I volunteered to review a book for Sharing Stories as I feel raising awareness of mental illness is an important cause to get involved in. The book is described as a memoir, although it’s not always clear whether all of it is true. Jeanette Winterson writes about her life growing up with her adoptive parents in Manchester and her time as an adult when she suffers several breakdowns.
There is a focus throughout the book around the concept of home. Jeanette tells the reader how she never had a key to her family home and spent much of her time locked out, sitting on the doorstep waiting to be let back in. She describes home as “much more than shelter; home is our centre of gravity” and throughout the book she is unable to return to her centre of gravity. This is not just as a child waiting outside on the cold doorstep, but also leaving home at 16, as an adult being reluctant to revisit her childhood home and later again when she seems unable to find her birth mother.
Throughout the book Jeanette is desperate to read. She attempts to read the contents of the library from A to Z, and feels the need to learn extracts of novels and poems by heart. She talks about the need to find a container for what she “daren’t let out because it’s so scary”, comparing her own life to fairy tales and explaining that books are a way people can understand their own lives. It is sometimes difficult to tell which parts of the book really happened and which are exaggerated, or made up all together. Both reading and writing are ways Jeanette copes with her life, she states that “part fact and part fiction is what life is…and I wrote my way out”.
Creating an alternative narrative for her life is a coping mechanism. Jeanette creates false memories, intertwined with real ones as though telling herself a story. When she tells the reader that “fiction and poetry are doses, medicines” and that “what they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination” she is not only talking about how the books of others have helped her, but how she has also helped herself by writing her own story.
For Jeanette, home is strongly associated with her identity and the fact she doesn’t know who she really is. As an adopted child she doesn’t know anything about her previous life, who her birth mother was or even her own name. She explains “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…it’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing”. So Jeanette uses words and writing to fill in the void of her past, but also to create a false present for herself, to “read the hurt. Rewrite them.
Rewrite the hurt”.
One thing that I found interesting when reading this book was the concept of home particularly as I have recently moved to an area where I don’t know anyone. It’s easy to feel lost when you don’t associate where you are with being home and you realise how much you’re defined by the people in your life that you love, your friends and family. It’s quite easy to become less sure of who you are when you’re not surrounded by people who know you and love you. Jeanette’s story made me wonder what it must be like to feel like you have no point of reference – no centre of gravity, and how this would impact on my sense of self. Jeanette didn’t have a home to return to but she created one for herself using words and books.
When she finally tracks down her birth mother and knocks on the door, she is greeted with the words “I thought I’d get the washing done before you got here”, and Jeanette thinks “it is just what I would say myself”. It’s almost as though by finding her mother, the beginning of her story, she’s knocking on her own front door and finding herself.
The book portrays mental health issues in a frank and honest way and the idea of using books as an escape from reality is something almost everyone can relate to. Jeanette’s way of using books and writing to confront her past and rewrite her story makes the reader question the reliability of her as a narrator, but this works well as it highlights Jeanette’s own confused feelings about her past and herself. Jeanette describes her breakdowns to the reader without offering explanation or apology. They are a part of her story; part of her rather than something that happens to her. The book enables people to gain an insight into why Jeanette had mental health problems, without it being the main focus of the story, showing that they are a part of her life, not to be ignored, but also not to define her.
When Jeanette is at her lowest she writes “that wasn’t the end of books rescuing me. If poetry was a rope, then the books themselves were rafts”. By telling her story Jeanette has made her own rafts,
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal” shows people that they can rescue themselves.