' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Why Be Normal When You Could Be Jeanette Winterson?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why Be Normal When You Could Be Jeanette Winterson?

Jeanette Winterson 02.JPG
Winterson in Warsaw, 2005
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is the title of a scrupulously honest and soul-baring memoir by the acclaimed British writer, Jeanette Winterson, who was adopted not by a loving "forever family" but by a crazed, larger-than-life Pentecostal woman who hated sex, force-fed the Bible on her brilliant, rebellious daughter, and kept a gun in the dresser as she waited for Armageddon.

What about this daughter that seemed to have no earthly (or heavenly) relationship to the woman the world knew as her mum? Well, as her adoptive mother--almost always called the distancing Mrs. Winterson or Mrs. W.,--used to say when Jeanette angered her: "The Devil led us to the wrong crib." That's on the first page. Hold on, you're in for a bumpy ride.

             Jeanette Winterson

The first two-thirds of the book in snippets and quick images tells the story of a growing up poor in northern England that can best be described as hellish. Though the Wintersons did not have an indoor toilet in 1959, sustained themselves on the vegetables Mr. Winterson grew, they were allowed to adopt--which certainly gives lie to the story every first mother has ever been told--that her child was going to have a "better life." In this case, that only applies if you were going to be raised in some gawd-awful orphanage where beatings were for lunch.

Plumbing aside, consider the Dickensian rest: being left outside for the night, all night, when Mrs. Winterson (now in the hereafter, wherever God has sent here) felt the need to punish her unruly, forceful daughter; being kept for days in a coal shed to contemplate her sins but raiding the food tins saved for the Apocalypse, and having to hide her books under the mattress. Yet the young Winterson finds solace in the local library and reads through the classics, preparing her for the exams for Oxford on a day that is coming. Other memoirs of awful childhoods are out there, but I was looking for the adoption connection, and though other reviews scarcely mention it, adoption is shot though the entire memoir.  Winterson's prose is spare, the book is short, the story-telling fragmented, but by god she gets to the heart of the matter with lightening speed. Page 5:
"Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, link a bomb in the womb."
Page 7:
"Adoption is outside. You act out what it feels like to be the one who doesn't belong. And you act it out by trying to do to others what has been done to you. It is impossible to believe that anyone loves you for yourself."
Page 23:
"We [Mrs. Winterson and the author] were matched in our lost and losing. I had lost the warm safe place, however chaotic, of the first person I loved. I had lost my name and my identity. Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go home."
Page 51:
"The trouble with adoption is that you never know what you are going to get." 
She was talking from the point of the adopted, not the adoptive parents. 

Page 98:
"But it was Christmas and the school was lit up and Mrs. Winterson was in her fur coat and bird hat and my dad was washed and shaved and I was walking in between them and it felt normal.
'Is that your mum?' said somebody.
'Mostly,' I said." 
Of course, there's more, my copy is loaded down with Post-its to show me where. I'm not even sure these above are the most insightful, but they are the ones that popped up when I sat down to write and they hit the proverbial nail on the head, without flinching, without prettifying the awful reality of adoption to the adopted. Bang. No mincing of words to soften the blow. This is raw feeling, written with a sure hand, a fierce intelligence, and comic sensibility recognizing the absurdity of life.

The story is hardly a linear narrative, and requires you to fill-in-the-blanks to keep up. Yet you feel Winterson's not-quite despair because even as a child she is a determined little fighter who can't be broken and doesn't let the formidable Mrs. Winterson dampen her spirit. She even survives a three-day exorcism (no kidding, and it's fucking awful) when Mrs. Winterson discovers her with another girl, not a boy, and thus the title: Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, as Mrs.Winterson asks her. After that, at sixteen, the author leaves home, finds her way to Oxford, finds loves, loses love, finds love again, writes Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a highly autobiographical novel that catapulted her into the realm of a writing phenom, first in England and then in America. Oranges went on to be a highly acclaimed television program, which further burnished her fame, even to folks who don't read books. This is the non-fiction account of that fiction.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Winterson, whom Jeanette has not seen in years, is not pleased with Oranges. The author calls her from a phone box. Mrs. Winterson is in a phone box too. They talk; they do not meet. Their relationship is one of icy familiarity, certainly not love. From either one. Winterson writes..."and I'm thinking, as her [Mrs. Winterson's] voice goes in and out like the sea, 'Why aren't your proud of me?'" We all need that self-affirmation from our families, no matter how we come by them. I spent half of my life trying to show my father that it was good that I went to college, even though I was a girl....we all do this when we encounter parental rejection, it's written somewhere, and we can't help ourselves even when the parent is as cold and distant and unlikely as Mrs. Winterson. A worse mother for the person her daughter was can hardly be imagined.

Flash forward 25 years later. Winterson decides to find her past, even though she wrote, she had never wanted to find her birth parents before..."if one set of parents felt like a misfortune, two sets would be self-destructive...I had no idea that you could like your parents or that they could love you enough to let you be yourself." She then enters the complicated maze of getting her real birth certificate and adoption papers, finding that in the end, the record of her adoption is at the very library in Accrington where she had read the works of great writers, that she had passed every day she lived there growing up. 

And what an intricate and invidious labyrinth it was that led her back to Accrington. Since original birth records have been available to adoptees in England and Wales since 1975, we on this side of the pond imagine that over there it's easy as one-two-three--yet Winterson discovers otherwise. There is the factotum sits across from her, with her records in front of him, trying to decide what he can divulge and what he should not; the maddening language that obfuscates what should be a simple procedure, language not even the well educated Winterson can figure out; being urged to get a solicitor, when Winterson cannot see why that should be necessary; and finally, the complicated hunt to find her records, to find out what happened, to find out where her mother is, who her mother is. But saving grace, there is a kindly social worker to help her through the maze. Mrs.W had told the author her mother was dead....

From the adoption papers, Winterson learns that she was wanted and breast fed by her mother for six weeks. She learns her father was a miner, only five feet two; Winterson is five feet tall, exactly "--and the genetic rule is that girls are not taller than their fathers, so I have done all I can size-wise."

Indeed her mother is far from dead, she is a pleasant working class lady. A woman who first sends her a text addressed like this: Darling Girl, which Winterson at first thinks must be from a Russian escort agency. She finds that her mother has an open smile, would have easily accepted the fact that she likes girls, not boys, was sixteen when she was pregnant, looked after her for six weeks until she "gave up," as her natural mother, whom she calls Ann, says.

Upon going to visit her natural mother for the first time, Winterson finds she is very pleased to see this woman. "'I thought I'd get the washing done before you got here,'" is her very first line. It is just what I would say myself." Why did I love that bit so much? It's regular prose, nothing special. I loved it because my daughter arrived that second summer wearing the same exact same style of unusual Italian sandals that I had, because she talked like me, walked like me, because though we had been apart she was strangely familiar as the nose on my face. Because she did things that I might do myself.It felt uncanny but there it was: we were mother and daughter, no doubt about it.

What the author repeats several times, as if to convince herself of this truth is that she was wanted:
"She [her birth mother] tells me I was never a secret--me--who thought via Mrs. Winterson that everything had to be a secret--books and lovers, real names, real lives.

"And then she wrote, 'You were always wanted.'

"Do you understand that Jeanette, You were always wanted." [Emphasis in the original.]
She is never mean about her natural mother, never puts her down, as many other adoptee memoirists have done. She finds her original family uneducated, but nonetheless intelligent. They read. "They have kept their working-class pride in who they are and what they can do. They like each other. I watch that. They talk. They listen to that. Is this what it would have been like?"

How can we first mothers read that without wincing? How different would our daughters and sons be if we had been able to raise them, to teach them, to be their mum and dad, fully, not just by birth, by biology, but by day-to-day living? Would we share political beliefs, religion, style? I know from all the years of knowing my own daughter how much she was like me, and I know the comfort I found in that. It helped that we shared our the two great separators in America today, religion and politics, even though I am a fully lapsed Catholic veering hard right towards agnosticism, and Jane was mostly a Mass-on-Sunday Catholic. But in style, in dress, in so many many ways, Jane and I were alike, just as much as if I had raised her. Amanda, over at Declassified Adoptee, wrote the other day about freaking out in a good way when she found that the family (as in natural) china that was given to her resembles the very way she decorates her house. Why not, I thought when I read the post. It's only natural. As for the shock of finding who-might-have-been, Winterson writes:
"I go to the bathroom. All my life I have been an orphan and an only child. Now I come from a big family who go ballroom dancing and live forever."
Winterson later is told by her mother she is sorry she "left" her; "I don't mind," she tells her mother; her friend and lover laughs at this as a most inadequate answer. Her "mother,"by the way, is Ann. Not Mrs. Winterson. "My mother had to sever some part of herself to let me go. I have felt the wound every since." Yow.

Later though she unravels the complexity of an adoptee's life, debating internally who she might have been had she not been adopted. The answer is complicated,  might make some birth mothers wince, but i has the raw ring of reality:
"Yet I would rather be this me--the me that I have become--than the me I might have become without books, without education, and without all those things that have happened to me along the way, including Mrs. W. I think I am lucky."
That's the nub of it then. How can anybody, after a certain age, rather be somebody else, the other person she might have become? I've written before about the love I didn't marry, with whom I certainly wouldn't have had a child given up for adoption, but how can any of us reclaim the path not taken, imagine the person we might be today if only we took a different fork in the road? We can't. We have to accept and be pleased with the life we have. If life with Mrs. W. hadn't been so terrible Winterson might not have left home at 16, found someone to tutor her to get to Oxford, and so on. But who can say if she wouldn't have gone to Oxford if she'd grown up with her mother? That fierce intelligence, that keen mind might have found a way. But we become the path we have taken, no second guessing, no going back.   

What happens at the end? Her mother wishes her daughter would be in touch more. How many of us first mothers have had that same thought, who can count the number? But my mother--and I wasn't adopted--wished the very same thing. "I think she would like me to let her be my mother," writes Winterson. How many times have we read such a complaint at adoptee blogs, or heard it from their own lips in ways that seem so hurtful, no matter how we mothers try to rein in our emotions? We can't help be their mothers because we are their mothers, it is bred into our bones. Yet Winterson reminds us of the hard truth, that adoptees--or some adoptees--never feel completely at ease with either family, that they forever remain joined together but still apart:
"But whatever adoption is, it isn't an instant family--not with the adoptive parents, and now with the rediscovered parents."'
I've quoted Why Be Happy to the point of excessive; I could go on because I can't paraphrase her better. The writing is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant. Adoptee or first mother, read the book. Your own copy will be littered with sections you underline. It will help you understand the "other side" in this the awful, horrible emotional morass that is adoption for first mothers and the children they surrender (and thus lose) to adoption. As a bonus, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal will enlighten the thousands who read Winterson who have not thought about what it means to be adopted. A good thing. A very good thing.--lorraine

FYI: The book was released in America in March, and it's been reviewed everywhere. The other reviews mention the adoption but only in passing; most deal largely with the horrid Mrs. Winterson. Pity. Are they afraid of the adoption theme told from this side, not the sunny story of adoptive parents that we usually get? Were the other reviewers in a fog as to what to say? I dunno, they are all smart people. But to repeat, at least more people--because Jeanette Winterson has a huge fan base--will learn about the realities of adoption. This is an adoption memoir the way they should be written. Did I say it was brilliant? That she would be one of the top three people I'd like to have lunch with, if I could have lunch with anyone in the world?
Also see Amanda's blog, Declassifed Adoptee:
The Family China Freaks me Out

To order Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? click on the above photo. I'm getting a Kindle for my birthday (after years of delaying) but I have to say this is one book I want to keep in hard-copy, and I think I'll keep my Post-its intact. Maybe my first download will be Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I've read other books by Winterson, and been a big fan, but oddly enough, not that one. Written on the Body is the one that initially blew me away. And my granddaughter too.

Adoptee Jennifer Lauck had similar experiences and insights. See Jennifer Lauck's "Found" reveals the painful truth of adoption. 

For a FMF discussion of memoirs by adoptees who had a different take on their adoption see Why Reunion go Awry: What Memoirs of Adopted Daughters Tell Birthmothers


  1. How strange it is when we read things that reflect what we feel and think. My daughter is me... in some ways. We tilt our heads the same way, sit, stand and walk the same way.....

    She is not, personality wise, a lot like me. I am logical and basically just a LIBRA - lol - she is more like my sister.

    Life goes on.... but hey,

    This book I will read.

  2. I read this book when it first came out and was deeply moved, as well. And like you, I have post-it notes and highlights all through the book. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in knowing what it is like from an adoptee's perspective.

  3. Hi Lorraine,
    Speaking of hitting the nail on the head, you've done it again yourself. You raised so many issues that I think most (if not all) first mothers think of so often. And, yes, once someone reaches a certain age how can they imagine being someone else? It's not really possible. I don't know if my own daughter will ever return to my own life. I hope so, but she - like Winsterson - has her own life, a different life than she would have had as the daughter I raised. I don't know how soon I'll get to this book. The hurt of not speaking to my daughter after 9 years of reunion, is still too raw. I've read Winsterson before and I know what a brilliant writer she is. I certainly look forward to reading the book, but it is with the same dread and fascination that we might want to glimpse an accident as we pass by. The truth is so important, but it can also be painful.

    Thank you again for sharing what you're reading.


  4. Angela: Somehow reading this book for me was not incredibly painful--perhaps because I've lived with the realities of what adoption is for such a long time. Or perhaps because she does have a light touch at times that relieves the depth of what she is talking about. I didn't focus on her sense of humor in the review as it was certainly long enough, but it's there in Why be Happy; it won't make you break out in laughter, but her light touch at times relieves the awfulness and thus the book is--well, I wouldn't say easy to read, but somehow less than a tortured event.

  5. Unfortunately, even with books like this out there I doubt that most people would question the belief that adoption doesn't always lead to a "better life" for the child. After all a whole generation of us were given to couples whose only qualification was that they were married.

    "I've written before about the love I didn't marry, with whom I certainly wouldn't have had a child given up for adoption, but how can any of us reclaim the path not taken, imagine the person we might be today if only we took a different fork in the road? We can't."

    I am very surprised that you would equate not CHOOSING to marry someone with being adopted. That fork in the road as you call it that caused me to lose my entire family on both sides and be raised by genetic strangers was FORCED on me without my knowledge or consent.

  6. Robin, If I had married the person I didn't--and it was a matter of missed connections, family opposition, lack of communication that intervened--I wouldn't have spent my life as a woman who lost a child to adoption, and thus lost being her first and only mother. I wouldn't have spent my life grieving over my loss, I wouldn't be the person writing First Mother Forum, I wouldn't have a granddaughter who writes me that she is in a good place and that means "no contact."

    I am very surprised you would would not see my pain as the opposite side of the coin to being adopted.

  7. I think you missed my point, Lorraine. You were referring to the path not taken. But neither Ms. Winterson nor any adoptee actually had any choice in the path of being an adoptee. It's not as if we could say "I wish I hadn't taken this path of being an adoptee". The path was chosen for us/forced on us. But I do see your pain as being the opposite side of the coin of being adopted.

    Hope this makes it clearer.

  8. If anyone gets the point I am making and can make it clearer, please chime in.
    I do think we have to accept what has happened in our lives and make peace with it as best we can.

  9. I read this book when it first came out and thrilled to it, as I do to all Jean Winterson's books. She writes a mean streak and be funny even when she's bleak. I loved it when she said in response to her birth mother criticizing Mrs Winterson "She's a monster, but she's my monster".


  10. First mothers can't get a break, can they? Of course Lorraine had all sorts of choices back in the Sixties, why couldn't she see that? How insensitive of her to not see that of course she should have NEVER talked about the path she didn't take and the person she has become in the same story as an adoptee. OMG

    I don't think Lorraine missed your point, Robin. After seeing how quick adoptees are to jump on both Lorraine and Jane I sometimes wonder why they write this blog. Fms always need to be punished, right?

    BTW, did you ever read the story about why she didn't marry her first BF? It's not like she had a big choice, anyway. But naturally FMs have to keep on paying for their sins.

  11. I just ordered the book from my library, reserving judgment until I read it myself but it sounds interesting and I have heard she is a good writer.

    Yes, as mothers we had choices, and do need to take responsibility for the choices we made. Adoptees had no choices about adoption, being children and in most cases infants. That is an indisputable fact. But there is no "pain contest" as to whose is worse or better, and it seems futile to compare the two. There are no winners here.

    I do not think it helps anyone or any relationship to dwell on the past and what might have been, no matter who we are or what we did or did not do. The past is utterly gone. We have only today, and going forward. You just drive yourself insane going back to who you could have met, could have married, what if you went to a different school, what if you took a different job, what if you did not cross that street......Not worth dwelling on, we all have to deal with what is, with the consequences of what we did, and in the case of adoptees, what others did to us. There is no alternate universe, just this one, and it is the one and only life we have so it had best be lived well.

  12. What Chelsea said.

    I wonder why they bother writing here, too anymore. It seems we are not allowed to have OUR stories, OUR narrative or truths to tell. If we do, by god we best not upset the adopter or adoptee sensibilities in the process because after all, they are the one's that matter most of all, right? Wrong!

    We have ALL been hurt. Mothers and adoptees have ALL lost in adoption. Read a bit and realize how that came to be, instead of it being strictly "you gave us away so we are the one's owed more respect and understanding". I beg to differ with that. Many mothers are victims of the times or victims of fraud and coercion. That doesn't matter, though. We will always be the "abandoners" who deserve to get kicked in the teeth at every opportunity. I, quite frankly, am sick of it...

  13. Winterson said that all things considered she was happy to be who she is today, even with the adoption.Lorraine was making an analogy to the life she didn't lead, one without adoption, which probably would have had many fewer tears and heartaches. Only someone who cannot see beyond their own reflection would see that and jump on her. Yes adoptees love to dump on mothers and do so whenever possible, but I never see birthmothers dump on adoptees at their blogs. call me just plain tired of it,
    a birthmother
    ps: like maryanne said this isn't about whose pain is worse--lorraine didn't imply that or compare her pain to adoptee's--but Robin tried to turn it into that.

  14. from the blog:"I've written before about the love I didn't marry, with whom I certainly wouldn't have had a child given up for adoption, but how can any of us reclaim the path not taken, imagine the person we might be today if only we took a different fork in the road? We can't. We have to accept and be pleased with the life we have."--lorraine

    I do think we have to accept what has happened in our lives and make peace with it as best we can.--Isn't that what LOrraine said? Why criticize her? To kick a birth mother whenever possible?

  15. @Maryanne - as always, your remarks are excellent reminders to enjoy the present.

    @anon 6:14 p.m. well said - I, too, eventually got sick of the "abandoner" comments and now I just view them as a reflection of the lack of knowledge of adoption.

  16. I have always appreciated Robin's comments here and I don't think she was intentionally dumping on mothers.

    I can see where she is coming from in that there was no path or action she could have taken to stay with her mother. Therefore she really can't ponder what might have happened in the same way. She can say, "gee, if I had been allowed to stay with my mother then my life would have been different." However, that is different from saying, "gee, if I had allowed myself to stay with my mother then my life would have been different."

    It's a nuanced distinction but I think it affects adoptees deeply when they really delve into complex reflections on their identity.

  17. Robin's comments have usually been thoughtful and perceptive, and I have said so in the past. I was surprised--no, amazed is more like it--when she wrote what she did based on what seemed a fitting analogy without disrespecting the state of being adopted. Actually, accepting the life we have, not what might have been, is a healthy mental state for everyone, whether or not adoption is involved in any way.

    Robin, of course you are welcome here all the time--perhaps this discussion was needed to air feelings. I was upset--we first mothers have feelings too, are sensitive to criticism we think is unfair--but I'll get over it and move on. Hope everyone will.

    Thanks, maybe, for the comment; I'd love to hear from other adoptees too. Of course, I hope I am not asking for an attack....

  18. Being a hard-core pessimist for the most part, I think that alternate realities could just as easily be worse than better than what we actually have to live with. I heard a story once about people all ending up choosing the hardship they had over one that another person was dealing with, once they magically walked in the other person's shoes for a while.

    Say Lorraine did have sex with her high school sweetheart. A Happily ever after marriage could have been the outcome, but it also could have gone another way as it did for so many. She could have ended up pregnant earlier as a young teen, been sent away to a home for undwed mothers, the boyfriend forbidden to see her much less marry her, and still have given up a child for adoption. That is only one of a million scenarios possible for any of us.

    It is understandable that Jeannette Winterson is content with the reality she has, hard as it was, because while it could have been better it also could have been worse. Stuff like that is fun to play with in fiction, but if you let those thoughts affect your real life and resentment starts, it sours everything.

  19. I find it impossible to understand why the adoption community can't realize that we are not different sides of the same coin, but different coins.

    Mothers did not and still do not make choices without "help" - very rarely is the mother actually told the truth and even more rarely is the decision to relinquish one that was not "helped" by other interested parties.

    As far as pain - we mothers have a unique kind of pain that no one but another mother could ever comprehend. I am sure adopted persons also have their own special kind of pain.

    There is no comparison - this is not a mercedes vs. a rolls - we are different...in every sense of the word.

    I too would like it if those that want to play the pain game would refrain from deliberately misunderstanding... comparing and then being angry.

  20. Lorriane,

    Often when adoptees just state their feelings about their situations it becomes personalized and seen we are dumping on mothers. We retreat and feel totally dismissed again....not sure its possible to have honest dialoge with adoptees and first mothers. the hurt runs to deep, the expecatations to high and for myself often feel my feelings are considered conditional. We don't "do it right"and we are not compassinate and not understanding...our" stories" can not just be ours because our stories involve many others...what we feel, what we do. how we feel about ours impacts so many others. How does a person become asssimulated when so many other people are dependent on our feelings to make them whole....What did we actually do to deserve that..nothing. nothing differnt then everyone else that was born but don't have the burden of proving motherhood and personhood to all the mothers...it gets scary and overwhelming. Because i can say most of us don't want to hurt anyone...we love both sets of parents, the thought of hurting either is overwhelming...totally wrong and unfair..these are feelings we have had since birth. not something that happeded later in life that we can try to understand on an adult level. Its ingrained in us...it becomes who we are devolped during our most formative years..its takes a long time to devolp them and even longer time to figure them out and get to a point thatwe beleive we really do matter..not just in adoption but in life...we desrve to live, eat, breath, know out heritage, know where we came from just like everyone else...unconditionally. But our extistence and love from our parents does become conditional at times...if we don't give enouh, or are unable to see past the crap we are dismissed as whatever name is being bandied about at the time...we are called ungrateful, we are called not comassioante enough, we are called selfish...people need to be protected from us as are very existance is hurtful...whether we love one or the other..some is suggesting our very deep feelings of ourselfs is flawed...we are bad no matter what we feel or do...it sucks.

    I so try to understand the first mothers, i so beleive what was done to you and many was horrible. when i first started this whole thing years ago my compassion was for the first mothers(taught to me by my amother) until i saw the anger thrown at adoptees that we just don't love enough. I accepted my 2nd place in both families until i realized that i needed to prove more of a person then "kept" or" bio"

    And please before anyone comes to set me straight i am not a young child adoptee person...I am 54 years old have raised 5 children and been around the block....I see things much more clearly then i ever had and its very sad what i have cometo conclude about adoption ..about the children??? right.....

  21. http://www.thescavenger.net/arts/working-from-the-wound-interview-with-jeanette-winterson-834.html

    ' The second part of Winterson’s memoir chronicles her journey to discover the truth about her past by tracking down her birth mother. “It was great for both of us to meet as it did settle the story,” she says. Yet she is adamant she was not searching for a new, ready-made family and is critical of the “reunion, pink mist Hollywood endings” often portrayed on TV where long-lost relatives meet each other for the first time.

    “I find them nauseating,” she says. “The most sentimental people are often the most unfeeling. I find this again and again and didn’t want any of that around meeting my birth mother. I hate anything that’s fake. I knew it would be a big muddle – that no one would know how to feel and that there’d be anger and exhilaration, disappointment, pleasure and fear all mixed in together.”

    And forgiveness – something Winterson describes as her “biggest lesson in life”.

    “I had to come to terms with why she gave me away and she’s having to come to terms with why I can’t come back.” As she told the audience at Sydney Opera House, “Forgiveness is an act of memory. You have to remember what you’ve done or what’s been done to you. It’s a huge thing; it’s confronting what’s happened, seeing the situation, passing through it and coming out the other side.” '


  22. I think it was the 2nd part of the paragraph I quoted above that to my reading linked adoptedness with taking a life path or being at a fork in the road. I felt that connection was untrue and unfair.

    I think that Maryanne's comment and especially Maybe's comment understood what I was getting at. Do I ever write something that is not clear enough and can be misunderstood? Yes. Do I ever write something that could be considered insensitive to someone coming from a different perspective here? Not intentionally. But I think the comments that I was calling first mothers 'abandoners', just wanted to kick a first mother or wrote my comment to punish first mothers are over the top and uncalled for.

    Anyone who reads the bulk of my comments at FMF knows that that is not how I feel at all. See my comment at 1:36pm under the May 1, 2012 post, "In the Sixties: Was I 'forced' to give up my baby?". I have written before that my own natural mother only gave me up because both hell and high water actually did come. I have never and never would describe her as a heartless 'abandoner' who needed to pay for her 'sins'.

    I realize you only know me online but anyone who knows me IRL will tell you that, "Robin isn't malicious".

  23. Lo you asked "How can anybody, after a certain age, rather be somebody else, the other person she might have become?"

    This is what I've always wanted. I surely wanted it at 15, and in my young heart and mind, thought I could all but erase adoption. I tried so hard. I cut off all ties to my past, except one friend.

    Today if I had one wish, just for one day I'd like to be the Elizabeth I was born to be. Just one day. A fantasy for sure.

    The reality is I make the best of it. As we all do. I have a good life, but I'd trade it all for just one day.


  24. @Robin - I get your point. Sorry you have been misunderstood here. You simply stated a fact - we who grew up without our families - had no choice. There was no fork in the road, there was no path not taken.

    If I had had a choice, a voice, I would have screamed take me back to my mother.

    I too think some comments are over the top, and you are being unfairly maligned by those who had, at least, some choices whereas we had none.

    It is only upon search and/or reunion where we do have some choice in the matter of adoption shit. At 15 I chose to leave my adopters and The Only Home I Ever Knew (TM) and embrace my birthright. I rarely look back at the choice I made at 15, but when I do and ask myself if I would do it again, the answer is a resounding yes absolutely.


  25. Robin. I did not feel kicked or stepped on or anything else by your comment, because it was not about me. Many of us are way too quick to take someone's statement about their situation, story, feelings, or their mother or child to be universal and personal when it is not. Adoptees have every right to be angry, as do mothers, but we do not have to take it out on each other nor feel attacked when no attack happened, just another person talking about her own life.

    We are all individuals, not archetypes of The Mother or The Adoptee. Our stories have some similarities, but also a lot of differences.

    No, I do not consider all women who also surrendered a child my "sisters" people I instantly feel a bond with, or just like me, nor do I see all adoptees as my child. We are all adults now, and have to learn to speak for ourselves,with truth and courtesy, but refrain from speaking for any whole group when referencing anything beyond facts, and stop taking offense when none was meant.

  26. Robin and all: In my reading of my writing--and I know what I intended--I was simply saying that like Winterson, we all have to accept who we are. We first mothers feel that many adoptees have a hair trigger--understandable but still a hair-trigger--to anything we say or write, and are ready to find fault with it. I still maintain the writing does not make the leap you found there.

    Just as adoptees have to deal with birth mothers and fathers who seem unlikely to them, birth mothers have to accept adoptees as who they have become, not who they might have been, and hearing, Oh, I'm glad I was adopted and turned out like I did, hurts us, yet that is our reality. I was writing thinking of the first mothers who have been told "I'm glad I was adopted..." and addressing them.

    Winterson's point has larger implications--that shock of recognition writers are always aiming for--than the adoptee world. After I quoted Winterson on how she basically would have chosen the life she had, after she told her mother "I don't mind," about being adopted in a hellish upbringing, here is the original paragraph from my review:

    "That's the nub of it then. How can anybody, after a certain age, rather be somebody else, the other person she might have become? I've written before about the love I didn't marry, with whom I certainly wouldn't have had a child given up for adoption, but how can any of us reclaim the path not taken, imagine the person we might be today if only we took a different fork in the road? We can't. We have to accept and be pleased with the life we have. If life with Mrs. W. hadn't been so terrible Winterson might not have left home at 16, found someone to tutor her to get to Oxford, and so on. But who can say if she wouldn't have gone to Oxford if she'd grown up with her mother? That fierce intelligence, that keen mind might have found a way. But we become the path we have taken, no second guessing, no going back."

    PS: Maryanne: College BF! Old enough to get married! I should have slept with him, he should have come back that day he was supposed to, etc.,--now that would have changed my life. Probably. Instead, today his daughter calls me her "alternate universe mother" and we remain solid friends.

  27. PS: Robin, I know you aren't malicious and your comment wasn't malicious but hard to accept because it felt like such a misinterpretation. My lord, how we dissect language here.

    for 2 seconds I had a comment up that said "was" instead of "wasn't." If anyone read that...yikes, and now that you have to forgive//

  28. And I wish that I could rewind the clock and that I slept with by college BF and that we had married and had a child. But we didn't. I ended up where I am.

  29. Sorry for the rough treatment, Robin. I have been there and it's not fun.
    I understand your point about not having a choice. But I think Lo wasn't talking about choices but about life happening and getting to “okay” with what is.
    In the beginning of reunion, when the grief had enveloped me so, a lovely friend said, "Don't have regrets, Barb, if you had kept your daughter you may have not gone on to have your other two kids." This well meaning advice infuriated me. Finally I figured out how to respond. Now when that crap is thrown my way I say, "You take care of your first child first". And that is the end of the discussion. I don't love any of my three kids differently. Yes I cannot imagine life without my kept kids but life without my first daughter sucks.
    I understand what Maryann means when she says “I do not think it helps anyone or any relationship to dwell on the past and what might have been, no matter who we are or what we did or did not do. The past is utterly gone. We have only today, and going forward.”
    Yet dwelling on these things is exactly what I needed to do early on. I had to first revisit my past to understand what my grief was all about. When I placed in 1980 I believed the adults that told me I was an f'en saint to give my daughter to people because they were married and I was not. They had money and I did not. They had a home and I had a college address. I had to figure out that I was had. I needed to forgive myself for doing the unthinkable to my daughter.
    And from what I hear most all adoptees need to look at their natural families and decide that the life they have today is what they want so whatever it took to get to this place was worth it. So yes, it was better for the author to live with Mrs. W and be herself today than live an alternate life and be someone else. I’m glad my daughter is pleased with herself. I am pleased with exactly who she is, too. But I’d be pleased with the woman I would have raised as well.
    And on and on and on it goes.

  30. I do not feel that my son is substantially different as a person because I did not raise him. He had different experiences and some of them were bad, but I can't imagine him being a different person. I love the person he is, and I like him too, which is not always the case. He seems to have turned out in many ways like the kids I did raise. so I do not see a huge difference. I do believe that personality is inborn.It reacts with environment in different ways, but the essence of the person does not change.

    That is my view from the outside as a mother. How he feels only he could tell you.

  31. "The path not taken" is a potent metaphor for choice. Like all timeworn metaphors it has become something of a cliche, which makes it easy to use in an unintentionally careless way.
    We are all the sum of our experiences as well as those of our forebears. We can't change our histories but they are *ours*. They have formed us and belong to us by right. I think this is the message that underlies Jeanette Winterson's book.


  32. "Unintentionally careless" or "carelessly misinterpreted"? Because one is hyper sensitive to all slights--even ones that aren't there? I'm going with "carelessly and thoughtlessly misinterpreted." I've read that paragraph three times now and I fail to see why Robin found it offensive, which she clearly did.

    Adoptees have real comments IRL to be upset about but here at FMF at least they ought to give these two women the benefit of the doubt, and re-read carefully and see if they are not misinterpreting because that suits their mindset. And Robin was not "misunderstood," as some have said. She was very clear that Lorraine wrote something she interpreted as offensive to adoptees. Is it impossible to have adoptees and birth mothers in the same paragraph, same story, without offending some adoptees, even someone like Robin, who is usually thoughful? I'm beginning to think not.

  33. Chelsea, perhaps Lorraine's remark hit a nerve with Robin because it posited the adoptee experience (Winterson's) against the first mother experience (Lorraine's), and while the two experiences are about loss they are very different.
    There's a lot of misinterpretation by both groups, which is not really surprising given the sensitivity of the issues.


  34. What exactly did Lorraine misinterpret, that is the question. I still can't see that she implied in the least how it was interpreted.

  35. Robin,

    I for one have always welcomed your insight and comments here.

    I did not find your comment intentionally offensive. You,like my daughter, had no choice in adoption. For me that is the hardest part to come to grips with in all of this. I (and others) made that decision for her. It was because of my actions that she was lost to adoption. I can't go back and change that and I can never apologize enough for what I did.
    I am not sure that I would want to take the other path because it would mean that my daughter would not have been born and she is a great joy in my life. But I would like to go back and unsign the papers and be able to run like hell with her in my arms.

    My daughter has told me that the feeling of me loving her is a gift and a curse. She has only felt that kind of love with me and it makes her feel like she missed out. It makes her wonder who she could have been. Yes, that hurts me to the core but it is her truth and I don't want to put words in your mouth but I have also come to feel that you share some of those feelings in your relationship with your first mother. I get overwhelmed with all of this at times but I also think that we all need to be able to have a place to tell your thruths. Only in reactions do we get a grasp of how our actions affect someone else.

    None of us can go back and change any of this but as Maryanne has said we need to keep moving forward. It is the only way to come out on the other side of this. If that is even ever fully possible.

    Robin, I'm sorry that your Mother felt that the only way out was to lose you. I wish I could change that for you and her.

  36. Robin and others, after reading all these comments, given this whole discussion, do you think Lorraine still wrote something offensive? and surprising? I'm not asking to attack you or anything, I just wonder if you have rethought your original statement.

  37. Anon 10:27 AM, if your comment is in response to mine, which I think it may be, you have misinterpreted my meaning. Please read my comment again in the spirit in which it was intended.


  38. @Chelsea,
    I am not interested in getting into a war of words with you. I respectfully ask that if you see a comment with my name on it that you pass it by. I would be happy to extend the same courtesy to you.

    @Anon 10:41am,
    I do not think that Lorraine or Jane ever mean to be offensive. Nor do I think that most of the first mothers who comment here mean to be either. They cannot fully understand the adoptee position as they are not adopted. Just as adoptees can not fully understand the first mother position. Elizabeth, H2B, Maybe and others have already clarified how I felt. Lorraine and others have clarified what was meant by the post. Nuff said.

    Thank you for all of your kind words. What you wrote about my feeling like I missed that special mother/daughter relationship because I was not raised by my natural mother is spot on. I always enjoy reading your comments as well.

  39. I got and finished the book, and loved it. She is a beautiful and skilled writer, so rare in adoption memoirs, and her life is a harrowing tale of a soul battered but not broken by a deeply abusive childhood and difficult life.

    Her generosity of spirit comes through in her embrace of the better parts of a severely Fundamentalist religious upbringing by a mentally ill mother and passive father, and her attempts at understanding and forgiveness of things that seem unforgivable. The ghosts of this past almost destroy her, but she emerges a survivor who loves and embraces life and refuses to settle for life without passion.

    This may sound grim, but it is not the story of a whining victim nor of a person who blames everyone else for her ills. That Jeanette got out of that life by sheer force of will and desire is a tribute to her inner strength, despite dealing with adoption issues and her lesbianism which was soundly condemned by her church and parents. Her story is told with as much humour as pathos, and with her plucky attitude even in the worst of times.

    Yes, she searched, reunited with her birth mother,was fully accepted, but that was not the happy ending either; in fact, the book does not end but leaves the future open, as it is. Like many adoptees, Jeanette does not feel fully at home in either family, despite the warm welcome from her mother and other kin. But she has reached a place and a self-awareness to make her own home with her partner and her books and her vivid and life-saving imagination. She has endured and prevailed despite crushing obstacles.

    I identified with her about her love of literature and poetry, and how books opened the world to her as a lonely child who was not allowed any safe place of her own. I admired her skill and grace in telling her story, and in explaining how no story is literally true but an attempt to make sense and order of the chaos that is life.

    This is the best adoption memoir I have read since B.J. Lifton's work, and I recommend it to all.



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