On women and witchcraft

10 February 2017

The last scene of the television series about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald has faded from my screen and I have turned the last page of the Shirley Jackson biography, and I am now saturated with thoughts of women’s thwarted power. I had not intended for the tales of those two women in particular to intersect in and intertwine with my consciousness at this particular moment in time—but sometimes such things happen as they will.

For a long time I have felt empathy and not a small amount of sorrow for Mrs. Fitzgerald. Zelda, that patron saint of difficult women. This most recent television series does not mar her, as I pessimistically expect every depiction of her to do, but neither does it do her complexity and depth justice. And, as many another emotional, book-reading difficult woman might agree, I care deeply about justice for Zelda. How could we not. Young Zelda Sayre, who broke rules and flaunted propriety and wanted to get the hell out of Alabama. Who found a matching hunger in a writer who ate up her own words, who got her out of Alabama, and who let her set the world on fire. She consumed and was consumed. But when I think most often about Zelda (and I think very often about Zelda), I don’t think of her Jazz Age It Girl heyday, or the drama of her and Scott’s “Sid and Nancy”-esque slide to ruin. I think of her alone at the sanitarium, after she had been diagnosed, after Scott had left and found someone easier, after she had learned she had her own talent, and then after Scott died. She wrote and she painted and she didn’t really get better, but she lived on her own terms as much as she could, perhaps more than she ever had before. Then, one night, the fire came and took her away.

Zelda is simple to mythologize, and she has been often, often by me. On the surface, the similarities between her and Shirley Jackson, the psychological horror author who came a couple of decades later, seem minimal. Shirley was a 50s housewife who eked out writing time from her days spent raising four children, cooking, cleaning and keeping a home. But she might have known some of the same things that Zelda knew. She might have known what it meant to be subtlely dismissed by a writer husband whose grandiose mindset sometimes trumped everything, and everyone, else. She might have known what it was like to support such a man, sometimes at the expense of her own creativity. She might have known what it felt like to go unfulfilled.

More to the point, however, Shirley might have known the layer deeper, the area into which Zelda might have been able to start to prod, towards the end, but never penetrated. Shirley was interested in the whys. She studied folklore and witchcraft, and she learned the history of mythology throughout the world. She understood her life in the context of these ideas, and how they interacted with human psychology. Her publisher, after the smashing achievement of The Lottery, sought to capitalize on her interest in the occult by playing it up in their subsequent marketing campaigns, but broomsticks and cauldrons and hexes were the least interesting part of her story. Shirley peeled back the facade whenever she could, and she used the tools of horror to explore where women lived and were trapped. If Zelda was the demon conjured from female repression and lack of opportunity, set loose upon the world, then Shirley was the witch who set her spells carefully down in her books, to be preserved as warnings for the women who would come later.

“Justice” for these women—all of these women, the creative and the crazy and the difficult and the unfulfilled—does not mean they should only be painted in a good light, but that they are taken not as victims and not as villains, but as fully-formed people with agency and power. With their own ideas and their own words.

The legacy of women and witchcraft is one of shadows and societal disrepute, and of times and places where the only way a woman could steal back power over herself and her immediate world was in secret, with stealth. With dark arts and ancient wisdom. Even when it seems no longer needed, I am comforted to think that, tucked away in hidden corners, are the pieces of magic those who went before have kept for the rest of us, and they will always be there should we need them.


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