Sunday, December 30, 2018

A note on Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

 I've been rereading Ruth Franklin's wonderful bio Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and realized again that we should be reading more Shirley Jackson and not stop with "The Lottery" and The Haunting of Hill House.

Franklin is equally good on Jackson's life and on the themes of her writing. Did you know that in the lean early days Jackson and her husband, the New Yorker writer, literary critic, and Bennington professor Stanley Hyman, had to share a typewriter? Can you make an educated guess about who got the typewriter the lion's share of the time? Their "open" marriage--guess who's the only person who took advantage of that and then was annoyed and puzzled at Jackson's distress and her late-in-life crippling agoraphobia?

Then I came across this in a discussion of Jackson's first novel, The Road Through the Wall (bolded for emphasis)

Compared with Jackson’s masterly late novels, The Road Through the Wall, unsurprisingly, is a slighter work. But it is marvelously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the bite of brilliant irony that would always define her style. There are wonderful moments of humor, as when one of the neighborhood girls, hoping to decorate her living room with high-class art, accidentally orders a set of pornographic photographs. And there is this astonishing aperçu from the novel’s prologue: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy.” Both house and marriage are valued for the status they confer upon their possessor rather than for their intrinsic worth. In a novel that encompasses adultery, murder, and suicide, this may be the darkest line.
Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (p. 215). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

House as status --well, sure, but house as control. That's Gaslight. That's The Haunting of Hill House.

I'm recalling the example of someone I knew years ago when we lived in a place with very, very  hot summers. The apartment complex had air conditioning. The person I knew was a professor, and she worked from home, and she was pregnant, which makes you even hotter. But only her husband, who followed his bliss by pursuing art or saving souls or something and was out during the day, got the benefit of the air conditioning. Why? Because he had forbidden her to turn it on during the day to save money. The air conditioning could only be on if he could benefit from it. Let that sink in: he forbade his wife, the person who was paying for the air conditioning, from using it. And even if she hadn't been paying for it, on what planet does he get to make that judgment?  Aren't they partners? That's pretty much what I asked her one time. She shrugged it off.

This is only tangentially related (Content warning: abuse), but the NYT ran an article last summer explaining the way that smart devices were being used by abusers to control their victims--stalking through smartphones and security cameras, turning the heat up and down to mess with victims' minds, locking keypad doors remotely and refusing to let victims move about at will. When women report it, they're dismissed--surprise!--as crazy or hysterical, especially when their partner explains how crazy they are. Fortunately, those who help victims are becoming more aware of such technological gaslighting and are getting restraining orders that cover it. 

But to have the person you're supposed to be able to trust turn against you, and to have that person turn the house against you--that's Jackson's metier, and were she writing today, she'd have whole new fields to cover.

1 comment:

xykademiqz said...

God, just reading your synopsis gave me palpitations. The gaslighting as part of domestic abuse is so insidious and so prevalent, and we women think it's no big deal because we're socialized into a world that expects us to be powerless. I am much more angry with it all now that I am older; when I was younger I put up with unspeakable crap to make the men in my life happy. So many young women do, and it damages us in myriad ways.

And then of course I went to Amazon and dropped some cash on Shirley Jackson's books, along with this biography. Thanks for writing about it!