Another book review out today ...
Amy Winehouse: 'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'
Millions of people around the world mourned when Amy Winehouse died, aged just 27. But beyond this public outpouring of grief, a mother had lost her daughter and her friend. In an exclusive extract from a poignant new memoir, Janis Winehouse describes trying to make sense of the end of an extraordinary life
There are times when Amy catches me unawares. She’s right in front of me and in a second I am overwhelmed. This feeling comes with no warning. There is no route map for grief. There are no rules. I can’t predict what might trigger this: her face flashed up on the big screen at the BRIT Awards; a song of hers playing in the airport lounge en route to New York; the Japanese tea set she bought me from a junk shop that I stumble across while sorting through a cupboard at home; the mention of her name. Whether these moments are intensely public or intensely private, they stop me in my tracks, and I am paralysed with emotion. Yet I find them strangely comforting. They are a reminder that I can still feel, that I am not numb.
I worry about a day when that might change. I worry about the day when Amy stops being alive in my head and in my heart. I don’t want that day ever to come. I don’t think it ever will. I loved her. I will always love her, and I miss everything about her. Amy, bless her, was larger than life.
I find myself saying “bless her” in the same breath as Amy’s name a lot of the time. It’s my way of acknowledging that she was not a straightforward girl. Amy was one of those rare people who made an impact. Right from the very beginning, when she was a toddler, she was loud and boisterous and scared and sensitive. She was a bundle of emotions, at times adorable and at times unbearable. All this is consistent with the struggle she went through to overcome the addictions that eventually robbed her of her life. Amy’s passing did not follow a clear line. It was jumbled, and her life was unfinished – not life’s natural order at all. She left no answers, only questions, and in the years since her death I’ve found myself trying to make sense of the frayed ends of her extraordinary existence.
I lost Amy twice: once to drugs and alcohol, and finally on Saturday, 23 July 2011, when her short life ended. I don’t believe any of the endless speculation that Amy wanted to die. There was no doubt that she battled with who she was and what she had become, but she dreamed that one day she’d have children and there was a large part of Amy that had a zest for life and people. But she was a girl who kicked against authority, a person who always took things that bit further than everyone else around her. She used to say to me, “Mum, I hate mediocrity. I never want to be mediocre.” Whatever else Amy was, she was anything but mediocre. She had a phenomenal talent and she pushed it to its limits; she pushed her life to its limits; she pushed her body beyond its limits. In her mind she was invincible, yet she was as vulnerable as any of us are.
I did not expect to lose Amy when I did. Since the first night I held her in my arms she had always been a constant and close part of my life. But during the worst years of Amy’s drug dependency there were moments when I thought that every time I saw her it would be the last. Amy had become a slave to her drugs and parts of the daughter I’d raised were slowly being wiped away. In the past she’d have gone out of her way to get to me, wherever I was, but as her addictions took hold she became less reliable, less able to organise herself without an army of people clearing a path for her and clearing up after her. She’d sit in front of me, her short skirt riding up her legs and her sharp bones protruding from her knees. I could see her tiny body disintegrating, but there was nothing I could do. As her mother, I was completely helpless. I could ring her and I could visit her, but I couldn’t save her. I knew that if I tried to I would lose myself too.
For some time, Amy had tried to protect me from the reality of her life. She wanted to keep me as a “mummy” figure, untainted by everything she was experiencing. Amy had looked out for me from a young age, in particular after the breakdown of my marriage to her father Mitchell, and I suspect she didn’t want to upset me. But mothers have a sixth sense and I was busy filling in the blanks. As Amy’s troubles escalated there were certain things that became more difficult for her to hide.
The ups and downs of those years took their toll on Amy and everyone around her. Loving Amy became a relentless cycle of thinking I would lose her, but not losing her, thinking I would lose her, but not losing her.
Also, by 2006 – the time when Amy’s addictions began to consume her – I had not long been officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I have suffered with the symptoms for more than 30 years, from just after I gave birth to Amy’s older brother Alex, and it is why I now walk with the aid of a stick. Amy’s unpredictability meant I lived constantly on tenterhooks, and my own health had reached crisis point too. I often caught myself thinking, “Are all these things really happening to my family?” But then my own survival instinct kicked in.
I have always been a pragmatist, but thinking pragmatically about your own daughter’s addiction is one of the hardest things a mother can do. I worked as a pharmacist until my MS forced me to take early retirement, so my medical background helped me to see Amy’s problems more clearly as an illness. Even armed with that knowledge, however, I desperately struggled to keep myself together. I relied on counselling to make sense of everything that was disintegrating around me. I needed to talk things through with someone who wasn’t emotionally wrapped up in the drama of our lives. Step by step I began to refocus my own life. I took time for myself, and although there were moments when I felt guilty about doing so, I stopped telling myself it was wrong. A new relationship with my now husband Richard, whom I’ve known since I was 12 years old, began to blossom. I am convinced that all those things, combined with my inner resolve, have given me an enormous amount of strength both during Amy’s life and after her passing.
Right up until that summer of 2011 I believed that she had turned a corner – we all did. She had been clean of drugs for almost three years and we could see glimpses of a future again, even though her life was still punctuated with bouts of heavy drinking. Nevertheless, our expectations had shifted and I felt optimistic about what lay in store for her. Instead of questioning if or when Amy was going to die, I had begun to imagine a time when she would be better. Sadly, that day never came, and I will always feel tortured by a sense of what could have been, even though I have had to accept the reality. Amy came into my life like a whirlwind and changed it for ever. Although I lived through it with her, sometimes her story does not feel real. I am a proud mother who watched her daughter achieve the success and recognition she desperately wanted. But soon that private and intense bond between us became public property. Amy’s entire life became public property and I guess, as a family, we were always in tow. Everybody who took an interest in Amy believed they knew her, and everyone wanted a piece of her, in ways we were completely unprepared for. She walked an endlessly unsteady tightrope between withdrawing from the limelight and needing to be noticed.
In that way, Amy and I were different. Throughout her life and even now, the limelight was and is a place in which I feel uneasy. I struggle with being in the public eye. I have never felt comfortable walking on the red carpet. Whether accepting awards on Amy’s behalf or raising money for Amy’s foundation – the charity Mitchell and I set up in the months after her passing – I’ve graced more stages than I ever thought possible. I do everything now with Amy in my heart.
Telling the story of my life with Amy was first mooted back in 2007 when I was approached by a literary agent and asked whether I would consider writing a book. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea, but I came away from the meeting thinking that I might like to, but only when Amy was well again. I called her and asked what she thought of the proposal. “Don’t do it, Mum,” she told me. “I don’t want people to know who I am.” Amy was happy to let the beehive and the eyeliner and the car-crash lifestyle become the only side of her the public saw, even though we knew that she was a much more complex person than that.
Back then, I never considered going against her wishes. Now life has changed. I thought long and hard before finally agreeing to tell our story, recalling happy times as well as confronting some uncomfortable truths has helped me in my own journey. It has helped me understand how our ordinary life grew in so many fantastic ways, and self-destructed in so many others. I rediscovered parts of Amy’s life too, the sort of precious memories that fade in the maelstrom of a working mother’s life and get buried by the avalanche of fame and addiction. Over time, memories get eroded, and MS makes that process worse so I wanted to put mine on record before they are lost for ever.
My family and friends, photos and Amy’s own notebooks have all helped me piece our lives back together again. In sorting through the fragments it has struck me how, at various points, Amy’s life closely mirrored aspects of my own in the years before she was born. Physically, Amy has my features. Our school reports are almost identical. We both loved adventure and, in our own ways, we both pushed the boundaries without necessarily thinking of the consequences. I quietly rebelled against a life of domesticity in 1970s and 1980s suburbia. Amy achieved superstardom by rebelling against the manufactured world of pop music. In the end, she rebelled against everything else too, and turned it inwards on herself.
Despite the obvious heartbreak, I am uplifted when I am reminded of what Amy achieved – what we achieved. I graduated with two degrees while bringing up Alex and Amy. She grabbed opportunities with both hands and realised her potential early in life. My only hope is that she would approve of this book as a frank account of her life, although I can picture her shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Mum, there’s nothing to say about me, honest.”
Today, I wear Amy’s necklace. It’s a gold Star of David that she was given as a baby. I never take it off. I wear her ring too. On some days I even wear her clothes – her T-shirts – and I feel closer to her. As I said, there are no rules for grief. There are days when I feel at peace with Amy and there are nights when I wake up crying. But I try not to dwell on the negative parts of her life, nor on how her death devastated my family. I keep going, as I have always done, busying myself with anything I can. It seems to be the only way I can get through each day.
I celebrate Amy’s talent and appreciate the great gift she gave to the world. It will live on well after I and my family have gone. The Amy Winehouse Foundation, too, has already begun to make a difference to the lives of other children who, for whatever reason, are set on a wayward and downward path in life. I choose not to mourn Amy. I have her albums and a live concert she performed on my iPod. Hers is the only voice that spurs me upstairs and on to my exercise bike to go through the workouts I do to alleviate the discomfort of my MS. I’m not sure I’d get there otherwise. There are moments, though, when I hear the nakedness of her voice and I wonder how much the world understood of Amy’s vulnerability.
She was a singer, a superstar, an addict and a young woman who hurtled towards an untimely death. To me, though, she is simply Amy. She was my daughter and my friend, and she will be with me for ever.µ
Extracted from 'Loving Amy', by Janis Winehouse (Bantam Press, £18.99), which is published on Thursday. To buy it for £16.99 free P&P, call 08430 600030 or go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk. Proceeds from the book will be donated to The Amy Winehouse Foundation. © Janis Winehouse 2014