I love writing about art. I hate writing about my personal life. But sometimes they are inextricably linked.
Last week, I lost myself in Netflix’s new series The Haunting of Hill House. It started when I read this lovely Vulture review by Lindsey Romain, just ten days after I experienced the loss of my grandfather:
Nell’s monologue is long and a little bit silly, but I can’t deny the spell it cast on me, a person whose life — like the Crains — is stained by grief and mental illness. When a revived Luke tells Nell he doesn’t want to live without her, she responds with words so soothing, they brought me to tears: “There’s no without. I’m not gone. I’m scattered into so many pieces, sprinkled on your life like new snow.”
It’s fragrant language, bold in its message, and it won’t work for everyone. But sometimes grief is brash like that. Sometimes you need to wrap yourself in the comfort of forgiveness, in the broad-stroke melodrama that is life and loss and the enduring pain they conjure. Flanagan understands this, and has forged from the bones of Jackson’s work something personal, probing, and transcendent. Trauma builds walls around us, but The Haunting of Hill House shines a light on the exit.
I knew after reading this that The Haunting of Hill House would move me more than it would disturb me. So I watched the first episode, and then flew through the next nine over three days. Romain was right: The show is a profound portrait of grief. Through supernatural elements, it makes visual not only how deep and dispersing grief can be, but also how paralyzing and damaging the fear of losing someone can be. Some have argued that this adaptation, which is at its core about the stakes of loving fully, neutered the horror of Shirley Jackson’s original novel. But for me, it struck a nerve.
My favorite aspect of the series is how it frames its most tragic character, Nell, as the one who experiences the most joy. Plagued by depression since her mother’s death many years ago, Nell suffers from sleep paralysis and seeks help from a clinic. There she meets medical technician Arthur, who teaches her coping mechanisms and eventually becomes her husband. Nell’s vulnerabilities lead her to fulfilling love, a literal illustration of how joy, fear and sadness are not experienced in silos but are tightly woven together in our lives. That Nell would eventually lose her husband and take her own life, the series emphasizes, does nothing to dampen how brightly she shown in happier times.
I needed The Haunting of Hill House last week. I needed both its complexity and broad-stroke melodrama, as Romain said, to help me better understand my emotions after a devastating week for my family. The series helped me confront my uneasiness with how easily, how seamlessly, light and darkness seem to coexist. That may sound odd, but I’ve long believed in the power of art to tap into humanity and to teach us things about ourselves, and about life, that we can’t quite verbalize. For the past decade, art has been both a lens through which I view the world and, through writing, an outlet for communicating how I perceive the world.
Of course, it’s not always simple. In this polarizing cultural era, it’s become particularly tricky to navigate and consume art. The New York Times recently published a fascinating essay by Wesley Morris on this topic, exploring the trend of evaluating art on the basis of its morality rather than its nuanced artistic value. As with any time of progress, these are critical discussions; I remain firm in my belief that representation across art –specific stories about specific people– is of immeasurable worth. But ultimately, as Morris points out, evaluating art, “is partly about situating a work in the world, in your feelings, in your collection. It can take any form and go to any place…” In other words, art is personal.
I discovered my favorite album of 2018 on the way to the hospital to visit my grandfather several weeks ago. Feeling helpless, and with so much of our public discourse driving us apart, I found myself craving art that explores broad, universal themes like grief or compromise or kindness. On the recommendation of a co-blogger, I listened and was instantly drawn to extraordinary folk singer Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, its title track a lesson for these times. Andrews is generous with her compassion across the ten songs, probing for connection with the listener. As NPR puts it, the album “is a collection of songs, borne from interactions with others, that strives for healing and empathy in the midst of division and discord.”
If that sounds implausible, I’ll leave you with this: Last week, a horror series helped me work through my grief. Art, as I was so beautifully reminded, can be a powerful, healing force.