Spells of Protection
29 August 2017
One of my summer reads was the 1962 Shirley Jackson novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In a vein similar to the later Margaret Atwood novel Alias Grace, we find a first-person narrator who we cannot fully comprehend, and Jackson’s Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood–like Atwood’s Grace Marks–may be guilty of multiple murders.
We can read this deliberate ambiguity in a number of ways: the particular puzzled psychoses of repressed females, for instance, or the dysfunctional power relationships within families; the self-struggling identities of adolescent development or even the unreasonable demands of an outside world to extract simple clarity from complex humanity. Yet while these two novels resolve the question of guilt differently, they also bear another comparison: the desire for us to construct our own realities–however absurd–and cling to them desperately despite contrary facts.
Alias Grace will premiere soon on Netflix. Of course.
For Merricat, the poisoning death of all but two of her family members becomes the obsessively stubborn and defining talk of all who survive for the next decade, yet they will in their self-imposed isolation insist aloud that the murder is unsolved. The senile and disabled Uncle Julian even writes a book on the murders, waxing philosophically on the arrangements of silverware or the dinner seating arrangements in an effort to “solve” the murders, never once pointing to Merricat as suspect.
The cloistering of these survivors, underscored by a common agoraphobia, allows them to concoct any version of history they desire. Uncle Julian confusedly believes his book will be a testament to the unsolvable, sister Constance tends her gardens in a sort of willful deferring of accountability, and Merricat offers us perhaps the most absurd of worlds:
“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All the locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts.”
For Merricat, any world is better than one grounded in an honest look at the past. One wonders, though, if she is even capable of shifting her viewpoint. Constance calls her fancies “silly,” but these are gentle chidings from a protector, nothing which undermines her magical sensibilities.
“It’s when our willful deferments, our manias, work to push back reason in the broader world that they become truly dangerous.”
Magical thinking is not altogether uncommon even amongst non-murderers. We can forgive beliefs like Santa Claus, even the obsessive fan arguments over Potterworld relationships with passions generally reserved for actual people. It’s when our willful deferments, our manias, work to push back reason in the broader world that they become truly dangerous. Merricat’s work to do so is never done, and she lets us in on it: When strangers come to inquire of them, she remarks:
“There had not been this many words sounded in our house for a long time, and it was going to take a while to clean them out.”
The narrative she lives is so fragile that it cannot tolerate too much inquiry; she (and we) will invent any excuse to avoid it:
“I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.”
In 1997’s Wag the Dog, Dustin Hoffman plays a film director hired by the White House to invent a war for the American public.
Merricat is clear about the power of words; she understands them to be literally magical weavers of realities. If the wrong stories appear in her house, her narration of her own guilt becomes disambiguated. When she senses that a visitor might shatter the trio’s isolated culture, she invents verbal protections:
“I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come.”
If Merricat is evil, she does not allow us to believe it, so tightly does she weave the protections. Even as her world burns about them, she holds to its ashen fragments with devotion. We don’t, then, disbelieve that Mary Katherine Blackwood is a mass murderer, but–trapped in the novel with her words alone–we doubt her responsibility for it, her capacity to understand her act. And did she herself intentionally set her own world ablaze to protect that narrative?
Uncle Julian sets himself down the path readily enough:
“I really think I shall commence chapter forty-four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”
The stories we weave for ourselves are not necessarily acts of ego, of narcissism. They are, instead, spells of protection for an identity fragile and desperate–entirely reasonable in motive, but calamitous in consequence. Defense of one’s own weakness is not evil as we know it. But then again, how often have we met any other kind?