I finished Jeanette Winterson’s 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? completely stunned. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so emotionally raw and affecting, yet so beautifully expressed and wise. It’s the kind of book you need to read with a pen in hand, either to underline your favourite parts, or to jot down quotations in a notebook. There are so many gorgeous passages, it is almost unbearable. In many ways, Why Be Happy is a memoir that should be a difficult read; Winterson’s childhood, and, indeed, much of her adulthood, are “ghastly” as a British reviewer puts it aptly in British slang. The title of the memoir, for example, is the response Winterson’s mother gave her when she came out to her and explained that being with a woman simply made her happy. But I still came away from the book with the strangest feeling of reassurance: a feeling that despite everything—the kinds of things that have happened in Winterson’s life, and the kinds of things that have happened in mine—it was all going to be okay. An overwhelming feeling of optimism overcame me as I finished the book, which is strange considering Winterson’s life is far from a cheerful tale. It’s a testament to her power as a writer—and the power of writing—that this memoir ultimately leaves the reader, at least this reader, in such a state of euphoric hope.
Let me backtrack a bit: Jeanette Winterson, for anyone unfamiliar with her, is a British lesbian writer most well-known for her debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was also made into a BBC movie. Oranges is a kind of fictionalization of her childhood and coming out; the main character, also named Jeanette, is a child adopted by Pentecostal evangelists in the industrial North of England, which is true of Winterson’s life as well. Also like the author, Jeanette falls in love with a girl when she’s a teenager and this explodes her already fraught relationship with her mother. Why Be Happy is both a response to and a continuation of Oranges; it’s Winterson recounting and then dealing with the repercussions of her abusive childhood and her “relentless brooding mountain range of [a] mother,” as these early experiences ripple through her career as a writer, her troubled adult relationships, and her eventual search for her birth mother. The memoir is startlingly honest, even about ugly aspects of herself: she writes, for example, that “There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people.” She also writes straight-forwardly, with no self-pity, of her suicide attempt in 2008.
It’s this quality of raw honesty, I think, that also results in stunningly beautiful, brilliant passages such as
What you are pursuing is meaning—a meaningful life. There’s the hap—the fate, the draw that is yours, and it isn’t fixed, but changing the course of the stream, or dealing new cards, whatever metaphor you want to use—that’s going to take a lot of energy. There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.
Listen, we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit, and guide us a bit, and scoop us up when we fall. Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it—and its shapes and its possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love. We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities.
I would recommend starting with Oranges if you’ve never read anything by Winterson and I also highly recommend Written on the Body, a tale of a genderless narrator gleefully, ecstatically, obsessively, and self-destructively in love with a married woman. I would definitely advise reading a few of Winterson’s other books before reading Why Be Happy. It’s not that the memoir wouldn’t be meaningful or enjoyable without being familiar with her work, but the significance and power of the memoir won’t be fully accessible unless you have a sense of who Winterson is—especially from the semi-autobiographical Oranges. She has offered up a book that, as the memoir itself is so preoccupied with, confirms the absolute human need for literature and art—that, in her words, “A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say it how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is certainly a place to find yourself in.