As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity.
I have been reading several biographies and memoirs while reading arcs and have been gravitating towards artistic, powerful women like Shirley Jackson- whether they felt powerful in their own lives or not. I am not sure how I missed reading this when it came out in 2016 but I was deeply engaged, losing sleep to get to the end as I couldn’t put this book down. A Rather Haunted Life, indeed. Haunted not by ghosts nor black magic and all things witchy but haunted in the way many women’s lives are, especially in times when making more than your spouse and writing stories that made people uncomfortable were suspect. Haunted by the demands of motherhood, a hunger to write with meaning, expectations of her own parents, by her own insecurities and infidelity, and the severe judging eyes of fans and detractors how could she maintain stability? Those were just some of the demons in her head. One commonality in many writer’s (artists) I have noticed through the years is voice, they turn to it because it’s not just a calling but a way of asserting themselves in the world. Shirley Jackson rumors float around even today, that she was superstitious or studied witchcraft, and surely she fueled it early on herself and why not? It’s an image that sells (especially if you write creepy stories) but Franklin’s biography dispels Shirley as a myth and makes her a very real person. It encompasses her origins, her family history, her husband Stanley Hyman, her children and everything in between. You cannot really write about Shirley’s passions without including those she spent her life with and loved. You cannot dismiss the very people that molded, guided her decisions, for better or worse.
Interesting that when Shirley wrote about her domestic life, motherhood it wasn’t what some wanted. Why must a woman be one or the other, a career woman or mommy? Why can’t she have the ability to terrify, to expose the monsters within, to express spirals into madness and yet also adore her children, the little savages, and write about motherhood, the ups and downs of domesticity? As if you can’t be a mother (and enjoy it) and also conjure creepy fiction. Maybe she didn’t concern herself with being a feminist, yet she was. Through her writing, she gave voice to the outsider, and exposed terrifying hypocrisy. It’s strange to root through another’s life posthumously, but Franklin’s writing about many of the struggles Shirley faced lends her stories that much more meaning. She wrote about the fears so many women had then, try so hard to conquer even today! Shirley exposed the cracks in the 1950’s ever smiling, not a hair out of place model of a female. It wasn’t a better time, one was just expected to maintain that happy illusion of everything is fine, nothing to see here. Her own mother certainly had a problem with that, being a fine lady herself. You don’t show the dirt, you sweep it under the rug!
Reading about her relationship with her mother (Geraldine Jackson) gutted me and lends credibility to why she wrote what she did, her characters turning their back on social mores, usually to extreme consequences. It’s no wonder she saw those fine citizens as smoldering with the desire to tar and feather anyone different, to burn them with modern day witch hunts, that she fueled the image of being a witch- there is power in it. It was said of Shirley’s mother, “…she tried valiantly to shape her daughter in her image”, something Geraldine would never succeed at. It weighed on Shirley though, those attempts. Shirley knew all too well how it felt to want to shuck off the past, the expectations of parents (society) and wanted to re-invent herself and the world is very lucky that she didn’t heed the words to cultivate charm, and “seek out the good in others, rather than explore for evil.” For it is this digging into the psyche and exposing the poison in society that resonates even now with readers. She does away often with the mother, no wonder… Life is funny, children aren’t all little mirrors, and as was the case with Shirley she was the child that would test her mother’s vanity, ego. Shirley was haunted by her mother’s criticisms, unable to even voice how damaging her mother’s words could be, even when Jackson was shining, successful- still never the pretty, little daughter her beautiful mother wanted. We all know how no amount of creative genius in a woman seems to be enough in a world where pretty beats all!
Marrying Stanley Hyman, a highly respected literary critic and professor of literature was a marriage of minds but his feelings for monogamy downright became a torment to Shirley, how could it not? Shirley who spent so much of her life rejected by her mother, who wanted love and acceptance and deserved to feel it, eclipsed in many ways by her husband humiliating her as a woman, with his affairs. She knew early on, is likely the defense, that he did not hold much stock in monogamous relationships, didn’t believe in them. Of course they loved each other, there is no doubt by the accounts within this insightful book but her husband also appears to have put a lot on her shoulders, haranguing her into writing, even when she was unstable. He just didn’t see the toll everything in life was having on her, creating when the pen won’t budge maddening enough without all the haunting of the soul.
There was happiness and this book is by no means all doom and gloom. She and Stanley had romance, he was very impressed by her fiction writing, so much so realizing very early in their courtship he couldn’t compete. She loved him enough to marry someone her parents weren’t sold on, after-all he was Jewish and you didn’t marry outside your religion. Shirley loved the children they had together, without a doubt! He absolutely admired her talent, they were well matched as much as ill suited, she was more sensitive than her humor, wit would have one believe and he, a cold indifferent partner at times was an obstacle in their love. It was all about their own personal natures coming together, as it is in any relationship. There were ups and downs, they made a life, they had a family, they managed careers- things fell apart, things held together. She never did leave him, did she? Not until her death anyway. Shirley dealt with serious crippling anxiety, even agoraphobia and the medicine back then often exacerbated one’s mental struggles, even her weight loss (dieting) had unhealthy consequences to her mental well being. It’s fascinating because she struggled with self-acceptance on one hand but was also confident enough in her talents to publish, indulging in her pleasures (food, friends, motherhood) and with her own writing confronted her mother in a roundabout way. She wasn’t a mythical, spell conjuring witch, she was a talented, intelligent, writer, a loving mother, and a loyal wife. She wasn’t one thing, she was many. This is one of the best biographies I have ever read that deals with it’s subject with humanity, admiration and compassion. I was surprised by the emotions A Rather Haunted Life evoked within me. I am very happy I finally read it!
This was a beautifully written biography.
Published in 2016