Jeanette Winterson has just written a memoir. I’d read her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographic novel that begins with the protagonist’s revelation of her adoption. I read Oranges in college, and despite Winterson’s memorable protagonist, the story did not remain as an “adoption” story in my mind. I wasn’t paying such close attention then.
Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, centers upon her adoption. On the fist page, in fact, Winterson grounds her memoir here. David Copperfield-like, she must begin at the beginning. Winterson has written beautifully the struggle that I have anticipated, read about, and hope to weather.
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, like bomb in the womb.
The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story — of course that is how we all live, it’s 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 shouldn’t because something is missing.
That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.
I suppose all of us, adopted or not, at some time or another, wonder about the what ifs of our lives. Adoption, it seems, forces the issue of the what ifs because they are not optional daydreams, or a roads not taken. When non-adopted folks ponder the what ifs, we ponder the choices and paths we’ve encountered. When adoptees ponder, they must lean into those what ifs with the full knowledge of the lack, as Winterson notes, what is missing.
The fossil record that Winterson feels, but does not “know” is available to adoptees in varying stages of completion. I suppose some adoptees may have trunks laden with fossils, while others hold the merest scrap of pre-history.
Gorilla Girl’s collections of rocks and stones, sticks and flowers, acorns and pine cones, understood as symbolic fossils of her own journey, take on a whole new meaning after reading Winterson. Perhaps we need to make a summer journey to Traverse Bay and Little Traverse Bay around Petoskey, Michigan, if only to search for the stones that JY wrote of in her blog. These beautiful fossils might help Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man to make the links between the past and the present, between the now and the possible.