'Shirley' crystallises Shirley Jackson’s contested legacy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 06, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:41 PM, August 06, 2020


'Shirley' crystallises Shirley Jackson’s contested legacy

"To our suffering, my dear." Voice contorted with irony, he raises a toast. She pauses, considering, and responds with thinly disguised vitriol: "There's not enough scotch in the world for that," and is met with boisterous laughter from the on-looking guests. Less than 10 minutes into Shirley, the groundwork is laid for one of the film's main plot points: the abusive, discontent marriage of author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Shirley (2020), directed by Josephine Decker and adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the 2014 eponymous novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, interweaves fact and fiction into an imagined narrative about the period in Jackson's life when she was writing her novel Hangsaman (1951). During this time, Fred and Rose Nemser, a young couple played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young, come for a brief stay in Jackson and Hyman's home in Bennington, Vermont. The psychologically chaotic viewing experience that ensues is a palpable embodiment of the experience of reading Jackson's work. Suffocating, even dizzying at times, the film constantly invokes friction in the viewer's mind with disorienting camera-work and a cacophonous score, helped along by close-ups and long pauses.

Although Hangsaman was only Jackson's second novel in her considerable oeuvre, the film places it close to the end of her life, when the writer famously suffered from crippling agoraphobia. This is clearly intentional as Jackson's illness is easy to glamorise in juxtaposition with her existing reputation. Famed for her heavily-anthologised short story "The Lottery" (1948), Jackson is recognised primarily as a horror-fiction writer. In her lifetime, an oft-repeated adage had her writing "not with a pen but a broomstick". Indeed, Jackson was obsessed with witchcraft and the occult for much of her life—The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), her most-read novels, have justly earned their places in the American horror and gothic tradition; and, to no one's surprise, Jackson is counted among horror master Stephen King's main influences.

That Jackson, broomstick in hand, was confined to her home and incapable of facing the outside world starkly accentuates the reclusive and enigmatic writer-persona she developed over her career. And the resulting individual is someone about whose life fictional accounts are perhaps begging to be made, if Shirley is any evidence. Upon their first meeting in the film, Shirley serves their houseguest Rose with a long, searching look, saying, "No one said you were pregnant," while silent shock at being discovered creeps into the latter's face. The narrative is heavy with moments like this, in which the creators revel in the imagined magical abilities of writer-witch Shirley. "I'm a witch, didn't anyone tell you?" she says, addressing Rose in a later scene.

That Hangsaman is the chosen work-in-progress during these events is also purposeful. The novel is recognised by critics as Jackson's most autobiographical fictional work; it documents 17-year-old college freshman Natalie Waite's spiral into madness and eventual suicide, and the film's intentional Rose-Shirley dichotomy merges cosily with the duality of Natalie's conflicted identity in the novel. The hallucinatory quality of the film builds gradually in pace and intensity through these scenes, and by the time the climax arrives, the viewer no longer knows what's real. Given that Decker's stated aim was to "[make] the audience feel like they were inside of a Shirley Jackson story," Shirley surely triumphs. But at a cost.

The heavily-researched Jackson biography A Rather Haunted Life (2016), authored by Ruth Franklin, focuses heavily on Jackson being a misunderstood writer in her time. Even her posthumous fame endowed books like Hill House with more of a cult-classic appeal than mainstream popularity. The writer beyond "The Lottery" has rarely been recognised, even though works such as the autobiographical Life Among the Savages (1953)—a novelised collection of Jackson's experiences with motherhood and homemaking—contributed hugely to her career. Critics and readers alike are nonplussed by her split writer persona: how can the same author who writes a story about modern-day human sacrifice in suburban America also pen hearty, wholesome stories about domestic life? Yet Jackson's being a wife and mother, Franklin argues, was central to her development as a writer. In mid-1950s America, wanting both a family and a career made a woman "schizophrenic" in the eyes of society, as feminist writer Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique (1963). Yet here was Jackson, rearing four children while establishing herself as the primary breadwinner over her husband Stanley Hyman.

For all intents and purposes, Hyman was an antagonistic figure in Jackson's life. He constantly criticised and belittled her. Despite depending on her income, he begrudged her the recognition her writing career brought as his own plodded. He rarely participated in raising their children. Most importantly, he was continually and openly unfaithful in their marriage. But because Jackson relied on Stanley—a literary critic—for validation, she repressed the feelings of rage and inadequacy his infidelity caused. In her public life, she was imposing, articulate, witty, and calmly self-possessed. Privately, she was cowed by her abusive marriage, and Franklin argues that Jackson's work became a crucial vessel for the distress this produced. The influence of a domineering, unfaithful husband, together with the "schizophrenia" of being both a writer and mother, directly enabled Jackson's masterful exploration of female repression, fear, and trauma.

On such counts, Shirley is faithful: one of its primary thematic concerns—depicted both in Shirley and Rose—is female suffering, which is the crucial ingredient across Jackson's works. Stanley is clearly a villainous figure in the film, true to life. Jackson's tendency for mental/emotional repression is lucidly drawn out by Elisabeth Moss. The film's storytelling employs Jackson's foregrounding of the roles of her gender, and the ambiguous ending reflects the intentional lack of resolution found in much of Jackson's work.

But the liberties taken by the creators don't do real life Jackson any favours, starting with the glaring lack of her children in the film. The warm and loving mother that Jackson was has been swapped out for a witchy, almost malevolent Shirley, and this polarisation destroys the defining multitudes the author contained. But perhaps childless Jackson, poised over a typewriter with a cigarette in her mouth, surrounded by tomes on witchcraft, is easier to commercialise. Not that this would be the first time Jackson has been misinterpreted for the sake of marketable TV and film. Despite its merits, the 2018 Netflix series based on The Haunting of Hill House is guilty of purposely diluting what makes the novel so terrifying: it swaps out the nuances of pure psychological terror for more tangible horror in white-robed, "bent-neck" spectres. The fact of Hill House functioning as an entity is glossed over, even though that was the novel's basic premise.

My personal fascination with Shirley Jackson came quickly on the heels of my first reading of "The Lottery" in my undergraduate 'Intro to Fiction' course. For Jackson, human cruelty, hidden in plain sight, is a direct avenue into questioning and subsequently understanding how we structure our realities. Her protagonists are invariably female, which is maybe why I never could shake the creeping feeling that the treatment of their psychological disruptions parallels my own first hand experiences. Be it in the desperation of Hill House's Eleanor, the fractured sense of self of Hangsaman's Natalie, or the mischief of Castle's Merricat, a combined sense of kinship and catharsis has always underscored my particular enjoyment of Jackson's characters. Of the writer herself, I've remained in awe: to be a breadwinner for her entire family, the primary caregiver of her children, and a successful homemaker in 1950s America, all while contending with a soul-sucking marriage, is enough of a trial on its own. But to establish herself as an instrumental part of the gothic/horror canon is where Jackson nearly assumes the form of a mythological figure.

Which is what artists will always ultimately be if we keep failing to separate them from their art. Despite director Josephine Decker's claims that Shirley is not intended as a biopic, it undeniably functions as one, especially given that it capitalises on Jackson's famous "otherness". Where biographer Franklin argues for a diverse, multifaceted profile of Shirley Jackson, Shirley immortalises her as a "witchy" horror writer rather than an artist of unbounded versatility and character. "Witchy" and "scary" are certainly good words to describe Jackson's work, but to focus only on those qualities is reductive. Fictionalised retellings of public figures' lives inevitably shape how we perceive them; even more so when it takes the form of an artsy film like Shirley, in such stark contrast to A Rather Haunted Life, which a negligible number of viewers are likely to pick up. In Jackson's own words, her books "laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety". But the woman herself was possessed of a unique zeal and thirst for life—captured in books like Savages—that should also inform our understanding of her. As evolved consumers of increasingly complex art, we can—and should—do our best to remember that artists are, at the end of it all, real people.


Shehrin Hossain lives mostly in her own head, but also in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When she's not spending time with her dogs or her books, she sometimes likes to write. She welcomes suggestions for what to do with her English lit degree at shehrin@gmail.com

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