The religion of Jeanette Winterson’s childhood—the Elim Pentecostal Church—is an evangelical and fatalistic one, obsessed with death and the coming apocalypse. Throughout Jeanette’s childhood and adolescence, Mrs. Winterson—Jeanette’s strict, devout, and tyrannical mother—openly longed for and fantasized about her own death and the death of the world. The Winterson family’s entire lives revolved around waiting for End Times to arrive. Though Jeanette concedes that as a child she found “excitement” in many aspects of religion, the church turned against Jeanette when, as teenager, she engaged in a lesbian relationship with another girl from the congregation. Soon, Jeanette was subject to an exorcism, and eventually was cast out of her home. When Jeanette left home and at last divorced herself from religious control, she also divorced herself from parental control, and was able to pursue the start of a new life—an educated life, a literary life, and a liberated life.
For her audience to understand the role of religion in Jeanette’s childhood, she needs for them to understand the role of religion in her largely uneducated, almost uniformly working-class hometown. Though religion wielded “the cruelty of dogma, the miserable rigidity of no drink, no [smoking, and] no sex,” as well as the omnipresent threat of the apocalypse, it also offered “camaraderie, simple happiness, sharing, [and] the pleasure of something to do every night in a town where there was nothing to do.” For the unhappy and overworked manual laborers, factory workers, and mechanics of Accrington, religion—and even the impending Apocalypse—offered a welcome respite from the hardships of daily life. For these reasons, the Wintersons were a strict and devout family, and Jeanette’s parents dreamed that she would grow up to become a missionary and live a life free of secular influence. However, the religion which bolstered her community served only to tear Jeanette down. When Jeanette made it clear that she was not going to live that life, her mother’s fear, anger, and desire for control culminated in Jeanette’s exorcism—a traumatic event for the entire Winterson family which was the first step in Jeanette’s rejection of the control religion had over her life.
After she left the church—and her parents’ house—Jeanette soon left Accrington for Oxford, where literature and writing became the focus of her life. Jeanette was free to read and explore all she wanted, and religion never really played a role in Jeanette’s adult life. The controlling aspects of it, though, continued to rear their heads throughout Jeanette’s adulthood—she remained paralyzed by her inability to find somewhere she belonged (something the church had once offered, though at far too steep a price for Jeanette) and, when confronted by the strict, controlling government protocols that stood between Jeanette and discovering her birth mother’s identity, Jeanette was unable to cope, and became subject to breakdowns and fits of despair. Furthermore, when Jeanette finally confronted the neglected “creature” inside herself, she realized that that creature had controlled—and sought to continue to control—her for most of her life. Jeanette’s triumph over the “creature,” and her ability to learn how to live with it, rather than in constant opposition to it, symbolizes Jeanette’s regaining control over her own life, and her ultimate success in freeing herself from the controlling mechanisms of her childhood.
Religion was a stifling force in Jeanette’s life throughout her childhood, and her resolution as an adult to completely divorce herself from it and to learn how to free herself from stifling impulses is what ultimately led to her salvation—from herself, from the ghosts of her past, and from the shame that once threatened to keep her from her journey toward the pursuit of happiness and love.
Religion and Control ThemeTracker
Religion and Control Quotes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I liked best the stories about buried treasure and lost children and locked-up processes. That the treasure is found, the children returned and the princess freed, seemed hopeful to me. And the Bible told me that even if nobody loved me on earth, there was God in heaven who loved me like I was the only one who had ever mattered. I believed that. It helped me.
We were matched in our lost and losing. I had lost the warm safe place, however chaotic, of the first person I loved. I had lost my name and my identity. Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go Home.
The tent was like the war had been for all the people of my parents’ age. Not real life, but a time where ordinary rules didn’t apply. You could forget the bills and the bother. You had a common purpose.
I think Mrs. Winterson was afraid of happiness. Jesus was supposed to make you happy but he didn’t, and if you were waiting for the Apocalypse that never came, you were bound to feel disappointed. She thought that happy meant bad/wrong/sinful. Or plain stupid. Unhappy seemed to have virtue attached to it.
We were not allowed books but we lived in a world of print. Mrs. Winterson wrote out exhortations and stuck them all over the house Under my coat peg a sign said THINK OF GOD NOT THE DOG. Over the gas oven, on a loaf wrapper, it said MAN SHALL NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE. Those who sat down [on the toilet] read HE SHALL MELT THY BOWELS LIKE WAX. When I went to school my mother put quotes from the Scriptures in my hockey boots. Cheery or depressing, it was all reading and reading was what I wanted to do. Fed words and shot with them, words became clues. Piece by piece I knew they would lead me somewhere else.
Were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were—she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing. We circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing. We came close but not close enough and then we pushed each other away forever.
I understood something. I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos—and pain.