Shirley Jackson between Library of America covers.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2010 10:45 AM

Shirley Jackson's Wifely Witchcraft

Take a house, add a homemaker, and, presto, she conjured up horror.

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The author of these perfectly skewed narratives was herself most at home in a setting that might have been called middle-class gothic. People who knew the family said the sprawling house in Vermont was a shambles—cats, dust balls, and full ashtrays everywhere, dirty diapers lying around, thousands of books in haphazard piles. Here and there was the odd amulet, or some little device for casting spells, since Jackson studied witchcraft all her life. As a homemaker she was willing to get meals on the table, but otherwise she put her time into writing and the children. (She enjoyed them tremendously but didn't bother trying to impose shampoos and tooth-brushing.)

Hyman simply exempted himself from household responsibilities, though he was an enthusiastic host at their frequent parties. He was also a notorious philanderer. It was a harrowing marriage, if a stable one in its own alcohol-fuelled way. Jackson, who struggled against agonizing insecurities, was constantly furious at her husband; but she directed her anger at the women around him—and at herself. She ate and drank ferociously, and dosed herself with amphetamines and tranquillizers. In time she came to look like the "Don't" page from a '50s women's magazine, fat and unkempt with her hair yanked back in a rubber band. By the '60s she had developed a crippling case of agoraphobia.

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It's not hard to reconcile this picture with the author of, say, The Haunting of Hill House, whose heroine entangles herself with the paranormal and finds a triumph in self-destruction. But where on earth did the author of Life Among the Savages come from? Jackson was one of the best-loved practitioners of a cozy literary genre immensely popular during the '50s, in which wry, capable mothers delivered semifictional accounts of their domestic misadventures. She used to say she turned out these lighthearted stories just for the money—women's magazines doted on them—but I'm not convinced it was all about the paycheck. Jackson's voice in the family stories is uncannily like the voice narrating her scary stories: She maintains a quiet, matter-of-fact tone while tensions rumble ominously below the surface. In "The Third Baby's the Easiest," she arrives at the hospital to give birth for the third time, contractions already under way.

"Name?" the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.
"Name," I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.
"Age?" she asked. "Sex? Occupation?"
"Writer," I said.
"Housewife," she said.
"Writer," I said.
"I'll just put down housewife," she said. "Doctor? How many children?"
"Two," I said. "Up to now."
"Normal pregnancy?" she said. "Blood test? X-ray?"
"Look—" I said.
"Husband's name?" she said. "Address? Occupation?"
"Just put down housewife," I said. "I don't remember his name, really."
"Legitimate?"
"What?" I said.
"Is your husband the father of this child? Do you have a husband?"
"Please," I said plaintively, "can I go on upstairs?"

To me it's oddly easy to imagine this scene airdropped into one of Jackson's eerie tales. Maybe the narrator would take her first look at the new baby and find she's gazing into the face of some evil old lady from the neighborhood. Of course, the housewife/writer joke would have to go—or more likely Jackson would recast it so that the confusion of identities became bone-chilling. Or perhaps it just didn't matter which genre she chose, so long as she kept writing. For Jackson, putting words on paper was the ultimate exercise in witchcraft. Like many a woman writer before and since, she was typing to save her life.

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