Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Paperback, 160 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

"Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!"

Mary Katherine Blackwood, called Merricat, and her sister Constance have lived their life for the past six years shut away from the world caring for their Uncle Julian. Their only other companion is Merricat's cat Jonas. Merricat is the only one ever to leave the house, on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are bad days. As she walks to the store she can feel the eyes watching her. A good trip into town is one with minimal contact with the outside world, a bad trip is one that ends in taunting. The three remaining Blackwoods have been beyond the bounds of society behind the fence that Constance and Merricat's father erected before that fateful and fatal dinner. Constance was arrested six years ago because she was the only one who didn't use the sugar laced with the cyanide. Constance was the only one at the table to survive that dinner without any aftereffects... Uncle Julian survived, but he was never able to walk again and his mind wanders, though that night never leaves him. He is dedicating what remains of his life to recounting that final day. The day when he lost four of his family members, one of them his wife.

The aftermath of Constance's acquittal, despite everyone believing in her guilt, was that she shut out the world. Connie never ventures past her garden anymore. She spends her time cooking and looking after her two charges, keeping the world shut out. Merricat is just as paranoid of others as Constance, but she has buried treasure and symbolic items scattered throughout their land in a type of rustic magic to ward off everyone. One day she finds that her wards have failed and at that moment there is a knock on the door. Their cousin Charles has arrived. His branch of the Blackwoods severed all connections at the time of the trial, not even willing to take Merricat in, that night she was sent to bed without dinner, and though it saved her life it meant she was banished to an orphanage for a time. Charles does not have the best of intentions. He is avaricious, only seeing the money in everything. And in his alliance with Connie, Julian and Merricat are just obstacles to be dealt with, nothing more. But Merricat won't go down without a fight, because this kitty has claws. She has a feeling that it will be her left in the house with Constance, not Charles. Charles should remember, bad things have been known to happen to members of the Blackwood family. Especially those who send Merricat to bed without her supper.

This book is the most terrifying and accurate story of paranoia I think I have ever read. There's a part of me that is very antisocial and would rather be left to my books. I have easily gone a week without leaving the house and I can see some things in Merricat that I can relate to in her OCD behaviors. During times of stress I notice that certain ticks I thought I had gotten over return. Washing hands a certain number of times, needing to touch objects in a certain order, things needing to be placed just so. But I remind myself that despite a genetic propensity for agoraphobia, my paternal great-grandmother never left her room for forty years, that at least I do leave the house. I do go out into the world. I don't have a reason to be paranoid. I am not a Blackwood. The difference is their isolation isn't without just cause. Yes, it's odd and haunting the way they lock themselves away, but they do so for a reason. The villagers, more than the crime, made them what they are, or at least exacerbated the situation enough to cause them to turn inward. Coming to the house, taunting, cat calling, daring each other to go to the home where everyone died. Asking Connie to come out so they can see what a mass murderer looks like. "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?" Childish glee in their hatred of the hoity-toity and reclusive sisters is evident in the villagers.

The mob mentality of people who appear normal is a far scarier thing than two agoraphobic girls peering through slits in the windows at a life they will never have nor want. The bile that is brewing in the town has far greater scope then the murders that happened to the Blackwood family. It's the age old fear, fear of the unknown. The girls are distinctly "other" and not so much because of the family legacy or their aristocratic airs but because of their problems. If the girls went out into the world more, interacted with the town, much like Charles does, the constant reminder of the crime would diminish over time. It wouldn't be a talking point anymore, just something that happened in the past. Instead, by locking themselves away they are, in the mind of the villagers, antagonizing them and making themselves a target. In fact the more I think about it the more I realize that not only is this a book about prejudice and paranoia but it's about the stigma of mental illness. These girls need help, but instead they are ostracized. I am lucky enough to have friends around me who support me during my dark days and when I'm having problems. I don't deny that I have issues with depression. But on a larger stage it's still verboten to talk about it. This book shows in the most graphic way that compassion not fear should be how mental illness is treated.

Because there is no doubt that Merricat and Constance are mentally ill. Merricat is 18 in this book, yet her behavior is more like that of a 12 year old, her emotional development and well being stunted when the poisoning happened. Constance wonders if she was right to shut Merricat away from the world, but it seems to me a mutual decision. Merricat, despite being more willing to leave the house, is really suffering more, and very much a sociopath. She has far more rituals and dark thoughts than Constance ever had. There is the rigid schedule to maintain, there are the coins buried in the river bank, the doll under the rock, the blue marbles, and the book that was nailed to the tree. Even when Merricat isn't checking on them her thoughts dwell on the powers these items give her, the layer of protection she has. Like a person who has to turn the light on and off so many times before leaving, Merricat's life is built around these rituals that have evolved around her to protect the two sisters, who, despite everything, deeply love each other. These are really ingenious coping mechanisms. Because it keeps them busy, keeps them active. For Constance cooking and cleaning, for Merricat there's her magic. While others might say these rituals are symptoms of their disease, I'm more forgiving, I see them as ways they can survive. Whatever you need to do to get by right? And they aren't hurting anyone.

Yet, even with the best coping mechanisms there is always that hope, that light at the end of the tunnel that someone will come and save you. That a hero will emerge from the darkness and make everything OK. Who hasn't dreamt of a knight in shining armor? When you're lost in the deepest recesses of your mind sometimes the idea that you can be rescued by someone else is all that gets you through. Which is why it makes sense that Constance responded to Charles. She's trying to find a hero, sadly Charles isn't it. He's a morally corrupt human being willing to pit two mentally ill sisters against each other in order for monetary gain. I mean, seriously, this family has issues. Lots of them. Yet he's the socially acceptable one, which again highlights how we need to remove the stigma of mental illness. I was seriously hoping that Charles might go the way of the previous Blackwoods. Though much more painfully. Though the war that Merricat wages on him is something not to be missed. Because Merricat knows the truth, in the end you have to rescue yourself. She's the hero of this tale, not some loser cousin looking for a handout. She's a flawed heroine, but the best ones are.


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