Stigmatizing Mental Illness in We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This Summer I read We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson. One of my favorite books, The Haunting of Hill House, was also written by Shirley Jackson, so I was thrilled when I discovered that this book was a summer reading option. I admire Jackson’s writing for her eerie and whimsical touch. This particular novel tells the story of two sisters, Constance and Merricat Blackwood. Besides their uncle Julian, the rest of their family is dead. Constance was, six years prior, accused of murdering the family. Therefore, Merricat and Constance are both feared and hated by the entire town and only go in twice a week for groceries, but even that is a trying task. 

The narrator, Merricat, is odd. She is ostracized from the town for seeming weird and detached, and even as the reader, her narrations at times do not seem to be based in reality. 

“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both of my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (Jackson, 1). 

Jackson’s commentary on mental illness is reflected in Merricat. As Merricat is clearly still traumatized by the incident from six years ago, she carries the weight of that to this day. Her mental illness is stigmatized and not understood by those in the town. Instead, she is judged and horribly mistreated, “as close to me as he could come because, I knew, he wanted this morning to be bad luck for me” (Jackson, 12). Nobody in the town sympathizes with Merricat and as the reader, this is hard to understand. Throughout the novel, I found myself constantly sympathizing with Merricat and Constance because of their despairing past. Sadly, mental illness is still stigmatized today even though society as a whole is making active strives to do better by accepting one another for our differences.

A Conversation about Cinema, Race, and Bread

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ short story “A Conversation About Bread,” a ‘meta narrative’ calls attention to the complexity of storytelling regarding race, culture, and socioeconomic disparities. It questions the function and implications of academic cultural studies by chronicling an interview between two anthropology grad students who are working on an ethnography project.

One can’t help but become painfully sensitive to their own interpretation of the short story, which is later extended to our broader relationship with stories and storytelling. This questioning of storytelling, immediately made me think of film and cinema.

When Eldwin, one of the anthropology students, reflects on the complexity of storytelling; he asks himself the following important question.

Didn’t every story provide a narrow representation at best and fetishize somebody at worst?

Thompson-Spires, Nafissa. “A Conversation About Bread.” Heads of the Colored People, p.183.

This immediately brought to mind a film analysis video essay I watched on one of my favorite directors, Sofia Coppola. You can watch the video essay here.

Although skepticism of Coppola’s privileged and narrow narrative had surfaced for a while, her 2017 film The Beguiled was the recipient of the most controversy. Consistent with Coppola’s hallmark style, the film was chock-full of painteresque tableaux featuring a group of southern women portrayed by Kirsten Dunst (as always), Elle Fanning, and Nicole Kidman. Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly), in Coppola’s rendition of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War Era novel, the two characters of color (a black slave, and a biracial character) are void from the plot entirely. This directorial decision sparked passionate debates and criticism, drawing attention to Coppola’s privilege and blindness to the diversity of femininity.

According to Eldwin’s philosophy, wouldn’t Coppola’s decision to omit Black characters from her film be better than portraying them problematically?

I feel as if a stereotypical, tokenized, and flat addition of black characters to accompany the white leads or to promote a narrative of white saviorism could be far worse than the narrow view Coppola offered. Read this article about Viola Davis and The Help.

It is hardest to question the things we love and cherish the most, but as a Chinese American girl coming of age – I can’t help but feeling subordinate to this limited, warped portrayal of the delicacies of female adolescence. How could someone who looked like me, or my friends ever exist in this universe of long gazes out of passing windows or the effluvia of the Lisbon sisters’ bedroom paired with melancholically eerie soundtracks by the French band, Air. Would anyone other than a Kirsten Dunst archetype ruin the aesthetic and dreaminess of these films centered around this angelic pinnacles of Eurocentric beauty? Simultaneously, Coppola has been one of the most successful female directors, and has carved out a space for the rawness of female adolescence that was previously nonexistent in mainstream Hollywood. Her attention to feminine aesthetics and detail has often been criticized as superfluous; interestingly enough male directors who do the same, such as Wes Anderson, are often praised for being unique and artistic. Her films have played a critical role in my coming of age, and serve as constant artistic inspirations. Yet her choice to prioritize the privileged, white female narratives in times of historical urgency is questionable. Not only that, but I feel as lonesome as her delicately shielded protagonists when I am led to believe that artistry and beauty is defined by characters such as these. As my own coping mechanism, I have attempted to build this world around myself and for my friends in a way that feels authentic. The ruffles, the longing emptiness, the way the light reflects through the lawns of a suburban neighborhood – it all is translated through my own mind to somehow redefine these stories starring girls like me.

The critical role white female fragility plays in systems of oppression is undeniable. At times, it can arguably be the most oppressive and influential when it comes to the marginalization of womxn of color. Womxn is intentionally spelled with an “x” in order to awknowlege trans and non-binary womxn (who undoubtedly have no place in Coppola’s worlds), and to avoid the sexism associated with man and men. Read this interesting essay on the power of white female fragility over womxn of color.

The solution that the video and I both come to is that Hollywood needs to make more space for womxn of color, instead of tasking Coppola with representing all womxn. As we learn through Thompson-Spires’ characters, the readers are just as responsible as the writers when it comes to highlighting the stories of marginalized people. As an audience, how can we learn to compensate for the finite representation we are given? How can we do so without fetishizing or tokenizing a group that is culturally different from our own? That is a question without a clean and simple answer that we must revisit throughout our lives.

kirsten dunst as Marie Antoinette – if it's hip, it's here

Bread

In his essay “Canon Fodder” written for The Washington Post, Viet Nguyen discusses race in terms of the exclusive and predominantly white literary canon taught in curricula. He concludes his writing by saying, “the culture that produced the canonical greats also produced mass slavery and colonization that killed millions. Both Shakespeare and slaughter are part of Western civilization. Can we recognize both these faces of the West? Not if we read only Shakespeare.” (38) The attention he draws to the binary between the WHITE writer and not necessarily white reader (as literary audiences are arguably one of the most diverse populations out there) is also applicable to the binary central to the story “Conversation About Bread” in which Eldwin and Brian are anthropology majors discussing the implications and expectations that go along with being either a black writer or black reader. At one point, Brian asks, “Like why would you want to tell this story about a bunch of black Southern guys discovering bread anyway? What purposed does it serve unless it’s to show yourself as somehow better than them?” (92) Theirs is a tricky line to traipse as too much attention to a specific story like this could present as a patronizing piece of writing. However, ignoring little details in favor of coming across as less ‘superior’ risks ignorance and insensitivity. Thus, it is vital to strike a balance between the two.

It is also important to note that just as there is diversity between cultures and races, there is diversity between the individuals in every culture and race. Additionally, the common binary oppositions the mind is often drawn to are not any more prevalent than those that are more complex, crossing the dividing lines between people that make one group the ‘other’. For example, in the short story, there are several instances in which the binary of WHITE/black is noted (i.e. the white woman in the library). While this is the expected and easiest to observe, there is also a binary between the two men as one is a black writer and the other a black reader. It can even be shown that there is a binary between the men as both black readers and writers versus the white canon under which they are learning. So essentially, the argument could be made that even Brian and Eldwin are looking at themselves and the bread story through a ‘white’ lens.

The Lesson Learned in The Lesson

The “Lesson”, by Toni Cade Bambara, is a short story about a young black girl named Sylvia, who goes on a field trip with her class. Ms. Moore, the teacher of the class, takes the students to a toy store. The customers in the store are mostly white and the students are all shocked by how expensive the toys are. One toy that the students were looking at was a “hand crafted sailboat of fiberglass at one thousand on hundred ninety-five dollars.” The students were so surprised by this high price because their families would never be able to afford something of this price. They thought about how the same amount of money could buy some families food for a whole year, whereas wealthy white families are able to spend such a significant amount of money on a single toy. This was very profound because it emphasized the economic gap between white people and minority groups and the unfairness in society.

Underwhelmed

For my summer reading book I chose to read Kobe Bryant. I was really excited to read this book by Clayton Geoffreys, but I soon lost that. After Kobe passed away I wanted to learn more about him so I thought I would choose a book that would give me more insight on who we was. I was very disappointed when I started reading because of how dull it seemed to be. After recently watching the documentary on Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance”, I saw no similarities between the two. This book did not keep me engaged like the show was able to. I knew about who Michael Jordan was, but not like what the documentary showed me. I learned about how he was off the court which was something the Kobe book could not do. I had a preconceived notion that the book would be the same, so I probably had high hopes. Either way the writer just did not do what I was looking for to keep me engaged with good story telling. From our previously read short story, “Good Readers and Good Writers”, Nabakov stated, “Every good writer is a good deceiver,” (31). The author of Kobe Bryant was not able to do this, however I did still learn some interesting things about Kobe’s games. I definitely give him credit for what he had to work with but I think this could’ve have been drastically better.