Taking her title from her adoptive mother’s response to the news that her daughter had a girlfriend, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove, $25), Jeanette Winterson could easily have written another Mommie Dearest. Mrs. Winterson, as the author refers to her mother, locked young Jeanette outside overnight, kept her captive in the coal hole, condemned her for her attraction to women, and, perhaps most painful of all, burned the future novelist’s secret stash of books. Winterson describes these experiences but does not wallow in suffering. In fact, she even finds humor in her upbringing, painting her grim industrial home town in bold strokes of black wit. A survivor, Winterson credits books with saving her from her cold, rabidly Pentecostal mother, and her memoir is as much a tribute to Fiction A-Z as it is the story of an indomitable girl becoming a fiercely independent literary artist.
Like the lonely, wandering protagonist of P.D. Eastman’s children’s book, Alison Bechdel, in her second memoir, Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22), sifts through her life for clues to understanding her complex, often frustrating relationship with her mother. Helen Bechdel, an aspiring poet and actress, limited her artistic endeavors to community theater in order to teach high-school English, raise three children, and cope with her husband, the volatile closeted gay man Bechdel made unforgettable in her acclaimed Fun Home. Helen’s story is more resistant to narrative than her husband’s, and their daughter has constructed a rich collage of images and texts to try to get at the truth. Bechdel vividly recreates childhood events and her own adult psychotherapy sessions; quotes from her parents’ letters and her own diaries; and applies the work of writers as diverse as Dr. Seuss, Freud, Virginia Woolf, and, most of all, the psychologist Donald Winnicott to her own experiences, composing a book that’s as intellectual and even scholarly as it is passionate and imaginative.