Processing Winterson

I read the Winterson book overnight. Yes, literally overnight. I do that, at least with certain books.  There are books that I take more time on (things like oh, War and Peace) and there are books that I can read quickly due to both the authors writing style and the subject matter. Such was the case with Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal.

I do not want to say I enjoyed it but that is the word that comes to mind. Enjoyed seems the wrong descriptor considering the triggering and often painful story line.  The author, an adoptee, essentially wrote about her adoption experience leading up to and ending with the search for what she calls her biological mother.  I realize some shudder at those terms (finding them akin to sperm donor) but that is the authors term and her reality so I use it.

I highlighted many passages in the reading of the book (I do so love that features of the Kindle app for the iPad).  I am reflecting now on the passages. I will share a few with you.  I am not necessarily going to explain why they touched me, for in some cases, what it touched was a very personal part of my reunion or my daughter’s life. Not only do I not feel comfortable sharing too much, but I do not want the adoption blog police to issue me any kind of citation (joking…sort of).

If you are considering reading the book (or perhaps avoiding it), these passages may help you make a decision.

All pages noted are as they appeared on my app, I cannot be certain what the exact page is in the printed book. All are taken from Jeanette’s book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.

The title – The title is a reference to a conversation the author has with her adoptive mother. Adoptive mother, a religious zealot, is strongly opposed to the authors lifestyle, that of a lesbian woman.  When defending herself to her adoptive mother she states that being with women makes her “happy”. Adoptive mom  responds with “why be happy when you could be normal?”.  Later in the book, upon finding her biological mother, author notes the stark difference in her biological mothers views on her sexuality compared to her adoptive mother. Unconditional love is a new and difficult thing for her to experience and accept. Since my daughter identifies as queer, this entire thread in the story really touched me. Much like Winterson’s biological mother, I cannot imagine being phased, in the least, by a gay/lesbian/queer/insert their word here child.

Page 9 – “We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others.” Yeah.  Exactly. This passage reminded me of this post.

Page 9 – “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”.  Yeah, about that silence, that person who breaks it? That was, and still is, me in my dysfunctional family.  It’s interesting to read such a passage in a book. I am still speaking out against the silence and it is still not appreciated.  I can vividly remember so many times my siblings or my mother telling me to “just be quiet”…”Just do what he says”…”don’t talk back”.  I never listened to them and I always spoke out. Someone had to stop the insanity.  Most importantly, I am confident my outspoken demeanor preserved my own sanity. These days I am told I am “rude” when I refuse to buy into the party line.

Page 53 -“It took me a long time to realise there are two kinds of writing; the one you write and the one that writes you.  The one that writes you is danger. You go where you don’t’ want to go. You look where you don’t want to look.”  This explained to me perfectly why I have been hesitant to pick up my own novel again.  It was definitely starting to write me and I wasn’t prepared for that. It also speaks to the commentary on my last post between me and Von.

Page 57 – “Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way linear time suggests.  We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.”.  Love the sentiment expressed here. Not sure I agree. Still pondering.

Page 145 – “Jung argued that a conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and a loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from a higher ground”. Oh hell to the yes. This is something I see in the reunions that have gone well.  The parties involved have to come to some sort of agreement, they have both admitted the adoption was shitty for all concerned, they yelled and hollered and railed but agreed, together to move past it. There was no longer a need for one to win, one to be punished, one to proclaim themselves right and the other wrong. They realized there is no winning in adoption and to win in reunion you need to find a new way to move forward. I envy my friends who have found this way.

Page 145 – “I understand, in a very dimly lit way, that I would need to find the place where my own life could be reconciled with itself.”  This has also been my recognition.  I once thought finding my daughter would provide some sort of reconciliation. It didn’t. It doesn’t. It wont.  So I continue to work on reconciling my life on my own. It is probably the best and healthiest way…at least for me.

Page 155 – “I never wanted to find my birth parents – if one set of parents felt like a misfortune, two sets would be self-destructive. I had no understanding of family life. I had no idea that you could like your parents, or that they could love you enough to let you be yourself.  I was a loner. I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography.  Parents?  What for? Except to hurt you.”  I found these very profound even if it is so very obvious in so many adoption stories.  Perhaps it was the way Winterson worded it in relation to her life.  I suspect this is a feeling permeating lots of reunions. I am reminded of a friend  who said she has no desire to find her first family and find more people she is “obligated” to love. How said is that?

Page 156 – “Flash forward to 2007 and I have done nothing about finding my past.  It isn’t my past, is it? I have written over it. I have recorded on top of it. I have repainted it. Life is layers. fluid, unfixed, fragments.  I never could write a story with a beginning a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me.  That is why I write as I do and how I write as I do. It isn’t a method; its me.”  This reminded me of my daughter, her tattoo, and the time she preached death of the author to me in relation to well, me. Read this post for an explanation.

Page 160 – “But mother is our first love affair. Her arms. Her eyes. Her breast. Her body.  And if we hate her later, we take the rage with us into other lovers. And if we lose her, where do we find her again?”  Gulp. This made me cry…hard.

Page 172 – “This is the most dangerous work you can do. It is like bomb disposal but you are the bomb.  That’s the problem – the awful thing is you. It may be split off and living malevolently at the bottom of the garden, but it is sharing your blood and eating your food.  Mess this up and you will go down with the creature…And — just to say — the creature loves a suicide. Death is part of the remit”.  While not her intent or part of the passage that this is found, this reminded me of mothers and adoptees who refuse reunion.  I have always said that those that reject their other parties are really rejecting the pain and that the mother or child is the physical manifestation of that pain.  I myself did not get too caught up in feeling all rejected as a person by my daughter. She does not know ME, how can she reject me? She is rejected what I represent to her, what she would prefer to avoid. It is bomb disposal for many. They view their reunion counterparts as the bomb but in reality the bomb, the awful thing is inside them and they don’t want to set it off.

Page 180 – “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“. This reminded me of my friend J. when she met her mother, she brought her boyfriend along. I was a bit annoyed by that (as a mother who would want to be alone with my child) and I told her so. She responded by telling me “he is my life raft. If I find myself adrift in a sea of emotion he can pull me to safety”. That made sense to me. It also reminded me of the same couple, the same boyfriend, who told me years later that the way to get past trauma is to experience it again, in therapy, in a safe place, with a person you trust will bring you back.  As for the rest, more crying on my part.

Page 183 – “That was the one thing she could give you. She gave you what she could.  She didn’t have to do that and it would have been  a lot easier on her if she hadn’t.  It is such a bond – breastfeeding. When she gave you up at six weeks old, you were still a part of her body”.  Winterson is quoting a social worker here. The social worker has Wintersons papers and is telling her about her adoption. Winterson notes that she cried at this point. She did not want to but she did.  I did too.  I remembered, trying to breastfeed my daughter, holding her to my breast, knowing we only had three days and that it would likely be harmful for her yet like the social worker said, it was all I could give her.  I know now I was wrong. I could have given her me, her original identity, her whole self. It is why I tell expectant mothers considering due to poverty that the most precious gift they can give their child is themselves. Others can parent, raise, love the child, but only one mother can give the connection and sense of identity that is so important.

Page 185 – Same social worker as above “I have counseled so many mothers over the years who are giving up their babies for adoption, and I tell you, Jeanette, they never want to do it.  You were wanted – do you understand that”
I agree with the social worker here. It pains me that adoptees feel to their core they were not wanted when in reality it was the mother that was not wanted. We think we are sparing our children that pain when what we do unknowingly is pass it on to them much like infertile women pass their pain over a child they cannot have to the mothers of the children they adopt. Its a big nasty game of pain roulette.

Page 190 – “The lost loss I experience as physical pain is pre-language that loss happened before I could speak, and I return to that place, speechless.” Wow. Profound. Think about that in relation to our children who cannot, will not, refuse to speak to us.  Do they know how?

Page 220 – “My mother had to server some part of herself to let me go. I have felt the wound ever since”. Yeah. As we learn later in the book, her mother did to. As I have, as every mother I know has.  Why do we continue to do this to mothers and children?

There are more notes, more passages that touched me.  This post is lengthy already. Hopefully you got a taste of Winterson and why I say I enjoyed the book.  I found it honest, raw, painful, fair, balanced, etc.

More later.

photo credit: Joanna Fisher

10 Thoughts.

  1. As always great post Suz. Personally as your partner, one of the traits I love most about you is
    your ‘outspoken demeanor’ & candid honesty, it endears me to you, especially since honesty is a trait sorely lacking in society these days IMHO.
    So if some are offended by your honesty and such, I personally think it’s cause they’re not used to it. I say: keep telling it like it is babe!!!

  2. That is a great review, thank you for writing it. I’m not sure if I will read it, as it seems highly triggering.

    I really like the Jung reference. Hell to the yes squared.

  3. Dear Suz, I too am reading this illuminating book, almost finished, will be today.Reading the writing of someone who has put their pain and suffering to productive use by sharing with others who may identify, learn and be challenged, is such a courageous thing to do.
    Couple of points..re breastfeeding. I was BF by my mother for four weeks.I believe that despite the trauma of the sudden weaning when I was removed from her, it was the best thing she could have done for me and helped me to have the sense of identity I have always had despite everything else. A few days even is important. Be proud you tried and your instincts were right for you and your baby.
    Re our traumas being pre-verbal – our PTSD is of a unique type, we can have flashbacks to feelings, sensations, maybe the visuals but no words to explain. It makes it harder to understand our ambiguous losses and even harder to talk about them.
    Sadly some of us are not wanted or loved by our mothers despite the many protestations from mothers who did love and want their babies made adoptees. They try to assure us all that it was so for us all. We have proof now that it is not true for some and their second heart-breaking rejection as adult adoptees is tragic and belies the myth. Adoptees have been subject to the cruellest and most heartless remarks and parting words you can imagine “I wish I’d had an abortion” and others so crude and identifying they can’t be repeated.I have on occasions challenged this myth with mothers who get very upset, offended and make it all about them, not seeing the damage it perpetuates, the unreality it purveys.A non-adoptee remarked to me this morning that for some mothers, stuck in the time of their trauma when talking about adoption, it sometimes seems as if they had “an emotional hysterectomy”.
    Keep telling it how it is Suz.

    • For me, the key statement here is “stuck in the time of their trauma when talking about adoption”.

      While I hear about mothers who truly did not want their children and never wanted to meet them, I it really hard to believe that. I want to believe that they simply cannot deal with the feelings, the issues, the challenges reunion creates for them so they reject. PTSD and emotional avoidance go hand in hand. Avoidance symptoms of PTSD include:

      • Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
      • Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
      • Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event.
      • A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities.
      • Feeling distant from others.
      • Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings such as happiness or love.
      • Feeling as though your life may be cut short.

      I consider myself lucky that I had the luxury of therapy (and the money to pay for it), a support structure (in recent years), education and desire to deal with this. I also never kept it a secret. Not all mothers have those luxuries. Being found is absolutely a shock that threatens to take you right back to that time, you may fear a total mental breakdown, bringing back the shame, fearful of losing your marriage (I did), effecting the children you were allowed to keep (I did), and even death. I had suicidal ideation following the surrender of my daughter, I had hallucinations (hearing a baby crying and searching my apartment for the baby).

      Knowing what I do, I really prefer to believe mothers are rejecting all their feelings – but they do this by rejecting the human symbol of those feelings (their children on the case of adoptees, their mothers). Of course, I say this because I dont want to imagine a world where mothers can give birth to children and feel nothing for them. It feels too borg’ish, too Atwood’ian, too something awful to me.

      I have heard these mothers exist (that truly dont want to know their children, never wanted them) but I was also told Adoption would be better for my daughter than raising her, that I should believe in some invisble man in they sky, and that some people have seen unicorns. So, forgive me if I choose to be suspicious of these cold hearted mothers who can reproduce with zero feeling. They need help and compassion and support – not further judgement, isolation and alienation.

  4. Von, you don’t miss an opportunity to slam many natural mothers, why protesting how “bad” some of them treat adoptees. I am really curious to know who you get off judging people you deem “stuck in an emotional hysterectomy?” Hypocrite, much?

    Were or are you involved in their lives, to know their whole stories or do you just make general statements without knowing all the facts of other people’s lives? Very interesting…

  5. Von’s comment didn’t have anything of a slam in it as I read it. She was pointing out that not all adoptees find comfort in the story that they were wanted even though their mothers weren’t wanted. I take the emotional hysterectomy as a possible explanation for the way mothers *sometimes* reject their children when approached for reunion. Von shows a lot of heart in her writing and her comments.

  6. I read it yesterday, upon your recommendation, Suz. I could NOT put the book down. It was *amazing.* I was astounded at Winterson’s self-awareness and her ability to convey her experience so clearly. The writing is masterful, gorgeous, heartbreaking, and simply one of the best books I have read in a long time.

    Thanks for the recommendation – now I have to go ponder and think about the nearly 70% of the book I highlighted.

    • Glad you liked her Melynda but honestly not surprised. It was that good. I greatly respect Wintersons style and honesty with her writing. As noted many times, I don’t always find that with many adoptee memoirs. Many lack the self-awareness and level of honest that Winterson exhibits in her writing.

  7. The NY Times has a number of reviews of this book. I scanned a few. Did not really read them as I had already formed my own opinion. However, the last line of one of the reviews hit me.

    “Heroines are defined not by their wounds but by their triumphs. ”

    Abso-fuckin-lutely, NY Times.

    Amen to that.

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