The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson

One girl with four personalities at war for dominance, and her only hope is the doctor who is growing to loathe her.

I swear this has never happened to me–I could have sworn I read The Bird’s Nest when I went through my Shirley Jackson phase back in 1998. I found this awesome woman in Canada who found me most of her out-of-print books–except this one–in a used bookstore in Toronto. I knew I didn’t own The Bird’s Nest, but I thought that at least I had checked it out from the library. And since the subject matter is both so classic to the time (multiple personalities!) and so perfect for Shirley Jackson, I can’t imagine not moving heaven and earth in order to read it.

For the first few chapters I settled in, convinced I was re-reading this book. But as soon as Elizabeth’s therapy began in earnest, I realized that I had never read it before. The opening was familiar because the tropes were so familiar from books like Sybil and movies like Three Faces of Eve, but Jackson’s take on the subject matter is far from run-of-the-mill. To my (happy) surprise, I was getting to experience a novel by one of my favorite authors for the very first time.

Jackson takes the classic model–girl meets doctor, doctor meets personalities–but gives her distinctive spin on the third part–girl loses personalities through rigorous psychoanalysis leading to integration–through her signature, masterful use of internally focalized third-person narration from the point of view of Betsy, one of the personalities, and Elizabeth’s befuddled aunt Morgen. There’s a blackly funny scene near the end where each of the four personalities all, in turn, makes Morgen sit with her while she takes a bath. Morgen both knows and doesn’t know what’s going on, but her grim acceptance of the reality of the moment gives the scene a wicked humor that’s also deeply unsettling in true gothic form.

Unlike with most multiple personality narratives, Jackson isn’t interested in easy answers or a happy ending. The Bird’s Nest might end on an up note, but the tone is far from optimistic. Elizabeth might be the one who’s mentally ill, but Jackson manages to make the reader go a little bit crazy–and that’s a great thing.

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