Around December I tried to read the multi-award-winning 2016 biography of Shirley Jackson. Entitled A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin covers so much of Jackson’s life’s context that I struggled to follow along. I felt like I was reading the bio of Jackson’s grandparents and parents and spouse, and I really wanted a laser focus on the horror writer herself. After marking DNF on Goodreads, I moved on to the next famous Shirley Jackson biography, which is the one I’m reviewing today.
Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer is a compulsive read. She starts — briefly! — with Jackson’s grandfathers, who were architects. The connection is that this is a family obsessed with houses, whether designing or writing about them. Transitioning from Jackson’s constricting childhood with her appearance-obsessed mother to a college at which Jackson failed out, Oppenheimer leads readers to Jackson’s second go at college, where she publishes a short story in the school lit magazine that so captures the attention of a Jewish student named Stanley Hyman that he wants Jackson found — now — claiming he is going to marry her. Married almost twenty-five years, producing four children together, the Jackson-Hyman family is so odd, so completely unique, that despite the horrible things that happen, it’s hard to put down Private Demons.
I have never seen sources cited the way Oppenheimer does. Instead of footnotes or end notes, she picks a phrase from her source material, puts it in bold, and then describes where the information came from.
This feels like the sort of citation method I would have chosen had I made one up, but MLA was used starting in 1951 and APA in 1952. Oppenheimer’s book was published in 1989. Nonetheless, her sources feel completely authentic. Relying on first-hand testimonies with Jackson’s family, friends, and associates and the forty-two boxes of Jackson’s papers donated to the Library of Congress (including letters, diaries/journals/notebooks, lists, drawings, etc.), you feel like you’re reading a conversation in a room full of people. Depending on how a person speaks (Jackson’s daughter Sally is quite interesting), the book feels somehow more genuine instead of stuffy academic.
Because Private Demons comes from so many personal opinions, you don’t always get a firm conclusion on something, which make sense to me because our personalities are shaped by whom we’re with. Jackson would be different around each of her children, her spouse, parents, other writers, husband’s colleagues, etc. Sometimes, Jackson was hush about her views on magic, and in other places her friends remember her making a voodoo doll to break the leg of her publisher Alfred A. Knopf. . . and his leg broke that weekend.
Some felt Jackson was born to be a mother based on her enthusiasm and warmth for her children. She read to them and wrote plays for them. Others noted that the girls’ hair was always literally matted, and daughter Sally points out there were years at a time when she didn’t brush her teeth because no one pointed out that she needed to. People see things differently based on their relationship to Shirley Jackson. Overall, I felt Oppenheimer let sources speak for themselves, and since “sources” includes Jackson, I didn’t feel the author was simply constructed by other voices.
That’s not to say Oppenheimer doesn’t cross a line. Shirley Jackson was known from the time she was in college to never be without coffee or cigarettes (even during respiratory colds). She and spouse Stanley Hyman drank themselves black-out drunk frequently at parties they hosted throughout their decades together. As Jackson’s weight increased, she was prescribed by her doctor amphetamines, which she combined with a cocktail of “Thorazine, Miltown, phenobarbital, [and] bourbon,” and she took them for years.
After writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s natural anxious personality became so wound up that she didn’t leave her house for years. Truthfully, Private Demons can be a hard read because it’s so fatphobic, and not just what Jackson’s friends say about her (one woman called Jackson a “monster” due to her size). Oppenheimer pulls threads together to create a narrative, one that asserts Jackson died because she was “overweight.” Her death was officially cardiac arrest, but Oppenheimer leaves out of her personal conclusion all the incessant drinking, smoking, pill-popping, and a combo of chronic anxiety, depression, and stress — all of which we know from multiple studies increases chances of heart disease.
The real issue with Oppenheimer’s bias is that she detracts from the personality of Shirley Jackson, and her success, too. Jackson’s biographer leads readers to believe that the body of a woman is more important that the work she produced and the relationships she built in spite of a womanizing husband, crippling anxiety, addiction, antisemitism, and complicated children. As Annika Barranti Klein of Bookriot says, “one should not write a biography of someone they clearly dislike.” That seems too harsh of Oppenheimer, but I see Klein’s point.
While I found it honestly painful to wade through the abusive treatment Jackson received, both in life and in her biography, I was intrigued by her thoughts and how others perceived her, and felt I owed it to the author to know her better, as she was for a long time forgotten. Read with caution.
Bonus: Interested in Shirley Jackson’s papers, diaries, and ideas? Check out Let Me Tell You, which collects a lot of her unpublished work thanks to efforts by her son Laurie Hyman.