Escaping Religion: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “Blankets”
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and Blankets by Craig Thompson are coming-of-age stories that primarily focus on the religious beliefs of their respective authors. Winterson grew up in an Evangelical household. Her mother was a very religious woman with a totalitarian parenting style. This, in turn, corrupted Winterson’s young mind, and her understanding of the world was greatly skewed. Later in her young adult years, her lesbianism and being shunned by the family she had found within the church allowed her to break through that mentality. Thompson, on the other hand, grew up with similar circumstances. His parents were fundamentalist Christians. They were extremely religious and conservative with a rather abusive parenting style. To add to it, Thompson and his brother were also molested by their babysitter. His parents’ religious abuse and babysitter’s physical abuse placed him in quite the conundrum when it came to his sexuality. To bring everything full-circle, the upbringing of the authors had an adverse effect on their mentalities. Winterson and Thompson lived their lives in fear of disappointing God and their earthly gods—their parental figures—by attempting to live free of sin and temptation. Winterson’s mother raised her in a very Evangelical, very totalitarian household. Her word was law, and bible scriptures guided her word. The story of Winterson’s adoption is as follows:
My mother, out walking that night, dreamed a dream and sustained it in daylight. She would get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the Lord: a missionary child,
a servant of God,
a blessing. (Winterson 10)
Her mother wanted to create the perfect child, immaculately conceived by the misguided notions of the Church brainwashed into the mind of her mother. She had dreamed of Winterson being holy and devout, obedient and submissive, a perfect Christian in the eyes of God; and she made sure that Winterson knew just how “special” she was (3). In her childhood, she was homeschooled by her mother. She was taught “to read from the book of Deuteronomy because it is full of animals” (Winterson 42). Her religious education left her very closed off from the truths of the world and led her to believe that other people outside of her church were “Heathens” (54). Once she was to attend public school, she had a very rough time transitioning into the real world. She believed that Hell was a real place and terrorized the other school children with detailed stories of burning in Hell for eternity. When making a sewing project, Winterson chose to add the motif, “THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED” (39). The other children and her teachers were very concerned by her behavior; however, her mother was glowing with pride. Winterson had proven to be the child that she had always hoped to raise—a devout, submissive, Christian girl. Although her mother was beaming with satisfaction, Winterson herself was spiraling deeper into confusion. She could not understand why the other children did not find what she enjoyed to be as interesting as she did, thusly making her a social outcast, just as Thompson was during his childhood.
Thompson and his younger brother were raised in a fundamentalist Christian household. His family was very poor and overtly religious, which led to altercations with other children at school. Like Winterson, Thompson attended public school where he was a social outcast and relentlessly bullied. During a scuffle, some bullies jeered: You know… it’s not just you we hate, It’s your whole family. Your dad looks like a Mexican—too poor to feed you, and your mom is so religious it makes everyone in town sick, and your brother…your little brother with his messy hair and stupid voice must be retarded. (Thompson 21) Thompson was resented for something that was entirely out of his control. This began his separation between himself and his religion. He began to despise his religious upbringing due to the backlash that followed, and when he attempted to retaliate, he was thwarted by his teacher for writing “an eight page poem about people eating—excrement” (Thompson 28). The teacher chastised him, telling him how embarrassed and ashamed his mother would be because “she’s a good Christian lady” (Thompson 28). No matter which side he chose, there would always be naysayers to discourage him. He used his religion as a safety blanket because it was the only way of life that he knew. He felt that it is safest for him. After the teacher was finished scolding him, Thompson thought, “If only God could forgive me for all the times I pictured people eating their own excrement” (29). Even while he was attempting to distance himself from his religion, he still needed God’s forgiveness for thinking such sinful thoughts. The church was the only place where he really felt safe.
At the church’s Sunday school, Thompson was farther away from his faith. While one of his teachers was explaining that their Heavenly jobs would be to sing praise to God for all eternity, Thompson explained that he cannot sing and would rather draw his praise to God. The teacher laughed at him and scoffed, “I mean, ‘Come on, Craig.’ How can you praise God with drawings?” (137). This discouraged young Thompson even more. Drawing was the one thing that he loved to do most in life. He felt that if he cannot praise God in the way that he wanted to, then why praise him at all? Why praise a God that does not accept his children for who they are? Why praise a God that allows abuse and molestation to happen to little boys such as Craig and his brother?
His parents were loving and caring but also had very crass methods of punishment that bordered on mental abuse. When Thompson and his brother were very young, they had to sleep in a bed together; their parents could not afford to buy another bed. One night while Thompson and his brother were fighting over the blankets, their father came to intervene. In a feigned diplomatic tone, their father stated, “Alright. You boys don’t want to sleep together?” (Thompson 14), placed Thompson in their bed, and forced his brother into the cubbyhole in their playroom wall that was used for storage. He was made to sleep there in the dark with spiders and other insects crawling over him all night. His brother was utterly horrified, and Thompson was left to feel like a failure as a big brother because “[he] neglected [his] protective role in dangerous situations” (18). This also applied to their childhood babysitter who tricked the boys into a room, saying that he had “a really funny joke. So funny, I can only tell it to you one at a time” (Thompson 29). He then proceeded to molest them, causing Thompson to feel as though he had entirely failed as being his brother’s protector and damaging his view on sexuality even more than his fundamentalist parents had done already. In most religions, sexualities other than heterosexual, sexual intercourse, and anything concerning sexuality are viewed as being sinful. Winterson was taught from an early age that all forms of sexuality were sinful and would send you directly to hell. After coming back from church one day, Mrs. White, her mother, and Winterson were greeted by the sounds of the next-door neighbors engaging in sexual intercourse. This sent her mother off her rocker. She began a retaliatory attack of hymnals and prayers and sent Winterson out to the ice cream truck. Winterson thought to herself, “I didn’t know quite what fornicating was, but I had read about it in Deuteronomy, and I knew it was a sin” (54). Her mother had engrained this knowledge into her brain. Sexual intercourse was a sin, and so was Winterson’s “unnatural passions” (105). Her love for another woman was viewed as an abomination under God. Her mother was mortified by her daughter’s sexual identity and attempted to exercise the demon from Winterson. Her mother outed her lover Melina and Winterson to the entire church. The congregation then proceeded to blast them with hymns and bible verses to teach them the Godly way of life—to show them that their love was “a love reserved for a man and wife” (105)—thusly leaving Winterson to question which she loved more: her sexuality or her God.
Thompson was also raised to believe that the many forms of sexuality were sinful. His conservative family dreaded the thought of their son being sexually active in any way. On page 167, the reader sees a conversation between Thompson and his mother where she appeared to be physically disgusted by the fact that “sex education” was taught in public schools. She then stated, “Why we let these people teach our children, I’ll never know” (Thompson 167); she shared the same ideals as Winterson’s mother. Thompson’s mother believed that those who are ungodly should not be teaching their children. Although she does not come directly out and say it, her demeanor suggested that she also believes that good Christians were better than everyone else. Another instance of his parents’ fear of sexuality was when they scolded him for his drawing of a naked woman, asking him, “How do you think Jesus feels?” (Thompson 207). Young Thompson was ashamed and embarrassed by the prospect of Jesus disapproving of his interest in the female anatomy. Ultimately, this fear of sin and sexuality-shaming had a large effect on Thompson as a teenager. On page 146, the reader sees an image of Thompson becoming sexually aroused by the letters that he and Raina exchanged. Thompson then went on to tell the reader that “this was the ONE and ONLY time [he] masturbated [his] senior year—but such are the will powers provided by faith” (147). His belief and fear of God were enough to curve his lust and temptation; however, his will power wavered this one time, and he was emotionally distraught over it. After the incident, he laid naked on the floor, in the fetal position, and felt the entire weight of his actions and sins against God (Thompson 148). Thompson felt crushed by the figurative weight of his errant actions.
With Raina, however, his fear of losing God’s approval vanished. Teenage Thompson felt that sexual exploration was okay because he was in love with Raina. Thompson associated Raina’s naked body with religious undertones, stating that “she’d been crafted by a DIVINE ARTIST… sacred, perfect, and unknowable” (429). God beautifully crafted her. Every curve, dimple, and inch of flesh was perfect. He saw Raina as being a perfect individual—God-like, holy. He felt no shame in having sexual contact with Raina because he saw it as an act of worship. His sexuality was no longer an act of sin; it was something that is entirely right because of his love for her.
Winterson and Thompson, however, found that they cannot have the best of both worlds. They were forced to choose between accepting their sexuality or remaining with God. They both ultimately lost their religion. After the constant attacks from her mother and the church, Winterson moved out of her house and began to work her way through college. She accepted that it was the only way for her to be happy, stating that, “It was not judgement day, but another morning” (Winterson 137), on the day that she left home for good. This action thusly renounced her mother’s religious beliefs. Like Winterson, after losing Raina, Thompson too moved out to attend art school, where he was warned not to go because of “homosexuality” (516). Although by making this decision to go to art school, he had already turned his back on religion (he had originally considered going into ministry). He felt that he needed to find himself, to discover who he truly was, to enjoy the things that made him happiest in life; and that did not include being religious. In an interview, Thompson had told the interviewer that he wrote Blankets as a way to tell his parents that he was no longer religious. In the end, both Winterson and Thompson lost their fear of disappointing their parents and God. They finally chose to live their lives for themselves.
Thompson, Craig. Blankets. Top Shelf Productions, 2004.
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Pandora Press, 1985.
The Beautiful Ambiguity of Blankets
“The Beautiful Ambiguity of Blankets: Comics Representation and Religious Art”, written by the University of Florida’s Benjamin Stevens, provides a great deal of insight into Craig Thompson’s 2003 autobiographical graphic novel Blankets. Stevens’ analysis focuses on characteristics of the novel such as style, the search for identity, the impact of Christianity, and the details within the actual illustrations. This provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the content and the significance behind Thompson’s work.Thompson’s combination of illustration and dialogue is notable. Stevens’ investigation of the work stresses this fact, noting “the visual and material sameness of ‘image’ and ‘text’ or ‘word’” (Stevens 6). The ability to use both text and a direct form of visual aid is not typical for a novel, but they allow Thompson to go into greater detail regarding Craig’s home life, childhood, search for himself, and his inner conflict regarding his faith. An interesting characteristic of this graphic novel is the fact that no two pages look alike. There is not a set number of panels or words assigned, allowing the author freedom to fully express himself through his work: “Even on the first page of the scene, then, our awareness of Craig’s path, what we have seen him later call his “movement,” depends on the visual, representational, or spatial rather than on the textual, discursive, or temporal” (Stevens 8). The use of his drawings within his illustrations is also intriguing, permitting the reader to have an even greater understanding of his mindset. Craig’s quest for identity is another important component of the storyline: “An immediate complication of this reading is that the character’s ‘private meditation,’ in the form of his depicted thoughts, is not ‘private’ but presented to the reader or viewer” (Stevens 2). A clear example of this self-exposure is the detailed comic illustrations of masturbation on pages 147 and 148. Craig is comfortable enough with his audience to be honest about even the most intimate of circumstances, granting the reader access to his innermost thoughts. Thompson connects the search for identity with the idea of “stretching” in both the mental and physical aspect: “[CRAIG] I’ve never seen shadows stretch so far. [RAINA] They’re ambitious” (Thompson 245.3). Thompson takes advantage of his ability to display thoughts and emotions in a more complex medium than simply words on a page. He privileges the reader with Craig’s thoughts and desires, particularly in light of his feelings for Raina and his struggle to accept the Biblical teachings he has grown up with. Craig’s devout Christian parents attempt to force their beliefs on him, yet are very hypocritical throughout the process. Likewise, all of Craig’s interactions within the church have been negative as “Christians” are very cruel to him for various reasons. One of his greatest passions is drawing, which leads to his idea of worshipping God through his art. However, his teachers, parents, and church members all condemn this, going so far as to say that art will lead to things such as homosexuality and Pygmalionism through the process of idolatry. This forces Craig into an internal struggle between accepting a faith that is not lived out amongst its “followers” and choosing to go down his own path of worshipping God in a way that he is the most comfortable with. As Stevens notes, “Blankets is at least ‘art about religion’ if not ‘religious art’” (37). Craig is at a key point in his life as he is attempting to figure out who he is and what he believes, yet he is unfortunately being turned away from everything that he has ever known: “After a short walk in the snow, he wonders whether he might draw “Christian cartoons – | – to win people to the faith” (140.5). Upon returning to face the ‘blank sheet,’ he is depicted as imagining himself drawing a cartoonish version of John 3:16 recited by an offensively jocular dog and featuring a Jesus who smiles brightly despite his crown of thorns and his being nailed, albeit bloodlessly, to the Cross. As Craig abandons that imagination, sighing and leaving the room, the blank sheet and unused pencil are foregrounded, thus emphasizing further how religious art may be unnecessary or impossible: if, per Craig’s fifth-grade teacher, God has “already drawn [creation] for us,” then he has also already spoken it, or the crucial aspects of it, in the form of Scripture” (Stevens 41). Unfortunately, repetitive situations similar to this one eventually drive Craig out of the church completely. Craig Thompson’s autobiographical graphic novel is complex in content, yet simple in appearance. The beautiful mixture of human experience and divine understanding provides a thought-provoking story, suitable for a wide audience.”The Beautiful Ambiguity of Blankets: Comics Representation and Religious Art.” 2009. University of Florida Department of English. 12 March 2013.