Writing Life: On Shirley, Muses, and Depression

Elisabeth Moss in Shirley (2020) | Neon
Neon

“They know how to undress her, but not how to unravel her.”
Kate Zambreno, Heroines

The house creaks. The room––dark, light cutting through blinds like a betrayal. A man counts down, “Three, two, one,” and grabs at the sheets his wife is hiding under. She scrambles to pull them back over her head. Her husband wants her to get dressed for dinner. Please. Try. She tells him to go away and refuses to care that the young couple he’s asked to stay on, to help with the cleaning, are being useful: “A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority.” He lights her cigarette for her, barters for her to join them at the dinner table. “I didn’t ask you to behave.”

The wife, Shirley (Elizabeth Moss), inspired by the infamous author Shirley Jackson, is between projects. Her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), an academic and professor at Bennington College, is both controlling and philandering. Their house’s ecosystem is interrupted when Stanley asks a young couple, Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), to stay in their house, to help with the cleaning and cooking while Shirley rights herself, writes. 

Shirley, director Josephine Decker’s fourth feature, is a few degrees removed from being a biopic. It’s an adaptation of the novel, Shirley, by Susan Scarf Merrell––a fiction inspired by another fiction that liberally borrowed from a real person’s life. More than a biopic, it’s a way of placing a Shirley-like character into a Shirley-Jackson-type story. Like most Shirley Jackson stories, there’s a house, filled with arcana and tinted by the lives of the people living inside it, and there are two women at the center. One, a messy misanthrope; the other, a “perfect” housewife. Even the town they live in reflects the towns she’s written: ominous and superficial, menacing and polite. 

The real-life Shirley Jackson had four children around the time this story would’ve been set, during husband Stanley Hyman’s second stint teaching at Bennington College. Hangsaman, the novel she spends the movie writing, would’ve been written years prior, while Jackson and Hyman lived in Connecticut. And while Jackson wasn’t known for keeping a tidy house, she did a good amount of cooking (in the early days of their marriage, she was known for a green-tinted mashed potato dish) and was generally more involved around the house than Shirley would suggest. 

From now on, when I refer to Shirley, I’m referring to the character Shirley within the film; when I refer to Jackson, I’m referring to the very real, very spooky author. Same goes for Stanley and Hyman. 

Shirley isn’t Jackson, but they do inform each other.

^ ^ ^

I’d love to know what it’s like to be a writer who doesn’t struggle with anxiety and depression, the sort of writer who doesn’t identify with Shirley, curled beneath her sheets in a blacked-out bedroom. Sometimes, it feels like a chicken-egg situation, where the egg is stuck halfway out of the chicken. I’m depressed because I’m not writing; I’m not writing because I’m depressed; writing will help me sludge my way out of the depressive fog; writing hurts and all I want is to barrel back into my bed and turn on Cheers.   

In one of her journals (a practice she maintained throughout her life, written all in lowercase), Jackson wrote: “if i am cured and well and oh glorious alive then my books should be different. who wants to write about anxiety from a place of safety? although i suppose i would never be entirely safe since i cannot completely reconstruct my mind. but what conflict is there to write about then?”

Elisabeth Moss in Shirley (2020) | Neon

My anxiety is constant, my depression occasional. I’ve been in therapy for years. I’m on Prozac. I make jokes about it when I’m in the midst of an episode, even while I can’t get out of bed, can’t force myself to eat, can’t compel myself to be interested in anything other than the auto-playing trailers on Netflix.  

This isn’t too dissimilar to my best writing days, though. They’re like two sides of a very frustrating coin (do I write because I’m depressed; am I depressed because I write). From Kate Zambreno’s Heroines: “When I write, I am an ugly woman. I am rude and crabby, I am braless…I forget what it’s like to be outside, a body, a body lumpy from lack of exercise and a hasty daily diet.”

Maybe I’d be healthier if I didn’t write, but what does “healthier” even mean?

^ ^ ^

Over dinner, Shirley tells Stanley: “I have a title. Hangsaman.” Her new project, inspired by the disappearance of a local college girl. She’s looking for Stanley’s approval, but he tells her the idea sounds trite “and a bit trashy.” But at least he’s amenable until she tells him, “It’s a novel.” He doesn’t like that idea. He doesn’t think she’s up to it. He urges her to ease back, even as she slouches in her chair, fiddles with her hands in her lap, quietly protests, “You’re wrong.” 

Stanley has invited Rose and Fred into their home without Shirley’s approval. Rose is going to help around the house and Fred is going to help with Stanley’s lectures. Shirley is sure Rose is there to spy on her––paranoid, maybe, but also probably not wrong. Stanley instructs Rose to keep an eye on the missus, even while he has late nights on campus and the women he’s sleeping with call the house, interrupting dinner. It’s unclear if Stanley is husband or warden.

Shirley grates at the couple’s unwelcome presence. She taunts Rose over dinner about her pregnancy, and a wedding that Shirley calls shotgun. Rose doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want to work with such a terrible woman, but still, she finds herself drawn toward Shirley’s office, toward the office of the woman who wrote “The Lottery,” a story that turned Rose on so much that she pulled her new husband into a cabin on the train and unbuckled his pants, a story that made Rose feel “thrillingly horrible.”

When Shirley sees Rose hovering outside her office, she says, “Do you want to see what a writer does? Absolutely nothing. Come here.” Shirley has been working away at Hangsaman, only to make false starts and mutter “fuck” and delete the sentences she’s written. She tries to picture the disappeared girl, but all she sees is the blur of a woman in a red jacket, hurrying through a forest. 

Shirley might not want Rose in her house, but she does want a distraction. She draws Rose’s tarot––perhaps for the fetus in Rose’s stomach, perhaps as another way to unsettle Rose. When Shirley draws three of The Hanged Man cards in a row, she looks up at Rose, and suddenly, she sees Rose’s face on the woman in the red jacket. Here, finally: clarity. 

In this moment, Rose becomes her muse. The rules change. 

Jackson liked to style herself as a witch. On the cover flap of her first novel, she was called “the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch.” She was rumored to have cursed the publisher of Knopf so he broke his leg while skiing. While the “practicing witch” rumors may have been both inflated and encouraged by Jackson, witchcraft was important to her because, as Ruth Franklin puts it in A Rather Haunted Life, her biography of Jackson, witchcraft symbolized female strength and potency. Witches were “powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the power of the devil himself.” Jackson did practice tarot and––rumor has it––her readings were often far too accurate for her friends’ comfort. 

The Hanged Man card––upright, as Shirley draws it––gestures to a moment of suspension, transition, surrender. A moment that rings true for Shirley’s current mode of living, for her project, and also for Rose, Shirley’s pregnant helper.

That night, Rose wanders downstairs and finds Shirley bent in front of the open fridge, describing a dream she had of worms coming out of the crisper, “fat as fingers.” Over a glass of wine, Shirley tells Rose she’s lost. For Shirley, struggling with a project is like finding herself in a forest with no way out: “This book, it might kill me. I can’t figure out this girl.”

When Rose responds that, perhaps, disappearing was the one way for this girl to get anyone to notice her, the look on Shirley’s face is a beacon. This woman, her muse: she gets it.

^ ^ ^

Like Shirley versus Jackson, the Hangsaman in the movie isn’t the Hangsaman of our world, Jackson’s second novel. The projects are like shades of each other. Both are inspired by the disappearance of a local college student, Paula, a woman always seen in her red coat. 

The timing doesn’t quite match, either––Jackson wrote the book when she was younger, well before agoraphobia clasped onto her. In the movie, Shirley’s behaviors are much more reminiscent of Jackson in the last few years of her life: paranoid, house-bound, unable to work. 

The projects, though, aren’t dissimilar, and share both a mode of storytelling and a feeling of unease with Shirley. Franklin notes that, around the time of her work on Hangsaman, Hyman was writing an article that mentioned the scholar Joseph Campbell and his theory about all myths boiling down to a monomyth, “an elaboration of the three stages of…rites de passage, thus: ‘a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.’” 

Franklin points to this as the exact plot of the final third of Jackson’s Hangsaman. I’d like to point to it as not just Paula’s journey, but Rose’s as well: she’s separated from the world, kept in the terrarium-like home of Shirley and Stanley. The power of Shirley’s work gets under her skin. When she shakes loose of their world, she’s become a stronger version of herself, not just a “wifey,” but something more.

^ ^ ^

Sometimes, in the midst of a fog, I’ll have my tarot read. Most recently, I had a virtual reading, so I didn’t have to move from my bed while the young woman pulled cards and told me about my creative practice, how money will always be an issue for me (ha), and where to focus my energy. So much of what she told me I already knew, but there’s something about hearing yourself told back to you that changes, or maybe refreshes those words. I think, when I do this, it’s because I can’t see myself clearly anymore and need someone else to do the looking.

In New York, in my early 20s, before I really figured out any kind of writing practice or my own anxious-depressive cycle (which aren’t unrelated), I’d go to this psychic in the East Village who lived over a Dunkin’ Donuts. I saw her three times. Maybe four. I never could afford the $40 it cost to do a reading with her, but I always shelled out, often last minute, while wandering around the city after drinks with a new friend, not wanting to go home yet, not knowing what else to do.

The readings could be uncanny. Once, she named a guy who’d been leading me on and wagged her finger at me to “knock it off.” I’d take notes after, writing in a frenzy down the length of a CVS receipt I’d later pin up on my fridge, to remind myself of the goalposts I was looking for, what I should hold out for, what I should ignore, what I should honor. 

Narratives have always been a way for me to right myself, to find my way back to center. Tarot could serve as that shortcut.

^ ^ ^

Shirley plays at various versions of couplings. In the beginning, there’s Stanley and Shirley, Fred and Rose. As the couples drift apart––the men drawn to their dalliances, the women drawn to each other––alliances shift. The housebound Shirley begins to rely on Rose. She sends her out into the world to do her investigating for her. Rose needles the postman about the ride he gave Paula. She pulls Paula’s file from a local doctor’s office. Being involved excites Rose. She’s no longer just the meek girl in the kitchen, cleaning up after a genius writer. She’s no longer just a wife, a soon-to-be mother. She’s implicated. She’s more than she was before. 

One evening, Rose corrects a hovering Stanley, whose insistence that Shirley is stuck, isn’t writing, bugs her. No, she tells him, Shirley has been writing. She’s barely had time for lunch. When Shirley interrupts the conversation, it’s clear Rose has inserted herself into a dynamic between the couple: Shirley doesn’t want Stanley to read her writing, so she’s hidden that writing from him. Probably, Rose doesn’t completely understand the couple’s exchange––Shirley claiming the manuscript is just grocery lists, Stanley saying he’ll be swinging by the Dean’s, then, and Shirley telling him to say hi to Caroline––but she knows she’s done something wrong.

Rose crashes through the forest, chasing after Shirley. She finds her, crouched behind a rock furred with moss, cradling a mushroom. The death cap mushroom, “fatal to anyone who ingests it.” The same mushroom she’d later write into We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Shirley looks up at Rose and asks, doesn’t she find it exhilarating? “Most young women are fascinated by their mortality.” Rose isn’t exhilarated. Shirley pushes. She offers the mushroom to Rose, offers to split it. “It could stop our hearts from beating.” 

This moment is important, charged, slippery. Rose lowers herself beside Shirley. She spins the mushroom in her hand, considering its folds, its color, its danger. She hasn’t said no, even though we imagine she will, when Shirley chomps down on it. Like a mother and her stubborn child, Rose demands she spit it out and Shirley obstinately chews. Until those chews become laughter and Shirley confesses to her lie. She feeds the rest of the mushroom to Rose. Rose chews. 

Power slips between them like water. Shirley is drawing from Rose, yes, using her youth and interest like a pilot light for her manuscript, but Rose is drawing from Shirley, too. This moment––nearly but not quite halfway through the film––shows them meeting somewhere in the middle. Crouched in the mud, chewing on a mushroom freshly picked from the forest floor, Rose looks like a younger Shirley: her hair undone, no makeup on, exhausted. Shirley’s smiling, laughing, happier than we’ve seen her. When Shirley asks if she can trust Rose, it’s a bit like asking if she can trust herself. 

^^^

A handful of years ago, I was working on a project with my writing partner, a horror story with sleep paralysis at its center. I’d never experienced sleep paralysis before––I had to watch a documentary to start to understand it. At least, until month two of the project, when I found myself waking in the early morning, tethered to the bed and trying to yell out that there was someone in the corner of the room, someone who had broken into my apartment and was going to kill me and was approaching the bed and wielding a knife and why wouldn’t my screams come out, what was happening. The incidents have decreased, but they haven’t disappeared. Somehow, I wrote sleep paralysis into my life. 

Lately, I’ve been borrowing from my own life, those experiences that have stayed like scabbed-over stingers in skin. That time an ex-boyfriend got us lost in my town’s logging roads. The garter snake a babysitter sent wheeling through the trees. Going to that psychic far too many times after ending a shift at the sports bar where I worked. Waking up in the middle of the night and pulling jeans on because I didn’t have an air conditioner and a fever dream had convinced me I was still working in the bookstore. Strange, small, liminal moments.  

I’ve become the Shirley to my Rose. Pieces of me go into my stories; my stories graft onto my body. It’s a vampiric, exhausting cycle. 

I love it.

^ ^ ^

The fragile bond between Shirley and Rose relies on two things: Shirley’s project and Rose’s compliance. As Shirley nears the end of the project, she doesn’t need Rose as much, so when Rose breaks the rules––writing Paula’s name on a library card, pretending she’d been in a class of Stanley’s that she hadn’t been, creating rather than chasing after Paula’s movements––Shirley lashes out: doesn’t Rose know there’s no such thing as the Shakespeare Society? That club that’s been taking up so much of Fred’s time? Fred’s been cheating on Rose and she’s too dumb to even see it.

It’s not a coincidence that Rose questioning her marriage––yelling at Fred, grabbing their newborn out of the stroller––overlaps with Stanley questioning Shirley’s project. He insists the project isn’t right for her, is beneath her. Stanley calls Paula “a nothing” and Shirley, furious, protests, “There are dozens and dozens of girls like this, littering campuses across the country. Lonely girls who cannot make the world see them. Do not tell me I do not know this girl.” These girls are her subject, yes, but they’re also her audience. Shirley’s writing for women like her. She’s writing for Rose.

In this way, Shirley and Rose find their endings together. Rose, distraught, has Shirley drive them out to the trailhead where Paula disappeared. Shirley runs after her, clutching Rose’s baby to her chest, watching as Rose hovers at the edge of a cliff, saying how easy it is, just like Shirley said it would be, how all it would take is a hop. This is the final moment in their collaboration. If Rose takes another step, she’ll become Paula. She doesn’t. But she’s not the same Rose, either. As she and Fred drive away from the house that’s leeched their honeymoon out of them, she sneers at the idea of going back to playing “wifey.” She knows, now, what it’s like to be more. She’s not going backwards.

Shirley will write another book. She’ll find herself back in the mire of darkness, of not knowing which way forward through her story, of not trusting herself as a writer, not trusting her words. That’s the terrible thing about writing, isn’t it? After you finish one project, there’s always another to undo you, undermine you, make yourself ask why the fuck you keep doing this to yourself. But, at least, Shirley’s made her way through this particular fog. She’s finished her book. Stanley turns on the turntable and, through their ivy-draped windows, we watch them dance. Victorious.