Jeanette Winterson on Adoption, Belonging, and How We Use Storytelling to Save Ourselves
“When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
By Maria Popova
The yearning to belong is one of the greatest human longings, just as the fractures of belonging are among our most profound trauma. But English writer and modern-day queer literary icon Jeanette Winterson — who also brought us that infinitely poetic answer to a child’s question about how we fall in love — finds in these very fractures a gateway to wholeness. In her exquisite and harrowing memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (public library), Winterson plunges into the depths of her psyche to extract profound insight, at once intensely personal and poignantly universal, into how we use stories to find and save ourselves.
Adopted into an unhappy family and raised by a depressed, abusive mother, Winterson was violently flung into the depths of self-exploration, where she contemplated — had no choice but to contemplate — the essence of adoption as a formative force in human identity. Though her own experience was negative, she steps beyond it to consider the broader mechanisms of self-salvation we all confront in our quest for wholeness and belonging, which we set into motion through the stories we tell ourselves and others:
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, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
She later adds:
Whatever adoption is, it isn’t an instant family — not with the adoptive parents, and not with the rediscovered parents. … Adoption is so many things at once. And it is everything and nothing.
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 [my mother’s] story I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.
Winterson, whose mother used to punish her by locking her out of the house and leaving her sitting outside on the doorstep overnight until the milkman came, reflects on how the sense of non-belonging reverberated through her own ability to relate to others. She writes with heartbreaking — and heartbroken — wryness:
I spent most of my school years sitting on the railings outside the school gates in the breaks. I was not a popular or a likeable child; too spiky, too angry, too intense, too odd. The churchgoing didn’t encourage school friends, and school situations always pick out the misfit. Embroidering THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED on my gym bag made me easy to spot.
But even when I did make friends I made sure it went wrong . . .
If someone liked me, I waited until she was off guard, and then I told her I didn’t want to be her friend any more. I watched the confusion and upset. The tears. Then I ran off, triumphantly in control, and very fast the triumph and the control leaked away, and then I cried and cried, because I had put myself on the outside again, on the doorstep again, where I didn’t want to be.
Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself.
Winterson’s present wisdom on love was hard-earned:
It has taken me a long time to learn how to love — both the giving and the receiving. I have written about love obsessively, forensically, and I know/knew it as the highest value. I loved God of course, in the early days, and God loved me. That was something. And I loved animals and nature. And poetry. People were the problem. How do you love another person? How do you trust another person to love you? I had no idea. I thought that love was loss.
She returns to how this formative experience of grappling with belonging and love shaped her as a writer by teaching her that, much like the therapeutic quality of art, the therapeutic quality of storytelling is found as much in what is told as in what is left out of the story:
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. … There are so many things that we can’t say, because they are too painful. We hope that the things we can say will soothe the rest, or appease it in some way. Stories are compensatory. The world is unfair, unjust, unknowable, out of control.
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.
When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. 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. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.
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.
Jeanette Winterson portrait by Peter Peitsch
Published November 4, 2013