The bits of the story we need
“There are three kinds of big endings: revenge, tragedy, forgiveness. Revenge and tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past, forgiveness unblocks the future.”
— Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Apparently there was a whole to do when Jeanette Winterson posted pictures of herself on Twitter preparing a rabbit for the pot beneath the caption “Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit.” I don't know why. It is a perfect ultrashort story. That's from this slightly doughy interview with her in the Grauniad. I loved 'Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?' and in the interview she sort of reveals what happened next : the end of her relationship with Susie Orbach etc but she speaks in terms of 'needing bits of the story' which is a useful way of thinking about narrative therapy. The story “Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit.” illustrates perfectly how a narrative can change how we understand something and give it a place in the grander narrative of our lives. The story “I went the supermarket and bought a cheap plofkip and ate it.” is very different. It has no arc, no conflict, no resolution of the conflict. It is simply an empty act of consumerism.
For more than a decade she was in a relationship with the therapist Susie Orbach, whom she married in 2015, but it ended two years ago, unbeknownst to the wider world.
“I was saying to [my publisher] last night that we have to manage this. We’re very pleased because we’ve kept it quiet. But if we hadn’t parted two years ago, we would have parted during lockdown, which has been interesting to both of us. We looked at each other and said ‘We’d never have got through this’, because Susie is a New York Jew who belongs in the city and I need to be in the country. I need those long spaces, I need the quiet. I need to look out of the window and actually see a tree. We tried so hard to somehow find a way that it would work. And in the end, we were just spending less and less time together.”
In the context of her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, their break-up seems particularly poignant. The memoir tracked Winterson’s life from a miserable childhood with the rigid “Mrs Winterson” in the Lancashire town of Accrington, through the liberation of Oxford University and early literary success in London, to the breakdown that brought her to the point of making peace with her own history, as a child who was given up for adoption at just six weeks old by her 17-year-old birth mother. It was Orbach who helped her to track down her mother, who wrestled with the bureaucracy of the adoption register, who suggested to her that, though she knew how to love, she didn’t know how to be loved, and who reassured her that “if we have to part, you will know you were in a good relationship”.
The memoir ended with a cliffhanger: would she or would she not become part of the family into which she was born? “Happy endings are only a pause,” she wrote. “There are three kinds of big endings: revenge, tragedy, forgiveness. Revenge and tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past, forgiveness unblocks the future.” So did she or didn’t she? “Love doesn’t just happen and I think the family was very cross, because I just couldn’t pretend that it had,” she says now.
“I think a lot of adopted children feel that they have the moment and it doesn’t work. And you have to accept it and say: ‘I’m glad I went on with this story. I’m glad I found you. I hope you’re glad you found me because, hey, I’m all right. But whatever we’re doing now isn’t love.’ It might be recognition, it might be resolution. It might be all sorts of bits of the story that we needed. And I believe I did need it. But no, it wasn’t love.”
It is our failure to face up to the realities of love that have led us to the parlous state in which we now find ourselves, she suggests in 12 Bytes, and which prevent us from becoming our best selves. “It’s easy to do sex, but it’s not easy to do love in whatever form, she says. “And if you can’t love, you can’t live, no matter how smart you are: things end up being jangly, hollow, and ultimately worthless. The idea that you just go through life, leaving behind wives and mistresses and abandoned children, and doing great art – for me, that can’t be a way to live. Social responsibility starts with the people who are around you, and you can’t endlessly be discarding things.” At the moment, she’s particularly exercised about the Musks and Bransons of this world. “The male push is to actually just discard the planet: all the boys are going off into space. But you know, love is also about cleaning up your mess, staying where you are, working through the issues; it’s not simply romantic love at all.”