Shirley Jackson’s Demons

December 14: Shirley Jackson was born on this day in 1916. Jackson and her husband, the English scholar Stanley Hyman, raised their family in Bennington, Vermont. Life Among the Savages ( (1953) and Raising Demons (1957), Jackson’s two memoirs on the misadventures of family life there, continue to be held in high regard, especially by other misadventurers. This moment is from near the end of the first book, a mid-December morning when mother, surrounded by the breakfast chaos of her three children and full-term pregnant with her fourth, grows reflective:

I took my coffee into the dining room and settled down with the morning paper. A woman in New York had had twins in a taxi. A woman in Ohio had just had her seventeenth child. A twelve-year-old girl in Mexico had given birth to a thirteen-pound boy. The lead article on the woman’s page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an axe murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me.

Jackson chooses the hospital over axe-murdering, arriving there to discover that the best maternity suitcase she could manage — “my blue satin bedjacket and a dozen mystery stories and a rough draft of an informative letter beginning ‘Dear … Well, we have a new son/daughter, and so this makes two pair/three of a kind …’” — has been repacked by little Jannie, and now contains only her own yellow sundress and a jigsaw puzzle.

The only full-length biography of Jackson is Judy Openheimer’s Private Demons (1988), the title chosen to convey the dark side of the personal rather than the parenting life. By 1962 Jackson’s physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point that she could not face venturing into, let alone fictionalizing, her Vermont hometown. The eventual psychiatric diagnosis was “acute anxiety,” for which any number of descriptions and causes were offered: her mother, agoraphobia, years of drug abuse (amphetamines and tranquilizers), years of overeating and overdrinking, etc. She died at age forty-eight.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.