Remember all those fairy stories where the Queen gives birth, goes back to look in the crib, and the baby pops its head out with furry ears or six feet of hair or a pair of webbed feet?
Adoption is the changeling child: Your birth mother had no idea what she was giving away, your adoptive mother has no idea what she is getting. Love is not the problem. Adoption isn’t a love problem; it is an identity issue. Who are you? Where are you from? Where do you belong? Every mirror you look into is a magic mirror of a kind because you hope to see a deeper reflection of yourself. You won’t look like your new parents or the rest of the family. No matter how much they love you, you are the oddity and the angle. It isn’t straightforward to be different from the very beginning. But you are.
Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be. A crucial part of our story is missing, and violently, like a bomb in the womb. The baby explodes into an unknown world only knowable through a story of some kind. I realise that’s how we all live, the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain-up. The feeling that something is missing never ever leaves you, and it can’t, and it shouldn’t because something is missing. But the missing part, the missing past, can be an entry as well as an exit, an opening as well as a void. You will just have to make it up as you go along.
That’s what life is – a continual re-invention, and to know that early on gives you certain advantages. I learned to read myself as a fiction as well as a fact because it seemed to me that if I understood myself as a story I could change that story.
That was necessary because my own adoption was tricky – not all children are adopted by Pentecostals who want you to work in the Mission fields. Not all adoptive mothers keep a revolver in the duster drawer and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. She read the Bible out-loud to me every day, but she herself was consumed by dark and disordered narratives. Books were not allowed in our house even though it was a collage of texts and exhortations. Under my coat peg it said Think of God not the Dog.
We were living in End-time, waiting for the Apocalypse. The world was a cosmic dustbin, she said, and when I asked if the lid was on or off, she said ‘On. Nobody escapes.’
I had to escape. It was my survival from the very beginning. I did it by setting my story against hers.
When I wrote Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit she complained that it was not ‘true’. This was odd from a woman who explained the flash-dash of mice activity in the kitchen as ectoplasm.
Mrs Winterson had always insisted that my biological mother was dead. She also told me that my mother had been a drunk, a drug addict, a mental patient, and a woman who had exploded. I didn’t necessarily believe any of this, but it didn’t make me eager to start looking for her either.
Then, in 2007, I found some yellowing paperwork hidden in an old chest of Mrs W’s. The papers revealed another name for me – but one violently scribbled out. I was troubled enough and curious enough to risk going further. And it is a risk. Such a search is threatening at a cellular level – by which I mean the body has a memory. Deep trauma – I call it lost loss – seems to be able to be held in some kind of cellular safety deposit box. Open the box and the pain, the terror, the fear, floods back into the bloodstream. That is what it feels like.
If that happens there is no way but to work it through the body as you would a toxin. I had fevers, nightmares, hives, sleepless weakness. And it wasn’t mental it was physical. Also, every time I got a bit nearer on the detective hunt to find my biological mother, I lost something – phone, purse, keys – the identity badges of the grown-up me in the grown-up life.
When I did find Ann, and we met in the snow on a freezing day, it was easy and difficult all at once. I liked her but I didn’t feel an instant DNA bond. I had come out of her body but we were two adults who had spent only six weeks together fifty years ago when I was brand-new and she was seventeen.
We have the same quick walk and bright dog-like watchful eyes. We are both self-reliant and resourceful. She is one of ten children and so I come from a huge family of uncles and aunts and cousins, which is odd when you grew up as an only child.
And they all love ballroom dancing.
She called me Janet – and I guess Mrs Winterson Frenchified it into Jeanette. I wonder what would have happened to me as that Janet? I would have had to look after my two half-brothers. I doubt I would have gone to Oxford. None of my birth family is educated – too poor, no opportunities.
Would I be a writer? Why? The am that I am belongs to Wintersonworld, although it was crazy and dangerous. I think that one of the most painful things for Ann was realising that I would rather be this me than any other me. It isn’t a rejection of her or her family but in some ways it can’t be anything else. I don’t wish I had been there.
Do I want to be there now?
Ann and I had a terrible row on our third meeting. And something strange happened that I haven’t written about in Why Be Happy. I took Ann back to Euston, both of us bruised from our fighting, and as I stood on the platform putting her on the train, a young woman ran up to me with a book in her hand. She said ‘Are you Jeanette Winterson?’
Ann looked stricken. I was confused for a moment at my identities merging- or were they coming apart- in a railway terminus; point of arrival, point of departure. Ann boarded the train. I signed the book because I am Jeanette Winterson. That is my name. That is my identity, given and made, hard-won.
There we were, my mother and I, on either side of the window as the train pulled out. What to say? We keep in touch. None of it is easy.
I am glad I found Ann. It was the right thing to do. There are no happy Hollywood endings, but understanding is more important than that, and I have understood why she had to give me away. Just as difficult is for her to understand why I can’t come back.
And I am thinking of a line from William Blake’s poem Broken Love: Throughout all eternity I forgive you you forgive me.