In the autumn of 1975, 16-year-old Jeanette Winterson had to make a choice. She could continue to live at 200 Water Street, Accrington, in the home of her evangelical adoptive parents , or she could continue to see the girl she had fallen in love with and live in a Mini parked on the street. She chose the latter option, telling her mother quite simply that Janey (her girlfriend) made her happy. “Why be happy when you could be normal?” was the embittered response.
In a coda (=Schlusssatz), Winterson explains that Why Be Happy was written in “real time” which is evident from the book’s structure, in which free-associative musings on religion, industrialisation, supermarkets and poetry are followed by a careering account of how Winterson tracked down her birth-mother through the Adopted Children Register.
She herself says, 'When I began this book I had no idea how it would turn out. I was writing in real time, I was writing in the past and discovering the future.'(p.226)
This makes reading the book not easy, but it is worthwhile reading it, as it the authoress succeeds expressing feelings and emotions which the reader can well identify with.
But it is not a book without any humour when she e.g. writes about 'monster' Mrs. Winterson, ..'she was one of the first women to have a heated corset. Unfortunately, when it overheated it beeped to warn the user. As the corset was by definition underneath her petticoat dress, apron and coat, there was little she could do to cool down except take off her coat and stand in the yard.'
Soon after that time I began to go mad. There is no other way to put it.
Deborah left me. We had a final fearful row, triggered by my insecurities and Deborah's detachment, and the next day we were over. The End.
Deborah was right to go. What had begun with great hope had become slow torture. I do not blame her for anything. Much about us together was marvellous. But as I was to discover, I have big problems around home, making homes, making homes with someone. Deborah loves being away from home and thrives on it. She is a cuckoo.
I love coming home — and my idea of happiness is to come home to someone I love. We were not able to resolve that difference and what I didn't know was how something as straightforward as a difference could lead to something as complex as a breakdown. The sudden unexpected abandonment, constellated* as it was around the idea of/impossibility of home, lit a fuse* that spat and burned its way towards a walled-up opening a long way back inside me. Inside that walled-up opening, smothered* in time like an anchorite*, was my mother.
Deborah did not intend to detonate the `lost loss', and I didn't even know it was there — not in any matter of fact way of knowing — though my behaviour patterns were a clue.
My agony* over calling Deborah and finding that she would never return my calls, my bewilderment* and rage, these emotional states were taking me nearer to the sealed door where I had never wanted to go.
That makes it sound like a conscious choice. The psyche is much smarter than consciousness allows. We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don't.
I started waking up at night and finding myself on all fours shouting `Mummy, Mummy'. I was wet with sweat.
Trains arrived. Train doors opened. I could not board. Humiliated*, I cancelled events, arrangements, never able to say why. Sometimes I didn't go out for days, get dressed for days, sometimes I wandered around the big garden in my pyjamas, sometimes I ate, sometimes not at all, or you could see me on the grass with a tin of cold baked beans. The familiar sights of misery.
If I had lived in London, or any city, I would have killed myself by being careless in traffic — my car, someone else's car. I was thinking about suicide because it had to be an option. I had to be able to think about it and on good days I did so because it gave me back a sense of control — for one last time I would be in control.
On bad days I just held onto the thinning rope. The rope was poetry. All that poetry I learned when I had to keep my library inside me now offered a rescue rope.
There is a field in front of my house, high up, sheltered by a drystone wall and opened by a long view of hills. When I could not cope I went and sat in that field against that wall and fixed on that view.
The countryside, the natural world, my cats, and English Literature A—Z were what I could lean on and hold onto.
My friends never failed me and when I could talk I did talk to them.
But often I could not talk. Language left me. I was in the place before I had any language. The abandoned place.
Where are you?
But what is really your own never does leave you. I could not find words, not directly, for my own state, but every so often I could write, and I did so in lit-up explosions, that for a time showed me that there was still a world — proper and splendid. I could be my own flare to see by. Then the light went out again.
Source: From: WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? by Jeanette Winterson, pp. 161-163, Jonathan Cape, London, 2011.
* to constellate - zusammenstellen
* fuse - Sicherung (electr.)
* to smother - ersticken
* anchorite - Einsiedler
* agony - Leiden, Qual
* bewilderment - Verwirrung, Verunsicherung
* humiliated - erniedrigt
1. In how far does the narrator distinguish from her lost friend Deborah?
2. The narrator's emotional states took her to a 'sealed door'. What does she mean by this metaphor?
3. What was it that offered the narrator a 'rescue rope'?
4. Examine the language and style J. Winterson applies in this excerpt. Do you think it corresponds to the message she wants to convey?