“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” By Jeanette Winterson

Prolific novelist Jeanette Winterson, probably best known for her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has written a nonfiction book about herself called Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I have to agree with a writer in The Huffington Post who called this “arguably one of the best titles for a memoir, ever.”

The words of the book’s title are those of “Mrs. Winterson,” the emotionally and physically abusive adoptive mother who strongly disapproved of the author’s teen romance with another female. “I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule…The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.” I mean, Why be happy when you could be normal? 

If there’s indeed such a choice to be made, it seems that Winterson goes for happy. She strikes out on her own. She becomes an award-winning author in her early 20’s. Her successful writing career, though, is not a focus of this memoir; instead, she fast-forwards to more recent times.

Interestingly, although her adoptive mother was a “flamboyant depressive” and the author’s childhood had been so traumatic, Winterson generally hadn’t had trouble with mood issues until the combination of the breakup and finding out more things about her adoption.

In a column written in 2009, Winterson writes about the depression, now past:

I think that the really bad time of my depression was when I could not find that happiness in simple things. I devised a ritual to help myself through it, and to re-make the connection with the natural physical world that gets lost in depression.

What I did was to sit outside, quietly, raining or not, and concentrate completely on a leaf or a flower or a stone, feeling it, looking at it, putting it to my face, sometimes in my mouth, until I recognised it again, as both separate from and part of me. At my worst I just lay in the rain, or sometimes even the snow, until I could feel something not in my own head.

I am not sure this would work for everyone, but I know that finding the way out of the dark labyrinth has to happen in connection, in relation, and can’t happen in the head alone – where the monsters are.

It’s with the help of her current partner, well-known writer and therapist Susie Orbach, that she completes a quest to find her biological mother, Ann. Not that they’ll ever “be mother and daughter,” says Winterson. Nor, as she tells interviewer Debra Ollivier (The Huffington Post), does she expect “closure” from this experience.

Sheena Joughin, Telegraph: “We are shown ‘how it is when the mind works with its own brokenness’, and come to respect Winterson’s psychological courage and her rage to love, despite the ‘savage lunatic’ she discovers inside herself.”

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