On Shirley Jackson | Open Letters Monthly - an Arts and Literature Review

In 1962, when Shirley Jackson published her acknowledged masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she was at the height of her fame. She ranked among the most highly regarded writers in America, required reading on literature courses and the recipient of literary prizes, her work regularly anthologised. Her novels and short stories had all been hothouse flowers, exotic blooms from the delicate and violent psyches of her strange protagonists, but this last novel would rise like the black orchid among them: sinister, beautiful, perverse. Writing it brought her to a state of nervous collapse.

For some time, Jackson had been battling serious health issues: she was morbidly obese, suffering from asthma, arthritis and the side effects of a cocktail of amphetamines and tranquillisers. In the three years it had taken her to write We Have Always Lived in the Castle – three times longer than any of her other books and yet this was her shortest – everything had worsened. She began to be troubled by attacks of colitis that left her sick and faint. The anxiety that they could occur at any time kept her ever closer to home, and she was aware, with her sharply-honed sense of humour, that the book was mining too close to her own fears. “I have written myself into the house,” she declared in a letter to a friend, and in one to her parents, describing how well her work was going: “there’s nothing like being scared to go outside to keep you writing.”

When the book was finished, she was seized with fresh hope: the colitis was receding and surely it was a sign that the other symptoms would ease, too. But Jackson had given an interview to Time magazine, where We Have Always Lived In The Castle would later be named one of their ten best books of 1962, and the article was accompanied by a photo. What she had long feared took place: her mother saw it. Blithely unaware as ever of the effect she would have, she wrote to chastise her daughter, ignoring the review and focusing her remarks only on the picture:

Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you? I am sure your daughters at school are proud to show off your picture and say ‘this is my mother.’ I would sue them for libel. Your children love you for your achievements but they also want you to be worth looking at, too. […] I do not know if the book review is good or not – and I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like. […] I am sorry. I tried not to be sad. You have always resented any interference. You were and I guess still are a very wilful [sic] child and one who insisted on her own way in everything. Good or bad.

This was a sharp blow from an old adversary, and one that Jackson may have been too weak to fend off. Although she wrote an honest reply, one infused with an angry dignity, she never sent it. Instead she wrote the sort of thing she always did, a breezy, cheerful reply which obscured her pain. But from that point on, her world shrank into smaller and smaller safe places.

“She became psychotic,” her agent, Carol Brandt, told biographer Judy Oppenheimer. “She wouldn’t come out of her room. She huddled by her bed.” Her daughter described how the children had to take over the running of the household, the province where Shirley had ruled supreme. “Sometimes she would go out to the car and say, ‘I really think I’m going to make it to the store today,’” her daughter, Sally said. “Then she’d grip the steering wheel and start to cry. I’d take her back inside and she’d say, ‘Don’t tell your father. Just take me up to my room.’” Worst of all, she couldn’t write.

Sally, the daughter Jackson was happy to think most like her, seemed to have the most insight into her mother’s suffering. She didn’t think it was down to the drugs she took, or the physical problems she’d acquired. She believed that the problem reached back into Shirley’s past and the fierce desire it had given her to fight for the things she wanted, and to remain true to herself against the odds. Shirley had grown uncomfortably close to those desires and the fears that fuelled them while writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It was ironic that the very book that delivered her to such a pinnacle in her career had brought her to such a state of abject vulnerability.

“She got the four kids and the big house and the smart husband and she went crazy anyway,” Sally said. “And I think she felt really bad. She felt bad that the books weren’t enough therapy, that writing a book every year or two didn’t keep her sane. Because she put her guts into it. But it wasn’t enough.”

Shirley Jackson was an unsuccessful abortion, born nine months almost to the day after her parents married. She learned this as an adolescent when her mother told her so. Geraldine was always blunt and tactless, but it could equally have been pique on her part, or maybe wishful thinking, for Shirley was not the daughter she wanted. Geraldine was an attractive woman, orthodox and superficial, fond of parties, proud of her ancestors and with her vision firmly fixed on social advancement. Shirley struggled always with her weight, was unpredictable, awkward and hostile, and she had a mind like a meat cleaver that sliced through the social flesh of artifice and dissimulation. She was not the kind of child who could be shown off as an accessory, although Geraldine nagged her constantly about her appearance and behaviour. In this battle of wills, it seems likely that both sides felt they had lost. Shirley’s daughter, Joanne, told her mother’s biographer that “She felt Geraldine had squashed her,” that she had “crushed her spirit.” Shirley described to her children how her mother had hated and feared her, and how she would go through Shirley’s private belongings to find things that would then be used to manipulate or incriminate her. She was fiercely angry about the iniquities of their relationship for the rest of her life.

The strength of Shirley’s feelings must have come from her ability, fully evidenced by her writing, to see beneath the unexceptional surface to disquieting and violent emotions. By all accounts, Geraldine was not a physically abusive parent or even a particularly disciplinary one; she simply did not understand her daughter, or wish to, and was interested only in imposing her own tastes and standards. Shirley probed the deeper reaches of that failure and found an intolerable attack that cast her into outer darkness. But like many children with conflicted relationships to their parents, Shirley despised her mother and could not let her go. She wrote regularly to her parents once she had married, long, chatty letters reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s in their commitment to recounting a cheery, bland and unproblematic domesticity. But in Shirley’s case, living well really was a potent form of revenge. Her letters were a reproach, an account of how much better she was dealing with the roles of wife and mother, and also a covert appeal for parental approval, which never seemed to be forthcoming.

Shirley’s adolescence was never going to be easy, and it was compounded by a move from sunny California, which she had loved, to Rochester, New York, a small town with the constricted mentality to match. Shirley was quickly blackballed from her high school sorority for being different, a prickly intellectual. Judy Oppenheimer suggests that “for the first time, loneliness became a constant in her life. It had the effect of driving her back into herself even more.” But Shirley had had plenty of practice at cultivating her inner resources, and as she grew into her character they were beginning to take specific, and typically unique, forms. She had discovered writing and she had discovered witchcraft.

Speaking to a writers’ conference many years later, Shirley talked about her deep love of writing: “It is a logical extension of the adolescent daydream,” she told them, “most clearly a way of making daily life into a wonderfully unusual thing instead of a grind.” She believed it had a protective function, too, a kind of mental hygiene that allowed her to be herself: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. […] So long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.” As an adolescent she kept a diary at first, and then decided on the discipline of writing 1,000 words a day, which she hoped would become a useful routine. It must have worked, for in a busy adult life, the sort of relentless whirl of domestic demands and full-blooded parties that would have drained the average writer, Jackson’s productivity was impressive.

Witchcraft and magic had oddly analogous functions to writing, in the way they were transformational and protective. And their appeal was just as compelling. By sixteen Jackson had set herself the task of reading everything she could find on the subject, and the research was combined with her own uncanny sixth sense and her eagerness to stick pins in wax dolls. “That’s not a good way for a girl to grow up,” she wrote in her last, unfinished novel, Come Along With Me, which was the closest she came to reproducing her childhood under the guise of fiction. “How can anyone handle things if her head is full of voices and her world is full of things no one else can see?”

Yet for all her sensitive and highly-strung nature, for all her reading and research, in the young Shirley Jackson’s experiments with the dark side, there are no examples of outright success. Her attempts to raise the Devil brought forth no results, the voodoo dolls caused no harm, and when, years later, she sat in her kitchen with her sister-in-law and both women sighted a thin trickle of blood running down from a cabinet, it turned out to be nothing more than an overturned bottle of wine. Jackson encouraged an occult atmosphere around her; she surrounded herself with a collection of amulets and charms, she liked to freak people out. But she was often tight-lipped or diversionary when asked direct questions. “She wanted very much to find provable magic,” her daughter, Sally, said. “And I think by the time I met her she’d gotten to the kind of point where she pretended she already had, and she wouldn’t talk about it because her mystique would be blown.”

However ‘real’ her experiences of the supernatural may have been, the practice of witchcraft, which was where Shirley began, was, if nothing else, an appeal to a different kind of potency. As the strong-willed daughter of a controlling mother, Shirley was always interested in power, and particularly in subversive forms of it. She was clear-sighted enough to know that power was always elusive, sinuously resistant, sometimes autonomous; in her good, strong adult years she wielded it unflinchingly, never afraid to dominate her own family. But in troubled times, she felt fragile and undefended, acted upon by forces that seemed to come from outside of herself, out of control in fundamental and terrifying ways.

Shirley at 21 had little in the way of conventional power. She was neither pretty nor popular and the boys did not chase her. But on a good day, she knew she could write. She had come to study at Syracuse, where writing and journalism were taken seriously and her intense, intellectual qualities had finally found a more welcoming home. At the end of the first year, her creative writing class published a collection of their best work, and Shirley’s single-page story – a quirky, funny little dialogue about suicide – stood out. It bewitched a student, an 18-year-old Jewish boy from Brooklyn, who read it and declared he was going to marry its author.

It is unclear whether Stanley Edgar Hyman was the best thing that ever happened to Shirley or the worst. He was a man with unshakeable conviction in his opinions and his abilities, a champion arguer with a vicious tongue, a force of intellect and a petty tyrant. He took over Shirley’s life and she gave it to him willingly, devastated by the experience of a man desiring her so much – finally, for the right reasons. But their relationship was always tempestuous, for Stanley’s need to dominate was as claustrophobic as it was captivating. And Shirley was a mass of intense and volatile emotions, often provoked by Stanley’s outrageous flirtations with other women. It helped that both parents were steadfastly against their relationship. When they married, Shirley’s parents stayed well away, whilst Stanley’s father sat shiva, the Jewish ceremony for the dead. But nothing would have stopped them. Stanley had correctly estimated the value of Shirley’s talent, and in rescuing her from misunderstood isolation, he had become a vital anchor to Shirley’s life. He secured not just her emotional contentment, but her mental stability. “He was the saviour who had pulled her in out of the darkness,” Oppenheimer writes. “Any threat to the relationship was a threat to survival itself.”

The marriage celebrated an eccentric kind of domestic slavery. It was understood from the start that Shirley would do the heavy lifting, with regard to kitchen duties and the care of their four children. Once a neighbour caught sight of a heavily pregnant Shirley, toiling up the hill loaded down with shopping, newspapers and the mail. Just as he was about to go out and help, he saw Stanley emerge from the house and rush towards his wife – only to carefully disengage the mail from her hand and saunter back home. Amused and annoyed, Shirley drew a series of comic sketches that commented on Stanley’s attitude towards his household. In the first, she depicted herself charging around after a baby whilst Stanley sat in the armchair, lost behind the New York Times, a little speech bubble declaring “No, I don’t think I’d ever want to have another, dear. It’s too much of a strain for me.” Another showed him still in his armchair behind the paper, this time the bubble saying “You think you’re working hard? Who do you think has been reading through the Times all day?” Yet another showed Stanley still in the chair with the paper, but this time with Shirley standing over him, swinging an axe.

Domesticity calmed and contained Shirley, and she was determined to do it all so much better than her mother had. But she did it on her own shocking terms. The children were given attention, listened to, delighted in, but they ran around filthy, their hair rarely washed (and when a well-meaning neighbour babysat the girls and cleaned them both up, Shirley was livid with rage). Some were horrified by the slapdash approach to hygiene. Helen Feeley, a friend and neighbour said that Shirley’s house “was the filthiest place I’ve ever seen, rolls of dust. I remember once at a party getting tired and trying to fall asleep on Shirley’s couch – the smell of cat pee would wake you up, it was incredible. And in the refrigerator, nasty little jars of stuff that had been in there for three months, mold on top. God awful.” Another friend described how, encouraged on arrival at a party in Shirley’s house to go and see the new baby, he couldn’t find the cot for a while as it was buried under coats and hats.

This was Shirley’s two-fingered response to her mother’s good housekeeping that concentrated on superficial impressions. But priorities must have been a factor, for Shirley was also the family breadwinner. Stanley’s teaching at Bennington College and his published literary criticism did not bring in enough money to allow them to live as they wished. They were both keen consumers who ran through cash gleefully, and they lived and entertained on a grand scale.

It was Stanley’s trumpeted exploitation of Shirley’s talents, both domestic and literary, that could seem so offensive. He told everyone proudly that he had bought Shirley a dishwasher, having calculated the increase in family income that would result from the writing time she’d gain. Elaine Showalter, seeing in Shirley’s marital situation a reflection of the age she lived in, argued that she “was attracted to Hyman’s bullying, even to his hostility and exploitation,” because, like Mary McCarthy and Sylvia Plath, “she eroticised male dominance.” Friends believed that the strength of Shirley’s character was greater than the sum of demands placed upon it: “She wasn’t really submissive, even though she waited on Stanley hand and food and he never lifted a dish,” said Frank Orenstein. Whether it was despite Stanley’s dictatorship or because of it, Shirley flourished in her life and in her creativity. Somehow, among the childcare and the shopping and the cooking and the partying, she found the time and the energy to write the books and stories that would bring them such notoriety.

Her writing was Janus-faced, split between hilarious stories of family life – stories drawn directly from her own domestic world but then “changed, controlled repainted” according to Oppenheimer – and her remarkable literary output. The six novels she wrote, and the attendant short story collections, all shared the same theme, Jackson said, “an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behaviour.” She excelled at writing narrative that went through the looking glass and found beyond it not simply absurdity but malevolence. The switch happened in an instant, a lightning strike that turned a colour image into its negative. “It was Shirley’s genius,” Judy Oppenheimer claims, “to be able to paint homey, familiar scenes… and then imbue them with evil – or, more correctly, allow a reader to see the evil that had been obvious to her all along.”

Her most famous story, “The Lottery,” is the most perfect example. It tells the story of ordinary townspeople gathering together to draw lots according to a long-held tradition. When one housewife holds up the piece of paper with the single black spot, her neighbours, with deliberate and eager intent, turn upon her and stone her to death. The story created outrage on publication in 1948 in The New Yorker, described in letters to the magazine office as “gruesome” and “a new low in human viciousness.” But Jackson preferred to quote the letters she received from readers who “wanted to know where the lotteries were being held, and if they could go watch.”

Jackson’s audacity was to suggest that the terrifying face of evil was part of ordinary people and small town life. She knew what she was saying: “everything I write,” she told her publisher, was concerned with “the sense which I feel, of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction.” Her advice to writers that “so long as you write it away regularly, nothing can hurt you,” makes it likely she knew whereof she spoke.

n the run-up to writing We Have Always Lived In The Castle, a number of events occurred that knocked Shirley’s world off its axis. The family had never been popular in the small town of North Bennington, where they lived for most of the Hymans’ married life. Their peculiar ways and Shirley’s innate sense of superiority (a direct inheritance of Geraldine’s snobbery) had kept them outsiders, to the extent that some locals resorted to name-calling – witch, Jew, atheist: rubbish was dumped in their garden and hate mail sometimes arrived in the post. But the extent of their isolation from the community became clear when Shirley discovered that her daughter, Sally, was being victimised by a teacher at school. Sally was by no means alone; other children in the class were also being singled out for physical and emotional abuse, and the teacher had a long history of such behaviour. Shirley and Stanley reacted with pure, uncomplicated rage, and Shirley swung into action, contacting the parents of the other children involved and lobbying the school for a strong response. There was a furore, but within it, Shirley began to be regarded as the excessive party. The teacher was a long-standing member of the community, while Shirley was an outsider, and one married to a Jew at that. The local newspaper reported it as a storm in a teacup, and took the teacher’s side. The other parents withdrew their support and the school closed ranks. Sally was known to be an undisciplined brat at times, and Shirley was seen as a stranger who had overstepped the mark and tried to stir up trouble against one of their own. The experience would scar Shirley deeply and entrench her further in her own home.

Then Stanley embarked on a serious affair. Throughout their married life he had flirted and slept with his students. But this time was different: the woman was a friend of Shirley’s, intelligent, mature, attractive. Having kept any marital difficulties hidden from their children, Shirley now snapped. In a night of what her daughter, Joanne, called “major drama,” Shirley broke down in hysteria and tried to rush out into the snow in her dressing gown and slippers, threatening to confront Stanley and his mistress. The children talked her down, but it was evident that their stable home life was slipping from its moorings.

The affair lasted less than a year, but it was damaging. Shirley was no longer coping and, now that she had begun writing We Have Always Lived In The Castle, it was evident that the latent neuroses she had been struggling to contain were seeping through to the surface. Her eldest son, Laurence, the child to whom she was closest, had got his girlfriend pregnant and they were now married and living elsewhere. Joanne and Sally were sent away to boarding school, and Shirley’s world was shrinking into ever decreasing circles. She was no longer wielding power as the vital centre of her family’s life as she confronted, alone and overwrought, the topsy-turvy world of her greatest creation. She had lost control, and so power turned itself back on her.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle contains one of literature’s most chilling and sympathetic portrait of madness. Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat as she is known, lives with her older sister, Constance, and her enfeebled Uncle Julian in their lovely and imprisoning family home. Six years ago the rest of her family died, poisoned by arsenic; only Julian survived and he is a relic of his former self, obsessed with recounting the fateful day of the murders. Constance was put on trial for the crime, but subsequently acquitted. Now the three remaining Blackwood members live in a state of contented siege, mocked and taunted by the locals in the village who resent their money and status and believe that Constance has escaped justice. To deflect their derision, Merricat employs witchcraft in the form of ‘safeguards’ strung out around the boundaries of the property: “the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; as long as they were where I had put them, nothing could get in to harm us.”

Merricat is like a creature half-tamed; simple, tender and yet violent. She is devoted to the gentle, appeasing Constance, but when something displeases her, when a routine is mildly upset or an event is a little unexpected, she reacts with ferocity: “I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode…I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher…and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.” As for the locals who cat-call and threaten, Merricat attempts to deal with the upsetting emotions they arouse through sadistic fantasies: “I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying.” As narrator, Merricat invites us into her world, in which all boundaries, real and imaginary, are policed with ruthlessness and an appeal to the dark arts.

When Cousin Charles suddenly appears on a visit, Merricat greets his arrival with predictable dismay. Charles tries to bring the laws of everyday normality into the family enclave, insisting that Uncle Julian be put in a home and criticising the way Constance is treated as a domestic slave. Constance’s sudden expansiveness in his presence is less the welcome of a well-mannered hostess, and more the relief of a woman who glimpses freedom. So Merricat’s unrestrained hostility seems momentarily mad, a selfish revulsion against the forces of change. And then, addressing her cat, Jonas (since Merricat refuses to speak to him), Charles reveals a different side: “ ‘Cousin Mary doesn’t like me,’ Charles said again to Jonas. ‘I wonder if Cousin Mary knows how I get even with people who don’t like me? Can I help you with that chair, Constance? Have a nice nap, Uncle?’” The narrative shimmers as it moves through the looking glass into the malevolent world beyond. Charles is no rescuer, but evil disguised by a pleasant and disarming fašade.

Determined to rid them of the interloper, Merricat abandons witchcraft and sets fire to Charles’ belongings, sending the whole house up in flames. When marauding villagers come with the fire engines, the forces of chaos are let loose. In a scene of primal power they trash the house, rampaging through the rooms breaking anything and everything they find, whilst Charles attempts in vain to liberate the family safe and its contents. Constance and Merricat flee to the woods, and when they return in the morning, it is to face a dead uncle and a scene of carnage.

But in a final twist of what turns out to be a black fairy tale, the sisters pick out of the rubble just enough to live on. They make do and mend. Merricat erects new and better barricades and they swear an even tighter allegiance to one another. Their world shrinks to the family kitchen, whilst shamefaced villagers leave offerings of food at the front door, sustaining them in the ruins of a happy ever after.

In short, the madness wins. Or rather, the madness was instinctually right all along. What are we to make of Merricat’s persecution fantasies, when it turns out that they were actually being persecuted? What does ‘normal’ look like, if it is represented by the vicious and loathsome locals? Merricat was right to fear both them and Charles, right to identify evil in their hearts. The brilliance of the novel is in its curious coherence, the glassy impenetrability of the equation of madness with sanity. Shirley Jackson wrote what she knew, and it took on a life of its own.

The scenario of the Blackwood house plays out like a dream in Shirley’s mind, in which the compliant, domestic Constance, the fearful, superstitious Merricat and the traumatised Uncle Julian, forever repeating the narrative of what happened to him, are all parts of her inner world, split off and incarnated. There is Shirley as domestic goddess, beloved and enslaved; there she is as vulnerable child warding off menace with magic and violence; and there she is as the damaged writer, going over and over the same ground. Change in this microcosm is impossible, in fact it is dangerous. By the end, the Blackwood sisters live a more extreme version of their original lives; they are ever more isolated, among their ruined resources, clinging to one another against a society that has proved itself even more aggressive and destructive than they feared. It is no wonder that Shirley Jackson was unable to leave her house while she was writing herself into a vindication of her own neuroses. No wonder, when her mother crossed the invisible boundary and attacked Shirley in her most vulnerable place that the trap sprang shut with Shirley inside it. Her mantra that “so long as you write it away regularly, nothing can hurt you,” had been proved false, and writing itself had followed the uncanny pattern that she had written about all those years: it had turned out to have danger lurking at its core.

After her breakdown and its attendant writer’s block, Shirley tried psychotherapy, writing in her diary “I told Stanley I was going to have the fastest analysis on record because I was in such a hurry to be well.” Within a year she had created for herself a new ‘normal’ persona, but the effort involved exhausted her. On the 8th August 1965, she lay down on her bed for a nap and died of a heart attack, aged 48. It may be that the prospect of a life of low-fat meals and gentle calmness had finished her off. But maybe there could have been no more eloquent account of the great battle she had been waging against evil within and without than We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Madness had had the last word.


Victoria Best is a writer and critic; she taught French literature for ten years at Cambridge University and blogs at 
Tales From The Reading Room.



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