill, and asked to stay home. She walked her parents to the bus station, and then asked for the key to the house—Mrs. Winterson told her she could not have it, and instructed her to go stay with the pastor instead. Mr. and Mrs. Winterson boarded the coach and left Jeanette behind.
Mrs. Winterson continues her pattern of stringent control over Jeanette’s life. Jeanette is not welcome in her own home, and neither of her parents trust her.
Jeanette went to her friend Janey’s house, and told Janey and her family what had happened—Janey’s mother agreed to let Jeanette sleep in their camper van. Later on, Janey suggested to Jeanette that the two of them go over to Jeanette’s house anyway, and break in—the two girls broke in, ate food, and drank sasparilla. After a while, the front door opened, and two Dobermans entered the kitchen barking, followed by Mrs. Winterson’s brother—Uncle Alec. Mrs. Winterson had paid a neighbor to telephone her at the seaside if they saw Jeanette breaking into the house. Uncle Alec told Jeanette and Janey to leave, and when Jeanette refused, he struck her. Uncle Alec went outside and told Jeanette she had five minutes to meet him out front—she grabbed clothes and food and went out with Janey over the back wall.
Jeanette and Janey go on what is supposed to be a fun, rebellious adventure to reclaim Jeanette’s space in her own home. However, Mrs. Winterson, desperate for control, is always a step ahead of Jeanette, and the fearsome Uncle Alec arrives with his two dogs as a symbol of Mrs. Winterson’s ferocious, vengeful wish for total control—even when she is not directly present.
That night, Janey and Jeanette slept together in the camper van, and confessed their love for one another. Janey told her mother about the relationship between them, and her mother accepted the two of them. A few days later, Janey and Janette rode their bicycles to the seaside town where the Wintersons were vacationing so that Jeanette could ask why Mrs. Winterson locked her out. Mrs. Winterson replied that Jeanette was no longer her daughter. Jeanette and Janey returned to Accrington and carried on their relationship. After the Wintersons returned home, Jeanette attempted to make peace with Mrs. Winterson, but to no avail—when she brought her mother a bouquet of flowers, Mrs. Winterson cut off the heads of the flowers and threw them in the fire. Mrs. Winterson finally confronted Jeanette outright about her lesbianism, and when Jeanette confessed her love for Janey, and the happiness they shared, Mrs. Winterson kicked her out of the house. As Jeanette packed a bag to leave, Mrs. Winterson asked her: “Why be happy when you could be normal?”
Janey and Jeanette become a team, and Jeanette feels supported by Janey as she attempts to press her own mother for answers as to why she is treated like a second-class citizen in her own home. When Jeanette attempts to go the other route and make peace with Mrs. Winterson, Mrs. Winterson rejects her efforts. As Mrs. Winterson and Jeanette finally communicate about Jeanette’s sexuality and her desire for happiness, Mrs. Winterson spews the absurd question which serves as the memoir’s title, revealing Mrs. Winterson’s desperate commitment to “normalcy” though she herself is a neurotic, vengeful, and narcissistic person—and very far from “normal” herself.