I first read the Jeanette Winterson novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit early in my second semester of college, which means it was also early in the year—February, say, or sometime in the awful attenuated Februariness of an East Coast winter, when the trees look as skeletal and unlikely to revive as the dead at Flanders Fields—and therefore early, too, in my first serious crush on a woman, which seemed, back then, equally, tragically unlikely to bloom. It was the first coming-out story I ever read.
Oranges was part of a de facto lesbian curriculum, word of which filtered down to my generation of gay girls through the low-tech distribution mechanisms of the nineties: pseudo-samizdat literary zines, published at the ubiquitous campus Kinkos; fringy lit seminars taught by hot young grad students; the cool upperclassmen whom we definitely did not call upperclassmen but did call, unironically, BDOCs: Big Dykes on Campus. Offhand, I recall that this curriculum included, among others, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and a lot of fifties lesbian pulp fiction of the Beebo Brinker variety.
In retrospect, this list has a kind of literary “fuck, chuck, marry” quality to it: These books are, in varying degrees, hot, expendable, and enduring. Beyond representing lesbian desire, they have essentially nothing in common. (The same goes for the music we listened to back then. Somewhere in a landfill, our mix tapes are unspooling their fabulously confused guts: Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill.) At the time, though, I was so hungry for these books that my critical faculties fell into a kind of awed silence. By day, I studied literary theory, mainlined semiotics, and compulsively “unpacked texts.” By night, alone with my stash of queer literature, I read like a kid again—which is to say, for the plot, the sense of identification, and the sex scenes.
Reading books that affirm one’s identity is hardly unique to queers. A friend told me that while I was reading Winterson and coming out as a lesbian, he was reading Martin Amis “and coming out as a pompous dick.” It is, however, uniquely challenging for queers, or was, anyway. If you’re coming out as a pompous dick and wish to see yourself reflected in books, you have, to a first approximation, infinite options. Until Stonewall, lesbians had … what? Maybe a few dozen. And most were grim: Well into the sixties, publishers refused to back gay and lesbian books with happy endings.
The next two decades, however, heralded the arrival of what could be called the first generation of out lesbian writers—those who published under their real names, wrote both as and about lesbians, and did not feel compelled to make their characters suffer hideous fates. I was lucky: By the time I came out, it was possible to see my lesbianism reflected in a book and not want to throw either the book or myself out a window.
Now, almost twenty years later, two of that generation’s leading lights have produced memoirs that trace their own early literary influences, their origins as writers, and—especially—their relationships to their mothers. The first of these, Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, came out this month. The second, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, will be published in May.
Until recently, Bechdel was best known as the author of Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip of uncommon political, interpersonal, and visual acuity. (Imagine a collaboration among Rachel Maddow, Charles Addams, and Charles Dickens, and you’ll get the gist.) Then, in 2006, she published Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her father—a distant, demanding, closeted gay man who pursued underage boys and died of an apparent suicide when Bechdel was in college. Fun Home became a national best seller and met with widespread acclaim; Time magazine, which does not anagram to “mainstream mag” but feels like it should, named it the best book of the year. Are You My Mother?, also a graphic memoir, is Bechdel’s maternal follow-up.
My initial reaction to Bechdel’s and Winterson’s new books was astonishment at their surface similarity: two mom-focused memoirs by literary lesbians who rose to prominence in the eighties, published almost simultaneously. In fact, though, what’s most remarkable is how different they are.
Implicitly or explicitly, every memoir is about not just a self but the self: In telling our own stories, we inevitably draw on one or another cultural story about what it means to be an “I.” Taken separately, Why Be Happy and Are You My Mother? present two specific and remarkable people. Taken together, they present two strikingly different ways—indeed, two of the only ways—we in the contemporary West know how to tell a story about the self.
Jeanette Winterson grew up in the sixties, in a working-class town in Northern England, the adopted child of a Pentecostal woman of devout faith, incendiary temper, and dubious sanity. On the first page of Why Be Happy, she introduces her mother as “a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge.” Also: a woman who refers to mice as ectoplasm and to Woolworths as a Den of Vice. A woman who shuts her daughter in a coal bin and responds to her nascent lesbianism by arranging an exorcism. All told, one of the more surprising facts about this memoir is that, pace Chekhov, the revolver stays in the drawer.
To those who read Oranges, the first two-thirds of Why Be Happy will be familiar: Winterson survives her noir childhood, falls in love with a girl or three, escapes to Oxford, and finds literary fame. Then, quite abruptly, the book leapfrogs over 25 years of Winterson’s life, including the death of both parents. That brings us to the near present—whereupon the author has a mental breakdown, attempts suicide, recovers, and goes in search of her biological mother. That search succeeds (I won’t say more), but it is ultimately the adoptive mother who dominates both Winterson’s life and this story.
And story is the right word. Profoundly influenced by the Western canon, Greek mythology, and fairy tales, Winterson narrates her own history according to the conventions of fiction: Life is a story, and the self is a hero. The young Jeanette is familiar to us from the thousand hapless orphans and ragamuffins of literature: impoverished, deprived, abused, yes, but buoyant as a cork, destined to rise. Her mother, meanwhile—referred to as “Mrs. Winterson” or “Mrs. W.”—is a classic villain, a wicked not-quite-stepmother of the first rank.
Inevitably, their clash is epic, in the literary sense. You and I might have fought with our mothers over identity and autonomy and the keys to the car, but these mythic archetypes fight, as mythic archetypes will, over the big stuff. “The battle between us,” Winterson writes, “was really the battle between happiness and unhappiness.” (The book takes its title from the question Mrs. Winterson asked when Jeanette came out as a lesbian.) It is also the battle between life and death. For Mrs. W., “life was a pre-death experience”; of herself, Winterson writes, “I was and am in love with life.”
Many writers’ memoirs amount to a kind of quest narrative, nerd style: Boy meets book, boy is thwarted in/saved by his relationship with books, boy writes book. Winterson arranges her physically and intellectually impoverished childhood into an acridly funny version of this tale. Her father is barely literate. Her mother mistrusts books because “you never know what’s in [them] until too late.”
No matter. Winterson is an autodidact; she is an auto-everything. She goes to the library and reads her way through the “English Literature in Prose A-Z” section. She stashes cheap paperbacks under her mattress, Playboy style—72, we learn, to a standard single frame. When her mother finds them (D. H. Lawrence end first, unfortunately), she sets them on fire. For Winterson, the burning is a kindling. “Fuck it,” she thinks. “I can write my own.”
The heroes, the villains, the bootstraps, the bravado: It all makes for a wonderful story. But it also makes for a worldview. A driven loner, no matter how forsaken by society, can reach the top. (When we learn that Winterson was once a Thatcherite—a position she later repudiates—it comes as no surprise.) The tale is essentially teleological, its ending foreordained. Whether Winterson will turn out to be the hero of her own life is never for a nanosecond in question.
Bechdel, by contrast, is chronically in doubt about her status as hero—or, more precisely, as subject, in the psychoanalytic sense. Excessively solipsistic memoirs are often accused of being one long therapy session for the author; Bechdel, who is too smart by half not to know that, counters this criticism by courting it. This memoir is set in therapy sessions, analyzes its author’s dreams, pauses to define “compromise formation,” “reaction formation,” and “cathexis,” and invokes the likes of Freud, Jung, Alice Miller, and Melanie Klein. For Winterson, the self is a hero on a journey. For Bechdel, the self is a psyche, on a couch.
Consider, for instance, the two guiding spirits that loom over Are You My Mother? The first is Virginia Woolf, who plays the same role in this mother-memoir that James Joyce played in Fun Home—and who, like Joyce, shattered rather than embodied the conventions of fiction. The second is Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who was influential in the development of object-relations theory: the idea that our earliest relationship (typically with our mother) shapes our responses to future people and situations.
That, alas, bodes ill for Bechdel. Her relationship with her mother is less overtly destructive than Winterson’s, but it is one of chronically unmet need. Mrs. Bechdel is withdrawn, depressive, and intensely private. She stops kissing her daughter good night when she turns 7—stops all physical contact, in fact, and most other meaningful connection, too. “Getting her undivided attention was a rare treat,” Bechdel writes. “It felt miraculous, actually—like persuading a hummingbird to perch on your finger.”
Bechdel responds by becoming preternaturally sensitive and solicitous, banishing her own needs in favor of her mother’s. Where Winterson’s story is one of livid self-assertion (“For most of my life, I’ve been a bare-knuckled fighter”), Bechdel’s is one of constant self-erasure. (“I was plagued then, as now, with a tendency to edit my thoughts before they even took shape.”) Likewise, while Winterson must escape her mother literally—which she does, leaving home while still in high school—Bechdel must escape her mother figuratively, internally. “The vital core of Winnicott’s theory,” she writes, is that “the subject must destroy the object and the object must survive this destruction.” Winterson borrows her story lines from literature; Bechdel gets hers from psychoanalytic theory. She must destroy her mother, and her mother must survive: That is the plot—and also the goal—of Are You My Mother?
Appropriately, these two writers’ strengths mirror their models of selfhood. Winterson, for whom the self is the hero of a story, is a terrific storyteller—all brawn and blarney, equally gifted at the overall arc and the telling detail. (By the end of one particularly ghastly Christmas, she writes, “the paperchains hanging from the ceiling began to look like a madman’s manacles.”) Bechdel, for whom the self is psychoanalytic subject, is remarkably able to translate her internal universe onto the page. (Watch for the scene where she describes her cosmology, then instantly recognizes the problem with it. It’s like having a revelation of your own.)
As it happens, the converse is also true: Each writer’s weakness reflects the other’s model of the self. It is Winterson’s bildungsroman, not Bechdel’s therapy memoir, that sometimes flirts with the melodrama and the pabulum of the self-help shelf. (“There are markings here, raised like welts. Read them. Read the hurt. Rewrite them.”) Meanwhile, Bechdel struggles to impose a story line: “Perhaps the real problem with this memoir is that it has no beginning.”
Mostly, though, these writers’ voices reflect their mothers. Mrs. Winterson—aphoristic, inventive to the point of delusional, a biblical orator par excellence—gave her daughter both a template for storytelling and the need to tell her own. “I can’t remember a time,” Winterson says, “when I wasn’t setting my story against hers.” The elder Bechdel, meanwhile, serves variously as her daughter’s editor, archivist, amanuensis, and book reviewer; in effect, she substitutes an intellectual connection for an emotional one. “My mother’s editorial voice—precisian, dispassionate, elegant, adverbless—is lodged deep in my temporal lobes,” Bechdel writes. Winterson learned to write by countering the voice of a difficult mother; Bechdel by absorbing it.
Thus, painfully, do these books pay homage to the mothers they essentially seek to destroy. “What we notice in the stories,” Winterson writes, “is the nearness of the wound to the gift.” She’s referring to another literary convention, one that stretches from the injured Odysseus to the scarred Harry Potter. But the same could be said about these memoirs—evidence, in both cases, of a formidable gift, and its formidable price.
• What Happened to the Coming-Out Memoir?
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
By Jeanette Winterson.
Are You My Mother?
By Alison Bechdel.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $22.