Shining a Light in the Dark

April 26, 2016
Biographies can be such intrusive things.  Say an individual manages, through talent, work and luck, to make something good, something worth remembering.  Now, that’s a difficult, desirable achievement but the is the world satisfied with it? No. When something wonderful is created, some Nosy Parker of a biographer will follow behind, trying to uncover the life and soul of the creator.  On the other hand, a good biography, like Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons, can answer questions and provide context to that person’s accomplishments.  The subject here is Shirley Jackson and Ms. Oppenheimer’s tale illuminates a few corners of this complicated, compelling, and private writer.

To enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work you must be comfortable with complexity.  In the middle of the twentieth century, she became an acclaimed writer in two genres that seemed mutually exclusive.  The best known samples of her work are psychologically disturbing stories of alienation and evil. However, she also published popular stories of domestic recounted in a well-humored, dry and ironic voice.  In a culture that likes to pigeon-hole the work of its creative artists, Shirley defied easy categorization to the consternation of some of her fans. Could the same person write stories in turn that made you chuckle or scared you silly?  If not, which was the “real” Shirley Jackson?

Naturally, the answers are “yes” and “both” but Judy Oppenheimer’s book goes a long way toward explaining how that happened.  Shirley was an introvertive, creative girl born to socially-minded, conservative parents. By continually trying to re-focus their eccentric daughter into conventional channels, the Jacksons created a quasi rebel.  Shirley could disregard her parents’ expectations but she never stopped craving their approval.  Sadly, validation was something they couldn’t give and the process produced an insecure daughter, aware of and uncomfortable with many cultural values while she resentfully followed others.  The result: an alienated soul, perhaps doomed to be a writer.
An adult Shirley created the home life she would have preferred as a child and the joys of that more tolerant world appear in her domestic fiction.  Yet, Ms. Jackson’s true gift is not that she created good work in different genres but how she used bits of each to highlight the other. The possibility of unseen forces runs through her domestic work the same way dry humor appears in her Gothic fiction.  One of points this biography makes is that Shirley excelled in both areas because she was as comfortable in the shadowy, interior world of the supernatural as the milieu of a housewife and mother.   

Through witnesses, Judy Oppenheimer tracks down the events that informed Shirley’s fiction: Holocaust stories, her own tenure in a New England village and her husband’s study of folk rituals all set the stage for The Lottery; the disappearance of a local college student influenced a short story and one of her novels and the progressive isolation in We Have Always Lived at the Castle resulted in Shirley’s own bout of agoraphobia. 

Well-researched and thoughtfully written, Private Demons helped stimulate a resurgence of interest in Ms. Jackson’s work and in the end, her work is what’s important.  Still, Private Demons is worth reading. It’s the portrait of someone who, however burdened, never gave up on her work or on herself.

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