The Psychology of the Memoirist: Jeanette Winterson and Shalom Auslander


What is it like to be raised in a strict religious home? Fundamentalism without the fun, at least according to two recent memoirs. And though the authors were raised in Pentecostal Christian and Orthodox Jewish faiths, respectively, there are more similarities to their experiences than differences. Indeed, these two stories suggest that Tolstoy was wrong when he wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way;” at least for the unhappy families named Winterson and Auslander.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it? But Ms. Jeanette Winterson (born in 1959) and Mr. Shalom Auslander (born in 1970) write so brilliantly, often with side-splitting humor, that you don’t come away darkened by their experience, even though you do enter into their darkness. Winterson’s recently published memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? takes place in northern England, mostly in the 1960s and ’70s, while Auslander’s 2007 Foreskin’s Lament is located in the New York City/New Jersey area of a more recent time, with a brief side-trip to Israel.

Both writer’s survived oppressive childhoods, although Auslander’s family might have been somewhat more loving. Physical abuse was present in both, with Winterson’s again more severe. How did they survive? Winterson’s comments capture a possible answer:

The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.

Read on its own that is an absurd sentence. But as I try and understand how life works — why some people cope better than others with adversity — I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…

“Mrs. Winterson,” as the author refers to her adoptive mother in the text, is described as “… a flamboyant depressive; a woman who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my father…” and who expected Jeanette “…to live out some of her unlived life.” Mother was “… out of scale, larger than life,” filling up a phone booth with her girth. As to the author’s father, Winterson recalls an earlier novel where she wrote “My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.” When Jeanette disappointed them, mother told this adopted, only child that “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”

Both Winterson’s and Auslander’s homes were full of carefully observed restrictions. For Auslander, the various Jewish dietary laws chaffed (forbidding pork; not eating milk and meat products at the same time or on the same dishes). All the while, God’s ominous presence loomed as large for Auslander as Mrs. Winterson did for Jeanette. According to Auslander, not only did the Jews have to deal with historic mistreatment by human enemies, but those disasters “… were nothing compared to the punishments meted out to us by the man himself. Then there would be famines. Then there would be floods. Then there would be furious vengeance. Hitler might have killed the Jews, but this man (God) drowned the world…” recalling Noah and the story of his ark.

Unlike Winterson’s passive father, who struck Janet only upon instruction from his wife, Shalom’s dad could be violent after drinking too much wine. Auslander’s family troubles didn’t end with father. He compared his own preoccupations with those of the Rabbi of his temple: “Rabbi Blonsky was forty years old, and he worried a lot about the Jewish people. I was nine years old, and it was the Jewish people in my house I was worried about.” As the boy saw it, “… my mother had more pictures of the dead on our walls than she had of the living, and the dead seemed to be having a better time; my brother hated my mother and resented me; my mother loathed my brother and doted on me and my sister; my sister hated my brother and pitied my mother; my father hated us all; and my mother sighed, washed dishes, and sang mournful Yiddish songs about the miserable futility of life…”

That futility found a match in Jeanette’s Pentecostal Christian home, where mum prayed every day “Lord, let me die:”

My mother, Mrs. Winterson, didn’t love life. She didn’t believe that anything would make life better. She once told me that the universe is a cosmic dustbin — and after I had thought about this for a bit, I asked her if the lid was on or off.

‘On,’ she said. ‘Nobody escapes.’

Both Winterson and Auslander rebelled, although in the female’s case it was at the expense of a three-day church exorcism sans food and heat. The church flock took mum’s lead in this ritual when Mrs. Winterson reported her daughter’s iniquity to them. They literally tried to purge the devil from her with the help of beatings, all while she was permitted little sleep. To their disappointment, the devil didn’t “pop out.”

Winterson, who lived in a family that forbade secular books other than Mrs. W.’s murder mysteries, found refuge in reading and hiding those that she smuggled into the house, until her mother discovered the cache and burned them all. Auslander ate forbidden food, smoked marijuana, looked at pornographic magazines, shoplifted, and violated Sabbath restrictions, all surreptitiously. But for Shalom, the fear of a vengeful God never left him, as he remained “painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably, religious” at the same time that he gave God “the finger” by violating religious strictures, fearing the worst would follow.

In each story there is an inevitable showdown between the young adult protagonist and the parents. For Winterson, it came in a confrontation with Mrs. W. about Jeanette’s lesbian relationship with another young woman and a daughter’s failure to please her mum:

‘Jeanette, will you tell me why?’

‘What why?’

‘You know what why…’

But I don’t know what why… what I am… why I don’t please her. What she wants. Why I am not what she wants. What I want or why. But there is something I know: ‘When I am with her I am happy. Just happy.’

She nodded. She seemed to understand and I thought, really for that second, that she would change her mind, that we would talk, that we would be on the same side of the glass wall. I waited.

She said, ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

For Shalom Auslander, the crisis in his relationship with his parents and sister came over the question of the ritual circumcision of his newborn son; and that his religion required him to obtain this “mutilation” (removal of the foreskin on the baby’s penis) according to an ordained schedule and by the proper religiously anointed person, rather than in a hospital by a physician before discharge, as in fact happened:

Thousands of years ago, a terrified, half-mad old man genitally mutilated his son, hoping it would buy him some points with the Being he hoped was running the show. Over the years, equally terrified men wrote blessings and composed prayers and devised rituals (for this event)… Six thousand years later, a father will not look his grandson in the face, and a mother and sister will defend such behavior, because the child wasn’t mutilated in precisely the right fashion.

As you might guess, both writers struggled with creating loving and trusting relationships, but each seemed to have made significant progress by the time we reach the end of their stories. Auslander’s is the more wildly irreverent book — both bitter and bitter-sweet. Winterson’s memoir is more knowingly psychological and sad. Both will make you laugh out loud. Both will make you think about what our parents do to us and what we do to ourselves and our own kids. Neither one will cause you to give up your faith, if you have one; or convert, for that matter. Their memoirs serve as a reminder of what a long reach parents can have and that religion, in the wrong hands, is something like Mrs. Winterson’s revolver.

A dangerous weapon indeed.

The top image is the dust jacket of Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? sourced from her website where you can also hear her reading from the book. The second image is the front cover of the paperback version of Foreskin’s Lament. Two videos that include Auslander’s voice-overs from his book can be found here: Auslander videos.The final picture shows God measuring the world. It is William Blake’s 1794 Ancient of Dayssourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Who are You to Judge?

Judgment is problematic. We need it, but not too much of it. Sort of like food.

While I will say more of a secular nature, the most famous comment on judgment comes from the New Testament — the Christian Bible — and is attributed to Jesus:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The point here is about the potential hypocrisy: for us to judge others by a standard that is harsher than the one that we apply to ourselves. It is akin to the famous late addition to the Christian Bible about Jesus turning away the men who were about to stone a woman who had committed adultery, with the comment “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He later advises her to go and “sin no more.”

We judge lots of things. We need to judge the accused in the court room, lest wrong-doers do wrong with impunity. We judge ourselves and, one hopes that it improves our future behavior and helps us make good decisions.

We judge for self-protection, too; to comfort ourselves with the belief that the misfortune of others is due to their bad decision-making. By implication, if we make better decisions — display better judgment than they did — fate will be kinder to us. If we are careful, thoughtful, smart, do our homework, live by the Golden Rule, and so forth, good things will happen to us and we will avoid bad things.

This view seems to look at misfortune as some sort of anomaly, something that is outside of the normal course of events when, of course, it is not. All sorts of bad things happen to the innocent or unlucky. This is a troubling thought and our negative judgment of others — our attempt to make sense of their troubled lives or bad luck — makes it easier to sleep at night.

I’m not trying to justify all poor decisions here, many of which surely lead to disaster. Rather, it’s simply that not every bad thing is the result of some fatal flaw in the nature or conduct of a man or woman. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a bad result. Sometimes things just happen.

Judgment serves, too, as an attempt to guarantee immortality. Since most people see death as the worst possible outcome in any life, it shouldn’t be surprising that harsh judgment is often characteristic of religious fundamentalism. For the “by-the-book” parishioner, following all the rules of his or her particular religion guarantees a heavenly reward. And, for those who violate the doctrine, the faithful believe that there will usually be a trip to a darker place.

Judgment in this instance provides some comfort that death is not final; and perhaps the self-satisfaction of believing that in visiting judgment on the unfaithful, one is only trying to move them onto a path that will lead to heaven. For some of the religious fundamentalists I’m sure that it is; for others, however, it might only be a justification for venting angry condemnation of those who are different and who do not believe what the self-righteous might wish they did believe.

Judgment is often made by those who have no experience of the situation or circumstance in which the “judged” behavior occurred. To take a current example, consider Tiger Woods (or some other celebrity) reported to be unfaithful to his spouse. I am certainly not here to apologize for, or attempt to excuse Tiger Woods’ behavior. But I would say this: I suspect that non-celebrities have no idea of the temptation available to a man or woman in Woods’ position nearly every day of his life. And, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”

But, let us move away from the always controversial area of sex to give this idea a different look. I once asked the great Italian symphony conductor Carlo Maria Giulini about his judgment of the behavior of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler chose to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich, although he was not a Nazi. While he was helpful to some Jewish musicians, he also was used (and allowed himself to be used) as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Giulini , who began his career as an orchestral violist, had played under Furtwängler in Italy before the war. Moreover, during World War II, Giulini, never a fascist, had defected from the Italian army into which he had been conscripted and went into hiding for nine months, during which time he was a “wanted” man. But when I asked him about the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and to allow himself to be a representative of a corrupt regime, Giulini was hesitant to judge:

It’s very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It’s difficult for you in America to understand the problems we had in Europe. It’s difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history), that is absolutely impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. That last thing I should do is to express my opinion on this point. I had my personal political opinion, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist (laughs), and at the moment that I had to make a strong decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

We judge ourselves and others, to the extent that we do it, with the perfection of 20/20 vision that only comes in looking back, in hindsight, at what was done. We sometimes say “he should have known better than to” (make that business deal, marry that person, visit that neighborhood, smoke, drink — take your pick). Well, it is sometimes true. And, after all, I’m in the business of trying to help people to make better judgments. But mostly, that experience tells me that all people make mistakes and, assuming that they don’t mean to injure others, they mostly pay for those mistakes with their own blood, tears, and sweat.

As much as I recognize that judgment has its place, as a therapist, I try to meet people on their own terms, not coming from “on high” as a stern taskmaster or a fundamentalist-style religious figure “laying down the law.”

No, if you want that, you shouldn’t consult me. I am not here to condemn, although I don’t shy away from identifying right from wrong when it can be clearly seen.

Instead, I am here to help, to understand, to provide a bit of solace, to be a guide to a better way, if I can.

The gavel at the top of this essay is the work of Glentamara and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.