As a writer, Jeanette Winterson is keenly aware that life can often be stranger than fiction. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a nonfiction account of the events of her childhood and her adult life as she navigates the fallout of the many traumas inflicted upon her by her adoptive mother, the tyrannical Mrs. Winterson. Throughout this account, Jeanette often references the power and importance of books and storytelling. She returns repeatedly to the influence literature and stories have had on her since her school years, when she worked her way through the “English Literature in Prose A-Z” section of her hometown library—defying her deeply religious mother’s determination to keep her from all secular influences. Jeanette also explores her own storytelling by discussing the intersection of the true story of her life and the narrative of her breakout novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit which fictionalized the true story of her childhood and adolescence living with her mother. As the narrative unfolds, Jeanette shows that imposing a narrative on her difficult life has allowed her to survive it.
Jeanette takes refuge in the unpacking and exploring of the story of her own life in order to make sense of it and turn it into a narrative she can “live with.” Jeanette’s childhood, she feels, began with a fundamental loss—a rupture in the story of her life before it had even really begun. “Adoption drops you into the story after it has started,” she writes. “It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing.” By describing her life as a story in the early pages of the text, Winterson sets the stage for a book-long exploration of the ways in which life imitates art—and vice versa. “I wrote my way out,” Winterson says of her early forays into novel-writing; “I wrote a story I could survive.” In writing Oranges, Winterson allowed herself to imagine a version of her life that was not as painful as her reality. The novel saved her in two ways: it gave her that imagined reality, and the success it garnered allowed her to claim her identity as an artist, to profit off of her talent, and to escape mentally and physically from the despair of her childhood.
In addition to taking refuge by applying narrative to her own life, Jeanette seeks solace in the narratives of the great works of English literature. Jeanette is constantly referencing stories and literature throughout the text: some of the narratives she invokes are the legends of Odysseus, Philomel, and Bluebeard; the classic, long-running British television show Doctor Who; Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; and Biblical stories. She also references stories of her own creations—her picture books and novels for children, as well as her novels Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Written on the Body, Lighthousekeeping, and The Stone Gods. Poetry is the “rope” and literature is the “raft” that have proven literal lifelines for Jeanette throughout her difficult and often disastrous life—the poems of T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy and the memoirs of Gertrude Stein and Mark Doty are referenced at key points in the narrative, as Jeanette reaches across time and space to the many writers who came before her for guidance. From Hardy she learns to “feel the feeling,” from Stein she learns to accept that even if she is on the wrong road, the road she is on is the road she is on, and from Doty she learns that though “living with life” is hard, it should never be stifled or dulled.
Jeanette Winterson survived a difficult and painful childhood through stories. She didn’t lose herself in the books she read—she found herself in them. In other words, Winterson never used stories to escape her life; instead, she used the lessons she learned from them in order to more closely examine her life, more deftly hone her own craft, and to ultimately write her way “out” of her life. And, eventually, in this memoir of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? she wrote herself back into her life, on her own terms.
Storytelling Quotes in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you—and it can’t and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
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.
Pursuing happiness, and I did, and still do, is not at all the same as being happy—which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centered. The pursuit isn’t all or nothing—it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.
Think about, say, Jack and the Beanstalk… [the beanstalk,] the bridge between two worlds is unpredictable and very surprising. And later, when the giant tries to climb after Jack, the beanstalk has to be chopped down pronto. This suggests to me that the pursuit of happiness, which we may as well call life, is full of surprising temporary elements—we get somewhere we couldn’t go otherwise and we profit from the trip, but we can’t stay there, it isn’t our world, and we shouldn’t let that world come crashing down into the one we can inhabit. The beanstalk has to be hopped down. But the large-scale riches from the “other world” can be brought into ours, just as Jack makes off with the singing harp and the golden hen.
I’ve spent a lot of time understanding my own violence, which is not of the pussycat kind. There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people. It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.
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.
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 began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.
The past is so hard to shift. It comes with us like a chaperone, standing between us and the newness of the present—the new chance. I was wondering if the past could be redeemed—could be reconciled.
Creative work bridges time because the energy of art is not time-bound. If it were we should have no interest in the art of the past, except as history or documentary. But our interest in art is our interest in ourselves both now and always.
Mother is our first love affair. And if we hate her, we take that rage with us into other lovers. And if we lose her, where do we find her again?
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.
We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities. In my work I found a way to talk about love—and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.
Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kids of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.