Nancy Corbett


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

by Jeanette Winterson

I just finished reading Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? I remember talking to an agent about my memoir concept, and I was told that the last thing the world needed was another memoir about adoption. Well, Winterson's memoir is one that was much needed, at least by me. This memoir is a painfully intimate, accurate document, describing what it is like to be an adult who was adopted in the late 1950s.

I saw so many parallels between her story and my own life that it is eerie. She talks about the wound we carry from being severed at birth from our source. She was adopted by a family with a mother who was strictly and weirdly religious, describing her adoptive mother as "such a mix of truth and fraud." Yes. I know what it's like to go mad, trying to sort out the truth from the lies. Mine was a terrible mix of truth and fraud, of ignorance and cunning.

From my own memoir, the one that's the last thing the world needs:

How do children know that adults are lying to them? I recall several instances in my childhood when I knew my mother was lying to me but I didn't know how I knew. Maybe her unwillingness to answer certain questions gave her away. Or maybe it was a quality of distractedness she would add to her demeanor to hide that she was lying.

Naturally, knowing that I was adopted prompted obvious questions like Why? What happened to my real parents? Mom told me they had died in a car crash. I picture an old Alfred Hitchcock film where, I think, Cary Grant is frantically maneuvering a car speeding out of control on a mountain road, his brakes gone.

"Where was I?"

"With relatives."

"Which relatives? Where are they now?"

"I don't know. The adoption agency didn't say."

"If I have other relatives, why didn't I get given to them?"

"You don't have any real relatives alive."

"No aunts or uncles?"



"No. No one. They all died."

"All of them? How did they all die?"

"I don't know."

Now, it didn't take a rocket scientist or even a five year old (I was 4) to wonder if she might be lying. But choosing to believe her or not believe her posed a dilemma on each side.

As long as I believed her, that there really was no one, then I wouldn't have to consider that I had been given up for adoption because I wasn't wanted. But I really wanted to believe that I belonged to someone.

I didn't know how to mourn those people...all of those dead people. Mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins (on both sides?) Hey!

"Did I have brothers and sisters?"


I always thought I was so much smarter than my mother, yet, in the end, she got the best of me. I've spent so much of my life trying to get past it all. She's been dead for over 20 years, and she still gets the best of me every day.

People who say, "don't feel that way, just feel another way," infuriate me. "Just come from a place of love." No one can tell you how to forgive because forgiveness isn't something you can will yourself to do. Forgiveness is something you can want to do, but getting there is a very different proposition. Jeanette Winterson understands that love is a tricky thing for people who were fed a steady diet of synthetic love, love on a bed of stinging nettles.

I admire Winterson for having the courage to find her mother. She describes it as the mixed-bag I imagine it to be.

Back in the 1980s, I applied to Los Angeles County to see my file. It turned out that I was adopted (truth), and my parents were not killed in a car crash (lie). My birth mother left me in a car to be found by strangers. The authorities who examined me estimated that I was around 3 days old, possibly premature. The first name given to me that I know of was Jane Doe. I was found in a car parked a block away from the entrance to Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

Maybe my birth mother hoped I'd be taken in and raised by a movie star. Or maybe I was the daughter of the wardrobe girl who got knocked up by a famous producer. I look for my facial features on people in 1950s Paramount pictures. Silly.

That's all I know. The social worker who went through the paperwork with me told me that there was more, but those records are sealed. Winterson's memoir has prompted me to think about trying to break that seal. All of the familiar companions to that train of thought have re-entered the building. What if nothing more is known? I was a foundling, after all. They probably never found out who my birth mother was. But the social worker told me that there was more to know, more than she was allowed to tell me. What if my birth mother's name is known? What if she doesn't want to meet me? What if she does? What if she does and she turns out to be a needy, parasite of a woman who I can't then be rid of (like the one in A.M. Homes's memoir about adoption)? What if she turns out to be a great person who wants me in her life? How do I parse that? Blah blah blah blah blah...

Anyway, Winterson's memoir is brilliantly written and came along at a time when I most needed it.

My first novel, Giving It Over, (not published) is a YA novel about a group of pregnant girls living in a home, waiting to give their babies over to Los Angeles County Bureau of Adoption. It takes place the year after abortion became legal and goes into the reasons why each girl has chosen to birth her child and give it up. No one I've talked to has thought it marketable. One person told me that no one wants to hear about what it was like in the olden days. Maybe I just suck at pitching my stories, or maybe my writing just sucks.

It's been a long time since I've written anything, and I haven't felt really inspired since I finished Giving It Over several years ago. Yesterday, driving along the finger of Whidbey Island on a Washington Spring day, a sentence was spoken in my head. It was spoken by that strong, have-a-story-to-tell voice I haven't heard in a long time. It said, "You've got another YA novel in you, and it starts like this:

I don't remember being told I was adopted. I just always remember knowing."

It's probably the last thing the world needs, another YA novel about adoption, but who cares.

"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams..." Arthur O'Shaughnessy


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