The Gothic Motherhoods of Shirley Jackson and Diane Arbus
If motherhood has brought out a tenderness and patience and playfulness I never knew I had, it has also forced me to confront a more turbulent, unruly version of myself.
I’ve hissed epithets at our elderly cat when she’s decided to skulk into my (finally!) sleeping son’s bedroom to complain loudly. I have stood in my front yard, howling like a wild woman in broad daylight, when caring for my feverish baby got in the way of finishing a work presentation.
I have brooded. Despaired. Seethed. Raged. At the loss of control. At the loss of sleep. At the invisibility of my labor. At the cultural dictates that demand my endless gratitude for the joy that children bring, and that insist I’m supposed to be a natural at this.
Which is why I find myself drawn to two artists who plumbed the dark side of motherhood, back in the Leave it to Beaver-esque 1950s and early 1960s, no less. Let’s talk inner demons, unhappy marriages, and maternal mental health. Halloween might be over, but the haunting continues.
In the early 1960s, the renowned feminist Betty Friedan called out the writer Shirley Jackson for being complicit in the “myth of the happy housewife” shilled by women’s magazines. What was Jackson, the doyenne of horror fiction—who had explored teen suicide, domestic abuse, and public stoning—doing writing trite domestic sketches for the likes of Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Home Companion?
But Friedan should have looked closer, if she dared. Because those supposedly genial fictionalizations of Jackson’s life with her husband and four kids in rural Vermont have a decided edge. As Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin observes, “Jackson’s family chronicles have a genuinely subversive aspect that Friedan overlooks. Part of what Jackson mocks is her own ineptness at being a housewife—and, implicitly, the expectation that every woman belongs in that role.”
Collected in Life Among the Savages and the sequel Raising Demons, these vignettes often have Jackson’s maternal narrator smiling “falsely” at her children’s antics. In one story, a department store shopping trip with her two older children begins with Jackson feeling prepared, albeit nervous, for the challenge ahead. She wears low heels because they “seemed more practical for the broken field running I expected to be doing” and carries no extras like a purse or a hat as she “assumed, and correctly, that I was going to need all the hands I could get.” The excursion quickly devolves into a cacophony of conflicting interests, even as Jackson keeps trying to convince herself that “surely, it is possible to take children shopping.” The family is hounded by distracting salespeople. Escalators seem “intent upon trapping small unwary feet.” Jackson and her daughter Jannie reach a “tearful compromise” on a pair of impractical black patent leather shoes. By the time the trio reaches the restaurant where her hungry, bickering kids demand two desserts, our narrator is hastily adding “dears” in a voice increasingly “shrill.”
In another anecdote from Raising Demons, Jackson awakes one morning to find that three of her children have arisen early and escaped the house, with only her nine-month-old baby left on the premises. She then staggers, half asleep, through a disorienting fun house of emotions. Annoyance at son Jamie’s broken open box of small glass beads “scattered around thoughtfully near to the [bedroom] door so that, barefoot, I managed to step on several thousand.” Guilt as she imagines daughter Jannie “eaten by a bear.” Embarrassment when she learns that her disheveled four-year-old, Sally, has gone over to the neighbor’s house for breakfast, having “told Amy’s mother that I did not have any breakfast . . . because my mommy did not wake up and give it to me.” The piece beautifully recreates that early-morning feeling of having already lived a day before the day has technically begun. Once Jackson finally ascertains the whereabouts of her brood, she turns her gaze upon her husband, who is just then waking up and coming down to the breakfast table. In the exchange that follows, she hints at the resentment, even malice, that lurks beneath the surface of their relationship:
I gave my husband another smile of patient, tolerant understanding, and asked him sweetly if he would care for coffee? He nodded and sat down at the table, but he jumped when I lifted the frying pan. “Eggs?” I asked him, and he shook his head no.
The most surreal and harrowing passage in Life Among the Savages, though, is Jackson’s account of childbirth. It begins with Jackson awkwardly shunted off into a cab, after unsuccessfully trying to get breakfast started for her children while managing her contractions. Upon checking into the hospital, her individuality is immediately erased:
“Age?” [the nurse] asks. “Sex? Occupation?”
“Writer,” I said.
“Housewife,” she said.
“Writer,” I said.
“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
Next, the clubby, paternalistic doctor. The ineffectual, bewildered husband reading his newspaper. The lacunae and lapses of consciousness. The isolation in the face of hospital bureaucracy and patriarchal indifference, the silence around her experience of labor, underlined by the grim humor of the story’s final lines:
“What was it, girl or boy?”
“Girl,” I said.
“Girl,” she said. “They say the third’s the easiest.”
There is nothing sacrosanct in Jackson’s portrait of family life, nothing sentimental about her treatment of motherhood. Journalist Laura Shapiro refers to Life Among the Savages as “the literature of domestic chaos”; Jackson herself called it “a disrespectful memoir of my children.” The book is palpable, raw.
Of course, Jackson held back plenty. She left vast swaths of her family’s “domestic chaos” occluded. For one, she had a fraught relationship with her husband, a literary critic, who indulged in serial infidelities and maintained tight control over finances even though Jackson outearned him.
She struggled with dramatically fluctuating weight, depression, and abuse of prescription drugs. These took their toll. On August 8, 1965, Shirley Jackson died of heart failure in her sleep. She was 48 years old.
Jackson’s demons were clearly bigger and more terrifying than the conventional ones of balancing writing and childrearing. Yet she managed to give space and import to those smaller moments of ennui and absurdity that many of us experience while raising children. Today, we celebrate Jackson for her dark, psychological fiction (most recently through Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House). But we should also remember her as an expert chronicler of our banal, everyday hauntings.
Years ago, when I taught a class on women’s literature, I lectured on a mode in mid-twentieth-century American art called the “female gothic.” The female gothic used images out of classic horror tales to represent a more internal, psychological struggle. According to literary scholar Elaine Showalter,
Women’s writing [in the 1950s] was obsessed with freaks, multiples, monsters . . . . The traditional images of a heroine trapped in a gothic house, particularly apt in the postwar period when American women were repeatedly told that they were designed and destined to find fulfillment inside the home, took on additional meaning as these houses came to symbolize the female body, and the destiny of pregnancy, childbirth, and maternity.
The female gothic manifested, in short, the quiet nightmare lurking beneath the “suburban dream.” (Caveat: this was a circle of hell reserved mainly for white, middle-class mothers. It ignored the experiences of African American and working-class women in the 1950s and 1960s.)
In my PowerPoint from that lecture, I included a famous Diane Arbus photo of triplets. The three teenage girls sit next to each other on the middle of three twin beds in a suburban New Jersey home, circa 1963. They are identically clad in starched, long-sleeve shirts and black skirts, their dark hair chopped into matching, mid-length bobs and restrained by a white headband. Yet, out of the photographer’s play with duplication, small variations in posture and facial expression emerge: the leftmost sister sits with straightened back, hands primly crossed in her lap, while the middle sister slouches a bit, the play of a dreamy or distracted smile on her lips.
Arbus explained that she saw triplets as reflections of her own divided psyche:
Triplets remind me of myself when I was an adolescent, lined up in three images: daughter, sister, bad girl, with secret lusting fantasies, each one with a tiny difference.
By making visible this fractured identity, these repressed desires, Arbus seeks a degree of wholeness.
That wholeness remained elusive. Like Shirley Jackson, Diane Arbus died at the premature age of 48. Unlike Jackson, Arbus took her own life.
But what led me to group Jackson and Arbus together was not the creepy coincidence of their untimely deaths. It was the seemingly stark, Jekyll and Hyde contrasts within their professional output.
At first glance, Jackson’s ostensibly lighthearted magazine pieces on family life jarred with her reputation as a horror writer. As discussed above, however, these domestic memoirs slyly comment on the dark side of motherhood.
Similarly, Arbus got her start shooting for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue but left to create art photography that upended social norms and niceties. And yet, unexpected parallels exist between that earlier fashion photography and her later portraits.
Consider, for example, two Arbus photographs of preadolescent girls taken merely a year apart. One, titled The Smartest Girl on Wheels, appeared in Vogue in 1956. It features a smiling, well-groomed brunette on skates, who sports a preppy-looking jacket, pleated skirt, and straw hat. The second, Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag at the curb, N.Y.C. (1957), captures another girl in an equally smart coat (albeit single- rather than double-breasted), who could be the evil twin of the first. This subject appears sullen, mistrustful, but also defiant as she glares at the camera from a gritty, chiaroscuro New York sidewalk. Looking at the two images side by side, a strange transference occurs: the fashion editorial takes on a certain ominousness, revealing the stilted artifice of the girl’s pose and facial expression.
As Susan Sontag put it in a scathing essay for The New York Review of Books:
Who could have better appreciated the truth of freaks than someone who was, by profession, a fashion photographer—a professional fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the terrifying freakish world?
There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding Arbus’s work (beginning with Sontag’s devastating putdown in the NYRB). In her attraction to subjects at the social fringes—circus performers, drag queens—Arbus has been called voyeuristic, exploitative, sensationalistic. She took a walk on the wild side, as it were, but from a position of privilege.
For me, however, her portraits of the so-called “normals” are the most disquieting. The strained, preoccupied expression on the older society lady with her gloved hands clasped primly around a handbag. The teenager on a park bench who, despite his youth, telegraphs a doomed, fatalistic expression. The young boy pointing his toy pistol at the camera with an expression of deadly earnestness. Like Jackson’s writings on family life, these photographs seem to puncture the veneer of convention, respectability, to show us the psychological underworld lurking beneath.
Arbus married her high school boyfriend Allan, with whom she initially went into the photography business. They had two kids together: Doon, in 1945, and Amy, born nine years later, when Arbus was in her early 30s. It was in 1956, just a couple of years after Amy’s birth, that Arbus decided to strike out on her own as a photographer.
A few years after that professional shift came a more personal one: Allan and Diane decided to separate. Allan would still come over to Diane’s apartment for Sunday brunches with the girls; he even continued to develop Diane’s film. But Arbus remained the primary caregiver for her two daughters as she struggled to establish herself as a working artist.
As with Jackson, money was always an issue for Arbus, a looming fear, despite her privileged upbringing. Art photography did not yet have the cultural cachet (or financial rewards) that it does today; moreover, paid commercial work dried up as Arbus’s artistic reputation soared.
Her childcare arrangements were often ad hoc. Writer Alex Mar explains,
To be both a full-time mother and a professional photographer—there was no model for that, and the situation required some heavy improvisation . . . . While Doon was fairly independent, Amy was still only 5 years old. Diane would often leave her daughter with a friend for the day, or she’d take her along on her tamer assignments.
Unlike some of her female friends who were also committing to a creative life, Arbus enjoyed the maternal role. Her friend Pati Hill recalls, “Diane’s feelings about being a mother were different from mine. She felt it was something she had to be.” Arbus wrote loving letters to Amy at summer camp, dared Doon to race up to strangers in Central Park to try and make them laugh. She worried about helping to guide both girls during adolescence.
Arbus was both/and. A working single mother who was often playful with and devoted to her daughters. A photographer addicted to the adventure of roaming the streets of New York with a 35mm Nikon and hooked on the thrill of visual surprise that she coaxed from these encounters with her subjects. An artist who would prowl the morgue for ghoulish inspiration, but not before picking up a birthday present for her kid.
Jackson, too, broadens our sense of the possible, of the kinds of art that can be born out of, or coexist with, domestic life. Literary critics would often express surprise that the author of such bleak, disturbing horror fiction was also a mother of four. In response, her husband Stanley Hyman accused them of “the most elementary misunderstanding of what a writer is and how a writer works, on the order of expecting Herman Melville to be a big white whale.”
Even if we’re long past the June Cleaver Era, there are still ways that we feel pressured to suppress the rawness—and fullness—of our experiences as parents. We rarely admit to what spooks us, often within ourselves.
In “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book,” a groundbreaking 1989 essay for The New York Times, the writer and mother-of-three Ursula K. Le Guin worried that Western culture tends to pathologize the mothers who have also dared to be artists. She feared, rightly, that we might take the tragic stories, like Arbus’s or the poet Sylvia Plath’s, as the norm and give up creative pursuits altogether. She argued, also correctly, that such tragedies could perpetuate the myth of the (male) solitary artist: the idea that good writing or painting or coding requires withdrawal from the world of relationships, from our human responsibilities to others. Underneath this myth of course is the labor, often female, that enables and sustains such a monastic devotion to craft.
But to acknowledge that this dark side exists is not the same as succumbing to it. It’s simply to insist on a more nuanced account of motherhood, one that reflects its bright spots and its hidden, treacherous depths in equal measure. And to acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to illuminate our inner darkness, even if we wouldn’t want to linger there.
The tragedy of their troubled lives and early deaths does not negate the bravery and eerie resonance of Arbus and Jackson’s art. They take risks. They issue bold, unsettling reports, on the state of the culture and on the state of their own psyches. They fight for self-expression. They f— with our expectations. Like mothers do.
2 replies on “Haunted:
The Gothic Motherhoods of Shirley Jackson and Diane Arbus”
Thank you for this sensitively drawn analysis of two women who were mothers and artists at a time when it was pretty much unheard of. I enjoyed your insights into Jackson’s more commercial work and was appalled that the obstetric nurse wouldn’t list her occupation as “writer” and instead wrote “housewife.”
Illuminating literary essay. Thank you.
Thanks for the kind words, Kathryn. If you haven’t checked them out, Shirley Jackson’s memoirs of raising kids feel surprisingly modern (and, as I’ve noted here, harrowing as well…).