“Please, just let someone else sleep with you.”
I was sitting on my bed and talking to my house. Begging her, actually. A few months earlier, I had put all my personal belongings in storage and moved only some clothes, books, and essentials to Santa Barbara. What I left in my home was furniture and just enough of everything needed to be a functional and livable space. Livable, at least, for anyone who might rent her.
I had done my best to hook her up, to not leave her empty and alone. I created a website to promote her charms and availability. I posted her photos and profile on Airbnb and VRBO. I advertised her in the local paper and in Fly Fishing Magazine. None of it worked. Despite all the publicity, my house remained empty and alone. So I came home to have a talk.
I sat on my bed and begged, “Please, just let someone else sleep with you.” I felt sure that if another wandered through her rooms and stayed with her for a length of time, we might break the spell between us. But during the fifteen months I was away, she rented for only ten and a half weeks. She refused to move on, she was waiting for me. Maybe that’s an odd thing to say, but it felt absolutely true.
Personifying is a term for attributing human characteristics to something that is, well, not human. Personifying our homes is pretty common. When we do this, our dwelling becomes more than a house: it develops a personality. The bond between human and home may be as intimate as a lover, a spouse, or a child. My own home became my significant other, missing me, and waiting for me when I went away.
I named my house and I named every tree that I planted in her yard. She was built as a spec and I was the first and only owner. And she was my first too. The first and only home I’ve owned.
She and I lived alone together for ten years, even longer than I was married. She listened to my tears and my fears, my screams and my laughter. She stood by me through the death of my mom, my dog, and several other heartbreaks. She silently understood when I was sick, sad, and lazy, as well as energized, determined, and unstoppable. She knew all my insecurities. She sheltered me with grace. In return, I was good to her: I preened and primped her and took care of her every need. I threw her a party, christened her with a blessing, and gave her a name.
But we both knew I had to leave. First, for school, and then, quite possibly, for good.
When I finished grad school and returned home, I thought I could just slide back in, say hello, and get back to the way things had been. But no, my absence had taken its toll. She hovered over me, watching me in my sleep, silently brooding and waiting. No longer my significant other, she had become my mother. I, like a child returning from college, had dropped my bags and barely gave her a hello. I plopped down on the couch with my dogs, settled into a quick meal and a movie, and left a mess strewn about on the counters and floors. By the third day she could not be ignored: the silence was too loud, she was fuming with anxiety. She had missed me. She wanted my attention and needed me to sit with her. She needed assurance I was going to stay.
Finally, I sat on my couch and told her everything. Eventually, I heard her say, “What about me? What’s to become of me?” I didn’t have an answer. Not any answer I was willing to admit. And so, after sitting in silence for a long afternoon, I heard her say, “I love you and I am here for you. But you want more. I can’t give that to you. I want more for you too.” And that’s when I knew the inevitable: I would have to sell my home. I would have to leave.
Maybe you’ve felt something similar. Maybe you, too, have felt a familiarity with a home that goes beyond a structure: rather, a home that feels like a friend or a member of the family.
This was certainly true of Mark Twain and his family. Twain’s wife, Livy, had a great deal to do with the construction and design of their dream home in Hartford, CT, drawing her own sketches and consulting with the builders. Livy seemed to birth their home into being, much like one of her own children, and it was here that they raised three daughters. Mark Twain considered the seventeen years they lived there to be his happiest and most productive.
But then finances forced him on a European lecture tour, bringing along the whole family except for their eldest daughter Susy. And then the unthinkable happened: Suzy died. She died in their home before any of the family could return. Afterward, Twain wrote to their pastor about how he was grateful that, by dying in their home, she was not completely alone:
Suzy’s death was heartbreaking. Unable to be with her at the end, the Twains never returned to their precious home. The house was sold in 1903 and Livy died one year later.
The psychologist James Hillman considered personification as a way of loving and knowing. As we mature, we appreciate objects and people for what they are, independent of us. The more we care for an object, the more likely we are to imagine beyond what can be seen; we perceive objects and personify them. Hillman writes, “Loving is a way of knowing, and for loving to know, it must personify. Personification is thus a way of knowing” (Blue Fire, 46-47). This seems very important to emphasize: personification is a way of knowing as it identifies what we sense and what we feel with our hearts. Personifying provides another language for our experience.
It’s easy to say the Twains and I personified our homes because we did. The Twains felt their house had a soul, which was comforting not only when they lived there but also when they weren’t there for their daughter’s passing. Returning to the place where she died was too painful but then it might also be said that not returning was a double heartbreak for Livy, one she couldn’t survive.
As for me, I wouldn’t say my home had a soul but it certainly felt like it was alive. When the sun weathered her wood siding and she was desperately in need of a new coat of stain, I couldn’t help thinking she needed a good moisturizer for her face. She felt very separate from me and yet connected to me. The truth is that she was an embodiment of my own psychic energy.
Personification is, at its core, a projection of the Self.
Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, can be a tough book to read. If you finished it, you know that while it is shocking, it is also nuanced and complicated. I never saw the film. The subject matter is so sensitive, however, that I suspect the story is reduced to horror. If read or viewed this way, a true understanding of the house is completely missed.
The house in Beloved has a personality and a name:124. Each of the three sections of this story begins by telling us about the house: “124 was spiteful,” “124 was loud,“ and “124 was quiet.” When Morrison describes the house in these ways, we understand, almost viscerally, that the house is more than a structure of wood and nails: it acts, it feels, it is a force in the family’s life.
Psychologically, the house is a projection of Sethe. The house is not haunted by the dead baby’s spirit (as it appears) but is rather a personification: it is psychic matter appearing as a sentient being.
Morrison writes that 124 is “full of baby’s venom.” The spirit of the infant that Sethe killed to keep it from becoming a slave appears to live in the house, to have actually become the house, even when she returns in an adult physical form. And when she leaves, when she is exercised from 124 by the wailing and praying of women, the house appears to be empty of this spirit. “Paul D shuts the door. He looks toward the house, and, surprisingly, it does not look back at him. Unloaded, 124 is just another weathered house needing repair.”
Yet this is not merely an exorcism: 124 is a representation of Sethe’s psychic life. All those years when she was angry and scared, confused and unforgiving, the house was the same: the house embodied the emotions of Sethe and the nonfulfillment of her baby, Beloved. As the story unfolds, Sethe gives herself over to this psychic energy, giving it her primary focus, allowing it to feed and grow, until it has exhausted itself and dissipates. In the end, the house with its “riot of lake-summer flowers where vegetables should be growing,” and its “odd placement of cans jammed with the rotting stems of things, the blossoms shriveled like sores,” resembles Sethe herself, lying under a quilt of colors with her hair spread out like the “dark delicate roots of good plants,” her eyes expressionless and looking out the window, devoid of plans, barely animated, yet not dead. Sethe and her house are both deeply weathered, listless, and in need of repair.
The house is Sethe. It has always been a projection of Sethe – the part of herself she could not face.
I never read Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, nor have I seen the movie, yet I suspect the same would be true here as well. The house, with its gruesome past, embodies an aspect of Jack: the demons he has tried to ignore that made him violent and an alcoholic. Now sober, he has never truly faced these demons. So the house brings them to life, embodies them in their worst form and takes over Jack. Only Jack’s son, Danny, as a child still pure and full of potential, can see and understand this. Only he can see past the trauma and pain and remember what his father has forgotten. And for one brief moment, Danny’s ability to see and accept his father brings his father back to sanity before he, along with the house, is destroyed.
On a lighter note, there’s the 2006 animated film, Monster House. I think this is a pretty good film as it explores the cost of bullying and the benefits of compassion and companionship. Though I suspect most folks just consider it a Halloween movie.
The house of the title appears to be fully alive and embodied with the spirit of the owner’s dead wife. Old Mr. Nebbercracker has lived in the house as long as anyone can remember. He is cranky, keeps to himself, and scares away anyone that comes near. More than that, the lawn actually absorbs anything that lands on it: a ball, a kite, even a person!
Some kids decide that the house must be a Domus Mactabilis (“deadly home” in Latin), a supernatural being created when a human soul merges with a structure. The kids enter the home when the owner is gone and discover a cage containing the body of his wife encased in cement. When Mr. Nebbercracker returns home, he tells them the sad story. He met his wife when he was young and she was an unwilling member of a circus sideshow. He fell in love with her despite her obesity. He helped her escape, they ran off, and together they began building their home.
But she was tormented by children teasing her about her weight. One Halloween, when she has had enough and intends to reciprocate, she slips and falls to her death in the foundation of the house, and the wet cement buries her body. Mr. Nebbercracker is devastated but unable to leave his love, so he finishes building the house around her. Once finished, it becomes his wife, taking on her frightened, frightening, and jealous spirit and terrorizing the neighborhood children as retaliation for the cruelties and jeers she received when alive.
Only when Mr. Nebbercracker makes a connection with the young boy across the street—which is also symbolic of connecting to his young and innocent self before the tragedy—does he realize it is time to move on and let his wife go. Then the house can be destroyed.
So was the house really inhabited by his d
ead wife’s soul? No, but that makes for a good story. Psychologically, the house was a manifestation of Mr. Nebbercracker’s grief for a wife he had loved dearly and for his dream of them living happily ever after. Letting go of his grief would eventually mean letting go of the house.
Which is the same thing that happens in the 2009 animated film, Up. (You remember this, I’m sure: when the old man ties balloons to the home he shared with his deceased wife and is carried away to Venezuela.) But in that film, the house never takes on the psychic energy of the old man, so I’ll leave that story for another time.
What do you think? Do you have a relationship with your house? Does your house have a personality?