Jeanette Winterson is one of Britain's leading novelists, known mainly for her Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985), an impressive denunciation of Christian fundamentalism which was based on her childhood in the Pentecostal Church and was turned into an acclaimed TV series by the BBC. But she is also an inveterate promoter of alternative medicine, spiritualism, fad diets, other woo, postmodern bullshit, and other nonsensical opinions through her newspaper columns and other writing.
Her interests in alternative therapies have made her something of the thinking person's Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as indicating that expertise in literature and literary theory do not necessarily translate to expertise in medicine. One thing that her literary status and other views all have in common is an extraordinary sense of her own self-importance, what the novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones called "her cult of herself".
Or as another critic, Dinah Birch put it, "Her gift is not for philosophy. But she tells a dazzling tale". This is fine for a novelist, but disastrous when writing on factual topics.
Winterson was raised in Accrington, Lancashire, England, in the Elim Pentecostal Church by adoptive parents who strictly controlled her life, forbidding her even to read books let alone take part in other teenage activities. Additional family conflict arose as a result of Winterson's lesbianism.
Although she is known for the autobiographical novel Oranges and a later memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, they cannot be taken as accurate accounts. She has stated that the former novel was heavily fictionalised, which characters invented and events altered for dramatic reasons, and Adam Mars-Jones condemned the latter memoir as "ostentatiously unreliable."
Her first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985) is still generally reckoned her greatest achievement. The critic James Wood wrote: "Each new book by Jeanette Winterson is said to be poorer than its predecessor; she is like a bibliographer’s definition of nostalgia. As her novels become more ghostly, so they give off a stronger vapour of self-promotion."
He is not the only critic to note her hyperbolic self-promotion: Adam Mars-Jones wrote, "The high point of her cult of herself as a writer must be the 1991 introduction to the Vintage reissue. 'In structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel,' she declares, though in fact the book fits snugly into the tradition of the Bildungsroman". James Wood found another influence: "It is triumphantly like many other comic novels, and its proximity to a great comic tradition is stylistic – a perfect manipulation of voice."
After her initial success, she left behind her early, funny work and moved into the stratosphere of literary Britain, a regular at book festivals and other high-class events. Since 2012 she has been Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.
She has long been an advocate of homeopathy, a particularly stupid form of alternative medicine which has been repeatedly shown to be no better than placebo and has no conceivable scientific methodology by which it might work. She claimed that Lachesis, a homeopathic dilution of snake venom, cured her of a 102 F fever. She also offered a meaningless defence of homeopathy, using lots of scientific-sounding phrases incorrectly and lacing it with nanotechnology woo, which was torn to pieces by physician and skeptic Ben Goldacre.
Winterson has supported homeopath Hilary Fairclough's Maun project, a clinic set up in Botswana in southern Africa. The clinic used homeopathy to treat HIV-positive people, rape victims, and other people suffering from trauma. A homeopath working at the clinic claimed to have prescribed Arsenicum 200 for a seven-year-old girl who "had diarrhea, fever, and vomited immediately after drinking, even the smallest quantity." Diarrhea is one of the biggest killers of children in Africa, so prescribing homeopathic remedies could be putting many children's lives at risk.
She also defended the use of homeopathy to treat HIV, and as a result was attacked by South African Supreme Court judge Edwin Cameron, who accused her of misrepresenting his words to make it sound like he believed homeopathy had health benefits. Promoting homeopathy for HIV has been described as very dangerous because it may encourage people to cease taking the retroviral drugs which control their disease.
She has promoted fasting as a solution for her high cholesterol levels, visiting the Buchinger Wilhelmi Clinic in Switzerland and fasting for 8-11 days at a time. This is not entirely wishful thinking: a 2010 study showed that alternate-day fasting (not exactly the type Winterson practiced) could reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, sometimes called "bad cholesterol") levels by 25%. She is very skeptical of statins, which she believes to be a drug company conspiracy.
Nonetheless her account of her fasting indicates her typical self-importance: she claimed "not many people, though, have ever really fasted", ignoring the many using the 5:2 diet or other fasting diets, religious figures (fasting in some form is part of most religions), people without sufficient food, people with numerous medical disorders, and many other groups. Of course, her way of fasting is much better than anyone else's. She promotes fasting as a form of detox diet, claiming: "Sick cells, old cells, decomposed tissues, are burned away. This is the ultimate spring clean. It allows the body to eliminate toxins and metabolic waste at the same time as turning them into heat and energy. And you can live off this rubbish for days."
She also promotes fasting as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis. The Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center notes that there are studies showing a short-term benefit in arthritis sufferers of fasting, but the benefit ceases when they stop fasting, as people must. They also point out the importance of nutrition in controlling arthritis and caution against "elimination diets and fad nutritional practices" (except for certain groups such as coeliacs). Hence, fasting cannot be considered a long-term solution.
She has spoken about using the spirit medium Laura Lynne Jackson. She claims to have received both telephone calls from beyond the grave and spirit communications from the detective novel writer Ruth Rendell.
Winterson wrote at length about her experiences of the menopause. However, she used this to promote compounded bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (cBHRT), an unproven form of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which uses low-quality and inaccurate tests to attempt to match existing hormone levels in a woman's body. The therapy has been exposed as unsafe in comparison to traditional, physician-prescribed HRT.
Winterson often promotes the idea that science is just one way of knowing the world, and other methods such as myth are equally valid. She does this by pointing to the important cultural role played by myth and fiction, but by doing this she is either misunderstanding the nature of truth or using so trivial and wide-ranging a definition of truth as to be meaningless (something is true because people like or appreciate it).
She claims audiences enjoy a play where a statue comes to life (e.g. William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) because they recognise the truth that a statue can come to life. But an audience that sees a statue come to life doesn't think it's possible and rush with bottled water to the sculpture gallery, they delight in the impossibility. People enjoy seeing things they know to be false, as with romantic comedy, science fiction, stage magicians, and myths generally.
- See the Wikipedia article on Jeanette Winterson.
- Mrs Winterson’s Daughter, Adam Mars Jones, London Review of Books, Vol 34, no 2. 26 Jan 2012
- Looking for Magic, Dinah Birch, London Review of Books, Vol. 11 No. 17. 14 September 1989, pages 19-20
- Jeanette Winterson and Will Power on Changing Our Fates, BillMoyers.com, July 7, 2006
- Beware of shallowness, James Wood, London Review of Books, Vol. 16 No. 13. 7 July 1994, page 9
- Jeanette Winterson, University of Manchester, accessed 29 Aug 2019
- In defence of homeopathy, Jeanette Winterson, The Guardian 13 Nov 2007
- The End of Homeopathy?, Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, November 16 2007 (reproduced on Goldacre's Bad Science site)
- A remedy for grief in Africa, Jeanette Winterson, The Times, 10 Jan 2004
- From small seeds, "The School of Health", 1 April 2008
- Working in a Ghanian village, Ghana Homeopathy, Society Of Homeopaths Newsletter, summer 2009
- Variation in childhood diarrheal morbidity and mortality in Africa, 2000–2015, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation
- Jeanette Winterson: Art and ‘Misrepresentations’, Andy Lewis, Quackometer, November 30, 2007
- Should the NHS pay for homeopathic remedies?, Steve Clarke, Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Mar 26, 2010
- Jeanette Winterson: Why I checked into a fasting clinic, Jeanette Winterson, The Daily Telegraph, 14 Apr 2017
- Improvements in coronary heart disease risk indicators by alternate-day fasting involve adipose tissue modulations., Bhutani S, Klempel MC, Berger RA, Varady KA, Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Nov;18(11):2152-9. doi: 10.1038/oby.2010.54. Epub 2010 Mar 18.
- Jeanette Winterson: why I fasted for 11 days, Jeanette Winterson, The Guardian, 11 July 2015
- Nutrition & Rheumatoid Arthritis, Cheryl Koch, updated by Rebecca Manno, Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, 5/11/15
- The day Ruth Rendell spoke to me from beyond the grave, Jeanette Winterson, JeanetteWinterson.com, 20 Nov 2015
- Menopause experts say compounded HRT is unsafe, The Guardian, 26 Aug 2019