Meaning Seeking Creatures: Jeanette Winterson and George Herbert

Aliums in the rain at Calderstones, 30 May 

A short post this morning as I’m on the 6.05 from Lime Street and it’s wobbly on this Virgin Pendolino. I can’t be looking at the screen for long.

In preparation for my Sparks series reading day on Saturday (see previous posts) I’m rereading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. 

Jeanette was adopted into a Pentecostal family and grew up with daily religious activity and  summer Gospel-tent crusades. By the time she left home to live in a car at sixteen her belief in all that had completely left her: in its place, English Literature A-Z in Accrington Public Library.

The early part of the book takes a cool-eyed but sometimes not unaffectionate look at that religious life. Winterson is particularly good on the effects of King James Bible language on uneducated people , including herself, but the powerful influence goes deeper than language:

I saw a lot of working class men and women – myself included – living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.

A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce – we are meaning seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses; we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough.

With the imminent development and opening of The Reader’s HQ and home at Calderstones, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the difficult question of why The Reader is no longer only about reading. When I read this paragraph, it touched that nerve and seemed to offer a clue. I wondered, as I read this, whether meaning and community (or ‘meaning and unity’ as Jeanette calls it here) have not been the invisible, underlying purposes of The Reader since I founded it in 1997. Yesterday, trying and think my way around this with some colleagues, I remembered the wonderful quotation from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, which Sarah Coley and I used  as the linchpin for the  editorial in the very first issue of The Reader magazine:

The people who come evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

I have realised many times in the last twenty years that The Reader is not simply about literature. If that was the case, it would be no different to English Departments in Universities across the world. Shared Reading groups are not like seminars, and nor are they Book Clubs. they create conditions in which all kinds of people might find, or create, ‘something real to take home when day is done’.

Many shared Reading groups will resemble the Bible study groups Jeanette describes, particularly when she writes, ‘the sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.’

I’m interested in what she means when she writes of ‘religious impulses’,

we seem to need some higher purpose, some point to our lives – money and leisure, social progress, are just not enough

Jeanette becomes an adult who provides for herself – money and leisure, houses and a career as a writer – and these things, as the book goes on, are clearly  ‘just not enough’. She studied English Literature at Oxford. George Herbert became a key influence, a most beloved poet. under the skin of their personal biographies there is a familial connection.

The sense of life as an unfolding ‘yes’ is strong in the first half of the book. The religious impulse – is that the impulse to higher purpose, to meaning, to beyond-the-self? – is in many ways addressed for Winterson by reading and writing. Mixed up in that religious impulse is individual story, individual trauma, personal mess.  The second half the book is going to open some of that up.

Looking forward to reading more on my journey home.

Forgive today’s typos and lack of proof reading. Train wobbles.


Jeanette Winterson In Conversation

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape, 2011) relates the story of her suicidal breakdown and subsequent search for the truth about her birth mother. It is also an account of a life shaped and given the deepest of meanings by books. As with Jeanette’s favourite Shakespeare play, The Winter’s Tale, the book falls into two halves separated by a wide and untold gap of time. The opening chapters detail the reality of the life that gave rise to Winterson’s stunning first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Then, following a short intermission, the book flashes forward twenty-five years to 2007, when Jeanette accidentally uncovers her own adoption papers, and begins the painful and testing process of discovering her origins.

I met Jeanette in Manchester for a conversation about the book in October 2011. What follows is an edited transcription interspersed with extracts from the book. This interview was originally published in The Reader magazine no. 44.

Jeanette, one of The Reader’s Patron’s, is coming to Liverpool  to visit  the International Centre for Reading at Calderstones and to help launch a new University of Liverpool research group Mental Health in Context. The launch event (book here),  21 April  will showcase real-life research in vital areas of human well-being.


JW: The trouble is everything takes a lifetime, which I think is the best argument for something of us continuing after death. Surely you can’t just work a thing out and then stop it? Nature doesn’t do waste, does she?

     My time was up. That was the strongest feeling I had. The person who had left home at sixteen and blasted through all the walls in her way, and been fearless, and not looked back, and who was well known as a writer, controversially so (she’s brilliant, she’s rubbish), and who had made money, made her way, been a good friend, a volatile and difficult lover, who had had a couple of minor breakdowns and a psychotic period, but had always been able to pull it back, to get on and go forward; that Jeanette Winterson person was done.

In February 2008 I tried to end my life. My cat was in the garage with me. I did not know that when I sealed the doors and turned on the engine. My cat was scratching my face, scratching my face, scratching my face.

(Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, p168)

 JD: Tell me about your cat.

Spikey. He’s more like a dog. I’ve got two cats, Spikey and Silver, and they’re my personality chopped in half. One of them is really outgoing, loves me and loves visitors, and the other goes ‘Oh my God, not another person, please!’ That’s totally me in the cats. It was incredible that the cat was in there because without him I wouldn’t be talking to you. The attempt would have worked, no question. He hates me going away. He sleeps on the bed and sits in my study and works with me. He looks out for me. You know in the fairy stories there’s always an animal helper – that’s what I got. Just at the minute when there was nothing else, and your brain can’t save you, and your friends can’t save you, and certainly you can’t save yourself, there’s the animal helper.

You’ve written a profoundly religious book. [JW looks aghast] In the sense that the whole story is a story of love.

I am sure that love is the highest value, I do believe that: it is the only thing you can set against the devouring principle, which rules so much else in our lives. We have to eat to live and that becomes its most grotesque with consumerism and the raiding of the planet that we do. We’ve never got a balance with our devouring instincts and I think the only thing that we do set against it is love acting as a check to say ‘No, I won’t take this, I won’t eat this, I won’t have this. I will give to this instead’.

I have the feeling that the garage was a kind of rebirth or transformation. You use the word ‘done’ – ‘My time was up… that Jeanette Winterson person was done’.

Yes. It’s odd those things stacked in the word. Done in, done over, done for.

I also thought it meant ‘completed’ – something is fixed. Ok, your friends and relations might laugh and say ‘Nah, still the same old same old’ but…

Oh yes, it is fixed and people who have known me for a very long time do say ‘Yes, something enormous did shift’. Of course, the same old stuff goes on, but I know I’ll never end up in the garage again. It’s completely clear in my mind – I will die of natural causes or from something out there in the crazy world, but it won’t be anything to do with me. That is ‘done’. This now feels like a whole new chance and another set of things to get on with. I don’t know where it’ll take me but things have changed for me. I feel much more open, both forgiving of others and forgiving of myself, of how I used to be. There are points in your life where you can see ‘I needed that then’. I would never have escaped Accrington if I hadn’t been full of a sort of Protean energy and I was ruthless. I thought ‘I’m not staying; you’re not crushing me. I’m going’. I had to have enormous energy and self-belief to do that. But what’s interesting is that then life will still offer you another challenge, that you’re not done. That was a big shock.

I love the way you leave out those twenty-five years. Good! That’s fine. Who the hell could bear to go through all that again?

I didn’t want the book to be that kind of story. What interests me is that in our lives things don’t lie side-by-side chronologically. They lie side-by-side in terms of their emotional effect, their weight, and what they mean to us. It’s not to do with the calendar in any straightforward way. I wanted to show that in the book. It’s a memoir but its also a story and this story is, amongst other things, about the overwhelming absence of one mother and the overwhelming presence of another. It has a certain linear trajectory but in fact life doesn’t finally work that way – it’s not linear and so the bit in the middle – those twenty five years aren’t relevant to this story. So I thought, why can’t I leave it out? I think that was right because what we want to know is where we go from there. The missing part is really the outworking of where I got to. I got there and I won some grace and I won some time, and went off and I did something with my life.

And then it all ends up in a garage.

It all ends up in the garage! And with no choice because – you don’t choose it. You think from time to time, I could do this, and I think that is quite freeing. I don’t think suicide or contemplating suicide is necessarily negative. Depending on the kind of person you are, you need to know that it’s an option. I did. And that was useful for a while because I think the thought stopped it from happening but then there’s a point when you’re not thinking any more, and the psychic pain and the emotional pain is so overwhelming that – well, you’re not thinking, you’re simply trying to exit. It isn’t rational. And no matter how smart you are, no matter how cared for you are – you know, I wasn’t somebody with no friends – there’s a moment where you cannot do it any more. I had to arrive there but by some good grace I was able to get through it.

     There are so many fairy stories – you know them – where the hero in a hopeless situation makes a deal with a sinister creature and obtains what is needed – and it is needed – to go on with the journey. Later, when the princess is won, the dragon defeated, the treasure stored, the castle decorated, out comes the sinister creature and makes off with the new baby, or turns it into a cat, or – like the thirteenth fairy nobody invited to the party – offers a poisonous gift that kills happiness.

     This misshapen creature with its supernatural strength needs to be invited home – but on the right terms.

     Remember the princess who kisses the frog – and yippee, there’s a prince? Well, it is necessary to embrace the slimy loathsome thing usually found in the well or in the pond, eating slugs. But making the ugly hurt part human again is not an exercise for the well-meaning social worker in us.

     This is the most dangerous work you can do. It is like bomb disposal but you’re 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.

     I am talking like this because what became clear to me in my madness was that I had to start talking – to the creature.

            (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, p172)

 Could you tell me about ‘the creature’?

Oh yes, me and my creature. I was wandering about and we were shouting at each other. It was good to split the creature off. In technical terms I was crazy because I was talking to a split-off manifestation of myself that seemed real. As far as I was concerned, it was real, so it was a psychotic episode. But I think R. D. Laing’s right about that – you sometimes have to have psychotic episodes and not drug them into oblivion, and not be so scared that you can’t go through them. It is a huge risk but you have to take the risk because if you do medicate it or you fail it in any way it’s almost certain that it will kill you in the end.

A lot of people give up at that point. They don’t want to talk to the creature. They want to say, there is no creature. That kills you.

It does. Either you become a Stepford wife or it’ll kill you. That’s the alternative. And I think our world gets in the way of people going through the process. There’s no space for it, and everyone’s terrified of it, and that’s why they thrust the pills at it. That’s why I didn’t go to the doctor. I felt I’ve got no chance if I walk in that surgery; it’s going to be on my records. I was certainly lucid enough to work that out.

     She was feral.

     So I went to therapy and she didn’t. Pointless.

It wasn’t all pointless though, because after therapy, in Oxford, I was always so fed up that I went down to Blackwell’s bookshop, and down to the Norrington Room, looking at the psychoanalysis shelves. The Norrington Room is a serious place – designed for the university, and stocking every text on brain / mind / psyche / self.

     I had been reading Jung since 1995 – I bought the whole hardback set. I already had the whole hardback set of Freud, and I had always read Mind Body Spirit stuff, because if you are raised on the Bible, you don’t just walk away, whatever anybody says.

     Now, I was looking for something, and I found Neville Symington, a priest turned shrink, who had a simple direct style and was not afraid of talking about the spirit and the soul – not as religious experiences but as human experiences – that we are more than body and mind – and I think we are.

     Symington helped, because I was getting well enough to want a framework in which to think about what was happening to me. Previously I had been holding on to the side of the open boat that was my life, and hoping not to drown under the next wave.

     Occasionally the creature appeared when I was reading, to mock me, to hurt me, but now I could ask her to leave until our meeting the following day and, miraculously, she did.

It was summer. The Battle of The Sun [a children’s novel JW had begun during the breakdown period] was nearly finished. I was lonely and alone, but I was calm and I was saner than I have ever been, insomuch as I knew there was a part of me that was in madness.

     Symington talks about how the mad part will try to wreck the mind. That had been my experience. Now I could contain it.

A few months later we were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’ not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences.

     We both sat down and cried.

     I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’

(Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? p177)

[Following this breakthrough, and supported by the loving relationship she created with Susie Orbach, Jeanette began the long-avoided search for her birth mother.]

I cried from about page 170 onwards and I cried most at the point where you are finding out what your original birth certificate says, finding out who you are… You say ‘Susie held me’. Would any of this have happened without your partner, Susie?

No, I would have lost heart, I wouldn’t have been able to nerve myself up to it because there are so many hurdles. At some point I would have thought, I can’t do this.

You write ‘She’s smiling at me as the meeting begins and saying nothing, holding me in her mind. I could feel that very clearly’. So that’s where I began to cry, because I suppose all of this last bit is connected to you finally being a baby and letting that baby be loved. I’m interested in the fact that the story comes here now in this format – memoir – because I think you’ve written it in it lots of ways, or parts of it, in your novels.

Yes, I have.

You’ve always been writing it. But here it seems really different and it feels like a breakthrough because it’s able to use very straightforward, ordinary language ‘holding me’. It’s simple. Anybody could read this. That felt to me like a religious / spiritual / psychological / intellectual or artistic breakthrough that was to do with being able to give and receive that love, being able to be held.

 I think that’s probably true. I’ve always used the first person, which is unusual for a writer older than 25 years. I don’t like the third person very much, although oddly I do use it in my children’s books. What that’s about I don’t know – there’s some shift there. But I think, this has taken a long time to move towards. I guess it was partly to do with my god-children with whom I’m very close and partly to do with everything that was leading up to this moment of seeing the birth certificate. That’s the thing. It takes forever to get somewhere and then it happens with an inevitability, as though you were always going to get there. I think, insomuch as I’m alive, this is where I was going to get. Either I was going to die because I couldn’t go any further or, having survived, I was going to be able to do this.

The moment where you are given the piece of paper with the names on it and you describe them as like runes… It’s hard to read, so painful. It’s the name of your birth mother and this is your original name: ‘I am standing up. I can’t breathe. Is this it then? They’re both smiling at me as I take the paper over to the window’. At that point, that’s where I was in floods of tears. It felt like a birth. It felt like being present at a birth.

I suppose that’s true.

This creature who can’t breathe and is …

It’s true. I suppose they were both the midwives.

[In this extract, Jeanette speaks with Ria, the social worker who is giving her her birth information.]

Ria: ‘I have counselled 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?’

     No. I have never felt wanted. I am the wrong crib.

     ‘Do you understand that Jeanette?’

     No. And all my life I have repeated patterns of rejection. My success with my books felt like gatecrashing. When critics and the press turned on me, I roared back in rage, and no, I didn’t believe the things they said about me or my work, because my writing has always stayed clear and luminous to me, uncontaminated, but I did know that I wasn’t wanted.

     And I have loved most extravagantly where my love could not be returned in any sane and steady way – the triangles of marriages and complex affiliations. I have failed to love well where I might have done, and I have stayed in relationships too long because I did not want to be a quitter who did not know how to love.

     But I did not know how to love. If I could have faced that simple fact about myself, and the likelihood that someone with my story (my stories, both real and invented) would have big problems with love, then, then, what?

     Listen we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit, and guide us a bit, and scoop us up when we fall.

     Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it – and its shapes and possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love.

     We have a capacity for language. We have a capacity for love. We need other people to release those capacities.

     In my work I found a way to talk about love – and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.

I am sitting in the room with Susie. She loves me. I want to accept it. I want to love well. I am thinking about the last two years and how I am trying my best to dissolve the calcifications around my heart.

     Ria smiles and her voice comes from a long way off. All of this seems too present, because it is so uncomfortable, and too far away, because I can’t focus. Ria smiles.

     ‘You were wanted Jeanette.’

On the train home Susie and I open half a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. ‘Affect regulation,’ she says, and, as always with Susie, ‘How are you feeling?’

     In the economy of the body, the limbic highway takes precedence over the neural pathways. We were designed and built to feel, and there is no thought, no state of mind, that is not also a feeling state.

     Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work very hard at feeling too little.

     Feeling is frightening.

     Well, I find it so.

The train was quiet in the exhausted way of late-home commuters. Susie was sitting opposite me, reading, her feet wrapped around mine under the table. I keep running a Thomas Hardy poem through my head

           Never to bid good-bye

           Or lip me the softest call,

           Or utter a wish for a word, while I

           Saw morning harden upon the wall,

          Unmoved, unknowing

           That your great going

           Had place that moment, and altered all.


It was a poem I had learned after Deborah left me, but the ‘great going’ had already happened at six weeks old.

     The poem finds the word that finds the feeling.

(Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, 185–188)

There’s a terrible bit at the end of the book where you say ‘The baby knows’ – about the loss of mother, everything, the adoption.

Yes, I think the baby knows. You know that something has gone very wrong. I wonder, and I don’t know about this, but I wonder if that absolute change for the baby prompts language early because that bit of your brain has to develop. You’re desperate to understand what’s going on around you. What am I going to do? I was talking about it to A. M. Homes in New York last week – I love her work. She wrote a memoir about her own situation called The Mistress’s Daughter. Her father had a baby with another woman and that was her, and she was adopted. She thinks that when you do your search later it activates all this stuff which is in fact DNA material. She thinks it releases a chemical change because you’ve had to store this feeling or information. I asked her was she very precocious with language? And she said yes she was. You’re seeking some explanation for why you suddenly land up in this place with all the wrong smells and the wrong person, so it may be so. We’re evolved to survive aren’t we?

What you’ve just said has made me think about dying and what you said at the beginning about ‘Why have all this and waste it?’ Being born and dying are the big acts of change. I don’t think I know anyone who has died well.

Well, I’m going to. There’s a great bit in Virginia Woolf, I think it might be in Between the Acts. Never having thought about death or dying before, the character suddenly sees it like a shark’s fin out at sea, far, far away, and thinks ‘What’s that?’ and then, of course, the fin is coming closer and closer in to shore. It’s a nice way to describe the moment because you don’t think about dying and then suddenly you do think, ‘What’s that?’ and you realise it’s mortality, and then you realise that it’s my mortality.

And it’s getting closer. When I first met my husband, he was about 28, 29, and he was obsessed with death and he has been all his life. And I have for many years been teasing him and just saying, ‘For God’s sake, we’re alive, stop talking about death.’

 And now he’s come into his own! It’s like wearing flares. If you just stuck with them from 1970 onwards, eventually…

They come back. So I just wonder whether that thing about before we’re born whether we have some kind of consciousness of where we are even though we’re not here yet.

I think we do.

Wordsworth says our birth is a sleep and a forgetting. If our death is something like that, I feel very glad for you that you have had your thing in the garage and now this time afterwards. There’s a real chance now for what happens in the second half to be freer, more creative.

Well, I think it’s going to defy the odds, actually. The cliché, and art’s meant to be a cliché, is that then there will be a steady decline. Don’t you think that Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters reinvented him? And then he died. It may be different for women because as we get older we tend not to turn into little tin gods, even if we’ve had some success, but men do and then they become ridiculous. They get all the praise, all the prizes, all the money, they don’t ever have to do anything ever again really. And so they don’t. It’s easier for men to become rigid. But for women because nothing is ever safe, or ever secure, or ever certain, because gender politics are still at play, it may be that for that reason and also because women, like it or not, are in charge of birth, and therefore rebirth, we may be better equipped for the second half of life and all that it means.

The main thing I want to say is, you’ve been fantastically brave. It’s a very brave book.

Well, thank