Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

In this memoir by Jeanette Winterson, published in 2011, she (thankfully) avoids using fatphobia when describing her adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson. At the very beginning of the book, she describes her as “a big woman, tallish and weighing about twenty stone” (around 300 pounds) but she never lazily associates Mrs. Winterson’s bad qualities (which there are many) with her fatness.

I thank her for that. The book is beautifully-written and heartbreaking at the same time, telling the story behind her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her search for her birth mother, and coming out as lesbian. The author grew up in Accrington, in the industrial north of England, in the 1960s. Mrs. Winterson was a born-again Pentecostal, who told Jeanette that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib” and made her sleep on the stoop or in the coal-hole as punishment.

After a long time, Jeanette understands certain things about her adoptive mother, writing that “Mrs. Winterson didn’t want her body resurrected because she had never, ever loved it, not even for a single minute of a single day” but the wound of her adoption and Mrs. Winterson’s inability to create a safe place has affected her entire life.

Jeanette has clearly thought about fatness, as she describes without any malice a professor as “round-shaped like a fluffy cat,” and was dating Susie Orbach (author of, among other things, Fat is a Feminist Issue) while writing the book. She writes regarding an email courtship, that couldn’t be happening with Orbach, who had been married to a man for thirty-four years because “Susie was heterosexual and I have given up missionary work with heterosexual women.”

A couple more quotes: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive himself or herself.”

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.”

Thanks to Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, in The Writer’s Library, and one of the interviewed authors for recommending this book.

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