Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest

Vicki Madden

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Arta Ajeti https://www.instagram.com/artawork/

Shirley Jackson is probably best remembered as the author of “The Lottery” (1948), a short story so controversial that, upon its initial publication in The New Yorker, readers cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine and sent Jackson copious amounts of hate mail. While today, “The Lottery” is often hailed as a seminal piece of American fiction, however, Jackson’s other works have been criminally overlooked, especially when it comes to university curricula. In particular, Jackson’s novel The Bird’s Nest, which details a young woman’s struggle with dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), has received very little academic attention despite its historical significance.

Published in 1954, The Bird’s Nest predates Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley’s renowned psychiatric study The Three Faces of Eve (1957), which was rushed into print and adapted for the screen the same year in order to capitalise on the growing national interest in multiple personality disorders. This hunger for tales centring on rare, extreme cases of mental illnesses was no doubt influenced by Jackson’s novel, which was eventually adapted into its own film, Lizzie, the same year as the much more commercially successful Eve. Jackson was reportedly unimpressed with the film – which employed the tagline “Female Jekyll-and-Hyde lived 3 strange lives!” – calling it “Abbott and Costello meet a multiple personality” (Franklin 343), highlighting the insidious nature of popular portrayals of serious disorders such as MPD, especially in relation to female patients.

Jackson’s source novel offers a much more nuanced, albeit equally gothic, approach to MPD compared to its film adaption. Drawing inspiration from Morton Prince’s once famous study The Dissociation of a Personality (1905), The Bird’s Nest tells the story of twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Richmond, who lives a lonely, isolated life with “no friends, no parents, no associates, and no plans;” she is “not even interesting enough to distinguish with a nickname” (Jackson 7-8). Her lack of a clear sense of self results in the multiple personalities of Beth, Betsy, and Bess. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Wright, hopes to “cure” Elizabeth not by integrating her multiple personalities, but by drawing out the one that most perfectly fits his notions of ideal femininity, in other words, by choosing the personality that most closely adheres to outdated patriarchal ideas about womanhood. Under Dr. Wright’s supervision, Elizabeth’s growing number of fractured personalities are ultimately assimilated into a brand new individual who must be given a new name, implying that all of her previous personalities, including Elizabeth herself, have ceased to exist.

Elizabeth’s illness is clearly indicative of women’s marginalisation within the patriarchal culture of 1950s America. Marta Carminero-Santangelo, indeed, believes the interest in multiple personality disorder during this period was symptomatic of the threat women posed when filling multiple roles in post-World War II society – as wives, mothers, and professionals – and that multiple personality, particularly in its portrayal within popular culture and the media, “intimated a vague threat to the sexual contract which was the cornerstone of 1950s domestic life” (10). Put differently, the image of the divided or multiple woman, who could be several things at once, threatened to dismantle the precarious phallocentric order of post-war American society, in which gender roles and relations were already beginning to shift.

As someone studying representations of personality disorder in post-World War II American fiction, I regret to say that most of the primary texts I engage with are written by white men, and most often revolve around white male central characters. There are, however, several notable exceptions to this pattern, chief among them Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil (1973), Jackson’s Hangsaman (1951), and of course, The Bird’s Nest. It speaks volumes that when it comes to depictions of rare but often sensationalised mental illnesses in literature and popular culture, female voices are curiously lacking – despite the age-old assumption that madness is a female malady (Showalter).

I first became interested in literary depictions of mental illness when, as a second-year undergraduate, I came upon Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). Gilman’s gothic tale of a woman who, confined to a nursery while suffering from post-partum depression, begins seeing her own double within the yellow wallpaper that surrounds her and descends into madness, was unlike anything I had read at university before. It was Gilman’s story that drove home my love for all things gothic, a love I had previously indulged by reading lots of stories by white male writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.P. Lovecraft, all the usual suspects. I wanted to read more stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper” – stories that gave women a voice and didn’t just fetishise them. But Perkins Gilman seemed to be a one-off in my undergraduate courses. We were taught no other stories like the fifteen-page chiller that had so captivated my imagination. And so I began my own quest for gothic stories by American women. That search ended with a fourth-year dissertation on the short stories of Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, and Shirley Jackson – three American women who could really keep you up at night. Three years down the line, Jackson is still very much a part of my academic life: a solitary female voice amidst a sea of men usually talking about other, weirder men to the point of making them into legends.

The erasure of female voices in literary depictions of mental illness reveals a troubling critical lacuna – one that must be addressed by diversifying our curriculum here at the University of Edinburgh. The wide-ranging themes in Jackson’s text ensure that it would fit into a broad array of honours literature courses: from a seminar on gothic and horror fiction to a course on post-World War II American fiction, or even a class centring on medicine in literature. Given the lack of emphasis on crucial American women writers of the twentieth century, a category to which Shirley Jackson certainly belongs, an entire course could be also designed around examining critical yet often under-valued works like The Bird’s Nest, which highlight female subjectivities and struggles. Considering the recent critical interest in the Female Gothic in particular, our university could even go one step further and devote an entire course to this up-and-coming subject area, which would pave the way for examining additional marginalised voices through the gothic and horror medium.

Works Cited

Carminero-Santangelo, Marta. The Madwoman Can’t Speak, or Why Insanity is Not Subversive. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. New York: Liveright, 2016.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories: The Complete Gothic Collection. Ed. Aric Cushing. The Ascent Agency, 2012.

Jackson, Shirley. The Bird’s Nest. New York: Tower, 1965.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. London: Virago, 1987.

Thigpen, Corbett, and Hervey Cleckley. The Three Faces of Eve. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957.

About the author:

Vicki Madden is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where she earned both her MA (2013) and an MScR with distinction (2014). Her doctoral project traces the development of the American psychological thriller from 1952 to 1991 and explores the ways in which mental illness, specifically psychopathy and disorders of personality, have been gothicised in Cold War era fiction with an emphasis on the influence of psychoanalysis and the implications of gender. Her wider research interests include suburban, Victorian, and fin-de-siècle gothic as well as feminist psychoanalytic theory.

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