Working from the wound: Interview with Jeanette Winterson
- Published: 27 May 2012
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Abandonment, love, loss, creativity and madness are all themes in Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The celebrated author, who packed out the Sydney Opera House recently as a guest of Sydney Writers’ Festival, spoke with Katrina Fox about finding the gifts in our places of hurt, the importance of the sacred – and why men should be forced to wear high heels for one day each year.
27 May 2012
When Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother was angry with her, she would tell her daughter, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” It’s one of a litany of cruel comments by a fanatically religious woman whose behaviours ranged from the mildly bizarre to the downright sociopathic – or as Winterson puts it in the opening chapter of her memoir, “a flamboyant depressive who kept a revolver in the duster drawer and the bullets in a tin of Pledge”.
Winterson’s childhood – part of which was captured in her award-winning first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in 1985 – was filled with physical and emotional abuse. At the age of 16 Mrs Winterson gave her daughter an ultimatum: stop seeing her lesbian lover or leave home. Winterson chose to leave home.
It was the second rejection by a mother she had experienced; the first was being given away as a baby by her birth mother, something she describes as a deep wound that is felt for years afterwards by adopted people, playing out in relationship after relationship as the adopted person finds it impossible to believe that anyone loves them and has no idea how to fully give or receive love.
“The feeling that something is missing never leaves you,” she tells The Scavenger. But, after half a lifetime of loving “recklessly” and “examining love forensically”, she has come to the optimistic conclusion that our wounds are places of possibility.
“They can be an entry as well as an exit,” she explains. “Often in those places of darkness and despair and hurt it’s not a cliché to say we find things that are of absolute value to us and you work from those places of hurt, for yourself and for other people. It’s not a case of you’re wounded, therefore you’re crippled for life.
“There hasn’t been an adopted person who hasn’t come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never felt good enough, I always have to prove myself, I feel rejected.’ It’s a deep wound and important to acknowledge it and see how you can work with it. If you find yourself repeating the same behavioural patterns, you can put in an intervention and say ‘Hey, this person isn’t out to get me, they’re just having a bad day’. You can get some sanity in there.”
It’s not been an easy journey to this place of peace for Winterson. In the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (which is what Mrs Winterson responded with after the young Jeanette told her that being with other girls made her happy), she describes her mental unravelling, in which long walled-up emotions around the loss of her birth mother were triggered when her partner, theatre director Deborah Warner, broke up with her.
“We live in a world where we’re bombarded with media soundbites that we’re just meant to get over it – all that mind, body, spirit and self-help stuff is complete bollocks,” Winterson says. “As it did for me, it often takes an enormous shock to the self, some trauma where you realise you can’t go on as you have been doing. You run up against a wall and you can’t get through it because we’re not made of light. That happened to me – it was a complete dissolving of the self, which I think was psychically necessary.
“Although it was very risky, it was a good thing. I think the psyche seeks help; we want to help, just as we want to love. I think human beings are positive. I don’t take the view that we are full of destruction, pessimism and misery. We lean towards love, help, creativity, and relationship towards one another.”
Now in a “stable and sane” relationship with psychologist and author Susie Orbach (Fat is a Feminist Issue, Bodies), Winterson posits that the nature of love is often nothing like our initial experience of it.
“You look at kids – they’re naturally loving and trusting and that gets beaten out of them,” she says. “It’s not encouraged, but it’s there from the start and it’s hardwired so it’s finding a way back to something that is natural to us. I’ve always repeated patterns of rejection. We do repeat those patterns from our childhood and it’s tragic. The quality of love you get early on seems to you to be something truthful about love itself and very often it’s not. So if it’s erratic or destructive or neglectful, you think it’s the nature of love – you don’t realise it’s just the nature of the love you have experienced.”
Making time for the sacred
Although not allowed to read any other books apart from the Bible at home as a child, Winterson sneaked the classics along with poetry into her bedroom and devoured the works of countless authors at the local library. She credits language with “saving” her and pulling her out of periods of darkness, despair and madness by allowing her to enter a space of inner reflection through reading and writing.
Despite a hardcore Pentecostal upbringing that included six evenings a week spent at church and an exorcism to rid her of her lesbianism, which could turn anyone off spirituality, Winterson is a champion of the sacred.
“God is religion-proof,” she quips. “I look at religions closely to see what they have in common as well as how they differ. Across time since humans have been able to reflect on our world, we have had some impulse towards a mystery we can’t fathom – an inner life, a sense of the sacred and spiritual. It’s global and across all cultures. It doesn’t matter if there’s a sky god – we’ll never know. What matters is we have always had this leaning or yearning for something outside ourselves.
“The sacred is in everything and worth of reverence and respect. You feel it when you’re in a beautiful, natural place, a feeling there is something bigger and better than yourself. It’s very calming and takes you into yourself rather than thinking about what’s on your mobile phone or in your diary.
“We need this, whether we find it in a cathedral or under a tree, by meditating or counting chakras or rosary beads – it’s a way to get ourselves out of the rush of the everyday world and into a calm place. You do feel connected to other things – it’s not an illusion or fantasy.”
It’s this innate yearning to connect with that spiritual part of ourselves that is one of the factors driving the marriage equality campaign, Winterson argues.
“Gay people subconsciously are reaching towards this sense of the sacred and saying, ‘We want our union to be something more than just a civil contract.’ It’s about the coming together of our spirits, not just our bodies.”
Changing yourself to change the world
On the topic of political campaigning, Winterson is a fierce proponent of the edict that we need to change ourselves in order to change the world.
“It’s to do with developing who you are in the world,” she says. “I’m here to write and communicate. That’s my purpose on the planet. It’s my job to be as good at it as I can be and to be authentic, because people can sniff out any falseness. I’m nowhere near on the path to enlightenment but I’m trying pretty hard and I have a few ideas and I like to share them. My purpose is to keep at it and keep asking myself those difficult questions, not to take it easy and rest, but to look forward.
“The memoir is about me coming to terms with my own demons and to show that even if your life is a bit broken and you are working from the wound, you can still contribute. That’s what I want people to feel – that no one is so inadequate and nobody should be so busy that we can’t contribute.
“The way we change things is on two levels. The micro, as in what can you do in your own life, the circle of people and communities around you, how can you make those better, and looking after yourself too. Then there’s the political where you say, ‘I will campaign for things that matter. I will stand up and try to change society.’”
And Winterson has consistently stood up against sexism. An outspoken feminist since her days studying at Oxford University, she bemoans the proliferation of misogyny that seeps into our cultural psyche through mainstream media dictating what is deemed ‘beautiful’.
“It’s like they can’t punish us for our brains, so they’re punishing us for our bodies again. Men can’t get away with patronising women anymore, saying they can’t do a job properly and are bimbos, but they’ve worked out a way to make women feel absolutely shit about their bodies.”
She has a solution, though.
“I think we should have High Heel Day one day a year for men. They should do everything as normal – they can wear their suits but they have to wear high heels for just one day and go about their normal business: run for the bus, go for a walk at lunchtime, totter to a restaurant and back.”
Celebrating ageing and forgiveness
At the age of 52, Winterson shows no signs of slowing down, having just completed a tour of the US before her visit to Sydney. While she recognises the limitations of the body and the need to take care of it as we age, she celebrates the ageing process, particularly its impact on the mind.
“Your consciousness gets sharper,” she says. “As I get older, I know more and more about less and less, and less and less about more and more, which is interesting! I’ve got friends who are older than me in their 70s and 80s and I see how the body will fail. You feel a loss of physical power at the same time as your mind expands and that does lead me to wonder what happens after death. Is consciousness obliged to materiality? As you age, my feeling is it’s not, because my mind gets clearer.”
The second part of Winterson’s memoir chronicles her journey to discover the truth about her past by tracking down her birth mother. “It was great for both of us to meet as it did settle the story,” she says. Yet she is adamant she was not searching for a new, ready-made family and is critical of the “reunion, pink mist Hollywood endings” often portrayed on TV where long-lost relatives meet each other for the first time.
“I find them nauseating,” she says. “The most sentimental people are often the most unfeeling. I find this again and again and didn’t want any of that around meeting my birth mother. I hate anything that’s fake. I knew it would be a big muddle – that no one would know how to feel and that there’d be anger and exhilaration, disappointment, pleasure and fear all mixed in together.”
And forgiveness – something Winterson describes as her “biggest lesson in life”.
“I had to come to terms with why she gave me away and she’s having to come to terms with why I can’t come back.” As she told the audience at Sydney Opera House, “Forgiveness is an act of memory. You have to remember what you’ve done or what’s been done to you. It’s a huge thing; it’s confronting what’s happened, seeing the situation, passing through it and coming out the other side.”
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is published by Random House Australia.