What to Read: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill HouseAt this time last year, I was teaching a high-school class called “Dreams and Nightmares: Literature of the Sublime and the Uncanny”. The first book we read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Although some of my lesson plans met with more success than others, I think that it was, on the whole, an excellent pedagogical tool. The haunted house is, of course, the ne plus ultra of the uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud—the German term unheimlich basically translates to “un-home-like” or “un-homey”—so Jackson’s story of a house that is “not sane" was a fine place to begin our class. The book also gave us a chance to talk about Freud’s theory of repression, which several of the youngsters found compelling, and every adolescent pays close attention to the teacher when the topic of conversation is lesbians.

The children were not nearly as fascinated by the concept of folie á deux as I was, nor did they care at all about the Misses Moberly and Jourdain and their strange story’s impact on Jackson’s narrative. While I am always disappointed by a lesson plan that goes nowhere, I had been teaching long enough not to be terribly surprised. What did surprise me, though—shocked me, really—was the fact that none of my students seemed to find The Haunting of Hill House at all frightening because, in my opinion, The Haunting of Hill House is really fucking scary.

I am not alone in thinking this. When, after I first read this book, I asked Sarah Hand if she had ever read it, her immediate response was a guttural noise of terror. When I asked my mom, the very question made her shudder. My first reading of the book prompted a physiological reaction that remains, for me, unique: my eyes watered from fear. This was not, I must explain, weeping. It was something else altogether, more like a cold sweat pouring from my eyes than crying. I just finished reading the book for a third time, and it still gives me the shivers.

I’ve tried to figure out why it is that the children didn’t find this book scary. It’s possible that they have been desensitized by the unsubtle gore and cartoonish morbidity of popular horror. But I wonder, too, if Jackson’s narrative of dissolution—of a woman losing her identity—might not be be properly appreciated only by people of some maturity. Adolescents are in flux anyway, just figuring themselves out; perhaps the idea of loss of self is not all that terrifying to people who are only just developing a self. And, reading the novel for a third time, I am struck anew by the calm elegance of Jackson’s prose. Without ever raising her voice or resorting to extravagant language, she is able to communicate situations that are absolutely existentially wrong—states of being that simply should not be. It’s impossible to describe how chilling some of her passages are, because to describe them—to paraphrase—would rob them of their considerable power. To appreciate these moments, though, requires patience and careful reading—not necessarily the kind of reading employed by students who have to get to page 163 before the next class.

So, anyway, I still can’t say why the teens weren’t scared by The Haunting of Hill House but I continue to find it terrifying after multiple readings. It’s a mystery. I can say however, that I stand by original assessment: this book is really fucking scary.

April 24, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (9)

Good News!

“I’m visiting neighbors today because I’d like to share the good news from the collected works of Jacques Lacan.”

“Good morning. I’m wondering if I might offer you this copy of On the Origin of Species. I’d also be delighted to discuss some passages with you. “

“I understand that you’re busy right now. Is there a time that’s better for you? May I leave you with the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation?”

“Have you given any thought to your personal relationship with The Batman?”

“Have you accepted Gerhard Richter / Elvis Costello / Gandalf as your personal savior?”


Co-authored by Wesley Umstead.

October 20, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

The letter I just sent to Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger

Dear House Speaker Bolger,

First, I’d like to tell you how flattered I am that the Michigan House of Representatives has taken an interest in my uterus. It’s really sweet to know that you’re dedicated to protecting my womb and its contents from, say, doctors who would try to coerce me into an abortion, because maybe that really is a thing somewhere. And I totally understand how you might like to be able to pass laws concerning my reproductive organs without actually having to hear about my reproductive organs, or Representative Lisa Brown’s reproductive organs, or any female genitalia of any kind. Let’s face it: “vagina” is a pretty gross word. I don’t like it much either, to be honest.

But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that we can really talk about women’s reproductive health without talking about women’s reproductive parts, and I’m thinking that maybe women should be able to participate in that conversation. I’d like to suggest a compromise. Instead of telling Representative Brown to sit down and shut up and let the menfolk do the talking, you offer your colleagues a choice of friendly, utterly non-threatening euphemisms for all that stuff “down there”. To facilitate this compromise, I’ve prepared this list for you:

  • Honey Pot
  • Vertical Smile
  • Coochie
  • Muff
  • Pearly Purse
  • Box
  • Tunnel of Love
  • Hoo-ha
  • Madge
  • Lady Jane
  • Quim
  • Yoni
  • Vajayjay
  • Punani
  • Gentleman’s Pleasure Garden
  • Nature’s Tufted Treasure
  • Fancy Bits
  • Mrs. Kitty
  • The Downtown Dining and Entertainment District
  • Naughty Bits
  • Goody Wagon
  • Rivendell
  • Cream Puff
  • Magic Cave
  • Her Majesty
  • Snatch
  • Hot Pocket

Please accept this list as my thanks for HB 5711, HB5712, and HB5713


Jessica Jernigan

Mount Pleasant


June 14, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Our Daughters’ Bodies, Ourselves

My daughter, who is five, knows where babies come from. She knows what menstruation is.  She knows the word “vagina” and we do not use any cute euphemisms for that part of her body.

My daughter sees my naked body all the time. This is partly because she doesn’t really get—or doesn’t really care—that I might like a little privacy when I’m dressing and undressing. But one of the reasons I don’t police my own privacy too much is because I want my daughter to know what a woman’s body looks like. I want her to know that my soft, roundish, un-waxed, basically healthy forty-one-year-old body is an acceptable shape for the female form to take.  I don’t make my body a mystery to my daughter, because I do not want her body to be a mystery.

My daughter loves my body. Not too long ago, it was a source of nourishment. Once upon a time, it was home. It’s still a source of comfort. My daughter has no idea that my body should be anything other than what it is.

Since the day she was born, my husband and I have shaped our talk about her body to emphasize health, strength, and agency. When she was tiny, we praised her for being so big and strong. Now that she’s big and strong, we let friends, family, and strangers coo about her gorgeous eyes and amazingly long lashes, while we marvel at the powerful legs required to pedal a Big Wheel so fast. Our daughter’s body is not something for other people to look at and admire. It is hers, to nurture and use and enjoy.

I’m thinking about all this because, like a lot of my feminist fellow travelers, I was dismayed by the recent episode of Dance Moms in which girls between the ages of eight and twelve perform a burlesque routine, and the essay from the April issue of Vogue in which a woman describes putting her seven-year-old on a diet.

I don’t watch Dance Moms, so I can’t say that the mothers on that show are living vicariously through their daughters, but I have watched enough clips to know that they have basically abdicated responsibility for their children and accepted the authority of their dance coach. Given that “reality” shows are designed to create conflict and controversy, I feel confident in suggesting that the dance coach has embraced her own monstrosity at the encouragement of the show’s producers. If there weren’t actual children being hurt by her desire to shock, she’d be a rather compelling character. But she is hurting actual children, and her apparent desire to teach these children that they are commodities is repellent—and particularly perverse, since little girls who have worked so hard to become incredible dancers should be able to take some pride in and ownership of their achievements.

The Vogue story is even more troubling to me, because I really don’t think either the author or the publication intended to be provocative.  Ostensibly a mother’s own account of helping her daughter to achieve a healthy weight, it’s actually a profoundly upsetting portrait of a woman trying to pass on her own dysfunctional relationship with food and her own body. It’s made all the more harrowing by the daughter’s resistance, and the mother’s steely insistence that new-won thinness is a kind of existential rebirth:

For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she's accomplished, she says yes... Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek... “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn't mean it didn't happen.”

My point is this: If we don’t want anyone else to own our daughters’ bodies,  we need to be the first ones to teach our daughters that their bodies belong to them. We can care for them. We can nurture them. We can help them learn to make good choices by presenting them with healthful options. But we can’t own them. We can’t shape them. And we sure as hell can’t live through them. And if we want our daughters to be strong and happy in their bodies, we need to show them how to do that by being strong and happy in our own bodies. 

March 24, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (1)


Here’s the thing about women: They are, by their very nature, loose.

While men are like tempered steel—hard, unchanging, complete, perfect—women are in a constant state of flux. They are fluid, unfinished, always becoming. They are permeable, designed to be penetrated by men and inhabited by babies. They bleed without being cut.

Women are, obviously, dangerous—to themselves, to everyone else.

Women need fathers. They need husbands. They need careful governance and physical restraint, male-defined codes of behavior and the sheltering walls of the domestic sphere.

These ideas are as old as Aristotle and as current Rush Limbaugh’s attempted slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke. Critics—myself among them—have noted that Limbaugh’s attack had nothing to do with Fluke’s actual testimony, but this excellent piece reminds me that, yes, of course it does. A woman speaking as a public citizen is, in Limbaugh’s worldview, essentially the same as a woman making herself sexually available, and a woman who assumes her own sexual agency is, by definition, undiscriminating in her pursuit of partners. She is out of control.

Consider the word “slut” itself. When it entered the English language in the fourteenth century, it meant an untidy or slovenly woman, and we can still find it used that way in Victorian literature. But the shift from that sense to current usage was a minor one given that a woman who is sloppy in her housekeeping will, of course, be sexually sloppy as well. All female sins can be reduced to same one: a refusal to allow men to define and control female sexuality.

Or maybe it’s this: a refusal to accept that a woman is defined and controlled by her sexuality. When Limbaugh cast Fluke as a whore, he was putting her back in her place—the place where he wants her to stay, the place where he has the power to tell her what she is and what she should be. Limbaugh ignored the content of what Fluke had to say because the very fact of her saying anything at all was, as Bady points out in the aforementioned essay, a threat to his privilege. It is, in fact, a threat simply because it calls attention to that privilege (and, by extension, the privilege of the Congressmen who also chose not to hear Fluke speak). When men like Limbaugh call women sluts, it’s because they’re afraid of them.

They should be.

March 4, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Handmade Holidays: Food Edition

Here’s the gift I best remember from last Christmas: Two jars of pickled quails’ eggs that my sister gave me. I also remember—with longing—the orange Bundt cake she made for our grandma and the ceviche she gave our dad. If you like to cook, then you know the pleasure of feeding someone else: Food is love in one of its most elemental forms. And food gifts are also great because you’ve probably got a good idea of what the recipient likes to eat—the same cannot necessarily be said of knowing, for example, how the recipient likes to smell. Once you’ve realized that, yes, food makes a wonderful gift, you’ll probably come up with plenty of ideas of your own, but I’ve scoured the web to find a few recipes that look delightful to me. Here they are

Mushrooms in oilLet’s start with pickles. So easy! So delicious! Martha Stewart has a nice pickle primer with recipes that might inspire you to experiment. From pickles, it’s just a small step to stuff preserved in oil. If you search for “preserved in oil” or “conserved in oil,” you’ll find a ton recipes. These mushrooms look pretty awesome to me, as do these peppers. After oil, of course, we turn to vinegar. This balsamic glaze is gorgeous, and infused vinegars are simple and pretty. And, while we’re on the topic of infusing, I would like to mention homemade liquors and cordials. If you try this honey and saffron liquor, please make a bottle for me.

Gum dropsCandy is classic. Again, Martha Stewart is a great source for ideas. Check out her basic bark recipes if you want something easy and sure to please.  The grownups on your gift list might appreciate some no-bake rum balls. Brown sugar-rosemary walnuts sound like a glorious combination of sweet and savory. And these gum drops! Just look at them! Imagine them in unexpected flavors—herbal, maybe?

Santa cookiesThis list would obviously be incomplete without cookies. This Santa cookie wins the prize for sheer adorableness, but Martha Stewart’s holiday icebox cookies are pretty sweet, too. I’m a big fan of icebox cookies, especially when I need a large quantity of cookies. The other thing that’s great about icebox cookies is that you can give someone frozen or chilled dough so that they can make fresh cookie themselves after the holidays. I can personally vouch for the wonderfulness of these chocolate-black pepper cookies. And, as long as we’re turning on the oven, both Heidi Swanson and Nigella Lawson have incredibly enticing gingerbread recipes.  



Bath and Beauty Edition

Etsy Edition

December 15, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Handmade Holidays: Etsy Edition

You want to give beautiful, one-of-a-kind handmade gifts. Of course you do. But maybe you’re insanely busy this season, or just not feeling crafty. Etsy to the rescue! I’ll be posting some more handmade ideas soon, but today I’m introducing you to some of my favorite Etsy shops. It’s an odd little mix, and you won’t find something for everyone here. But you might find something perfect for someone—maybe even yourself.

Eleneetha Aromatics is my preferred purveyor of handmade soap, and possibly my favorite shop on Etsy. I love Anastasia’s scents because they are deep, earthy—sometimes even a little dirty—and thoroughly grownup.  I generally have at least one bar of her Old Whore soap on hand. I like to let it cure on my bedside table before I use it. My bedroom smells like a seraglio—or, I guess, what I imagine a seraglio might smell like. But that’s what Anastasia’s scents are like: They inspire. Just read a few of her product descriptions and you’ll see what I mean.

Moon Stamp at This Is Just to SayHand-carved rubber stamps are my new little obsession. I like making them myself, but I also like to see what other folks are up to. Tyr at This Is Just to Say has a wonderfully eclectic mix of imagery, and the quality of her work is excellent. I’ve purchased the moon set which is—obviously—fantastic. I also bought Huginn and Muninn, which is mounted on a piece of tree branch and really satisfying to use. It is, alas, a little late to be ordering Christmas presents from Sweden, but Tyr also does kickass custom stamps—portraits, pet portraits, Lego guy of your choice—that you can purchase now, give as a gift, and let the recipient send Tyr the details—kind of like a gift certificate. (I checked with Tyr, and this is totally cool with her.)

Mink Handspun at Swoon FibersSwoon Fibers offers the kind of luxury that’s hard to buy for oneself—even for me, and I’m pretty good at buying luxuries for myself—so it’s an ideal place to choose a gift for the yarn-crafter on your list. This is the only place I’ve ever seen mink yarn. I bought a few skeins to make a scarf and it’s delicious. (Like I said, buying luxuries for myself is one of my special talents.) The baby camel is also divine, and the skein of yak-bamboo I have in my stash is one of the softest, springiest yarns I’ve ever handled. And if you’re thinking “Minks! Baby camels! Jessica, how could you?” I can assure you that these supersoft fibers are brushed from living animals—just like collecting angora. UPDATE: Mink and camel yarns are 10% off until December 25!

PufflunaA couple of years ago, I went looking for moonstones, and I found Puffluna. I’ve probably made more purchases from Julie than I have from any other seller on Etsy. I just love her mix of vintage findings and semi-precious stones. Her pieces are charming—even a little whimsical—without being fussy or too-cute. I would link to my favorite necklace currently at Puffluna, but I think I might just buy it for myself...


Bath and Beauty Edition

Food Edition

December 12, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Handmade Holidays: Bath and Beauty Edition

A couple of years ago, Frances and I made scented bath salts to give as Christmas gifts. Frances chose the essential oils and mixed them up with the sea salt. I packaged the finished product in hand-stamped glassine envelopes, and everybody loved them. This year, all the ladies on my gift list will be getting homemade bath and beauty products.

The web is full of recipes—some of them as easy as our bath salts, some of them a little more involved. If you have a natural foods store in your area—or even a well-stocked supermarket—you’ll probably be able to find most of the supplies you need. The rest you can get online (Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source for all kinds of organic ingredients, and Bramble Berry Soap Making Supplies has a great selection, too.) After considering a lot of options, I’ve decided to make six products, many of which call for the same ingredients, which makes shopping for supplies a little easier and a little more economical.

Sugar Scrub

I posted my sugar scrub recipe here not too long ago. I’m thinking of playing with some new fragrances this time—neroli, black pepper, and vetiver, maybe? I’m also omitting the coffee grounds, for two reasons: It seems kind of rude to give someone the gift of a really messy bath tub, and some ladies might not be too excited to get a present that says, “Hey, girl, thought you might like to do something about that cellulite!”

Lip Scrub

Exfoliation gets rid of chapped skin while it stimulates circulation in the lips, and the honey found in this recipe is a wonderful  humectant. I’m thinking of adding a little cinnamon-leaf essential oil for extra plumping.

Salt Polish

Like sugar, salt is a great exfoliant, and sea salts are full of minerals. I’ll probably opt for Dead Sea salt, because it mixes well with other ingredients. I’m going with avocado oil—rich in fatty acids and a whole lot of vitamins—and I’m leaving out the coloring. I’m thinking a bright, citrus oil will be nice as fragrance.  (Recipe here.)

Body Butter

This body butter looks great, and I’m excited to try it out myself. Jojoba oil is a fantastic moisturizer, because it’s chemically quite close to the moisture produced by the sebaceous glands. I’m thinking I’ll make a custom scent for each recipient. 

Lip Balm

There are a ton of lip balm recipes online, and a number of shops sell kits. I chose a recipe that uses many of the same ingredients in the body butter. I’m making cardamom lip balm for the grownups (including myself). I’m not adding coloring, but Bramble Berry has some pretty interesting options, including mica if you want a little sparkle. I’m pretty sure Frances will approve of this chocolate lip balm for the kids (NB: I really don’t recommend using “an old candle” for lip balm. Food-grade beeswax isn’t hard to find.)

Bath Teas

This is a great way to get beneficial herbs into the tub without making a huge mess. Heat-sealable tea bags are available from several sources online. I’m planning to use calendula and chamomile petals for their anti-inflammatory properties, and Dead Sea salt.

Packaging and presentation can be as fancy as you want. Mountain Rose Herbs sells some nice tins and glass jars, and you can reuse jars destined for the recycling bin as long as they’ve been carefully cleaned and sterilized. You might also think about using a food-storage container, so that the recipient can repurpose the container when the beauty product is gone. Mountain Rose Herbs and Bramble Berry both sell tubes and pots for lip balm, and, as much as I hate disposable, plastic pipettes make lip balm production a lot easier, and they also prevent a great deal of wasted beeswax and cocoa butter. I’m probably just going to hand-letter paper tags for most of these items, but I plan to get waterproof printer paper to make my own lip balm labels.


Etsy Edition

Food Edition

November 22, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)