Private Demons, The Life of Shirley Jackson

jackson-shirley-family1I just finished reading the 1988 Shirley Jackson biography by Judy Oppenheimer and I am in a trance. It happens often when I read biographies: I lose all sense of myself and become that other person in my head. So I am Shirley Jackson right now, ask me anything about witchcraft, I own thousands of books on the topic.

It is rare these adult days of mine that I enjoy a book so much I am sad when it’s over, but it happened with this biography. It creates such an absorbing world that it becomes painful to disconnect from it.

What I particularly connected to were Shirley Jackson’s struggles as a mother who wrote in her spare time, whatever was left. I understood how she often had to prioritize: kids went with hair uncombed for weeks, they were unsupervised most of the time, the house was very messy, and so on. It is interesting that she is seen as a 50s woman who embraced motherhood and homemaking, when she didn’t actually seem to have been too preoccupied with any of it too much. Yes, she raised four children (well, she died quite young, so they were not all completely raised) and she lived in huge mansions where she did most of the housework, but she seemed to have been quite relaxed about what all those responsibilities entailed. And of course she had to be, because otherwise there would never have been time for any writing.

Most disturbing about this book was the need of the author to mention Shirley Jackson’s weight innumerable times. She was fat, grotesque, huge, not the way people expect a writer to look. Ugh! So upsetting! This is not her legacy. Nobody cares. What I mean, of course, is that nobody would care if she were a man. But a woman cannot just be brilliant, she must be good looking at the same time. Disturbing, to say the least.

Even with such a systemic effort to diminish the greatness of her shadow, the Shirley Jackson brought to life by this book is a memorable, awe-inspiring, cult-following worthy figure.

Now I can’t wait for the Ruth Franklin biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life,  which will be released by the end of this month. Such perfect timing!


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