The Madwoman in Shirley Jackson’s Attic

I recently finished Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin, and it’s a marvel of the biographer’s art: Packed with primary-source detail and atmosphere gathered through Franklin’s many interviews with Jackson’s family members, friends, and colleagues. I highly recommend it to fans of Jackson’s work, cultural-studies scholars, and any readers interested in the overlap between a novelist’s life and work.

Shirley Jackson is probably best known for her chilling short story “The Lottery” and her final two novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. She captured a different audience with her domestic narratives Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which illustrated her household of four children and her husband Stanley Hyman, an important literary critic and professor at Bennington College in Vermont. Sadly, Jackson died in 1965 at age 48, officially of cardiac occlusion, although there are hints in some of the materials Franklin covers that Jackson might have been contemplating suicide.

After closing the book, I found myself less interested in how Shirley Jackson died than about why she died. In her late journal entries, she is clearly perturbed, writing at length about how she had something that shamed her: “i cannot write about what I am going to call my obsession because I simply cannot bring myself to put down the words.” [NB: Jackson wrote without capital letters or much punctuation.] Franklin wisely refrains from trying to identify what that shame is, and while other readers might speculate, I will not.

However, I do have some idea from Franklin’s work about the sources of Jackson’s lifetime shame, and I think it’s important to identify the largest: Her mother, Geraldine. Tales of monster-mothers are as old as Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, and I do not mean to add to any anti-maternal literary feeling, not at all, especially as Jackson herself was far from a monster as mother. Yes, she made plenty of mistakes, and Franklin details those, but Shirley Jackson loved her children and was interested in them as individuals. Even when she tangled with them (as she seems to have, often, with her third child and second daughter, Sarah), she still adored their special qualities and allowed them great freedom of expression and movement and interests. Jackson felt that life with four children was an “indefinable luxury. . . .Our investment is clothes and food and education and a few well-worn aphorisms, and our return in deep pleasure and delight.”

Geraldine Jackson was disappointed in her own daughter from the beginning. She wanted a girly girl who would share her interest in appearance, and didn’t like having a gawky redhead who cared more about imaginary worlds than current fashions. Their push-me, pull-you dynamic began early and never ended; Geraldine was determined not just to try and shape Shirley’s life and looks, but to humiliate her at every turn.

It started—and never ended—with Shirley’s appearance, specifically her weight. It’s true that Shirley and Stanley both gained a great deal of weight over the decades of their marriage. By the time of her death, Shirley Jackson weighed nearly 250 pounds, and combined with her lifetime of cigarette smoking, that weight made her look much older than her aged. She was not in the peak of health. However, that was her choice, and it must have grated to hear her mother’s chivvying about appearance: “Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you,” wrote Geraldine after Jackson had a review with a photo in Time magazine. This must have been even more grating in light of the way Geraldine infantilized her. After Shirley had her very bad upper teeth removed and a plate installed, her mother wrote “You must remember you are always our little girl.”

Geraldine’s insistence on a very grown-up Shirley Jackson as “our little girl” must have been part of what led her to share her literary criticism with her daughter. She never held back, whether it was to moan about Shirley’s inappropriate subjects or to wonder why Shirley couldn’t write more in veins of which Geraldine approved. “Dear, you are getting in a rut,” she wrote after a story of Jackson’s appeared. “Your stories are getting repetitious and why oh why do you dwell on the complete lack of system and order in your household?”

If Jackson, towards the end of her life, was planning to break through and write about something that caused her shame—be it thoughts of suicide, sexual orientation, anger at her philandering husband, or perhaps a wish to kill her mother—it’s clear that her mother’s constant carping might have hampered her artistic impulses to a degree. But fortunately for readers, not to a great degree, since Jackson’s last two books still speak well and clearly fifty years on; we can only imagine what she might have accomplished if she’d lived and finally put a lid on the woman whose influence on her still reigned in her middle age. In 1963 Shirley had “what they call a nervous breakdown.” Geraldine, intrusive and clueless as ever, wrote and said “This thing that has been wrong with you—is it a very unusual thing?”

Perhaps yes, perhaps no. It’s clear that Shirley Jackson had a very unusual relationship with her mother, one that served her badly as a writer. In Ruth Franklin’s careful and comprehensive biography, we see that a life can be haunted in many ways, and one of them is through having a mother without boundaries.

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