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.