The latest draft of The Jeanette Winterson Story

In her new autobiography, the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit revisits old ground, mixing misery porn, madness and self-deprecation in an attempt to explain herself.

Lexy Barber

Topics Books

Love. We all need it, want it, strive for it and hate it. Love works in all areas of life, from families and friends to tumultuous paramours and quiet unrequited dedication. It makes us happy, it makes us sick. But most of us can live life and find love as it comes along.

Jeanette Winterson cannot love. The author – still most famous for her 1985 debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – attributes her lack of feeling to the hard upbringing consistently and relentlessly referred to in all of her works. Adopted at six weeks old, living in a northern mining town under the fear of The Apocalypse and with a grotesque caricature of a mother, she never had much, either materially or emotionally. This is made painfully clear in the first 80 pages of misery-porn in her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?. But past those 80 pages is a dawning realisation that she can love, and be loved, and that life is not all here to be wasted away.

Loving women at a time when it was certainly not ‘appropriate’ to do so must have been difficult. Loving women when your mother believes it is such a sin that you must be possessed and need exorcisms must be even harder. But it is not until much later in the book that it becomes clear that Winterson’s obsession with love is simply the overriding factor in her attempts to find an identity. Once this is revealed, the story of her life gets far more intriguing.

Her identity, despite feeling at ease with her body and never questioning her sexuality, is cast against the shadow of the ‘other’. From a young child, Winterson was always told that her parents had been ‘drawn to the wrong crib’ by Satan himself, and that the ‘good’ baby – Paul – who would have been in her place had they found the right crib, would never do the naughty things she did. She recalls being told off for dropping her doll in the pond; Paul would never have dropped his doll in the pond. The gender assumptions of whether he would even have a doll were not questioned. Winterson touches so briefly on this, it is almost a throwaway comment. But later, when thinking about how she identifies with the world and sexuality, it is crucial to understanding her.

Winterson is an orphaned/non-orphaned, religious/irreligious lesbian schizophrenic who openly discusses her periods of madness. Throughout the dichotomy of the search for her true identity, to find some cohesion with reality, and her deliberate self-maligning separation from the world, there are tiny slivers of information fed through the overwhelming prose. Perhaps reflecting her own mental – and sometimes physical – dysphoria, there is the feeling of grasping for something in desperation, but not knowing what that is: an abstract description for a predominantly abstract writer.

This is reflected in the way images drawn from seemingly nowhere are thrown into previously coherent sentences, jolting the reader from any comfort zone they may have been clinging to thus far. While these passages sometimes work, Winterson’s best moments are those of sheer clarity, of short sentences and direct language. These parts are raw and engaging, and are often the only times you feel empathy with her. Even if you cannot personally relate to a manic episode, or have never tried to gas yourself in a car while your cat scratches at your face, the connection between reader and writer is at its strongest in these passages of open, honest writing.

The trouble is that Winterson herself questions the truth of anything she writes. So whether any, some, or all of the autobiography actually happened is a constant question hanging over the book. The truth, she says, is a version of events: another version may be equally true, but have alternate consequences. Oranges was supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Compared to Why Be Happy, it seems that most of it was just plain autobiographical. Written at the age of 23, it followed her life to then. Why Be Happy goes up to 23, jumps to her late twenties, and finally skips out an entire quarter century to current times. This is irritating to the reader who wants to follow her journey into and out of madness, to understand the processes and experiences she had in those times which shaped her works and defined her identity. After spending so much of the book focusing on the development of Oranges, it feels lazy for Winterson to ignore many of her other works as they developed, especially as they clearly follow her preoccupations with love, the body and identity.

Winterson’s split personality features heavily in the latter half of the book as she struggles to find the truth of herself within herself. Having worked in a mental institution – for which she does not miss the irony – she chose to take her madness and cope by herself rather than spend time locked away and drugged up. The resulting tales she recounts of dreams, moments of clarity and weeks of depression, of clinging on to furniture and waking in night sweats calling for her mother(s), are the most true and most real accounts throughout the book. And yet, as they are derived from madness, their objective truth remains questionable.

It seems Winterson identifies more with her split other, the other that never really existed, than with her bodily self. She loves and accepts the voice that harasses her, refuses to get in the car and join her at therapy sessions, reminds her of long hours in the coal hole and consistently remarks how she was never wanted. She does not accept the voices of real people around her who love her. Brief descriptions of volatile relationships cast glimpses of the discontented violence in her own mind broadcast on others, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. Jeanette Winterson cannot love, because she cannot love herself. At least that is her excuse.

Rather than an autobiography, this is an account of a disturbed woman trying to find her place in the world. It resonates strongly with the continuing breakdown of society, where the family is no longer a nuclear unit, communities are spread globally, a career is not for life. Winterson’s disjointed sense of self and inability to love are consistently reasoned to her upbringing; given the myriad problems of her early life, there may be logic in this. But it just feels like an explanation – an apology, even – for her unusual style and controversial literature, and this makes the book more disappointing, depressing and less of a revelation than it promises to be.

Lexy Barber is a freelance writer based in London.

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Topics Books


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