Life Among the Savages


Book by Shirley Jackson

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Sometimes what we read influences us because of the craft of the work, how specifically the writer tackles tone, subject, suspense, tension, sentence structure, the dissemination of information and the countless other elements of craft covered on this site.

Shirley Jackson’s more known works The Haunting of Hill House, or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and her short stories in her collection The Lottery and Other Stories have provided me countless lessons in structure, tension, character, tone, and gorgeous sentence-to-sentence craftsmanship.

But when I listened to the audiobook of Life Among the Savages, which is a memoir composed of essays collected over the years from Jackson’s writings for Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, and Mademoiselle, among other magazines, I experienced a series of awakenings as a writer that stirred me beyond simply craft. I saw a fellow writer mother balancing, compartmentalizing and becoming so many different people outside of her writer life that the familiarity shook me.

Many people who know Jackson’s work and read these books (the sequel being Raising Demons) often say, “How could someone who wrote such dark stuff be a housewife?” or, more often, “Should someone who wrote such dark stuff raise children?” This isn’t even a consideration for me. I write horror. My mother, Kit Reed wrote dark and fucked up novel after dark and fucked up story and it had no affect whatsoever on our self-involved little childhoods. Mom was chastised by the neighbor mothers for sitting up in her office instead of going on playdates, but we felt no ripple through our childhood of her writing pursuits. We simply knew when we were very small that a babysitter meant don’t bother Mom, she’s working, and, when we were old enough, we knew not to bother her before lunch or we’d “break her train of thought.” This an image I took literally: I imagined a small wooden train thrown on the floor. But Mom’s dark, strange stories did not seep into our lives. We knew she wrote, but she also drove us all over creation, was there when we got home from school, helped us with our homework (excepting math, Dad’s department), cooked us countless meals, and life went on as it does.

And, I should mention, no one seems to ask whether a writer dad is ruining his child with his writing. But that is another article.

But what struck me in these essays was the full immersion into life with three kids. Jackson was a housewife in the fifties which meant that her husband was an extremely uninvolved partner. I found myself growing impatient with him as Jackson takes care of all of the cooking and cleaning and transportation of children and shopping for the household, and three hot meals a day are expected without aid. In one hilarious essay the entire family seems to think Jackson’s going into labor with her third child will get in the way of their plans and, tongue in cheek, she describes the absurdity of their alarm and each trying to schedule the most convenient time for her to deliver. The child comes when the child comes, and  Jackson catches a taxi alone to the hospital.

There is a wonderful and identifiable rhythm as Jackson describes her days, especially when listing tasks she has done in a row, or picking up the children’s things around the house, or when in one wonderfully cosy story the children wander from room to room one sleepy morning. The nice thing about listening to the audiobook is that, (brought up to the speed of 1.5, which felt to me more like the speed Jackson meant it to be read at, ) you can feel the cadence of her days, the repetition of tasks, and the way that rather than being in charge and on top of everything, she rides wherever her day takes her. Embracing the chaos is a grace that comes to caretakers of children only after a few years and experience, and she captures this quite nicely.

There is a hilarious recounting of her kids having a friend over to play cowboys. They end up having a shootout in the living room with breaks for the littlest to fix her shoe, for Jackson to get some lunch on for them, and there is something very real in the plainness of the day. There’s another hilarious recounting of her kids’ overlapping conversations as they try to talk their mom into getting a car; as if it’s already been decided. And in the consummate lousy partner move, her husband decides that she will be the one to learn to drive; he simply doesn’t have the time. Jackson has a genius for capturing the cadence of kid talk, each having their own conversations that somehow end up building in an interplay and rise to an absurd place. It’s the closest I’ve ever heard to the patter of my own kids at an earlier age.

My favorite chapter/essay is a recounting of a simple trip to the store in town with the three older kids. It should be the simplest thing; picking up necessaries in a department store. But what Jackson allows for, which very little fiction does, and very little of the mommywriting I’ve read does, is the enormous personalities of her children and how nothing is ever simple when you have small children. They are each the stars of their own lives, and they will gum up the works. Laurie brings his cap gun and is already having trouble dealing with Jannie and all of her imaginary friends who need room on the bus, who have to get off the escalator one by one, who need to be responded to. To top it off, Sally, the littlest, has insisted on bringing her doll’s carriage. The kids’ personalities are frenetic in a way that was most familiar to me. Then Jackson adds the humor and the recognizable reality of not wanting to seem like a monster mom in public; the judgement of those around her on her parenting is palpable. She keeps the kids in line as best she can in the sweetest and most gentle voice. It all starts to spiral when a guy trying to sell boyswear tries to get in a conversation with Laurie who doesn’t take well (and rightly) to a stranger getting a bit creepy. Jackson’s comic timing takes us on through lunch and the kids’ impossible orders. We are fully with her as she manages their personalities without totally having a meltdown in the restaurant, all the while trying not to waste the waitress’s time. I was completely transported to any outings with my own kids at that age, including one child’s tantrum when I tried to blow off someone asking her directly if she would like to be in commercials, or another’s meltdown when we’d simply been out too long without enough calories. I replayed the story to my husband, and we howled with laughter as all of this is very real and recognizable for anyone who has raised kids who have any imagination.

Almost seventy years after they were written, Jackson’s stories ring with a stark familiarity. I get a sick feeling in my stomach and a kind of exhilaration recognizing moments in parenting. When Jackson decides to go visit some friends for the weekend, she goes through preparing a list and schedule for the children as well as meals so that she can put her husband in charge, without his really having to do anything. She creates playdates, rides, meals at other people’s house and makes her husband a casserole he can eat over two days. She essentially does the work of the entire weekend ahead of time in order to get a thirty six hour break. It put me in mind of so many work trips, or absences for residency in my MFA program where I realized the seemingly simple tasks I did for a week raising my kids actually added up to a whole lot of details that are very hard to pass on to another person. Of course, Jackson arrives home to find the schedule out the window and the kids missing, her husband having taking everyone out to dinner to solve the problem.

And, as I played a story of decorating the Christmas tree, I told my husband how exactly Jackson had captured the terrible nostalgia/excitement/love one feels getting out the annual box of decorations. Every detail, from pulling out crappy paper and glue decorations made while one’s now grown child was in preschool, yearly conversations about the lights, passing on traditions to younger kids when the older have lost interest. I said, “It’s like she knows exactly how it is right now for us.”

And my husband wisely answered, “Or how it is for everyone with kids, every Christmas.”

The beauty in writing is not just in capturing the unreal, or those esoteric in-between spaces of life. It’s in capturing the truly human everyday. The makeup of the everyday may have many differences as time passes over years–what I wouldn’t give for Jackson’s 50 bucks a month rent on an entire house/how glad am I my husband is a much fuller partner in childrearing than dads in the fifties–but there are some things essentially the same. All kids are their own little weirdos. They are incredibly energy consuming, but wildly entertaining, and their childhoods pass too fast. And their lives will eat up a work day. And you will never feel like you are getting enough writing done.

I think of the writer mamas and writer papas I know (I do know a number of writers who are stay at home dads) and the very real struggles they have trying to carve out the time in which to write. So many of us have jobs as well as children and yes, our partners are much better at helping with the labor, but the brainspace after allowing for schedules, homework assignments, meals (even if a the caretaker is not a cook, they are usually in charge of procuring each meal,) illnesses, doctors’ appointments, and so much more does not allow for the esoteric gathering of threads from the air to produce literature. We are a bit more about finding an hour, pounding it out. Find a half hour, write something down. Think of the story while doing the housework. Holy shit I have three hours this Saturday while my partner has the kids…WRITE. I think about the year my daughter had fifteen sick days and I ended up putting down my horror novel and reading aloud to her from my middle grade book in progress and asking her questions to keep moving. To her credit, without her I would not have finished the middle grade book, which is now at market.

I think of my own mom who produced about a book a year and hundreds of short stories in between, and countless book reviews, all the while raising three kids and parenting us all the way into adulthood. And I think of Jackson, who helped keep her family afloat with the money raised from these articles, did absolutely all of the housework and childrearing (her husband seemed available only for occasional conversation with the children, and the odd babysitting stint) and still created an oeuvre of literature that has lasted well into this century. Her work has not seemed to age and informs an entire generation of speculative fiction, horror fiction, television and movies.

In this age of #amwriting on Twitter and writers declaring daily word counts, accomplishments, and other minutiae of the writer day, I also marvel that throughout both this book and its sequel, Jackson accounts for no time during which she was writing. Even if the readers of Ladies’ Home Journal shouldn’t worry their heads too much about her creepy as fuck short stories, or the fact that she would soon produce the most disturbing and brilliant novels of the next decade, Jackson says nothing in the articles of the struggle of finding the time to write the articles themselves. It is, as if, like those meals that appear magically on the table every three or four hours, or the children’s things that get put away magically and produced on demand, or Jackson’s remembering exactly which imaginary friend has exactly which characteristic, the labor itself is not to be spoken of. It is meant to appear effortless.

All of this is somehow comforting. In all the time I’ve kicked myself for not getting writing done because of tending to a child’s illness or erratic schedule or working other jobs, I realize that I do get the writing done. Bit by bit. Somehow. I find the space and pound it out.

I try not to get too cross with Haruki Murakami’s account of his immaculate writing day without mention of whoever it is who procures his meals, tends his home.

And I give a shout out to my fellow writer parents out there. It is no small thing you are doing there. And you likely have better childrearing partners than Jackson did. And know that, like Jackson, you will write the things. And the things may have a lasting impact. Keep writing.

You are a goddamn miracle.

Now excuse me, I’ve got to get dinner on the table for my kid who had to be picked up early from school because she’s sick. Again.