Mummy Dearest

From The New York Times:

HaPerhaps every autobiographical first novel serves its author as Jeanette Winterson’s did — as “a story I could live with.” But “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” buoyant and irrepressible, was published in 1985, for its author half a lifetime ago, and what one can live with changes over time. “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is a memoir as unconventional and winning as the rollicking bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson’s youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the cleareyed free. At the center of both narratives is “Mrs. Winterson,” as the author often calls her mother in “Why Be Happy.” It would be easy to dismiss this formality as an attempt to establish retroactively something that never existed between Winterson and her adoptive mother: a respectful distance governed by commonly accepted standards of decency and reason. But, even more, the form of address suggests the terrible grandeur of a character who transcends the strictly mortal in her dimensions and her power, a monolith to whom any version of “mother” cannot do justice.

“Tallish and weighing around 20 stone” (in other words, about 280 pounds), Mrs. Winterson, now deceased, was “out of scale, larger than life,” “now and again exploding to her full 300 feet,” a force that eclipsed Winterson’s self-effacing father, who couldn’t protect himself, let alone his child, from the woman he had married. It wasn’t her physical size that tipped Mrs. Winterson from mere gravity toward the psychic equivalent of a black hole, vacuuming all the light into her hysterical fundamentalism, so much as it was her monumental derangement. “A flamboyant depressive . . . who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge,” Mrs. Winterson waited not in joyful so much as smug anticipation for the apocalypse that would destroy the neighbors and deliver her to the exalted status piety had earned her. Opposed to sexual intercourse, as she was to all forms of intimacy, Winterson’s mother adopted her in hopes of raising a friend, the author speculates, for her mother had no other. But the trouble Mrs. Winterson found in reading a book, “that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” is the same trouble that complicates parenthood. Or, as Mrs. Winterson explained it: “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”

More here.