Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Be Happy

Recently, on vacation, I read "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?", a memoir by Jeannette Winterson that a colleague, who is also an adoptive mom, recommended. "I should warn you, it takes a dim view of adoption, though," she said. "It makes it seem like a really terrible thing."

That's not how I read the book at all. It's a frank account of a traumatic childhood, beginning with being given up for adoption at six weeks old, and then adopted by a troubled couple, including a mother with a fixation on the Apocalypse. I read it as I think it was intended, as a non-linear, insightful memoir about an adult who survived and was formed by an extraordinary, stark, distorted childhood and went on to become an accomplished artist and a fragile, resilient adult. I was not tempted to draw any comparisons between myself and Winterson's mother, or to ponder whether T's adoption was or was not a "good thing", as my colleague had been. (As I often write here, parenting T has taught me not to worry about whether things are "good" or "bad". We have only the choices we have, when we have them.)

The starkness of T's pain, beginning with being abandoned by his birth mom, doesn't have anything to do with me and I never imagined that adoption at the age of fifteen would take that pain away. Winterson writes well about the feral, volatile, enraged, suppressed self that lives inside an abandoned child, developing in parallel with, and often sabotaging, the developing adult self. That perfectly suited my experience of T, and my sense of the demons with whom he's wrestling these days.

I often have the sense now that he is experiencing an unavoidable crisis, one that awaits anyone who has to work so hard just to survive (in the most literal and extreme terms) their childhood. The other day, T wrote (on Twitter, for all the world to see) "I wish I could just go back a couple of years" and I asked Tim what he thought that meant. "He doesn't want to be grown up and responsible for himself," he said. I think that's true, though I'd add slightly more nuance. I think he's not ready for his childhood to be over. It doesn't feel "done" for him yet. I can imagine that a soldier might not feel prepared for the end of war in the same way. He's not ready to look back and remember what happened - it would be easier to keep fighting than to reflect on everything that's been lost. Also, I think sometimes that he feels that it's easier to continue to live as a soldier (someone "in the system", as foster children are) than to join the civilian masses, where conventions of friendship and family that he doesn't understand are the norm.

Winterson describes a moment in her adulthood when, confronted by some bit of information related to her adoption, she found herself reduced to an infantile state, most unexpectedly and dramatically. It comes on her like a physical illness. T has that vulnerability as well. It's not the same thing as the sort of fissures and flaws that mark most personalities. It's more elemental and all-consuming than that. A shock or an extreme disappointment can reduce him to a pre-verbal, infant state, and it always strikes me at those times that babies are very wild things. They just happen to be small - when a person isn't small anymore, and they are still subject to the overwhelming sensations of need and want and frustration of infancy, they can be scary, even to themselves. I worry most that his youthful romances will trigger the howling agony of his early childhood abandonment. There's nothing I can do about it. They either will, or they won't. Most likely, they will, particularly because he is drawn to young women who help him reenact the drama of abandonment and rejection. I hope he'll survive and achieve some wisdom and comfort. At one point in the book, Winterson writes about how she not only had to learn to love, she had to learn "not to punch love in the face" when she saw it. I laughed out loud with recognition. I think in that sense, I might have had my love for T punched in the face by him quite a few times. I can take it, and I "get it". But I hope that as she did, he learns how to invite love in and not fight it some day.


GB's Mom said...

Thanks for the recommendation. You and T are frequently in my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I can write about this book because so much of it hit home as being much like my partner's inner life, though her home experience was totally different. I loved the way you framed it and connected it to T's life, and that's how I read it too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the book review and recommendation. Read it this weekend and it was perfect timing. So amazed by both of you as writers and how you're able to explore interior landscapes and relationships in your own styles.

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