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.
photo credit: Joanna Fisher