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Jeanette Winterson, My Therapist, and Me

Jeanette Winterson, 1987

John Stoddart/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Jeanette Winterson, 1987

When I was fifteen, recently dropped out of high school, and in love (with another girl) for the first time, I told my mother that I wanted a therapist. “A lesbian therapist,” I specified. My mother, herself a psychotherapist, set out to find one. It would not be the first time I’d go to therapy, but the first time I’d go of my own volition.

The lesbian therapist my mother found lived and practiced on Martha’s Vineyard, a short ferry ride from our town on Cape Cod. Free of the constraints of the school day, I rode my bike one Wednesday to the ferry station and purchased a ticket to cross the Vineyard Sound. I stood on the deck, fog dampening my cheeks as the long smear of the island resolved into the docks of Vineyard Haven, the bright yellow raincoats of the ferry workers guiding us into port.

I hitchhiked the few miles to my therapist’s office and sat in the bland waiting room. Soon, a small woman with a kind face and a short haircut came to fetch me. Her alert and intelligent expression reminded me of a small woodland animal, in a good way. Over the next hour, I told her about my maudlin teenaged love affair, my arguments with my sea captain father, and my concerns about “authenticity to self” (a phrase I recently found in a childhood journal on a list of “things to talk to my therapist about”).

At the end of the hour, I asked my therapist how we were supposed to say goodbye after our sessions. “How do you feel like saying goodbye?” she said. “It’s so personal,” I said. “It seems like we should hug.” So we did. Then I hitchhiked back to Vineyard Haven, browsed a pretty decent thrift store, and rode the ferry back to my bike. And so went every Wednesday of the subsequent year, almost exactly that way, including the hug.

One rainy spring Wednesday about six months into this routine, as I browsed the thrift store, I found a miraculous box of books. The store’s book section had already yielded some excellent finds on Wednesdays past—I first encountered J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey there, a 1964 Bantam edition with “75¢” printed on the cover, which I still own—but this was a jackpot beyond all reason. It was a box of lesbian books.

I recognized some of them from my mother’s shelf or the public library—The Price of Salt and The Well of Loneliness—but was surprised by the pulpier romances with blooming flowers on the covers, and Sarah Schulman’s After Dolores and Girls, Visions and Everything, which became a formative favorite. Of these unfamiliar titles I lingered longest over Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson. The combination of the title—somehow brainy and sexy at the same time, exactly the combination I already aspired to be myself—and the cover art, a woman’s bare shoulder and neck, her head turned away from the viewer, tendrils of dark hair loose against her neck and, I imagined, slightly damp with sweat, woke some feeling in me. To judge by the cover, it was, even at first glance, everything I wanted in a book, both as a reader and a writer: at fifteen, I had already been thinking of myself as a writer for some years.

I bought the whole box, probably twenty paperbacks, for five bucks. It wasn’t until I had lugged them onto the ferry and relished a closer inspection that I spotted the name scrawled in pencil on the inside cover of Rubyfruit Jungle (a copy of which I had already borrowed from my mother’s bookshelf and read multiple times). It was my therapist’s name. I flipped open each of the books and found it in every one. I leaned back in my vinyl seat, stunned, the ferry motor humming beneath me.

There was nothing more personal than books, then. They were my raison d’être, my friends, my window into a future that might fit me. I knew nothing about my therapist’s life, and yet she performed a similar role in mine that queer books did—her short hair and her kind face, her soft butchness, were all a promise that I, too, could be a happy and kind adult lesbian, professionally fulfilled, unshocked or dismayed at the sort of melancholies that I suffered at fifteen. That box of her books felt like a profound and precious gift from the universe, an omen of the most auspicious kind.

*

I read Written on the Body over and over. In short, the novel tells the story of an affair and its end. The gender of the first-person narrator is never revealed as they describe their consuming relationship with a married woman, Louise. I identified with both Louise and the narrator—I already knew something of longing, obsession, and overthinking, and had been intoxicated by the thrill of seduction. I wanted to be swept away in love, but also to maintain a cool hold on my intellect, as the narrator did. I wanted to be adored as Louise was adored, and for my lover to describe me as Louise describes the narrator: “the most beautiful creature male or female that I have ever seen.”

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In common with many favorite books of my youth (Beloved, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Color Purple, A Spy in the House of Love), it was the novel’s literary experimentation that surprised me when I returned to it as an adult. As Publisher’s Weekly wrote, it “enfolds aphorisms, meditations on extracts from an anatomy textbook, and essayistic riffs on science, virtual reality and the art of fiction.” Now primarily an essayist myself, I find that the book’s appeal to my teenage self makes satisfying sense. At fifteen, I had not yet studied creative writing, but I wrote incessantly in notebooks and gobbled up novels, paying closest attention to story and character,  and how the books made me feel. I was always looking to find myself, craving that pang of recognition in the words of a stranger.

So, back then, I didn’t fully appreciate the craft of Jeanette Winterson’s fifth novel: the daring structures or point-of-view choices, the subversion of romantic clichés and queering of heterosexual literary conventions. I only knew that the prose was smolderingly hot and its author was interested in a kind of obsession and experience of being overwhelmed by feelings that I already understood. I knew the writer possessed a searing and capacious intelligence, one that could conjure passion, eroticism, humor, and mystery, all within two hundred pages. It was unlike anything I’d ever read by a man. It was unlike anything I’d ever read.

I spent a lot of time staring at Winterson’s author photo: a black-and-white image just above her bio, barely bigger than a postage stamp, it was a kind of inversion of the cover image. It showed Winterson’s shoulder (in a black T-shirt) and face, her hand combing through her short hair, her gaze boring into the camera’s lens. I was outrageously attracted to her. As I read, I intermittently flipped back to that page and stared at her face, that bold gaze, imagining her as the narrator of the book, as the writer creating that world, as a lover who touched the way that gaze looked, the way her sentences pulsed and coiled down the page. I had at least one memorable sex dream about her.

She looked, I now realize, more than a little bit like my therapist. How could I not have made the connection? Though perhaps I did without realizing it, and cannily relocated my erotic transference from my therapist to my new favorite author. Combined, they would have made the perfect girlfriend. Perhaps the romantic ideal that I have nurtured since is comprised of both their aspects: insightful, supportive, intellectual, passionate, more learned than me in appealing subjects, emotionally available but also distant enough for Eros to thrive.

*

I was raised by a bisexual feminist mom and grew up reading Our Bodies, Ourselves and her subscription to Ms. But there was a curious dissonance between the culture of my home and that of my town, and, by extension, as far as I knew, the entire country, aside from a small handful of cities. (Before I even knew I was queer, I knew I needed to find my way to New York.) I now know that I wasn’t the only queer kid in my high school, but in ninth grade I was the only one who was “out.” Though I experienced little more than the occasional homophobic comment from my classmates, or from men on the street when my first girlfriend—whom I met after I dropped out of high school—and I walked by holding hands, the sense of isolation was profound. I relied on my therapist, and books for my primary models of queer life.

There was an aura of contraband to the queer books of my youth, not merely because I was always reading beyond what was strictly age-appropriate for me, but because queerness itself still felt contraband in 1995. It was the time of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Only that year would AIDS-related deaths of gay men begin to fall. It was two years after Brandon Teena, a young transgender man, was raped and murdered in Nebraska, and three years before Matthew Shepard, a twenty-two-year-old gay man, would be tortured and murdered in Wyoming. There was no Internet as we now know it, no Queer Eye, no Drag Race, no e-books to read from the privacy of your pocket computer. After hearing Ani DiFranco’s music at summer camp when I was fourteen, it took me the better part of a year to find her albums in a record store because I didn’t know how to spell her name. I rented Go Fish and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love on VHS over and over, stoic every time the video store clerk smirked at me.

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I had regular sex dreams about Ani, and Randy, the butch protagonist of The Incredibly True Adventures. I had a crush on Lila of Girls, Visions and Everything, and Molly Bolt of Rubyfruit Jungle. I crushed on all the dykes in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, and on almost every vaguely masculine-of-center-presenting woman I encountered in print, on screen, or in person. Not because I was girl-crazy, but because there were so few options. (Imagine my wonder when I attended my first gay pride parade at sixteen.) I didn’t have a type yet, because I didn’t know of enough confirmed queer women to be choosy about. I feel so tender now toward that younger self, who was like a little hatchling trying to imprint on any remotely feasible prospect she saw: Are you my lover?

*

The only lesbian I didn’t have a crush on was my therapist, though she was probably the butchest person I knew in real life, with her button-downs and khakis and sensible leather shoes. Our relationship was too precious to waste on a fantasy. I relied on the reality of our intimacy.

I remember one session, some months in. I sat across from her on the small couch, probably wearing a pair of overalls, a baseball T-shirt, and my beloved blue Doc Martens. I stared out her office window at the hovering branch of a tree, slick with rain. I was trying to explain to her the boiling desperation I felt to make my girlfriend love me, and the way it dissolved my integrity, what I had thought was stone in me turning out to be sugar.

“It’s like, I feel really confident most of the time. I don’t care what people think of me. But with her, I’d do anything, pretend to be anyone she might love.”

My experience of falling in love—the first of many such engulfing affairs—was magnificent, manic, and totally destabilizing. Despite my loneliness, I was in fact a self-possessed young person, and hadn’t yet encountered many things over which I felt so powerless. This feeling threw into question my ability to remain steady in pursuit of my goals: to be a writer, to live in New York City, to lead the artist’s life of which I dreamed.

My therapist nodded sympathetically. “What do you think would happen if you just acted like yourself with her?”

I squinted at my hands, the gray stripe of grime that crowned each fingernail—I wasn’t then having the kind of sex that required fastidious nail hygiene—considering this before I answered. “What if I don’t know who that is? What if it doesn’t exist.” I already had the uneasy sense that identity, mine at least, was not the tidy jigsaw puzzle I had first thought it was, and that selfhood may be nothing more than an ephemeral, fluctuating illusion, a response to an environment that is always changing. As a teenager, this suspicion tormented me, like many true things that I hadn’t yet confirmed with other people.

“Perhaps you could just stick with what feels true in the moment?” she offered. “Maybe the person who emerged would be lovable without you working so hard to manage her image.”

“What if what feels true in the moment is that I am a black hole of longing?” I retorted. “Is a black hole of longing lovable? Is it even a good idea to love one?”

To elicit a smile from my therapist always felt like an accomplishment. Sometimes I liked to nudge things in a histrionic direction for humor (I still do this in therapy), and sometimes I did it because it prompted her to reassure me. Her reassurance was golden, singularly credible. I didn’t know much about how therapy was supposed to proceed—I continued to assume everyone’s sessions ended with a hug until years later—but I knew instinctively that my therapist enjoyed our conversations, and that she wanted me to be happy.

I’m pretty sure she eventually she came to love me: not in the encompassing way of my mother, but with a more specific attention, a warmth that radiated from her during our sessions and which I carried with me during the days in between. She was invested in my development of a queer identity, and gratified by my progress toward it. It was a more intimate version of the affection I’d often felt from my English teachers. Like them, she probably recognized aspects of her own younger self in me.

Winterson, on the other hand, was pure fantasy. I knew what she looked like only from a single picture, and she lived across an ocean. But she seemed to specialize in depicting black holes of longing, which I suspected meant that she, too, knew the experience of being one.

It was in conversations with my therapist that I began to tease out the relationships between big feelings, art, identity, and queerness. Winterson was the third voice in that conversation, audible only to me. I never told my therapist about the box of books, though it still felt like a gift from her. I worried that if I told her, she might feel embarrassed by my glimpse into her personal life; or even that she might feel it was transgression on my part.

Appropriately, no doubt, she rarely spoke of her own life, and I never prodded, though I was curious. Now, I think she would have been charmed, and my fears likely sprung from my own fantasies of her, perhaps a much younger her, reading the erotic scenes that I myself pored over. Perhaps, in not prodding, I simply wanted to maintain my own privacy with those fantasies.

I don’t remember how I parted ways with my therapist. There may not have been a proper goodbye. Until the end of my twenties, I was horrible at leaving. The more important a relationship, the more likely I was to simply disappear when the end approached. A few months before my seventeenth birthday, I moved abruptly, into my first shared apartment, in Boston. There, I quickly found a queer community, as well as hard drugs, and hurtled into the rest of my life without looking back for a long time. For years I didn’t give much thought to her or to our work together, though she hovered in my consciousness with the steady presence of all truly formative experiences.

*

After Written on the Body, I read her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Sexing the Cherry, a work of postmodern fantasy; The Passion, about a young French soldier in Napolean’s army circa 1805; and Art and Lies, a wild, brainy romp featuring Sappho, a former priest, and a suicidal painter. I swooned over each, even the last, which I couldn’t entirely follow. (I didn’t read reviews as a teenager, though I would have been enraged by the New York Times Book Review critic who found it “antimale” and “unreadable” in a way he likened to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, all assessments that would have served only to deepen my idolatry.) All of these books are fiction, two are fantastical, and one is a work of historiographic metafiction. That is, aside from Written and Oranges, they could not possibly be construed as autobiographical, but that is how I read them. Winterson made sense of my own predicaments—mostly related to desire, gender, and power—through her fabulist plots. I could feel her thinking behind the work and through it, and it bolstered in me the hope that I would be able to do the same, so long as I had a pencil and notebook, and a robust sense of myself—something I was working toward in therapy.

In her 1997 novel Gut Symmetries, Winterson writes, in the voice of her narrator: “The only way for me to handle what is happening is to move myself forward into someone who has handled it. As yet that person does not exist. She has not those resources.” I trusted that one way in which Winterson and I, and perhaps every writer, gathered those resources was by writing our way into them. Winterson has explicitly stated that she “understood early that the only way for me to change my world was to read myself as a fiction as well as a fact. If you are the story, you can change the story.” Maybe because it was through my absorption of Winterson’s fiction that it first occurred to me, but this understanding of the artistic process has always seemed to me to belong especially to queer artists; our isolation—and, historically, persecution—can place a particular onus on our art to meet a need that society fails to.

A few years ago, I listened to Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, while driving the long hours to visit my future wife when she was still my long-distance girlfriend. The audiobook is narrated by the author herself, and as I drove, my car filled with her voice—an energetic, enjoyably British tonic that also left me brimming.  I had to pull over on the side of the highway time after time to take notes, because I was so shaken by her words, by the sense that she was speaking directly to me.

First, I felt again what had struck me while reading each of her books: the indelible certainty that there was something about living, and specifically about living as a queer woman, that landed in our psyches the same way. But it was also that the memoir felt like the keystone to all of her other books. I found clues to each of them in the coming-of-age she described: from being raised by a religious, homophobic adoptive mother to discovering literature and writing poetry at first, to falling in love and living out of her car at age sixteen. It was belated proof that my adolescent speculation had been true: she had been taking the troubles of her life, her big feelings, and transmuting them vis-à-vis the brilliant machinery of her intellect and imagination into those novels. She had been writing herself into the person who could survive. That day I realized that those books had saved her life as much as they saved mine, though it was equally the years of my own writing and publishing that had delivered me to that revelation.

The sense of kinship I felt when I first read Winterson has since been replicated for me hundreds of times. It has happened with straight writers, with male writers, with writers I call friends. It is how I met my wife, by instantly perceiving, through her poems, a person whose gestalt mirrored mine. I wrote her a fan letter (if I’m being honest, a DM on Twitter), something I’d never done. I would have been encouraged had I known what I later confirmed: that the names on the collection’s dedication page were those of her past therapists.

Every time I am asked about my influences, Winterson’s is the name that comes to mind. She is inextricable from my sense of becoming not just an artist, but a queer artist, a queer woman. There are some subjects so tethered to our own story of ourselves that it is not even worth attempting the charade of objectivity. In order to write about Winterson, I have to write about myself.

Sometimes I wonder whether the persistent qualities of my own writing are evidence of influence or of inherent similitude. (“Absolutism is Winterson’s forte,” a critic once wrote, while my wife teases me about my tendency to write grand, unequivocal statements.) What is certain is the debt my every written word owes to hers. The person I have become has so long recognized that box of books as the genesis of my self-conception as a writer that it has conditioned my memory, has hardened its meaning into a single thread. It was the additional, unintended gift from my therapist that gave me Winterson and set me on my way.

I ran into my lesbian therapist once, in my mid-thirties. By then, I was more than ten years sober, finishing my second book, and had recently ended the most ravaging love affair of my life. I was at a conference of therapists, co-leading a workshop with my mother on the therapeutic power of creative writing. After our workshop, in the conference center hallway, I encountered my therapist, looking exactly as I remembered her, but older and smaller (neither of us is tall). I asked if we could hug—unaware, in the moment, of my allusion to the past—and we did. It was like returning to a favorite book and finding my former self in its pages.

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