Ester Bloom is a monthly columnist for Cheek Teeth. She blogs at Full of Pith and Vinegar.
Jeannette Winterson’s new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? does not seriously consider the question asked by its title. There is no "normal," and happiness, as Winterson puts it, is "fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine. ... The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centered." Winterson knows from experience that we are not guaranteed either happiness or normalcy, just as we are not guaranteed loving parents, good schools, or safe, nurturing environments in which to grow up. What she interrogates in a devastating, straightforward, lucid way, is whether we can ever recover from our childhoods—specifically, the way our mothers failed us.
Normal is a welcome addition to the Bad Mother canon, a gripping and well-told story that has, as its antagonist, a character straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Winterson’s mother, Mrs. W, as she is called, is worse than the evil maternal archetypes of fairy tales because she is so painfully, believably, hideously real. “The devil led us to the wrong crib,” she hisses at her only daughter, blaming Satan for the fact that the baby she and her husband adopted turned out to be someone very different from what they wanted.
In this contemporary British version of the fairy tale, the adoptive mother stands in for the evil stepmom. The daughter, raised under a dour, low-hanging cloud of fundamentalist Christianity, is abused and isolated throughout her childhood while her father, in the grand tradition of passive fathers, stands by. By 16, she is emotionally stunted, saved only by her passion for the literature she must read on the sly in the library. There, she finds solace in content—other worlds to explore—and also in form: the library is run according to rules she understands, rather than the “Because I Say So” precepts of her mother’s religiosity. Winterson finds comfort in creating more structure for herself in the library as well when, not knowing what else to do, she starts at the beginning of the “A” shelf of Fiction and, picking up Poetry as well, begins working her way through the alphabet:
I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me. ... A tough life needs a tough language–and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers–a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.
In Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother?, Bechdel seeks mother substitutes when her own mother falls short; here, the fierce, almost feral narrator experiments with the question of whether she needs a mother at all. In calling her mother “Mrs. W,” rather than some variant of “Mom” throughout the book, she is distancing herself from the iconic figure who loomed so largely—and so painfully—over her childhood. She also uses this formal, at-arms-length way of referring to her mother to reject the adoptive mother who rejected her. But Winterson does not seek replacements. The final section of the book deals with Winterson’s long and conflicted journey to discover her birth-mother, and then to decide what, if any, kind of relationship she wants them to pursue.
Both Bechdel and Winterson are successful adult lesbian writers of some renown; across the pond from each other, they have found salvation in romantic love and public adoration, in confession and in solitude, in literary theory and in gallows humor. Each forged raw material out of real trauma, and each uses rhetorical questions as titles to draw the reader into the stories of their relationships with their mothers. But the questions they chose reflect the vast differences between them. Bechdel makes her neediness plain; Winterson hides hers under revolving spikes.
Winterson finds the strength within her despair not to commit suicide. Instead of an act of self-destruction, she commits to creation: she writes a memoir, her first. She tells a brutal story straight, the way fairy tales are told, and she does not pretend there is a happy ending to be found in forgiving either of her mothers: the one who raised her and died, or the one who gave her away and lives. Forgiveness for her is neither endpoint nor resolution. But it's a start.