"The act of spilling words onto a page had always had a crucial importance for her. All her life she had depended on it, to give form to her world, to give vent to her power, to keep her sane."
- Judy Oppenheimer, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson
If motherhood has brought out a tenderness and patience and playfulness I never knew I had, it has also forced me to confront my pettiest, basest instincts.
I’ve hissed epithets at our elderly cat when she’s decided to skulk into my FINALLY sleeping son’s bedroom to complain loudly. I have stood in my front yard (the backyard being too close to my slumbering child), howling like a wild woman in broad daylight, when caring for my feverish baby got in the way of finishing a work presentation.
I have sulked. Despaired. Dissembled. Raged. At the loss of control. At the loss of sleep. At the invisibility of my labor. At the cultural dictates that demand my endless gratitude for the joy that children bring, and that insist I’m supposed to be a natural at this.
Which is why I’m dedicating this post to two artists who plumbed the dark side of motherhood, back in the Leave it to Beaver-esque 1950s and early ‘60s, no less. We’ll talk unhappy marriages, maternal mental health, and haunted housewives. Happy Halloween…?
In the early 1960s, renowned feminist Betty Friedan called out the writer Shirley Jackson for being complicit in the “myth of the happy housewife” shilled by women’s magazines. What was Jackson, the doyenne of horror fiction, who had explored teen suicide, domestic abuse, and public stonings (!!), doing writing trite domestic sketches for the likes of Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion?
But Friedan should have looked closer, if she dared. Because those supposedly genial fictionalizations of Jackson’s life with her husband and four kids in rural Vermont have a decided edge. As Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin observes:
Jackson’s family chronicles have a genuinely subversive aspect that Friedan overlooks. Part of what Jackson mocks is her own ineptness at being a housewife — and, implicitly, the expectation that every woman belongs in that role.
Collected in Life Among the Savages and the sequel Raising Demons, these vignettes of domestic life often have Jackson’s maternal narrator smiling “falsely” at her children’s antics. A department-store shopping excursion with her two older children, for instance, devolves into a cacophony of compromises and conflicting interests; our narrator hastily adding “dears” to a voice whose pitch is increasingly “shrill.”
Top: Jackson with her eldest son Laurence, circa 1944. Bottom: a photograph of Jackson’s four children, from a photo shoot for Life Among the Savages, 1952.
To me, though, the most surreal and harrowing passage in Life Among the Savages is Jackson’s account of childbirth. It begins with Jackson awkwardly shunted off into a cab, after unsuccessfully trying to get breakfast started for her children while managing her contractions. Upon checking into the hospital, her individuality is immediately erased:
Age?” (the nurse) asks. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
Next, the clubby, paternalistic doctor, the ineffectual, bewildered husband reading his newspaper. The lacunae and lapses of consciousness. The isolation in the face of hospital bureaucracy and patriarchal indifference, the silence around her experience of labor, underlined by the story’s final lines:
“What was it, girl or boy?”
“Girl,” I said.
“Girl,” she said. “They say the third’s the easiest.”
There is nothing sacrosanct in Jackson’s portrait of family life, nothing sentimental about her account of motherhood. Laura Shapiro refers to Life Among the Savages as "the literature of domestic chaos”; Jackson herself called it “a disrespectful memoir of my children.” The book is palpable, raw.
Of course, there is plenty that Jackson held back, plenty of domestic chaos left occluded.
For one, Jackson had a fraught relationship with her husband, a literary critic, who indulged in marital infidelities (mainly with his students) and maintained tight control over finances even though Jackson out-earned him.
She struggled with dramatically fluctuating weight, depression, and abuse of prescription drugs. Jackson’s demons were bigger and more terrifying than the conventional ones of balancing writing and childrearing.
On August 8, 1965, Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep. She was 48 years old.
A more carefree-looking Jackson in the 1930s, before she became a mother (left), and a rather haunted portrait by her son Laurence (right), one of the last photos ever taken of her.
To be continued…