Thursday, September 24, 2020

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book was on a list of short novels on LitHub, and it sounded interesting, so I picked it up. It is short - 176 pages - and feels very much like a novella. It is also somewhat autobiographical, although I am not sure exactly how much is fiction or fact. The book was written in 1985, but has an intriguing blend of old and new stylistic traits. The book was later made into a BBC miniseries, with the author’s input on the screenplay. 

First and foremost, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a coming-of-age story. It is also a story of coming out, and the fallout from that. Young Jeanette, like the author, grows up in Lancashire, England, adopted as an infant by a devout and somewhat fanatical Pentacostal couple. In the book, Jeanette’s mother had a fling with a French young man and nearly (or maybe did) had sex, before giving up all sensuality and flinging herself obsessively into religion. It is strongly suggested that the reason that Jeanette was adopted is because her mother wanted a child but didn’t want to have sex to make one. 


Anyway, Jeanette grows up immersed in the Elim Pentacostal Church, and is believed to be destined to be a missionary, preaching sermons from age five on. However, at puberty, Jeanette realizes that she is attracted to girls, particularly a neighbor named Melanie. The two of them are eventually caught, and the church performs an exorcism on them. It...doesn’t work. Eventually, Jeanette realizes that she cannot reject who she is to follow church dogma, so her mother kicks her out of the home to fend for herself at age sixteen. 


Along with this narrative, there are brief “short stories” that are kind of like fairy tales or maybe Arthurian legends. There are also constant biblical references, including the chapter names, taken from the first eight books of the Bible; and literary references throughout. One particularly interesting one is the version of Jane Eyre Jeanette’s mother reads her - in which Jane marries St. John. (Wait, what?? - that’s what Jeanette thinks when she finally reads the book herself…) 


I found the writing style to be interesting. As the story progresses from childhood to adulthood, so does the writing. Simple words and sentences at first, then more complexity and nuance as Jeanette grows up. 


As regular readers of my blog know, I am strongly cishet, a Kinsey Zero, so I was surprised at how familiar Jeanette’s journey felt. I never had to “come out” regarding my sexuality, but I did have to “come out,” so to speak, as an adult, as a non-Fundie. While my parents were and are not as fanatical and crazy (or as abusive) as Jeanette’s mother, they - particularly my mom - did not adjust well to my wife and I choosing to live differently than they did, and the relationships have been badly damaged as a result. Also, the cult we spent time in was every bit as inherently abusive as the Pentacostal cultic church portrayed in the book. So some things really felt familiar. 


In particular, the feeling of being raised to be a weapon in the cultural/religious wars was instantly recognizable. It wasn’t so much my parents, but the Evangelical subculture, the homeschool subculture, and eventually the Gothard cult, in which all of us were expected to be foot soldiers in his organization. 


Oh, and this too: the viewing of everything as black and white, which I still struggle with today - it is a hard paradigm to shake. Particularly, of course, when our political moment involves some decidedly black and white issues, like whether truth even matters. Anyway, here is what the book says near the beginning:


She never had heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.


Enemies were:    The Devil (in his many forms)

Next Door

Sex (in its many forms)


Friends were:        God

Our dog

Auntie Madge

The Novels of Charlotte Bronte

Slug pellets


and me, at first. 


“Next Door,” by the way, is the next door neighbors, who are clearly heathens because they enjoy alcohol and sex. And bought stuff at the cheap store. 


This black and white thinking, as well as the fact that she was strong enough to bully her husband and child meant that Jeanette really didn’t have any protection from her. When she decided not to cook, that as that, and they ate cold.


Her husband was an easygoing man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only person in our house who could tell a saucepan from a piano. She was wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned, and really, that’s all that mattered. 


As a child, Jeanette (the character) was a bit odd, and exasperated her teachers. Well, let me back up. Jeanette’s mom taught her at home, sort of, until the British equivalent of CPS threatened her with arrest unless Jeanette went to school. Raised just on books, and not a big variety, but mostly adult classics, she had her own way of doing things, such as putting morbid Bible verses on craft projects, and drawing in black, not bright colors. Her teachers just do not understand, unfortunately. As Jeanette says about one:


My teacher suffered from a problem of vision. She recognized things according to expectation and environment. If you were in a particular place, you expected to see particular things. Sheep and hills, sea and fish; if there was an elephant in the supermarket, she’d either not see it at all, or call it Mrs. Jones and talk about fishcakes. But most likely, she’d do what most people do when confronted with something they don’t understand:



As most of us (former) children can recount, there are plenty of other awkward moments with adults who can’t seem to treat us as actual people. (I swear, everyone has to have had a teacher like that at one time or another.) Here is another episode in the book that is interesting. 


The man who ran the post office was bald and shiny with hands too fat for the sweet jars. He called me poppet, which my mother said was nice. He gave me sweets too, which was an improvement. 

One day he had a new sort. 

“Sweet hearts for a sweet heart,” he said and laughed. That day I had almost strangled my dog with rage, and been dragged from the house by a desperate mother. Sweet I was not. But I was a little girl, ergo, I was sweet, and here were sweets to prove it. 


The gendered socialization process starts at birth, honestly, and that is problematic. My wife and girls too are not particularly “sweet,” which is one reason why we have never fit well in Fundie circles. These early episodes are portents of the storm to come, as Jeanette grows up and becomes more independent. 


The chapter entitled “Deuteronomy,” which comes soon after Jeanette and Melanie realize they have feelings for each other. It is kind of a philosophical musing, a calm before all hell breaks loose. This bit stood out to me:


Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognize its integrity. To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spirit until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our small way. 


This particularly hit home given the ongoing war over history in the United States. With non-white voices demanding the right to tell their stories, reactionary white people are freaking out. As the 1619 Project seeks to reframe the American story from the perspective of those enslaved and oppressed since our origin, people like Il Toupee push back with “Patriotic Education,” which is every bit as jingoistic and - dare I say it? - reminiscent of Communist propaganda as it sounds. It is a means of denying the past, insisting that it is a story of strong, noble white men who created the perfect country, before all those liberal bastards came along with their social democracy and civil rights movements and stuff. 


When Jeanette’s relationship with Melanie is discovered, they are both subjected to exorcism, after which Jeanette becomes gravely ill. During that time, her mother purges her possessions. 


While I lay shivering in the parlour, she took a toothcomb to my room and found all the letters, all the cards, all the jottings of my own, and burnt them one night in the backyard. There are different sorts of treachery, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. She burnt a lot more than the letters that night in the backyard. I don’t think she knew. In her head she was still queen, but not my queen any more, not the White Queen any more. Walls protect and walls limit. It is in the nature of walls that they should fall. That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet.


Yeah, this one hit home. While I never had that kind of betrayal (which would have ENDED my relationship with my parents then and there, I have had a sadly long series of betrayals over the years, both from family and my faith tradition. I’m not going to get into them here, but may some day tell more about the church betrayal. But believe me, I can remember each incident with fresh pain. The line, “betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it” becomes a repeated phrase throughout the second half of the book, as Jeanette is backstabbed over and over again, at the end, sadly and devastatingly, by Melanie. 


Also so familiar is that moment when a parent burns something that cannot be rebuilt. It is particularly frustrating to me that my parents seemed so clueless as they barrelled ahead with things that a moment’s forethought would have told them was a Rubicon in the relationship. In particular, the refusal to respect a “no.” But also the assumption that we shared their bigotry. There was genuine shock when I walked out on a conversation and refused to discuss politics further. There are some lines that you cannot cross without consequences. 


And yes, walls fall when you decide to blow your own trumpet - and plot your own life course regardless of the walls others insist on placing in your way. 


The final betrayal by Jeanette’s mother, of course, is when she kicks her out. After that, Jeanette does not let herself be put in a situation where her mother can damage her. She does, though, go back home for a visit as a young adult. Before that, though, she muses on the problem of going back. 


“Don’t you ever think of going back?”

Silly question. There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. Mind turns to the pull, it’s hard to pull away. I’m always thinking of going back. When Lot’s wife looked over her shoulder, she turned into a pillar of salt. Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing yourself. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities. There is much pain here. 


This is really why I have not returned to organized religion. I could go back, but am aware that I probably wouldn’t survive. The reality of the evil that organized religion has done and is doing in our society is just too much. The pain for me is too much. But, like the narrator (who seems to be the author at the end), it isn’t as simple as just walking away from religion all together. 


I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky. If the servants hadn’t rushed in and parted us, I might have been disappointed, might have snatched off the white samite to find a bowl of soup. As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. 


And I agree. God is not my betrayer. But many who claim his name have betrayed me, and betrayed God too, in order to follow after an antichristian ideology that destroys. Whether that ideology is patriarchy and misogyny, or white nationalism (and they are strongly linked, of course) it is a destructive belief that puts dogma ahead of people, relationships, and even reality itself. There is one final bit of betrayal in the book, when Jeanette runs into Melanie, now married with a kid and another on the way. And Melanie dismisses their relationship as a mere fling that never meant anything to her. 


It’s not a word people use very often, which confuses me, because there are different kinds of infidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on somebody else’s. 


That is what hurts the most. People promised to be on my side, on my wife’s side, on my family’s side. And it turned out they weren’t. Not really. The first time our wellbeing conflicted with ideology, ideology won. And the people who confirmed and validated the ideology were and will always be more important to them. Melanie is an example of that. She apparently decided to choose her religious beliefs, and her family’s preferences. Whether a heterosexual marriage was what she wanted (and if she was bisexual, it probably was), her choice made it necessary to deny the passion that she and Jeanette had, even though it was fiercely emotional to both of them at the time. 


That too resonates for me. The values that I was raised with and that I thought I shared with so many, have turned out to not be shared after all. The values never meant anything, apparently. Not enough to be too important to betray later when the time came. It is sad, and it has meant tremendous loss to me, of people and community - both of which I really did think were better than that. 


Betrayal is betrayal, wherever you find it. 


And that really is the takeaway from the book for me, and why it affected me as much as it did. To understand what I experienced as a betrayal, a betrayal of values, a betrayal of loyalty, and my emotional response to that as the natural result was helpful. Winterson creates an emotional landscape in this book, wherein Jeanette (and perhaps the author) has nowhere safe to turn, and has to get out and take care of herself, leaving everything behind. It isn’t the easiest thing to read, but it is true in the deepest sense. And that a cithet male like myself can see so much of my own experience is a testament to Winterson’s skill and vulnerability. 




There is one more thing I wanted to mention, but it didn’t fit anywhere else well. Jeanette realizes that she is surrounded by lesbians without knowing it. There is the couple that own her favorite store, probably one of the little old church ladies who is convinced that if she hadn’t gotten sick, she could have prevented the blowup at the church over Jeanette and Melanie. 


And there is also the oboe player, another woman at the church, who facilitates a visit between Jeanette and Melanie...but also has a not exactly consensual sexual encounter with the young Jeanette after plying her with brandy. 


“Perhaps this will help.” And she began to stroke my head and shoulders. I turned over so she could reach my back. Her hand crept lower and lower. She bent over me; I could feel her breath on my neck. Quite suddenly I turned and kissed her. We made love and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop.


Yeah, that’s both great writing and disturbing as hell. I wonder if it is also autobiographical. 




And, music, of course: 


Oh, life is bigger

It's bigger

Than you and you are not me

The lengths that I will go to

The distance in your eyes

Oh no, I've said too much

I set it up

That's me in the corner

That's me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

Trying to keep up with you

And I don't know if I can do it

Oh no, I've said too much

I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper

Of every waking hour

I'm choosing my confessions

Trying to keep an eye on you

Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool

Oh no, I've said too much

I set it up

Consider this

Consider this

The hint of the century

Consider this

The slip

That brought me to my knees


What if all these fantasies

Come flailing around

Now I've said too much

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream

That was just a dream

That's me in the corner

That's me in the spotlight

Losing my religion

Trying to keep up with you

And I don't know if I can do it

Oh no, I've said too much

I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing

I thought that I heard you sing

I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream

Try, cry

Fly, try

That was just a dream, just a dream, just a dream



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