Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer

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.

From the back of the book. Don’t worry, it has a decoder for all the initialisms.

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.

31 comments

  1. Hmm – on the one hand, I love the idea of a biography assembled strictly from people who knew her. On the other- I’m not a huge fan of the perspective the author seemed to include (fat shaming, not giving Jackson credit for her talent). I think I’ll probably skip this one- but I’m glad you found some things to appreciate!

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    • As much as I was happy getting to know more about how people perceived her, it’s also coming through the lens of narrow-minded 1950s folks, too. Some readers felt that the book being mostly interviews gave it a gossipy feel. I guess that’s true if you feel like any conversation about another person is gossip (is it? I have no idea!).

      Definitely not a book I would push readers toward if they felt hesitant about it.

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  2. That’s a shame that Oppenheimer was so obsessively focused on Jackson’s weight. I’ve seen that weird citation style before in popular books and I actually quite like it – it beats having no citations at all, and I can understand why a full scholarly apparatus in popular texts can be a bit off-putting.

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    • I guess it does remove the distraction of the little citation number, but it’s so foreign to me. But I completely agree with you that citations, no matter how they are done, are better. I distrust any book or article that has no citations simply because I taught rhetoric for way too long.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what I’m thinking! Some people on Goodraeds noticed that in the Franklin book she tries to shove Jackson’s life through a feminist lens, one that one wasn’t developed until a couple of years after her death. Plus, it’s sprawling, covering so many people who aren’t Jackson. I want something in the middle that isn’t making an argument. Aside from Oppenheimer sticking her nose in, the variety of opinions about Jackson in Private Demons felt like a good scope.

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    • I personally prefer footnotes if someone has something to add about what they’re writing, but end notes if they’re simply including a citation. In this case, I would have to hunt through a whole page to find out which part exactly Oppenheimer was citing. I’ve never seen this style before, but you and another UK reader both pointed out that this is a citation style you’ve seen.

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    • While some parts really stung, I did find it a worthy read. Jackson’s children, friends, and neighbors are actually quite interesting, and I liked hearing from them in their own words. PLUS, Jackson kept so many diaries and journals and whatnot that you get a lot from HER own words. Just ignore the mean crap and know that there is a chance Oppenheimer was a petty person.

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  3. I think that citation style would drive me up the wall pretty quickly – and I don’t think that the fatshaming would be particularly fun to read either. Shame, as the actual central premise of the book sounds very interesting!

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    • I really loved reading so much straight from people, word for word. The way some of them speak and think is fascinating. Also, by having so many people who knew Jackson in different ways, I felt like I got more angles on her as a person that I would have otherwise. I don’t like this idea of a definitive depiction of a person.

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  4. I’m sorry, Shirley Jackson is not a writer I’d heard of. Maybe because I avoid reading (or watching) Horror. But I do appreciate biographers who are a bit inventive about the way they tell their subject’s story. Shame Oppenheimer let fat-phobia get in the way.

    My preference is for a literary biography to concentrate on what influenced the subject as a writer. Biographers seem sometimes go for colour over substance.

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    • Shirley Jackson is one of the most prolific horror writers in the United States. She was the master of psychological horror, so it’s not all blood and guts. Just a total creeping dread. To get a sense of her writing, you can check out my review of the book that Jackson wrote that scared her out of leaving her own house here: https://grabthelapels.com/2017/10/17/castle/

      Also, Jackson notoriously published a short story called “The Lottery” that upset Americans so badly that she continued to get letters about it her whole life. Some people even thought that what she wrote was factual and wanted to know where they could see the event themselves — that scares me more than any story! You can read “The Lottery” here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/06/26/the-lottery

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  5. I find it so interesting that she came from a family of architects! I’m sorry that the negative focus of the author detracted from what seems like a potentially strong biography.

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    • She was also raised in the Christian Science faith, and her husband was Jewish. I bring this up because we were just talking religion about Flannery O’Connor. 🙂 As a result of being a secular Jew, Jackson, her husband, and children often faced anti-semitic neighbors and being snubbed by a community that felt people were outsiders until they’d lived there 40+ years.

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      • Oh, that would add an interesting dynamic to their relationship! And yes, I could see that being secular Jews could alienate them from two communities. I’m reading a book right now set in Montreal in the 40s and the attitudes toward the Jewish community are very jarring.

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  6. Oh, this does sound interesting! I am not sure I will pick it up because the fatphobia sounds incredibly annoying, but I would love to read more about her life. Great review, very comprehensive!

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  7. Ooh, great review, this sounds like such an interesting read! It is a shame that Oppenheimer didn’t handle some aspects better, like Jackson’s weight and cause of death (that is a very distasteful way to show one’s bias), but you make a good point about how effective it can be to look at a life through many different perspectives rather than being told definitively “this is what she was like.” A person can definitely have many sides, and I imagine it would be fascinating to see how those appear (or not) to different people in their lives.

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    • I think especially with writers and other creative types. We’re so odd to begin with, and many of us tend to contradict ourselves for various reasons — at least, this is my experience with myself and other creative writing program people. Vibrant, shy, bold, turtled. It’s all a mix, and with Oppenheimer’s book, you get the full picture. I think you would enjoy this book.

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  8. Great review! This sounds like an interesting read about a fascinating lady! The Lottery still haunts me after reading it in high school. For a short story to have that affect after years and years is quite something. I haven’t read any of her other work yet, but someday hope to if I decide I can handle it 🙂
    A personal story I have about Shirley Jackson (in a roundabout way), is that several years ago my local bookstore had Joyce Carol Oates speak about one of her books (I can’t remember which one), well, when I was standing in line waiting to meet her and have her sign my book, the man in front of me introduced himself to JCO. Turns out, he was Shirley Jackson’s son (I didn’t catch his name), and JCO was very happy to meet him and stated how much of an influence Jackson was in her writing. It was quite an interesting interaction to witness, and she was quite starstruck almost as he walked away. Just a fun tidbit 🙂

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    • That’s a great story! It would either be Laurence/Laurie or Barry. I would guess Barry because he’s the youngest and these “children” would be quite aged adults at this time! I want to love JCO so much, but she cannot keep her foot out of her mouth on Twitter, so a lot of people are anti-JCO. I think some people have opinions that should be heard because if we don’t talk to each other, we’ll never understand what other people think, but can’t quite articulate them clearly on Twitter.

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