• Yehoshua Paul

1962 - We Have Always Lived in The Castle

1962. An almost perfect year. Jackie Kennedy restores the White House. Shirley Jackson writes We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Mrs. Jackie Kennedy in a Tour of The White House

I am a woman above everything else.” (Jackie Kennedy)

If there were a year and country that I could freeze in time forever, I think it would be 1962 in the United States. It's the year in which:

The year admittedly is not perfect. Marilyn Monroe commits suicide, the Vietnam war is bogged down, and it takes a bunch of urgent phone calls to avert a nuclear holocaust. However, it is still the golden age of the Kennedys and the presidential couple is doing an amazing job in filling the country with optimism and hope.

For Mrs. Jackie Kennedy, this means renovating the White House, one of America's greatest symbols. Previous presidents had removed much of the building’s historic artifacts, and Mrs. Kennedy desires to restore the people's pride and sense of history in a building that needs to reflect the best the nation has to offer.

To Mrs. Kennedy, the White House is a living monument. It needs to reflect all the presidencies, and not just the ancient past. Therefore, the style of the building cannot be limited to a single time period. Each room that is restored reflects the personal tastes of a different president, and the objects it contains match the appropriate time period, in a way that truly brings the building’s history to life.

The restoration project receives a lot of attention from the media, and as a result many people from across the United States contact the first lady to donate ancient family heirlooms. The culmination of all this attention is Mrs. Kennedy’s guided tour of the White House, which airs on CBS in February. It’s the first time a first lady gives a private tour, and over 80 million people tune in to watch the event.

It would have been truly amazing if the Kennedys could have finished their term in the White House. Or if 1962 could have lasted a bit longer. Sadly, this will not be the case, and a double tragedy will be inflicted on Mrs. Kennedy in 1963. Nothing lasts forever.

We see this lesson reinforced, in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle. In this beautifully deceptive novel, the lesson is pounded in the hard way when the narrator is forced to confront the changes the passage of time inevitably brings about.

Shirley Jackson, her four children and the family dog (1956)

“So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you.” (Shirley Jackson)

Shirley Hardie Jackson (1916 – 1965) was an American writer and amateur witch, best known for her horror and mystery stories populated by emotionally scarred women. During her too short career, she managed to produce two memoirs, six novels, and over 200 short stories.

Credit for Jackson’s haunted mind goes to two people: her overly critical mother and her philandering sexist husband.

Geraldine Jackson had very clear expectations from her apparent disappointment of a daughter. She had wanted a prettier more obedient child and was extremely frustrated that her daughter had different ideas. Geraldine liked to constantly criticize Jackson about her bad hair, weight, and stubborn refusal to develop a feminine charm. She also had no problem letting Jackson that she was the product of a failed abortion. These criticisms continued long after Jackson grew up and left her parents’ home; only now, her mother also complained about her daughter’s lifestyle and repetitious writing style.

Stanley Edgar Hyman was Jackson’s great rebellion. As an adult, Jackson allowed herself to gain weight and become a writer – adding to her mother’s long list of disappointments. Her talent attracted the attentions of Hyman, a Jewish intellectual, who didn’t think she was ugly and believed she could make it big. Unfortunately, he also felt that, as a matter of principle, he had the right to sleep with other women, and expected Jackson to enjoy listening to stories of his sexual affairs. Still, her mother hated Hyman, which meant he probably wasn’t all that bad. The couple got married. Hyman got a mother, a housekeeper and a breadwinner, and Jackson got an allowance.

These relationships helped fuel Jackson’s stories and books. They frequently feature lonely tortured women forced to deal with pompous men, controlling family members and judgmental communities. Jackson had a very creative mind and lack of inner demons, and these expressed themselves in her characters haunted imaginations. We see this in her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, considered to be one of the best ghost stories of the twentieth century. And we see this in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely considered to be Jackson’s masterpiece.

“Oh Constance, we are so happy.” (Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in The Castle)

Like 1962, this book is one of those perfect novels that I would love to repeat over and over again. I don’t think there are any words that can do this book justice, and any review will inevitably fall short. Also, I don’t want to spoil the experience. When I first picked up the novel, I made the mistake of reading the introduction. It was one of my greater reading mistakes as it matter-of-factly revealed most of the novel’s plot twists to a first time reader. I do not plan on committing the same crime.

Therefore without spoiling anything, I feel it is safe to tell you that there was a murder, but it is rude to discuss such events during tea. Three words of power will end up being powerless and a nailed book will fall down. A word of advice: don’t obsess over buried silver dollars or the properties of deadly poisons – it’s creepy and misleading.

There are also two sisters, but if you want to meet them, you will need to read the book. I strongly recommend it as these sisters hate visitors even though their parents raised them to always be polite. They are best visited during tea time, but I’d avoid the sugar if I were you. If you hear any townsfolk talking about the story, ignore them. They’re full of hate over an incident they’ll never understand, but that’s New England.

So why did I enjoy this book so much? Because it’s beautifully disturbing in a very unhealthy way. Like chocolate, you are going to end up craving it even though you know it’s bad for your soul, but in a good way. After I read this book, my faith in humanity was restored, leaving me with a strong desire for a memory wipe.

Go read the book. You’ll thank me later.


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