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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jeanette Winterson: all about my mother. Books.

Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother, July 1945.
Photograph: Courtesy Jeanette Winterson/Jonathan Cape
When her mother burnt her treasured hidden store of paperbacks, Jeanette Winterson decided the time had come to start writing herself. She looks back on how her loveless upbringing led to her becoming a writer

For most of my life I've been a bare-knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned early never to cry. If I was locked out overnight I sat on the doorstep till the milkman came, drank both pints, left the empty bottles to enrage my mother, and walked to school.

We always walked. We had no car and no bus money. For me, the average was five miles a day: two miles for the round trip to school; three miles for the round trip to church. Church was every night except Thursdays.

I wrote about some of these things in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note in her immaculate copperplate handwriting demanding a phone call.

We hadn't seen each other for several years. I had left Oxford, was scraping together a life, and had written Oranges young – I was 25 when it was published. I went to a phone box – I had no phone. She went to a phone box – she had no phone. I dialled the Accrington code and number as instructed, and there she was – who needs Skype? I could see her through her voice, her form solidifying in front of me as she talked.

She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around 20 stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose).

She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her. But that day she was borne up on the shoulders of her own outrage. She said, "It's the first time I've had to order a book in a false name."

I tried to explain what I had hoped to do. 1985 wasn't the era of the memoir – and in any case, I hadn't written one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about "experience" – the compass of what they know – while men write wide and bold, the big canvas, the experiment with form: Jane Austen's famous two inches of ivory; the domestic, interior worlds of Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf. Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? Why should a woman not be ambitious for literature? Ambitious for herself?

Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn't go out to work. Books had been pretty much forbidden in our house, and so for me to have written one, and had it published, and had it win a prize … and be standing in a phone box giving her a lecture on literature, a polemic on feminism …

The pips – more money in the slot – and I'm thinking, as her voice goes in and out like the sea, "Why aren't you proud of me?" The pips – more money in the slot – and I'm locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It's really cold and I've got a newspaper under my bum and I'm huddled in my duffel coat.

A woman comes by whom I know. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like.

Inside our house the light is on. Dad's sometimes on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won't sleep. She'll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he'll let me in, and he'll say nothing, and she'll say nothing, and we'll act like it's normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer …

We're still on the phone in our phone boxes. She tells me that my success is from the Devil, keeper of the wrong crib. She confronts me with the fact that I have used my own name in the novel – if it is a story, why is the main character called Jeanette?

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 the womb.

The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a 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 leaves you – and it can't, and it shouldn't, because something is missing.

It's why I am a writer – I don't say "decided" to be, or "became". It was not an act of will or even a conscious choice. To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs Winterson's story I had to be able to tell my own.

There was a terraced house in Accrington, in Lancashire – we called those houses two-up two-down: two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs. Three of us lived together in that house for 16 years. I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time. I made myself a hero, like in any shipwreck story. It was a shipwreck, with me thrown on the coastline of humankind, and finding it not altogether human, and rarely kind.

And I suppose that the saddest thing for me, thinking about Oranges, is that I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.

I am often asked, in a tick-box kind of way, what is "true" and what is not "true" in Oranges. Did I work in a funeral parlour? Did I drive an ice-cream van? Did we have a Gospel Tent? Did Mrs Winterson build her own CB radio? Did she really stun tomcats with a catapult?

I can't answer these questions. I can say that there is a character in Oranges called Testifying Elsie who looks after the little Jeanette and acts as a soft wall against the hurt(ling) force of Mother.

I wrote her in because I couldn't bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend. There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.

Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include. What lies beyond the margin of the text? The photographer frames the shot; writers frame their world.

Mrs Winterson objected to what I had put in, but it seemed to me that what I had left out was the story's silent twin. There are so many things that we can't say, because they are too painful. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control. Mrs Winterson would have preferred it if I had been silent.

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 him or herself.

I was born in Manchester in 1959. Sometime, between six weeks and six months old, I got picked up from Manchester and taken to Accrington. It was all over for me and the woman whose baby I was. She was gone. I was gone. I was adopted: 21 January 1960 is the date when John William Winterson, labourer, and Constance Winterson, clerk, got the baby they thought they wanted and took it home to 200 Water Street, Accrington, Lancashire. They had bought the house for £200 in 1947, the coldest British winter of the 20th century, snow so high it reached the top of the upright piano as they pushed it in through the door. The war was over and my dad was out of the army, doing his best, trying to make a living, and his wife was throwing her wedding ring in the gutter and refusing all sexual relations.

I know they both drank a bit and they both smoked before they found Jesus. And I don't think my mother was depressed in those days. After the tent crusade, during which they became Pentecostal evangelical Christians, they both gave up drink – except for cherry brandy at New Year – and my father traded in his Woodbines for Polo mints. My mother carried on smoking because she said it kept her weight down. Her smoking had to be a secret, though, and she kept an air freshener she claimed was fly spray in her handbag. No one seemed to think it was unusual to keep fly spray in your handbag.

She was convinced that God would find her a child, and I suppose that if God is providing the baby, having sex can be crossed off the list. I don't know how Dad felt about this. Mrs Winterson always said, "He's not like other men …"

Every Friday he gave her his pay packet and she gave him back enough change for three packets of Polo mints. She said, "They're his only pleasure …" Poor Dad. When he got married again at 72, his new wife, Lillian, who was 10 years younger and a good-time girl, told me it was like sleeping with a red-hot poker.

Until I was two years old, I screamed. This was evidence in plain sight that I was possessed by the Devil. Child psychology hadn't reached Accrington, and in spite of important work by Winnicott, Bowlby and Balint on attachment, and the trauma of early separation from the love object that is the mother, a screaming baby wasn't a broken-hearted baby – she was a Devil baby.

That gave me a strange power as well as making me vulnerable. I think my new parents were frightened of me.

Babies are frightening – raw tyrants whose only kingdom is their own body. My new mother had a lot of problems with the body – her own, my dad's, their bodies together, and mine. She had muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mixture of nicotine and Jesus, dosed it with purgatives that made her vomit, submitted it to doctors, who administered enemas and pelvic rings, subdued its desires for ordinary touch and comfort. Then suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body. A burping, vomiting, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life.

She was 37 when I arrived, and my dad was 40. That is pretty normal these days, but it wasn't normal in the 1960s when people married early and started their families in their 20s. She and my father had already been married for 15 years.

They had an old-fashioned marriage in that my father never cooked, and after I arrived, my mother never worked outside the home. This was very bad for her, and turned her inward-looking nature into walled-in depression. There were many fights, and about many things, but the battle between us was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness.

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. When I was upset I went roaming into the Pennines – all day on a jam sandwich and a bottle of milk. When I was locked outside, or the other favourite, locked in the coal-hole, I made up stories and forgot about the cold and the dark.

There were six books in our house. One was the Bible and two were commentaries on the Bible. My mother was a pamphleteer by temperament, and she knew that sedition and controversy are fired by printed matter. Ours was not a secular house, and my mother was determined that I should have no secular influences.

I asked my mother why we couldn't have books, and she said, "The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late." I thought to myself, "Too late for what?"

I began to read books in secret – there was no other way – and every time I opened the pages, I wondered if this time it would be too late; a final draught that would change me forever, like the contents of Alice's bottle, like the tremendous potion in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, like the mysterious liquid that seals the fate of Tristan and Isolde.

Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear … Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world.

I used to have an anger so big it would fill up any house. I used to feel so hopeless that I was like Tom Thumb, who has to hide under a chair so as not to be trodden on. Mrs Winterson was too big for her world, but she crouched gloomy and awkward under its low shelf, now and again exploding to her full 300 feet, and towering over us. Then, because it was useless, redundant, only destructive, or so it seemed, she shrank back again, defeated.

In my novel Sexing the Cherry (1989) I invented a character called the Dog Woman; a giantess who lives on the River Thames. She suffers because she is too big for her world. She was another reading of my mother.

Six books … my mother didn't want books falling into my hands. It never occurred to her that I fell into the books – that I put myself inside them for safe keeping.

Every week Mrs Winterson sent me to the Accrington Public Library to collect her stash of murder mysteries. Yes, that is a contradiction, but our contradictions are never so to ourselves. She liked Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler, and when I challenged her over the business of "the trouble with a book [to rhyme with spook] is that you never know what's in it until it's too late", she replied that if you know there is a body coming, it isn't so much of a shock.

I was allowed to read non-fiction books about kings and queens and history, but never, ever, fiction. Those were the books there was trouble in …

The Accrington Public Library was a fully stocked library built out of stone on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. It was finally finished in 1908 with money from the Carnegie Foundation. Outside are carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside are art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained-glass window that says KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.

The library held all the Eng lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea of what to read or in what order, so I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen … At home one of the six books was unexpected; a copy of Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Mallory. It was a beautiful edition with pictures, and it had belonged to a bohemian, educated uncle – her mother's brother. So she kept it and I read it.

The stories of Arthur, of Lancelot and Guinevere, of Merlin, of Camelot and the Grail docked into me like the missing molecule of a chemical compound. I have gone on working with the Grail stories all my life. They are stories of loss, of loyalty, of failure, of recognition, of second chances. I used to have to put the book down and run past the part where Perceval, searching for the Grail, is given a vision of it one day, and then, because he is unable to ask the crucial question, the Grail disappears. Perceval spends 20 years wandering in the woods, looking for the thing that he found, that was given to him, that seemed so easy, that was not.

Later, when things were difficult for me with my work, and I felt that I had lost or turned away from something I couldn't even identify, it was the Perceval story that gave me hope. There might be a second chance … In fact, there are more than two chances – many more. I know now, after 50 years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/ remembering, leaving/returning never stops. And of course I loved the Lancelot story because it is all about longing and unrequited love. Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

I was 16 and my mother was about to throw me out of the house for ever, for breaking a very big rule – even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex. I was scared and unhappy. I remember going down to the library to collect the murder mysteries. One of the books my mother had ordered was called Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot. She assumed it was a gory story about nasty monks – and she liked anything that was bad for the pope.

The book looked a bit short to me, so I had a look and saw that it was written in verse. Definitely not right … I had never heard of TS Eliot. I thought he might be related to George Eliot. The librarian told me he was an American poet who had lived in England for most of his life. He had died in 1965, and he had won the Nobel prize.

I wasn't reading poetry because my aim was to work my way through ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z. But this was different … I read: "This is one moment, / But know that another / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy".

I started to cry. Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren't even allowed to sneeze in a library, let alone weep. So I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale. The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family – the first one was not my fault, but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.

I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels. I had no one to help me, but the TS Eliot helped me. So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy.

I used to work on the market on Saturdays, and after school on Thursdays and Fridays, packing up. I used the money to buy books. I smuggled them inside and hid them under the mattress. Anybody with a single bed, standard size, and a collection of paperbacks, standard size, will know that 72 per layer can be accommodated under the mattress. By degrees my bed began to rise visibly, like the Princess and the Pea, so that soon I was sleeping closer to the ceiling than to the floor. My mother was suspicious-minded, but even if she had not been, it was clear that her daughter was going up in the world.

One night she came in and saw the corner of a paperback sticking out from under the mattress. She pulled it out and examined it with her flashlight. It was an unlucky choice; DH Lawrence, Women in Love. Mrs Winterson knew that Lawrence was a satanist and a pornographer, and, hurling it out of the window, she rummaged and rifled and I came tumbling off the bed while she threw book after book out of the window and into the backyard. I was grabbing books and trying to hide them, the dog was running off with them, my dad was standing helpless in his pyjamas.

When she had done, she picked up the little paraffin stove we used to heat the bathroom, went into the yard, poured paraffin over the books and set them on fire. I watched them blaze and blaze and remember thinking how warm it was, how light, on the freezing Saturnian January night. I had bound them all in plastic because they were precious. Now they were gone.

In the morning there were stray bits of texts all over the yard and in the alley. Burnt jigsaws of books. I collected some of the scraps. What does Eliot say? These fragments I have shored against my ruins …

I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts. We had always memorised long chunks of the Bible, and it seems that people in oral traditions have better memories than those who rely on printed text. The rhythm and image of poetry make it easier to recall than prose, easier to chant. But I needed prose too, and so I made my own concise versions of 19th-century novels – going for the talismanic, not worrying much about the plot. I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language.

My first sense of that painful joy that Eliot had written about was walking up to the hill above our house, the long stretchy streets with a town at the bottom and a hill at the top. The cobbled streets. The streets that went straight to the Factory Bottoms.

The books had gone, but 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. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do. "Fuck it," I thought, "I can write my own."
From Here!

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