I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing and her novels are amongst my favourites, but I was reluctant to read her latest book ‘Why be Happy When You Can be Normal?’ her memoir of her experiences of being adopted. Since becoming an adoptive mother eight years ago I have been put off accounts of adoption, written and televised. Adoptive mothers are often cast in a very poor light. They are cold, spoilt, middle-class women, raising other people’s babies in loveless homes or shadowy figures, barely in existence, the ‘unnatural’ parent. And the natural conclusion, the endpoint of adoption is the rosy reunion with the birth or ‘natural’ mother, when the story is completed and all ends are neatly tied up.
I have read enough of Jeanette Winterson’s work to know that I wasn’t going to find a positive role model in her adoptive mother, Mrs Winterson. She is a woman who is unable to mother, to give herself over to the love of a child. She has bricked herself and her husband and child into a frightful little world of her own making. The outside world burgeoning with sin and bad influences pushes to get in.
More than having birth children, an adopted child drags us out of our comfortable places and keeps us in step with the modern world. Mrs Winterson could not grow, could not give in to another way of being and her daughter with her love of literature and gift for writing was dealt with as a threat. Jeanette also exhibited something which was looked upon as even more dangerous: love and a desire for happiness and fulfilment. It is this which ultimately brings about Mrs Winterson’s bleakest question, ‘Why be happy when you can be normal?’ which gives the book its title.
It is Jeanette Winterson’s reflections in later life on the damage which was done to her as a result, not only of her mistreatment by her adoptive parents, but also as a direct consequence of the severed bond with her birth mother which really struck a chord with me. Many parents of adopted children will know that to find someone, anyone, who understands the damage done by broken attachments is to stumble upon a rare person indeed. And to read the words of someone who has experienced, felt and really researched and reflected on that experience was like shining a bright light into my own experiences of mothering my children. Just as Jeanette Winterson recounts, my own children report of hearing voices in their heads, not imagined voices but a real voices, which tell them they are unlovable, bad through and through. Sometimes the voices will tell them that unpleasant things will happen to Rob and I and that the security we claim to give them is false. In all the literature about attachment I have read, in all the courses I have been on, I have never come across an account or an explanation of that experience. And the journey that she goes on to deal with that particular demon is brave and extraordinary.
The reunion between Jeanette and her birth mother comes towards the end of the book. It is not the usual fare that is served up and I wondered as I read it how difficult it had been to write about the reality of a reunion, pre-loaded as it is with the expected ways of feeling and behaving. I also thought again about what reunions mean for modern adoptive families like ours, where genes are tangled with experiences of harm and neglect and real feelings of fear.
More than anything, the book is honest and stripped of ‘the pink mists’ which usually sweeten accounts of adoption. Jeanette Winterson writes that ‘we need better stories for stories around adoption’. She is right and she has gone a way to filling the gap.