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A close look at Shirley Jackson

Updated on May 13, 2010

A glimpse inside the mind of a great American author.

It has been speculated by many that American author Shirley Jackson may have drawn on some dark force to create her macabre literary works. Most of her published work does have an underlying darkness to it that many find intriguing, while others find it disturbing. This was never more correct than when her short story “The Lottery” was published in 1948. There was a public outcry in response to its publication. It is the story of an isolated American town and its horrifying annual “Lottery,” which is brutal and terrifying. The setting starts out innocuously but quickly winds down to an unbelievable conclusion that has left readers stunned for more than 50 years.

Whether or not Shirley Jackson had some deep-seated emotional or psychological disturbance has been suggested by more than a few sources. The possibility that all human beings have the ability to create things of beauty or things of darkness may be a more accurate possibility. Consideration must also be taken in the likelihood that Shirley Jackson had no more or no less of a grasp on the twisted and macabre that rests upon the minds of most human beings, but she had found a platform with which to purge this from her consciousness.

Shirley Jackson was believed to have been born in 1919, but in order to appear younger than her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman by her most well known Biographer, Judy Oppenheimer (New World.) She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1940 after first attending University of Rochester. In 1954, she wrote for Stanley Kunitz and Howard Harcraft publication, known as Twentieth Century Authors: “I very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains, naturally, no pertinent facts. I was born in San Francisco in 1919 and spent most of my early life in California. I was married in 1940 to Stanley Edgar Hyman, critic and numismatist, and we live in Vermont, in a quiet ruralcommunity with fine scenery and comfortably far away from city life. Our major exports are books and children, both of which we produce in abundance. The children are Laurence, Joanne, Sarah and Barry: My books include three novels, The Road Through The Wall, Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and a collection of short stories, The Lottery. Life Among the Savages is a disrespectful memoir of my children,” she declared.(New World). She was also the mother of three children, and she and her husband lived near a very quiet New England town in order to facilitate dream of being writers.

The short term at Rochester University has been signaled as a red flag for those who criticize Shirley Jackson and her overall mental state, as it has been stated that she was asked to leave. Reasons were not clearly given, only the implication that she may have been mentally unstable. Even after her untimely death in 1965 at the age of 48, her husband maintained that she never wanted to clarify in any way what her reasons for writing the way she did, or where the subject matter came from in the first place. She refused to justify herself and felt it would not prove or disprove anything. In “The Magic of Shirley Jackson,” her husband wrote that she was widely popular but received very few accolades for her large body of complex works of fiction. Instead, she was known for two main literary publications, “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” No awards, prizes or other forms of recognition were forthcoming at any time in her life in spite of the great number of published articles, novels and short stories she wrote(Hyman).

Because her work was so vast and varied, her husband took it upon himself to finish publishing her stories to share it with the world after she passed away. He felt that people needed to see what he already knew about his beloved wife: that she was a gifted, imaginative writer who lived as normal a life as most other Americans might. But the misconception sadly remains even to this day unless someone is truly searching for the truth about this accomplished author.

Shortly after she died, an entire box of unpublished works was found in an old barn near her home. A compilation of the best of these stories along with many other of her work were published in 1966 in a collection titled “Just an Ordinary Day.” Fortunately a large number of her works has been preserved and remains available for viewing at the Library of Congress. Her influence on modern day writers has also been tremendous, one name in particular that has become a household name in his own right, is Stephen King. His respect and admiration stretches back many decades to when he was a budding writer, and helped shape his writing style. Other famous authors include Nigel Kneale, who wrote many screenplays and novels, and Richard Matheson, author of the famed “I Am Legend,” “Somewhere in Time,” and “What Dreams May Come.” Most of Matheson’s work was also turned into major motion pictures.

On the other hand, Mrs. Jackson was also known to have a series of mental health issues including reported psychosomatic illnesses, and may have been addicted to pain killers. Her slowly

declining health may have been what led to her premature death of heart failure at such a young age. This may provide a glimpse into her mind, and it may have been what sowed the seeds of her often dark imagination. The insinuation that these health issues disqualifies all of her accomplishments as an extremely gifted author is unfortunate and unfounded. Some of history’s greatest writers teetered on the edge of brilliance and insanity, a fact which has not escaped many researchers.

There is a strong correlation between those with a higher IQ level and Bipolar Disorder, along with a few other major mental disorders. Researchers found a link between straight A students and Bipolar disorder.

“Several possible explanations for the link were put forward; people in a state of hypomania (a mild period of mania or elevated mood) can often be witty and inventive, and able to link ideas in innovative ways; people with bipolar disorder often experience unusually strong emotional responses, which may help their talent in art, music and literature. Third, people with hypomania often have extraordinary stamina and can keep concentrating for long periods of time” states and article published by Louis Pratt’s Kings College of London.

This disorder is characterized by periods of hypomania, offset with unpredictable swings of depression. The study shows that during a state of hypomania, a person is often at their most charismatic, inventive and witty. These results were taken from Sweden’s compulsory exams of 15 to 16 year olds between the years of 1988 and 1997(High Bipolar Risk).

There is a common misconception that people with any type of mental disorder are weak, and looked down upon by society even today, when there is been a dramatically increased awareness of the commonality of mental disorders. The rate of diagnosed mental illnesses has risen sharply in recent years, with previously uncategorized disorders gaining recognition as the cause of many mental health problems. More recent additions to this ever growing list are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder and Panic Disorder to name only a few. Still, even when a person is diagnosed, it is still kept quiet, the patient only divulging this information to people that are very close to them for fear of having the age old stigma attached that it is the same thing as being insane and therefore mentally unfit.

Luckily, technology has advanced drastically and treatment options are available for most mental disorders in the form of medication and psychological treatment. Were these things found to be readily available before Shirley Jacksons’ health began declining, it is possible that she would have found better ways to manage her health issues much more productively. However, to characterize her by any flaws she may have had is ridiculous, for the greatest people throughout history have all been flawed. Human nature is to seek perfection but in truth, no one has achieved this goal.

True genius is often found in those that are gifted with incredible capacity for abstract thought, and the origin of abstract

thought itself is thinking outside the box and creating new ideas. Conformity for the sake of so called normalcy is therefore a killer of creativity. Without creativity the world would not be even a tiny fraction of what it is today. There is still a strong need for understanding of the complexities of the human mind, and a greater tolerance and appreciation for individuality.


“High Bipolar Risk for Straight A Students,” Author Unknown. Published by Louis Pratt’s’ Kings College of London, February 3, 2010


New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Shirley Jackson” Publisher: New World Encyclopedia. Date of last revision: 2 April 2008 09:41 UTC                                                                   

Stanley Edgar Hyman, Author, “The Magic of Shirley Jackson,” Published in 1965. Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux


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    • profile image


      4 years ago


    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Individuality should be something one strives for, not classified as a mental disorder. It has been proven throughout history that collective socialism is dangerous for society. People in large groups often tend to gravitate towards negative thoughts and tend to push for perverse ideas as they become the whole of one. In other words they tend to think alike. For instance, a friend sees a blue sports car and thinks it's just the most awesome vehicle she has ever seen, she reports this to her "friends" and quite a few like it too. Pretty soon said sports cars profits rise from sales based on opinion.

      So no, never think for yourself, of course you need government, and big business and the healthcare industry to do that for you. Why? Because it benefits their pocketbooks. Duh! Hitler got started the same way.

      We perpetually as human beings, tend to repeat history, over and over and over again. No one noticed that Hilter wasn't blond, it was completely missed by the majority of society, yet he was supposedly promoting blond hair and blue eyes? He had neither folks! How easily the masses are deceived. No critical, individual thinking skills are expected from the masses. That would be a mental disorder. There was heavy sarcasm dripping off of that last sentence.

      Another example of "collective" thinking is found in the DSM in which it had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, of course their accusations of psychosis changed drastically when the gay rights activists started making an issue of it.

      Once again you cannot be an individual unless a majority group tells you so.

      Why do you think you are spammed every day on your television sets with tons of commercials? Have you ever

      counted how many commercials there are during one show? Now get off your butts and go buy the things that big pharma and the industrialists tell you to. Getting the picture yet?

      Individuality vs. Herd Conformity (Erich Fromm), which will you choose?

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      When an author writes about the darker side of humanity,i.e. horror tales, people are quick to wonder about their mental state.


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