A wallet-sized inset photograph on the jacket of Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson depicts her as a stylishly dressed, trim, and vibrant young woman, smiling sunward in obvious joy of life. Surrounding this snapshot, and filling two-thirds of the cover with its somber blue and black tones, is a haunting study by her son Laurence shortly before Jackson’s death. Here, the camera portrays a woman aged beyond her actual forty-eight years, seriously overweight, pensive and withdrawn, perhaps a bit mad.
Together, the two pictures symbolize the range of Shirley Jackson’s complex personality, as presented by biographer Judy Oppenheimer. In Oppenheimer’s portrait, Jackson had many and varied traits indeed: She was a dark thinker whose chilling short tale of human sacrifice in New England (“The Lottery”) brought hostile responses from around the world. She was the author of heartwarming humorous stories about rearing a family and numerous cats in a huge old New England house. She was a would-be black magician who cursed her enemies with voodoo and boasted of clairvoyant powers. She was a gracious hostess to such luminaries as Walter Bernstein, Bernard Malamud, and Dylan Thomas (with whom she claimed to have had a sexual encounter on her back porch). She was a phobic whose compulsive excesses in eating, smoking, drinking, and even work led to an early death. By presenting a comprehensive view of her subject, Oppenheimer fulfills an important task of a biographer: unraveling, as far as possible, the mystery of a complicated and enigmatic personality.
A former newswriter for The Washington Post, Oppenheimer brings her formidable investigative and reporting skills to bear on the question, Who was Shirley Jackson? In developing the balanced answer that she offers, she interviewed at least seventy persons—those listed in her acknowledgments—who knew Jackson directly. Oppenheimer’s sources include several famous figures, but the great majority are Jackson’s family members, friends, and neighbors, with whom she would be just as likely to discuss her newest piecrust recipe or her son’s upcoming Little League game as her progress on one of the books destined to bring her international acclaim.
Despite the number and diversity of interviewees, Oppenheimer’s sources are surprisingly consistent in their avoidance of one-sided accounts. Apparently, to know Shirley Jackson at all was to be exposed to the entire gamut of her character. According to Oppenheimer, Jacksonsaw herself as a traveler between alternate realities. ... A weaker person would have discarded some of the options, buried a few parts. Shirley insisted on giving them all free rein, despite the risk—a substantial one—that the center might not hold forever.
The biographer introduces familial traits and history to help explain facets of her subject. For example, Jackson’s maternal ancestors had a talent for architecture that surfaced every other generation. Samuel Bugbee, Jackson’s great-great-grandfather, designed such San Francisco landmarks as the Stanford and Crocker mansions and the Grand Opera House. Oppenheimer suggests that “the architect gene” influenced Jackson to make old houses the “leading characters” in several of her books, such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959).
Success in architecture, business, and other remunerative endeavors brought prosperity to both sides of Jackson’s family. In her mother, Geraldine Bugbee Jackson, it apparently aroused ambition for further success. Oppenheimer describes Geraldine, only twenty when she married Leslie Jackson in 1916, as “a remarkably self-possessed woman. Certainly she knew what she wanted: social position and wealth. And she was sure she had found the man most likely to bring it to her, a man whose upwardly mobile instincts if anything outstripped her own.”
Yet Geraldine was not distinguished by the intelligence and subtlety that were to shine forth in her daughter. The mother’s combination of strengths and weaknesses—the latter included insensitivity—operated to leave lifelong scars on the daughter, starting, in fact, with her birth. Unfortunately, Shirley was conceived promptly after her parents’ marriage, although Geraldine had looked forward “to having time alone with her dashing husband, unencumbered, and to the parties and social engagements she loved. Little more than a child herself, she had no interest in raising one.” Geraldine settled for a compromise: She intended to rear a daughter as “beautifully turned-out” as she was herself. That description, however, hardly fits Shirley Jackson, who was “no malleable clay; Shirley had, as her mother soon recognized, a will surpassing her own.”
The weight given the mother-daughter relationship in Oppenheimer’s account is justified by its impact on virtually every aspect of Jackson’s life. In other areas, too, Oppenheimer demonstrates adroitly the connections between the facts of Jackson’s life and the themes of her fiction. She shows, for example, how Jackson’s novel Hangsaman (1951) reflects her lonely, confused late adolescence and early college years—including one suicidal impulse that probably did not amount to an actual attempt.
Oppenheimer falls seriously short in one area, however, where she lacks sufficient documentation to prove a link between Jackson’s life and literary work. Shirley had an uncle on her mother’s side, Clifford Bugbee, of...
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