Jonathan Cape (Random House)
(buy hardcover, ebook)
Review by Dallas Angguish
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is the sometimes disturbing, sometimes tender and often funny story behind Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Whereas Oranges was a semi-autobiographical novel, Why Be Happy is a memoir, a personal and reflective account of the author’s emotional and creative journey. The book is also very much about Winterson’s troubled relationship with her adoptive mother, an abusive religious zealot and ‘flamboyant depressive’, and the search for her birth mother.
I’d like to begin my review of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal with an excerpt from the recent discussion of it on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club:
Germaine Greer: …I think this book and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit belongs to a strangely female genre which I call ‘the lying autobiography’ where you give an account which is self-serving in lots of ways…. She [Winterson] keeps telling you, ‘This may not have happened. This may be an invention.’
Greer doesn’t give specific examples of ‘lying autobiographies’ but mentions that she has been slandered in a number of memoirs. She goes on to imply that Winterson’ book—because the author is admitting up-front that she is writing about her own subjective experience, her own memories, her own interpretation of events and people—is therefore not only flawed but unethical. Though I believe that Greer is a genius and one of our greatest public intellectuals, I think she’s had a bit of a brain-snap there.
By labelling Why Be Happy as a ‘lying autobiography’, Greer has tarred Winterson’s book with the same brush as those mean-spirited books in which she’s been misrepresented. I commiserate with Greer; she has been the target of a lot of misinformation, and that must be painful and frustrating. However, in reading Why Be Happy through the prism of that experience rather than meeting it on its own terms, Greer is guilty of the very same lack of objectivity for which she critiqued Winterson.
The fact that Winterson explicitly foregrounds the subjective nature of memoir in Why Be Happy makes this book not only ethical but more ‘truthful’ than the slew of memoirs and autobiographies in the marketplace that pretend some kind of objective truth. Remember the controversies over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces or Demidenko/Darville’s The Hand That Signed The Paper? Those books were seen as fraudulent precisely because they obscured the fact that they were not completely factual; because they pretended to be objectively true.
Why Be Happy, in contrast, is written with its cards on the table. It makes no claim to objective truth. Winterson makes it quite clear that she’s writing from her perspective, a perspective that cannot pretend objectivity; not because she rejects the truth but because objectivity is simply very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
I don’t have space in this review to outline the history of notions of truth and objectivity in philosophy, nor the voluminous body of evidence about the unreliability of memory and perception coming out of psychology. So let me be a little naughty and reduce and blend the whole Western philosophical canon—and the body of knowledge of modern neuropsychology—into a single (rather snooty) paragraph so that we’re all on the same page:
The thing we call truth is unattainable and will not be agreed to by everyone concerned. We all perceive, experience and remember events uniquely. Memory is known to be very unreliable. More to the point, we cannot directly touch or experience reality (or truth); we can only experience reality through the filter of our perception, which is always already distorted. Memories are subjective reflections of an already distorted perception. Therefore, what we call truth is not absolute but is merely a convention. Having said that, we need to respect and value shared experience and be careful not to deny the truth that others claim, especially if they belong to a marginalised group. Nor should we make no attempt at all to find those facts that can be supported by hard evidence.
Given the above, I think that Why Be Happy, precisely because it foregrounds the slippery nature of memory and truth, is anything but unethical. In fact, it’s one of the best examples of the autobiographical/memoir genre to come out in a long while. I say this not just because Winterson is open about the subjective nature of her account but also because it is so well written. Take as an example her opening reflections on her adoptive mother:
When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil led us to the wrong crib.’
The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to visit Manchester in 1960—purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson—has a flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth—matt for everyday, and a pearlised set for ‘best’.
Clearly, well written though it is, Winterson’s treatment of her mother in this passage is not kind. In a way, she is constructing a monster. The list of Mrs Winterson’s monstrous (or abject) characteristics is quite long. The prolapse, ulcerated leg and ‘two sets of false teeth’ are more than enough to make this reader feel a bit queasy.
This horror movie picture of Mrs Winterson seems designed to undermine any impulse we might have towards sympathy. But to the author, Mrs Winterson is a monster and it seems important to her that we get that strongly and right up front. And we do.
Mrs Winterson is not nice. This is a person who beat her daughter, locked her in a ‘coal hole’, indoctrinated her with fanatical religious beliefs and left her locked outside all night while at the same time masqueraded as a good mother by ensuring that her daughter was always well dressed and well behaved. That sounds like a monster to me. But, all monsters have another side.
Thus I come to my only criticism of Why Be Happy. We only see a small part of that other side of Mrs Winterson so that sometimes she seems not quite fully fleshed out. She looms large, but as a spectre does, not as a human being. This is perhaps because she isn’t a real person. She’s the embodiment of Winterson’s feelings of fear, loneliness and abandonment.
I don’t expect Winterson to give a pitch-perfect rendering of her mother. That’s not quite possible working from memory and perception. But I cannot believe that Mrs Winterson struggled so little with her demons or with the way she treated her child. I wanted to see that struggle discussed more. Perhaps I’m naïve, perhaps Mrs Winterson rarely, if ever, struggled with her darkness. Perhaps she slept blissfully each and every night free of any sense of remorse or guilt. Perhaps she really was a monster. Perhaps Winterson simply didn’t witness or doesn’t remember any such struggle.
To write about this kind of relationship, to face ones darkest memories and most fraught feelings and place them on the page for all to see, takes a lot of courage. That’s the sense I get having finished the book, that the author is courageous and open-hearted.
Far from being a ‘lying autobiography’, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a book that shares with its reader the very tender moments of the author’s early life in a moving and engaging way. It’s also a good example of how writing an autobiography challenges memoirists to question their memories and to acknowledge the perhaps irreducible gap between what we remember, what we feel, and what may or may not have happened according to the facts. In facing that unavoidable gap, Winterson has produced not only a very fine book but an honest one as well.
Dallas Angguish is a writer and editor based in Northern NSW. He has been published in a number of journals including TEXT, Lodestar Quarterly, Retort Magazine, Bukker Tillibul and Polari Journal (of which he is also the editor). Dallas’ work has appeared in the anthologies Bend, Don’t Shatter (2004), Dumped (2000 and US edition 2002) and When You’re a Boy (2011). A collection of his short works, Anywhere But Here, was published in 2006 and his collection of travel tales, America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South, was published by Phosphor Books in 2011. Dallas is also an Associate Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Writing at Southern Cross University. For more info: www.dallasangguish.com
In May, Jeanette Winterson will be appearing at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival and at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne.