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How Shirley Jackson's Agoraphobia Affected Her Writing

Shirley Jackson. Image from Wikicommons.

I’m an English instructor, so of course I’ve had the opportunity to teach horror writer Shirley Jackson’s legendary short story “The Lottery.” Though she is best known to readers as the author of The Haunting of Hill House — now adapted into a popular Netflix series — she is best known to academics as an ample opportunity to spook their pupils.

What most teachers relish is the students’ aghast reactions when they reach the ending of this 1948 gem. I did relish it; introducing students to shocking and controversial literature is one of the many joys of my profession. But what “The Lottery” also did for my high school English-Lit program is allow myself and my pupils to segue into some uncomfortable, but enlightening, conversations. Mainly about the mental health of its exalted author.

“Shirley Jackson mistrusted her own community,” I remember explaining during my brief lecture that preluded the class’s general discussion about the story. I make it a point to do a sort of psychological study into the background of each author we study, to give the students some insight into the inspiration and construction process behind each text. “It’s reflected in her work. It’s all too easy for the townspeople to turn on one person when it’s convenient for them. Or when they believe it’s necessary for their community’s survival. Sacrifice one to save all the rest, so to speak.”

“Was Shirley Jackson scared of people?” one of my students asked me. It was the perfect question, and one that I was expecting. Never in my career as an English teacher have I encountered an author whose work had such overpowering misanthropic themes. I was glad to see that my students picked up on that, as I’d hoped. It showed they were making a conscious effort to understand the author, and why she dedicated her career to shining such an unflattering light on the darker side of humanity.

“She was,” I answered, with a confirming nod. “And for a time, she was scared of everything. Shirley Jackson had agoraphobia.”

“What is agoraphobia?” asked my student.

I was prepared for this question too. “Someone who has a phobia, or debilitating fear, of the outside world and is afraid to leave their house,” I told them. “It’s often a result of trauma, and their biggest fear is having a panic attack in public. So they just stay home.”

An awkward pause occurred while the irony of the situation sunk in, behind my screen and behind my students’ screens. This was a Zoom class, in the time of COVID. We were all scared to leave our homes. We still are. We were all suffering from anxiety. We still are. Had I just described a condition that afflicted us all? But there was no time to address that elephant in the room, as large and looming the elephant was (and how cramped and claustrophobic the room was). The focus of the class was the restless mind behind “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson. We continued on to the discussion questions.

I have a certain fascination with Jackson. She was a genius; her brilliantly morbid books and stories rattled the 1940s-1960s in ways these ultraconservative decades needed to be rattled. I relate to her. Her struggles with her mental health and body image are hauntingly similar to my own. I consider it an honor to teach her work, and a sacred duty to understand her life as much as her writing. That’s why I purchased a copy of Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which I consider the most honest, respectful, and bold biography of Jackson’s forty-eight years to ever be published (other than what Jackson wrote about herself).

North Bennington, the inspiration for Jackson's stories and the setting for her bouts of agoraphobia. Image taken from Wikicommons.

It’s through A Rather Haunted Life that readers get the full scope of what Jackson was up against as an adult: an emotionally abusive mother, a controlling and unfaithful husband, the overbearing responsibilities of running a household with four children, and a small community — this was North Bennington, Vermont — that collectively decided it didn’t like her. She was odd. She was intimidating. She was a career woman, a creative writer, a grave offense in itself, in a time period where societal-gender roles were rigid. She also practiced witchcraft as a hobby. The only place where she could be herself without persecution or ridicule was at home, so at home she stayed. Exemplified by numerous other health problems, including asthma and colitis (inflammatory bowel disease), she became reluctant to leave her house, severing ties with the only social circles she did have, according to Franklin’s commentary:

“In the late years, when Shirley was suffering from agoraphobia,” Franklin recounts. “Students were no longer as welcome [in the Hyman family home], and Bennington alumni from the early and mid-1960s remember her as taciturn and withdrawn.”

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a professor at Bennington College, but it was really Jackson who was financing the family expenses, penning successful stories like “The Lottery” that drew on the literary conflicts of character vs. society and character vs. self, to the point where they became her trademarks. But the masterpiece Jackson wrote that most intimately explores the theme of agoraphobia — and how it structures and limits human life — is her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last fully complete work.

Cover of the first edition of "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Image taken from Wikicommons.

I personally believe this is the article of fiction in which Jackson put the most of herself, splitting her identity into the three reclusive Blackwood family members: Constance (the homemaker/caretaker/agoraphobe), Uncle Julian (the obsessive writer/disabled dependant) and most especially Merricat (the witch/loner). The Blackwood house takes on the dual roles of safe haven and prison for all three characters. Only Merricat ventures out, to do errands and buy groceries, putting herself at risk every single time she moves beyond the shielding sphere of the home. The rest of the town is openly hostile towards the decreased Blackwood family, as its remaining members are suspected of familicide. As seen later, the extent of the townsfolk’s hatred is fierce and (also seen later, no spoilers) the threat of retaliation against the outcasted Blackwoods is very real. In this way Jackson’s own adversity with the people of Bennington reaches a boiling point on paper that never actually occurred in real life. But it was always on the verge of upsetting her fragile peace, similar to the tense domestic atmosphere she devises for the Blackwoods in the text.

Poster for the 2018 film adaptation for "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," directed by Stacie Passon.

Scholar Robert Rubenstein, in her compelling study of Jackson’s work, explains Merricat’s psychology with eloquence: “The most powerful magical metaphor — and object-relations issue — governing Merricat’s vision of the world is her attempt to maintain and control the unstable boundary between “inside” and “outside” in order to defend her conviction that destructive evil exists apart from, not within, herself. The Blackwood mansion is her fortress, and she repeatedly attempts to secure its boundaries.” In other words, the mind of an isolated person lacking self-awareness has warped to cling to their physical surroundings and adopt a dwelling place as not just a home but as a problematic extension of their identity. Protect the home and you protect yourself. Leave the home and you endanger yourself. Jackson knew what she was writing about.

I was glad to learn from A Rather Haunted Life that by the end of her life, Jackson, through a program of therapy and strength of willpower, regained some authority over her own agoraphobia and left the house more often to speak at writers’ conferences. I doubt the audience members at these public talks fully appreciated the level of courage Jackson needed to summon just to make these excursions. As I’m discovering as the world progresses into a post-COVID era, educators transitioning back to the classroom setting aren’t exactly being hailed as “heroes.” But I hail Shirley Jackson as one. She was extraordinarily brave. In her writing, and in her most definitely haunted life.

Further Reading about Shirley Jackson:

  • A Faithful Anatomy of Our Times: Reassessing Shirley Jackson by Angela Hague

  • Writer, Housewife, Witch — A Review of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life


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