Books March 2006

Home Alone

The dark heart of shelter-lit addiction

Again, no question but that family ructions—notably my parents’ nuclear- war-style divorce when I was seven—left me, like de Wolfe, with a bit of a shelter neurosis. As soon as the papers were filed, my British-born mother yanked me and my little sister out of the standard-issue suburban West Coast middle-class home we had occupied for as long as I could remember and took us off to a dreary seaside bungalow in the U.K. Returning to San Diego three years later—my mother then in flight from British Inland Revenue—we landed in the aforementioned cheesy apartment, the best she could do on the child support she received from my father. I spent my mopey teenage years there like an exiled monarch, dolefully contemplating the spindly 1950s hibiscus-print bamboo armchairs and roll-up window blinds (courtesy of Buena Vista Apartments management) and lamenting the fate that had befallen us.

The real nightmare, however, was a squalid domicile across town that threatened off and on to become our future home: the “snout house” (a boxy So-Cal tract house with garage and driveway dominating the frontage) owned by the man my mother would later marry—a hapless submariner named Turk, whose previous wife had dropped dead there of alcohol poisoning a few months before my mother met him. The place was my private House of Usher; I worried over the ghastly reality—maternal lack of cash—it represented. And as if to confirm its baleful role in my imaginative life, it was an abode of surpassing ugliness: dank and malodorous, with fake wood paneling and a tattered Snopes-family screen door at the front admitting numerous flies. The only decorative touches were the grimy ashtrays on every surface, a faded Navy photo of the U.S.S. Roncador surfacing, and, in one dim corner, a dusty assemblage of bronze baby shoes—one for each of Turk’s five wildly delinquent children. Luckily, by the time my mother married him I had already left for college, so I—the female Fauntleroy—never had to live there. Staying overnight was bad enough, though: I have dreams to this day in which the mother who dropped dead emerges from the closet—here, now, in my grown-up bedroom in San Francisco—to enfold me in a noxious and crumbly embrace.

Which brings me back, by a somewhat gothic route, to shelter mags and their allure. One essential part of their appeal, it seems to me, lies precisely in the fact that they proffer—even brazenly tout—an escape from the parental. (The step-parental, too, thank God.) They do this in several ways—perhaps most conspicuously through a glib, repetitious, wonderfully brain-deadening “express the inner you” rhetoric. Now, supposedly no one actually “reads” shelter magazines; you just drivel over the pictures. Patently untrue in my experience: I devour all the writing, too—such as it is—no matter how fatuous and formulaic. I take special pleasure in the “editor’s welcome”—usually a few brief paragraphs (next to a little picture of said editor) about new decorating trends, the need for beauty in one’s life, how to create a private “sanctuary” for yourself, the meaning of “home,” etc. It’s always the same stupefying tripe, but soothing nonetheless.

Who is this editor? She (rarely he) might best be described as the Un-Mother. She is typically white, middle-aged yet youthful, apparently straight, and seldom much more ethnic-looking than the Polish-American Martha Stewart. She is often divorced, and may (paradoxically) have grown-up children. But her authority is of an oblique, seemingly nontoxic kind—more that of a benevolent older sister or a peppy, stylish aunt than any in-your-face maternal figure. And the therapeutic wisdom she dispenses—almost always in the cozy second person—is precisely that you don’t have to do what your mother tells you to do. In fact, your ma can buzz off altogether. You can now buy lots of nice things and make “your own space,” from which all signs of the past have been expunged.

Yay! No more U.S.S. Roncador!

If you enter the words “not your mother’s” on Google, you’ll get nearly 200,000 results, a huge number of which point you immediately toward shelter-mag articles. “Not your mother’s [whatever]” turns out to be an established interiors trope, endlessly recycled in titles, pull quotes, advertisements, photo captions, and the like. “Not Your Mother’s Tableware” is a typical heading—meant presumably to assure you that if you acquire the featured cutlery you will also, metaphorically speaking, be giving your mom the finger. (Other online items that are not your mother’s: wallpaper, mobile homes, Chinette, faucet sponges, slow cookers, backyard orchards, and Tupperware parties. Beyond the realm of interior decoration—it’s nice to learn—you can also avoid your mother’s menopause, divorce, Internet, hysterectomy, book club, Mormon music, hula dance, antibacterial soap, deviled eggs, and national security. Thank you, Condi.)

“Your House Is You, So Start Reveling in It” is a virtual creed in Shelter-Mag Land, one derived from the holy books of interior design. “You will express yourself in your home, whether you want to or not,” proclaimed the prophet Elsie in The House in Good Taste—best to “arrange it so that the person who sees [you] in it will be reassured, not disconcerted.” In The Personality of a House, a rather more florid copycat volume from 1930, Emily Post was no less insistent: “[Your home’s] personality should express your personality, just as every gesture you make—or fail to make—expresses your gay animation or your restraint, your old-fashioned conventions, your perplexing mystery, or your emancipated modernism—whichever characteristics are typically yours.” Narcissism in a go-cup: the ladies say it’s okay.

Now, in 2006, the message is ubiquitous, sloganized, inevitable. “Not Everything in Your Home Is All About You, You, You,” reads an ad for flooring in a recent issue of Elle Decor. “Oh, Wait. Yes, It Is.” Unsurprisingly, it is taken for granted that one’s inner life—externalized in décor—will be an improvement on whatever has gone before. “What do you think you want?” asks Elle Decoration (September 2005). “A bigger house? A better view? Frette bedlinen? A matching set of original Saarinen dining chairs?” It seems that “you” have very expensive tastes. But that’s fine too, because shelter literature is all about consumption, luxury goods, and the pipe dreams of upward mobility.

When one has pretensions to taste, such dreams can be hard to resist. Out of necessity my own decorating style has long been fairly downmarket and bourgeois: your standard Academic-Shabby-Chic- Wood-Floors-Vaguely-Ethnic- Somewhat-Cluttered- Bohemian-Edith-Sitwell- Crossed-With-Pottery-Barn- Squeaky-Dog-Toys-Everywhere- Eccentric-Anglophile- Lesbian. (The last two elements being signified by various grubby Vita Sackville-West first editions on the shelves. No one else on the Internet seems to want them.) Yet raffishness notwithstanding, the entire visual scheme is as fraught with socioeconomic symbolism as any. Having been plucked out of the (semi-) prosperous middle class as a child, I have spent thirty years or so trying to wiggle my way back in. Indeed, to the degree that such mobility is possible on an academic salary, I’ve sought fairly relentlessly to upgrade to even higher status—1920s-Artistic-British-Boho-With-Inherited- Income has usually been the target look, as if Augustus John and Virginia Woolf had mated. (The “British” part has no doubt been a way of renegotiating childhood fiascos on my own terms.) Say the word “Bloomsbury” or “Charleston” and I become quite tremulous with longing.

That the “express yourself” ethos of the shelter mag is both illogical and manipulative should go without saying. While encouraging you to find your “personal style,” the Un-Mother also wants to show you how. Even my own fanatically considered décor, I’m forced to admit, may be part of some greedy stranger’s business plan—a version of that nostalgic “vintage” or “Paris flea market” style heavily promoted to urban college-educated women of my generation throughout the United States and Western Europe over the past decade or so. (Other incessantly marketed “looks” now vying for dominance in Shelter-Mag Land: “mid-century modern”—a variety of Baby Boomer Rat Pack retro distinguished by funky space-age design, Case Study houses, pony skins on the floor, and, if you’re lucky, lots of Eames, Mies, and Corbu—and the more minimalist, Asian-inspired “W Hotel” look, involving wenge wood, stark-white walls, spa bathrooms, dust-mite-free bedding, solitary orchids in raku pots, etc. Chacun à son goût and all that, but the latter mode—like the frigid minimalism of the British cult architect John Pawson—always strikes me as simply the latest twist on twentieth-century fascist design.) But whether my never-ending quest for antique finials, faded bits of toile de Jouy, old postcards, and other quirky “flea-market finds” is a product of disposition or suggestion, I am, I realize, as much a slave to commodity fetishism as any McMansion-owning reader of Architectural Digest—hideous bible of parvenus from the Hamptons to Malibu.

Resentful, matriphobic, pretentious,  gullible: could the shelter-lit addict be any less appealing? Unfortunately, yes, as a brief foray—into Shelter-Mag Land’s heart of darkness, its paranoid psychic core—will reveal. Here the real-world rooms on display—static, pristine, and seemingly uninhabited—are key. To be “at home” in the World of Interiors, one rapidly gathers, is to bask in the privacy of your own space, serene and unabashed, while the rest of the world goes kaboom all around you. (Not for nothing does the industry term “shelter magazine” play subliminally on “bomb shelter.” Self-fortification is one of the goals here; likewise the psychic eradication of other people.)

Some shelter-lit purveyors are tough-minded enough to cop to it—that the urge to “project the self” through décor can be deeply allied with misanthropy. “I live inside my head,” the decorator Rose Tarlow declares in The Private House (2001), “often oblivious to the world outside myself. I see only what I wish to see.” In her own home, she acknowledges, other people aren’t really part of the scene.

I know there are times when we plan our houses as much for the pleasure of our friends as for ourselves, because we wish for their enjoyment, and rely on their appreciation and praise—especially their praise. Thankfully that stage of my life has passed!
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Terry Castle is a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie.

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