Friday, October 16, 2015

Shirley Jackson's demons

"To her, wicked and stupid were the same."
Said of Shirley Jackson by her daughter Joanne,
 quoted in Private Demons: The Life of  Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer

Shirley Jackson herself said the recurring theme in her stories, which include the classic short story "The Lottery" and the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, was "an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behavior." Jackson's stories were also very personal. They were about her town of North Bennington, Vt., about her family and about the dual nature of her own personality. She was, as Judy Oppenheimer portrays her in the excellent 1988 biography Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, both stupid and wicked and both keenly intelligent and an admirable human being, devoted wife, good mother and great American writer.

The demons of Oppenheimer's title refer primarily to the wounds to her psyche left by a disapproving mother who thought her daughter should focus on, to her, important things like popularity and good looks rather than unimportant things like writing stories. She even told her daughter that she was born after an unsuccessful abortion attempt. Jackson tried to be a much better mother to her four children, yet following her premature death at the age of 48, she left most of them with deep psychological wounds that excessive alcohol and drugs failed to cure.

Jackson herself, and here is where she was stupid, ate too much, drank too much and took too many drugs for too long. Those drugs, mostly tranquilizers, were prescribed by her doctor and were thought harmless at the time, but after years of daily use, especially in combination with large quantities of alcohol, they helped bring her to a point where she was afraid to leave her own home. She was happiest when she was writing, but her mistreatment of her body left her unable to write for a long period near the end of her life.

She married her college sweetheart, Stanley Hyman, who later became an influential literary critic. Two odd people, they were ideal for each other. Although he was not a faithful husband and Jackson was constantly jealous of his interest in more attractive women, she never doubted his love for her. She may have been fat and phobic, but Hyman was devoted to her, and her early death left him helpless. He, too, died young, not long after she did.

For a time their home was a gathering place for some of the most important writers of their time, including Ralph Ellison, J.D. Salinger, Peter DeVries and Dylan Thomas. Shirley Jackson could be fun to be around, or she could be a terror if she didn't like you or feared you, as she did most of the residents of her own community, those whose stupidity and wickedness she wrote about in her books.

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