Among all the charming stories in Shirley Jackson’s two charming midcentury memoirs of raising four charming children in the charming town of Bennington, Vermont, the one that I urge anyone who might ever want to write about his family to study like the Talmud is about a boy called Charles. Charles is a classmate of Jackson’s son Laurie, who at this point very early in Life Among the Savages is in kindergarten. (This summer Penguin is reprinting Savages, first published in 1953, along with its follow-up Raising Demons, first published in 1957.)
Charles is bad. On the first day of kindergarten he is spanked for being fresh with the teacher. He whacks a girl on the head with the seesaw and yells throughout story hour. Laurie’s daily updates on Charles’ misdeeds, which often force the entire kindergarten class to be kept after school, soon turn Charles into a kind of icon among the Jackson family: Laurie is told he’s being a Charles when he pulls a wagon full of mud through the kitchen. Jackson’s husband even invokes Charles when he makes a mess of the living room. For a brief period Laurie reports that Charles is behaving better, but then one Friday he reveals that Charles convinced an innocent classmate to say a very, very bad word. (“She said it twice,” an awestruck Laurie tells his parents. “Charles told her to say it twice.”)
Jackson worries about her little boy falling under Charles’ influence—she can already see that he’s transformed from a “sweet-voiced nursery-school tot” to a “long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave goodbye.” But her husband reassures her: “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.”
As the first PTA meeting of the year approaches, Jackson cannot wait to encounter the mother of the amazing Charles. What must she be like? “Invite her over for a cup of tea after the meeting,” her husband says. “I want to get a look at her.”
And now you must forgive me for presenting the denouement of the story precisely in Jackson’s words, because they offer a textbook case in how a writer may, through pacing and understatement, land a reader as an expert fisherman lands a lake trout:
At the meeting I sat restlessly, scanning each comfortable matronly face, trying to determine which one hid the secret of Charles. None of them looked to me haggard enough. No one stood up in the meeting and apologized for the way her son had been acting. No one mentioned Charles.
After the meeting I identified and sought out Laurie’s kindergarten teacher. She had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cake; I had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of marshmallow cake. We maneuvered up to one another cautiously and smiled.
“I’ve been so anxious to meet you,” I said. “I’m Laurie’s mother.”
“We’re all so interested in Laurie,” she said.
“Well, he certainly likes kindergarten,” I said. “He talks about it all the time.”
“We had a little trouble adjusting, the first week or so,” she said primly, “but now he’s a fine little helper. With lapses, of course.”
“Laurie usually adjusts very quickly,” I said. “I suppose this time it’s Charles’ influence.”
“Yes,” I said, laughing, “you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles.”
“Charles?” she said. “We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”
That’s the end of the story, and there I am, flopping around on the boat’s deck, gasping for air. Notice how perfectly Jackson reels me in, dropping just enough hints so that I arrive at the proper conclusion mere sentences before Jackson herself does. (There’s pleasure in being misled by Jackson the writer, who’s more clever than me, but pleasure too in being just a touch more clever than Jackson the mother.) Notice how easily she intertwines the pride we feel in our children and the anxiety we feel about their behavior; look how she gaily takes her own feet out from under herself for the sake of earning our trust as a storyteller.
It’s a twist worthy of the author of “The Lottery,” which is the tale for which most readers know Shirley Jackson, and the confidence of her storytelling reminds the reader that in addition to that standard Jackson wrote many other stories and novels of psychological suspense. But the story of Charles also demonstrates how much of the way most of us depict parenting when we tell our stories was presaged by Jackson’s slim, wonderful books.
When you read these books—I suggest perusing them, martini in hand, while your children (or better your friends’ children, for whom you are babysitting) run around shrieking—you’ll see every parenting stance you’ve ever adopted, every parent-story trope you’ve ever told or heard, expressed more perfectly than you ever could have. Airy unconcern about the state of one’s home, marriage, or children, masking a deeper unspoken acknowledgment that all will forever exist in a state of chaos? Shirley Jackson did it first. Outward civility masking resentment toward the perfect parents one knows? Shirley Jackson smiles wider than you ever have, and seethes more fiercely than you ever could. Struggling with your children noticing and adopting the vices that you yourself cannot shed? When Shirley Jackson finds a pack of cigarettes inside her son’s fort, she tells him “with some heat that it was perfectly all right with me if he wanted to smoke and stunt his growth and ruin his wind for baseball and basketball and football and ping-pong; it was a silly habit, I told him, expensive and useless, and if he wanted to smoke he could buy his own cigarettes and stop taking mine.”
Though Jackson’s household was a traditional one for its time—with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, disappearing into the office to type and Jackson handling the housework and child-rearing—the books still feel contemporary both in Jackson’s resistance to the drudgery of housework and in her feminist frustration about the way domesticity changes one’s self-image. Once you were a carefree young person, and now you’re some other creature, a person you barely recognize. Here’s Shirley Jackson tartly addressing that subject: “I was not bitter about being a faculty wife, very much, although it did occur to me once or twice that young men who were apt to go on and become college teachers someday might … wear some large kind of identifying badge,” she writes. “The way it is now, almost any girl is apt to find herself hardening slowly into a faculty wife when all she actually thought she was doing was just getting married.”
It’s worth noting that the books’ very existence suggests there was a bit more going on in that household than the books themselves imply; at no point does the character of Shirley Jackson shoo her children away to write, yet she was during the period of their childhoods monumentally productive, completing short stories and novels, and indeed selling the lightly fictionalized pieces that would eventually become these memoirs to Woman’s Day, Mademoiselle, and elsewhere. I hope Stanley at least took the kids out on the weekends.
However else she was spending her time, Jackson was paying close attention to her children. I’ve never read anyone better at, for example, portraying the odd (and maddening, if you must hear them every day) speech patterns of young children. Just listen to 4-year-old Sally, talking to her hung-over mother in the kitchen one morning: “Well, I told Amy’s mother that I did not have any breakfast, breakfast, because my mommy did not wake up and give it to me, mommy. And Amy’s mother said I was a poor baby, baby, and she gave me cereal and fruit, cereal, and she said there, dear, and she gave me chocolate milk and I did remember to say thank you, remember.” Ah! I want both to hug her and strangle her, as Jackson surely wanted to do at that moment, as all parents feel at least some of the time. At least I hope they do.
The even good humor of Jackson’s prose makes her voice feel perfectly unflappable, even at moments of great flappiness. The disparity is often exquisitely comic or (when she so chooses) quite moving. In Life Among the Savages, 8-year-old Laurie is struck by a car while riding his bike. “I can remember with extraordinary clarity,” Jackson writes,
that one of the people in the crowd which gathered handed me a lighted cigarette, I can remember saying reasonably that we all ought not to be standing in the middle of the road like this, I can remember the high step up into the ambulance. When they told us at the hospital, late that night, that everything was going to be all right, we came home and I finished drying the breakfast dishes.
The restraint with which this story is told—the way she supplies only the barest of details about the vast gulf between those dishes being washed in the morning and dried late that night—is what gives the story its power.
As with all exceptional stories of parenting, the purest joys in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons come from the recognition that everything you’ve felt and feared and worried about has been felt and feared and worried about before. (Long before; in one section of Raising Demons Jackson remembers her own childhood, nearly a century ago, when her mother, in an eerily precise imitation of me every day, “was always asking us if we couldn’t find something to do, girls.”) And if they’ve happened before, they’re happening now, in households all around us, and not only our own. Reading Shirley Jackson, one of the great memoirists of family life, makes sharp those feelings once more—while reminding us that, yes, thank god and curse time, we too will one day look back on them across a gulf of years.