Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A brutal and compassionate memoir

Back in the day -- not even so long ago, say the 1980s -- before gay people won assimilation within the great mass of everybody, we produced a goodly amount of identify fiction. These books were often unpolished stories in which we simply existed. And we needed this kind of writing. We needed to see ourselves as characters among the rest. These novels didn't have to be great, though some weren't bad; their being good enough to exist served an affirming purpose. There was a moderately solvent cottage industry publishing and distributing these efforts. I know. I worked in it briefly.

And then, there were a few writers whose output was more challenging. Jeannette Winterson's novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the story of a child-woman diverted from Pentecostal ministry in working-class northern England by discovering she loved a girl, was one. The novel won the Whitbread Award in 1985, became a TV series, and is included within the English high school curriculum.

Winterson has returned to some of the same ground in a 2011 non-fiction exploration of what it meant to be an adopted child, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what Winterson's adoptive mother asked her when she learned of her first girlfriend.

Young Jeannette had what seems, from the outside, a dreary and violent childhood. Even if the family who adopted her had been more functional, life in working-class Accrington, near Manchester, was hard. Frequently they were hungry.

Dad got paid Fridays and by Thursday there was no money left. ... Everyone on the street was the same.

But the couple who took home this baby wasn't functional at all. Her adoptive mother -- always referred to as "Mrs. Winterson" -- was plain crazy and broken. She ruled the family, imposing on them all her misery and fear through irrational petty cruelties. She was utterly unready for the arrival of a baby she had not borne.

Until I was two years old, I screamed. This was evidence in plain sight that I was possessed by the Devil. ...

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 muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mix 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, and suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body.

A burping, spraying, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life. ...

The young Jeannette found two consolations: the pubic library and her parent's Pentecostal Church. The former offered access to the foundation for her future profession:

The Accrington Public Library was a fully stocked library built out of stone on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. ... Outside were carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained-glass window that said useful things like INDUSTRY AND PRUDENCE CONQUER.

The library held all the English lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea what to read or in what order, I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen ...

The Church was one of those institutions that those of us in the comfortable reaches of English-speaking culture look down upon. Winterson's picture of its life is fascinating, gentle, and reflective.

Elim Pentecostal Baptist Church, Blackburn Road, Accrington was the centre of my life for sixteen years. ...

Elim Church did not baptize infants. ...There are psychological advantages to choosing life and a way of life consciously -- and not just just accepting life as an animal gift lived according to the haphazard of nature and chance. ... I know the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning, where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning. But the principle remains good. I saw a lot of working-class men and women -- myself included --living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work for noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning....

...the certainty of a nearby God made sense of the uncertainty. We had no bank accounts, no phones, no cars, no inside toilets, often no carpets, no job security and very little money. The church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility. I don't know anyone, including me, who felt trapped or hopeless. What did it matter if we had one pair of shoes and no food on Thursday nights before payday?

I like that: "the church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility." It seems a good vocation for any organization whose central precepts cannot be proved by the benchmarks available to a scientific culture.

This same nurturing church subjected Winterson to a violent exorcism and cast her out because she loved another young woman.

I'm not going to summarize further. This is very much a book for anyone whose life has included adoption, from any side of the exchange. I've seen adopted and adopting friends wrestle with conundrums and demons I would never have appreciated, coming as I do from a very conventional family and lineage.

What I come away with is an impression of Jeanette Winterson's mature kindness. For all the rage and pain her adoptive mother's demons visited on her, she concludes:

Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent even though it rarely works out that way. I didn't have that, and I was a very nervous watchful child. ... Mrs Winterson did not have a soothing personality. Ask for reassurance and it would never come. I never asked her if she loved me. She loved me on those days when she was able to love. I really believe that is the best she could do.

This is one of those books I read by ear. The author reads the audiobook; she's a wonderful reader of distinctive prose.

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