“The trouble with adoption is that you never know what you are going to get.”
Adoption is a bit of a lottery and in the case of Jeanette Winterson she didn’t win the jackpot. This was evident early on when her adoptive mother often used to say to her, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”
Twenty-five years after writing her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which received critical acclaim and success, including an adaptation for a BBC television drama, Jeanette, in her latest book, returns to the subject of her adoption, dominant and unhappy mother, her search for love and identity, and finding her first family.
The autobiography is expertly crafted and highly readable, due in equal measure to the author’s literary skill and life story; a confronting window on what it is like to be adopted, unloved and gay, while driven by an inner determination to love life and succeed.
From the moment Jeanette entered her adoptive parent’s two-up-two-down terraced house in Accrington, Lancashire, in 1960, until she was thrown out 16 years later, she faced a harrowing childhood dominated by her solitary, volatile and abusive mother, who she simply refers to as Mrs Winterson.
“My mother, Mrs Winterson, didn’t love life. She didn’t believe that anything would make life better. She once told me that the universe is a cosmic dustbin” where the lid was firmly on and no one escaped. Constance (her mother’s real name) had married down and “marrying down meant no money and no prospects”. John, her husband, was a labourer who mended roads or shovelled coal at the local power station. A Second World War veteran who took part in the D-day landings he “knew about neglect and poverty … and to hit life before it hit you.”
The Winterson’s had no car, no phone, no central heating; their house had four modest rooms and an outside loo (“the Betty”). Their bedroom had a “double bed where my father slept and where my mother slept if my father wasn’t in it.” Constance stayed up all night listening to secret Gospel broadcasts on the radio in between baking, sewing, knitting and reading the Bible, working her way through all 66 books, from which she often quoted. As Pentecostal Evangelical Christians their lives revolved around church and work. An annual week-long holiday to Blackpool, arriving by coach and staying in a backstreet boarding house was their only break.
“During the sixteen years that I lived at home, my father was on shift work at the factory, or he was at church. That was his pattern … My mother was awake all night and depressed in the day. That was her pattern …I was at school, at church, out in the hills, or reading in secret. That was my pattern.”
Beneath their house was a dirty, leaky coal hole where Jeanette was often locked in by her mother as a punishment when seen to be misbehaving. Alternatively, she was locked out of the house and left to sit on the front doorstep. She was never given a key to the front door; entry to the house depended on being let in … or not by her mother.
Punishment also included beatings, not by Constance, but by her father, with Mrs Winterson ordering the punishment, stating the indiscretion, what implement John had to use and the number of beatings Jeanette had to receive.
“My mother’s eyes were like cold stars. She belonged to a different sky.” It isn’t surprising that within this family setting Jeanette “learned secrecy early. To hide my heart. To conceal my thoughts. Once it had been decided that I was the Wrong Crib, everything supported my mother in that belief … home was problematic for me … it did not represent order and it did not stand for safety.” She never felt safe in her house, her privacy was never respected as her mother read Jeanette’s stories she had written, her diary, her letters and when she forced her out of the house at 16, Jeanette felt horribly betrayed.
“I was very often full of rage and despair. I was always lonely. In spite of all that I was and am in love with life.” Her primary outlet to find a happier and more comforting world was through books, a practice her mother forbade stating, “The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.”
“A tough life needs a tough language” and that is what Jeanette found in poetry and literature offered, “a language powerful enough to say how it is.” Books were a “finding place” rather than a “hiding place”… “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 … There is a warmth their too – a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm. I know that from the chilly nights on the doorstep.”
Once she had a part-time job as a teenager, Jeanette regularly bought paperbacks and hide them under her mattress one layer at a time and her bed “by degrees … began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor.” One day Constance discovered her literary chest and instantly threw all the books out of the window, poured paraffin over them and set them alight, burning them to a cinder.
Jeanette acknowledges through this cruel act “I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed – that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost …The books had gone, but what they were objects, what they held could not be so easily destroyed. What they held was already inside me, and together we would get away.” She also realised she could do something else … something more empowering … she could write her own.
When she slept with a girl friend this act, from Mrs Winterson’s perspective, was the final frontier of no return and Constance immediately told the church minister. It was announced to all and followed by a three day exorcism, “nobody could believe that anyone as faithful as I was could have had sex … and with another woman … unless there was a demon involved.” After the exorcism she didn’t want to be near her parents, “My father was unhappy. My mother was disordered. We were like refugees in our own life.”
In a loveless household, working through adolescence, books her one comfort, she found much needed warmth and companionship with Janey, another young girl in town. She told her mother, “When I am with her [Janey] I am happy. Just happy.” To which Constance responded, “Why be happy when you could be normal.” It didn’t end there, she told Jeanette to leave the house.
Homeless, she slept in shelters on the bowling green and in a car until offered a room by, Mrs Ratlow, her head English teacher. She did not return home as she had no home. She bought herself a small rug, “It was my roll-up world. Whatever room, whatever temporary place I had, I unrolled the rug. It was a map of myself. Invisible to others, but held in the rug were all the places I had stayed – for a few weeks, for a few months. On the first night anywhere new I liked to lie in bed and look at the rug to remind myself that I had what I needed even though what I had was so little.”
When Jeanette completed her schooling she “decided to apply to read English at the University of Oxford because it was the most impossible thing I could do.” Mrs Ratlow coached her in preparation of her entrance exam, which Jeanette failed. She tried again, a senior lecturer giving her a much wanted place, deferred for a year. Jeanette immersed herself in literature, completed her degree, and during a Christmas holiday, returned to Accrington with a friend, to visit her mother and father – it didn’t work out, she left and never saw Mrs Winterson again.
Curiously, at this point Jeanette decides to skip the next 25 years of her life, providing an “intermission.” She picks up her story again in 2007 when times are really hard due to the end of a six-year relationship, the loss of her father’s second wife, and when cleaning up his apartment, discovering her adoption papers in a padlocked chest. “I don’t know why this matters. Why this feels so bad. Why did they never tell me or show me? Why would they? And a baby is a baby. The baby begins again. No biography, no biology.”
These events precipitate a spiralling out of control, leading to severe depression, an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, to sink deeper than she had ever done before. Through her writing, crafting children’s books, she finds a way out, to recover and discover her true self: to confront that initial loss.
“It was the loss of everything through the fierce and unseen return of the lost loss. The door into the dark room had swung open. The door at the bottom of the steps in our nightmares. The Bluebeard door with the bloodstained key. The door had swung open. I had gone in. The room had no floor. I had fallen and fallen. But I was alive. And that night the cold stars made a constellation from the pieces of my broken mind.”
Jeanette began the search for her first family helped by her close friends. “Adoption begins on your own – you are solitary. The baby knows it has been abandoned – I am sure of that. Therefore, the journey back should not be done alone. The terrors and fears are unexpected and out of control. You need someone to hold on to. Someone who will hold on to you.” Like many adoptees before her Jeanette moves through the lengthy, tiresome and bureaucratic system, across several locations, to find her personal information about her first family. In the end her adoption records are located in Accrington itself – “I had walked past them every day of my life until I had left home.”
Jeanette finds Ann, her mother. They reunite and she receives the most wonderful message of all, “Jeanette, you were always wanted.” And so the healing begins. “My mother had to sever some part of herself to let me go. I have the wound every since. Mrs Winterson was such a mix of truth and fraud. She invented many bad mothers for me: fallen women, drug addicts, drinkers, men-chasers. The other mother had a lot to carry but I carried it for her, wanting to defend her and feeling ashamed of her all the same time. The hardest part was not knowing.”
Finally finding each other is one thing. Finding out who they really are is another. “Adoption is so many things at once. And it is everything and nothing. Ann is my mother. She is also someone I don’t know at all.” And in getting to know each other Jeanette, as many adoptees are of their adoptive parents, is strangely protective of Mrs Winterson, “I hate Ann criticising Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster.”
Jeanette has written a beautiful book about her own story, a deeply moving human story that captures so much about what the essence is of being adopted: “Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in a womb.
“The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
“That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.”
Jeanette’s book is about the resilience of the human spirit. A quest to live life, and find love, no matter what cards you are dealt with at the beginning of your life.
Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape, 2011. ISBN 9780224093453. Available in print or Kindle.
(Book review reprinted from the Australian Journal of Adoption)