Blog #25: Major Matremoirs by Alison Bechdel and Jeanette Winterson

Maybe I will do Mothers: A Literary Anthology, after all. Until recently I felt there weren’t enough strong mother-pieces to justify such a book. Soon, perhaps, there will be. Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (ISBN-10: 0618982507) is due out in May of 2012, and Jeanette Winterson has just published Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (ISBN-10: 0224093452).

In today’s Guardian, Jeanette has an essay which retells the opening of Why Be Happy? The retelling is as riveting as the original. In essay and book, Winterson portrays herself as a survivor. Her childhood reads like the darker parts of some Grimms fairytale, even if her telling of the story is often lightened by empathy. Here, for instance, is a description of her often abusive, book-burning, foster mother.

She filled the phone box. She was out of scale, larger than life. She was like a fairy story where size is approximate and unstable. She loomed up. She expanded. Only later, much later, too late, did I understand how small she was to herself. The baby nobody picked up. The uncarried child still inside her.

A later passage reads:

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 had muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mixture 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. Then suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body. A burping, vomiting, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life.

Jeanette makes it hard not to feel some sympathy even for twisted Mrs. Winterson.

Like many patremoirs, Winterson’s matremoir is as much about the power of storytelling as it is about the parent. Good writers know how words create reality, and when writing about their parents, they are also acutely aware of how “Truth for anyone is a very complex thing.” Also, as Jeanette goes on to say, “For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include.” Much of the essay, and presumably the book, is about how Jeanette used books and words to survive and alter the darkness of her world. For her, “Stories are compensatory.”

One last quotation from the essay, and then I’m off to try to find a copy of the book:

Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear … Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world.

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