Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith 
by Richard Bradford.
Bloomsbury, 258 pp., £20, January 2021, 978 1 4482 1790 8
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It was​ a disturbing conjunction: trying to finish an unsavoury new biography of the crime novelist Patricia Highsmith while at the same time confronting the Götterdämmerung finale of the Trump presidency, the raucous and rancorous live-stream mob assault of 6 January on ‘our nation’s Capitol’ (for maximum effect, the phrase needs to be intoned with baleful majesty – eyeballs big and hideously bulging). The same ugly question kept intruding: would house-wrecker Highsmith – everyone’s favourite mess-with-your-head morbid misanthrope – have relished the day’s cascading idiocy?

As an embittered expatriate, mind-blitzing drunk and hellacious bigot who spent her last years sequestered in a Brutalist redoubt in Switzerland writing hate letters to the newspapers about the pro-Israel policies of the US government and spewing venom about ‘the Jews and the blacks’, might Highsmith have enjoyed at least some of the sadism? The bludgeoning of the police, say, with fire extinguishers or the odd flagpole? The cathartic splitting open of someone’s head with a heavy object is, after all, one of the methods used by her murderous anti-heroes to kill the clueless people they are in love with: witness Tom Ripley’s brain-splatter of an assault – with an oar – on the pate of pretty Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley. In Jill Dawson’s vastly entertaining novelistic riff on Highsmith, The Crime Writer (2016), set in the early 1960s, when Highsmith was living in rural Suffolk in order to be near an especially hot (and married) English girlfriend, the fictional Pat kills her lover’s husband with a handy Black & Decker electric drill. She holds it by the fiddly bit-end but somehow manages to clobber him, inelegantly yet definitively, with the big-ass handle-end.

And what about those zip-ties? I’m guessing Pat would have appreciated the goon-squad fashion accessories, not to mention the deliciously sick fact that in the heat of battle, one of the more menacing rioters – proudly sporting bunches of the little doodads hanging off every belt-loop – made his athletic descent from the House galleries in search of the satanic Pence and Pelosi accompanied by his squat, shouting, red-white-and-blue-bandanna-wearing mother. Give ’em hell, Mommy! We’ll hog-tie and hang ’em!

And finally – we shouldn’t go there but we can’t help it – the guy in Viking horns and face-paint. Now, lesbians aren’t supposed to like men at all, especially not a sapphic swive-hound for the ages like Patricia Highsmith. God, was she depraved. Prouder of her self-styled ‘erections’ than a Proud Boy. Yes, rilly. (‘I’m not a woman,’ she was often heard to say.) But wouldn’t even Pat have found the slender yet muscular barbarian, caped in pelts, inky blue ‘sleeves’ covering both his arms, the tiniest bit enticing? How could she have resisted? For me, I confess, it was the naked pink torso, weird low-slung pants, the soft furry chest with its palpable tracery of golden-red hairs (edging down the abdomen ever closer, dare one say, to the magical fellow’s unseen yet doubtless militant shaman-sex) that mesmerised. Just the thought of such a girlish Goth-bod makes me want to smash stuff.

Except I don’t. I haven’t ever smashed stuff. And maybe Patricia Highsmith – unsuitable role model though she is – wouldn’t have smashed anything either. Would she have rampaged with the moron hordes? Waved an AK-47? Defecated on the Capitol terrazzo? Screeched and pranced around the Rotunda like an inebriated baby goat? Beaten a policeman to death? I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Imagining something and doing it are two different things – or so I, like Caliban, would like to believe. Thought is free.

Of course, Highsmith was unsurpassed at depicting such destructive self-abandon, above all, in the gruesome and surprising acts perpetrated by her fictional protagonists. Consider her brilliant reveals: the slow build-up of mad, off-kilter thoughts; the choking bolus feelings of hatred, fright, revulsion; then the explosive release of force – corporeal, appalling, exquisite – immediately followed by inrushing panic and dread. Highsmith is the poet laureate of Oops, I killed him. (And her.) What do I do now? In the 1950s and 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was her only rival at capturing such vertiginous changes of state: the lightning-quick slippage from normal to horrific and back again. Back, that is, to a now nightmarish perversion of normal life from which you, the killer, realise you’ll never escape, even should the outrage you’ve just committed go undiscovered. (In classic Highsmith – witness the supremely twisty Ripley novels – even the most frenzied murders sometimes go unrecognised as such.) You’re not dead yet, but you’re unquestionably in hell: for ever.

Also indisputable is the fact that Highsmith was able to dramatise the loss of control so shockingly because she knew how it felt. Though not herself a homicidal maniac (as far as one knows), she could imagine what it was like to be one. Her brain had been arranged for it: she had blown out her own frontal lobes early on. Despite the celebrity, wealth and critical admiration she earned over a long and charmed career – her first suspense novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), published when she was 29, was an immediate bestseller, and she rolled on from there – her life looks from one angle like the most horrible botch: a concatenation of private misery and psychic turmoil for which, the virtuous will conclude, she had only herself to blame. Yes, she had been subject to an estranging and neglectful childhood: her mother, Mary (née Coates), supposedly tried to abort her by swallowing turpentine in the last months of her pregnancy; her grifter father, the feckless Jay B. Plangman, vanished when she was an infant. (When she met him at seventeen, he seems to have shown her a stash of pornographic pictures and kissed her a bit too probingly, just for the hell of it.) Most painful of all: after her flirtatious, flamboyant utterly dissociated mother – the newly married Mary Highsmith – suddenly decamped to Manhattan with her second husband, Stanley, in hopes of landing a well-paying commercial art job, 12-year-old ‘Patsy’, abandoned and forlorn, had to stay behind for an entire year in the Fort Worth boarding house run by her grim-to-nutty evangelical granny, the buzz-harshing Willie Mae Coates. It was – as she never ceased to repine – the ghastliest year of her life.

Even without such tutoring in despair, the adult Highsmith seems to have had an instinctive gift, a shameful genius, for letting moral qualms fall away and her worst impulses run riot – at least some of the time. As three unflinching biographies have revealed since her death (not to mention a hair-raising memoir by one of her former lovers), Highsmith could be hostile, rude and bloody-minded to a near sadistic degree. She couldn’t forgo the hot and messy pleasures to be gained by ignoring the guard-rails. It turned her on, it seems, to watch things smash.

There was the sexy, suicidal drinking, of course. Highsmith’s alcoholism blighted her life and eventually transformed her – not entirely figuratively – into a Dorian Gray-style lesbian fright-bag. Heartbreakingly attractive in her youth (see the exquisite nude portraits made by her gay photographer friend Rolf Tietgens in the early 1940s), she looked like a sullen gargoyle by the time she died: rubbery, bloodshot, wrinkled to the point of cave-in, a calamitous experiment in DIY self-pickling. Compared with Highsmith in her seventies, her fellow drunk-dyke genius Elizabeth Bishop looked like a fresh-blooming flower in her later years – a regular Goop-enhanced Gwyneth.

Then there was the compulsive sexual promiscuity – a festival of glut, recrimination and endlessly renewed licentious squalor (I almost wrote splendour). Intoxicated by couplings both hot and doomed, Highsmith had a penchant for beautiful married women (often alcoholics themselves); would spy on or stalk lovers with whom she became morbidly obsessed; and took a vandal’s delight in destroying any apparently stable relationship she encountered, sapphic or straight, by seducing one or both partners. She had scores of spooky little affairs, dead-end romances and inebriated hook-ups, but never shook off the guilt and self-disgust that inevitably flattened her after the fact.

The shame Highsmith felt over craving sex with women haunted almost every aspect of her life, including her literary career. Nothing about being driven in this way was easy. Much discussed of late has been her second novel, The Price of Salt, the odd, nervy, yet surprisingly potent lesbian love story she managed to publish – despite crippling fears that it would destroy her reputation were its authorship to become known – under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Virtually ignored in hardback, the book gradually became an underground bestseller as a cheap, pulp fiction-format paperback in the later 1950s and 1960s (Highsmith claimed it sold a million copies). Yet despite the sacks of fan letters and euphoric little mash notes Pat received from grateful gay girls everywhere – likewise the fact that thanks to gossipy publishing types her authorship became known to anyone who cared about such things – the not so mysterious being known as Claire Morgan couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge the work as hers, or to dump the pseudonym, for almost forty years.

Not until 199o, only five years before her death, did Highsmith reluctantly allow The Price of Salt to be issued at last under her real name, first by Bloomsbury, then by Norton in the United States. (In Britain, the book was rechristened Carol; the filmmaker Todd Haynes also chose that title for his 2015 screen adaptation.) Her motives seem to have been financial and punitive: rackety publishers on the Continent, where her suspense novels had long been greatly admired, were making pots of cash by rolling out pirate editions with her name splashed brazenly across the cover. She took down the deadbeats. Nonetheless, in the excited gaggle of press and television interviews that followed, her hopelessly conflicted feelings were still all too evident. She was mortified by the attention the book’s republication drew to her private life and angrily refused to be baited by nosy journalists seeking revelations about her sexuality. (No, she was not a ‘lesbian book-writer’, she had written in an early version of the novel’s afterword: she was a ‘lesbian-book writer’.) Giving the lie to such pitiful evasions was her startlingly unladylike demeanour, by now stone-butch and crusty to a cartoonish, if not phantasmagoric degree.

Sympathetic readers have long hailed The Price of Salt for having a putatively ‘happy’ ending. Scare quotes seem fitting, however, because, as always with Highsmith, the novel has more than a few freaky-bewildering moments, some of which become outright menacing on rereading. (Carol, the glamorous older married woman in the central romance, can turn weirdly vicious towards Therese, the junior partner, at almost any moment. In one early flirting scene, having unaccountably approached Therese from behind, Carol slips her hands around her neck, prompting in Therese the panicky split-second fear that Carol is about to strangle her.) But, in striking contrast with the morose ‘twilight women’ one finds in classic 1940s and 1950s lesbian pulp fiction, condemned by their depraved sex-urges to lives of misery, loneliness and social opprobrium, neither of the heroines ends up dead, suicidal, cut off from respectable society, or worse, engaged to a man. Nothing really threatens their happiness at the novel’s end: having faced down various obstacles to bliss, they seem poised to resume their passion in a manner at once buoyant, fearless and indubitably arousing.

Forty years on, perversely enough, when Highsmith finally allowed the novel to be printed under her own name, she was pleased if not smug about the praise she received for having supposedly anticipated, way back in the benighted 1950s, the somewhat more ‘gay-friendly’ view of homosexuality on offer in 1991 – when a few readers, at least, could be trusted not to react with disgust at the tale of a female couple who fall in love, give each other orgasms, and go mostly unpunished for it. Yet Highsmith – as tricky as she was troubled – took the credit here where it wasn’t entirely due. Her doughty British biographer Andrew Wilson was the first to report that Margot Johnson, Highsmith’s New York agent, had actually engineered the upbeat dénouement, just as the book was on the verge of publication (Johnson thought – correctly – it might improve sales). Wilson’s surprise revelation made immediate sense. How likely was it, after all, that Pat Highsmith – incorrigible maker of messes, grim connoisseur of things cracking up and veering off into nightmare – would have chosen to go with something so alien to her as a loving and non-macabre future for her two heroines?

Lying,​ chicanery, lewd excess – it’s all enough to give lesbians a bad name (not to mention alcoholics). Although Highsmith always managed to combine her seedy acting out with an original, prolific, even heroic writing career – and, yes, the best of the crime fiction is insanely good – readers new to her might wonder how reading about her life could possibly be enjoyable or instructive.1 Sensational and salacious no doubt, at times a dark and contorted farce. Yet Highsmith has been remarkably lucky in her biographers – at least in the canny Wilson and the fearless Joan Schenkar, the first two scholars to take her on after her death in 1995. Given the ease with which one might sensationalise, and indeed anathematise, the blazingly unwholesome Highsmith backstory, both biographers trod a sensitive and scrupulous path. Neither has received the serious praise such an accomplishment deserves.

Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow (2003) was the groundbreaker: quickly yet intelligently compiled, candid, even-handed, both dispassionate and compassionate in its review of Highsmith’s agony-rich bad behaviour. He was tactful, too, about her notoriously outlandish eccentricities, pre-eminent among them being the famous horde of pet snails, in whose slow, damp, antler-waving sexual activities she acknowledged taking a more than zoological delight. Alas, having heard so many times now about Highsmith’s pleasure in snail-fuckery, one might be forgiven for finding the topic a bit old and tiresome. For would-be Highsmith apologists, indulgent and undiscerning, the fact that she owned a 300-strong gang of gastropods and toted little groups of them around Europe in handbags and coat pockets and sometimes in her bra has no doubt become something to burble over sentimentally: a smarmy, cornball, that-Pat-was-a-real-weirdo soul-meme. But when Wilson first brought these snail-darlings onto the world stage and let them cavort in the silvery slimelight, one had to rejoice in the sheer revolting magnificence of Highsmithian aberration.

After Highsmith’s death Wilson seems to have moved expeditiously to get to the people he needed to interview: a handful of remaining family members in Texas; friends from Barnard, where she’d gone to college in the early 1940s; puzzled neighbours in various villages in Suffolk, France and Switzerland to which she had retreated in later years, hoping to write and drink and die alone; and a motley assortment of lovers, some of them themselves already pressing at death’s door. (The honest and clear-sighted Marijane Meaker – then just about to publish Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, a chilling recollection of their passionate early love affair and of meeting Highsmith again decades later in her unhinged and racist dotage – seems to have been the only serious source he missed.) The candid and incisive, often strangely comic, oral record Wilson compiled – Highsmith’s friends were as funny and dark as she was – remains invaluable.

Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009) is something else again: a massive, chatty, obsessional tome full of idiosyncratic jokes and gob-smacking asides, prolix in parts, but also an intimate, enmeshing account of Highsmith’s creative life. At some point, one imagines, Schenkar got snake-bit: like everyone who falls under Highsmith’s spell, she is also one of her victims. But the book is a bloody masterpiece. Schenkar doesn’t stint on showing the worst: the farcical Grand Guignol of Highsmith’s four-year affair with Ellen Blumenthal Hill, for example, who after one gruesome fight with Highsmith in Manhattan in 1954 tried to kill herself by downing several martinis and a whopping dose of Veronal. As Hill started to pass out, the ‘skunk-drunk’ Pat – still blithery with hatred and rage – neither called an ambulance nor alerted anyone to her lover’s condition; she simply left Ellen lapsing into oblivion and went out for most of the night.2

It’s a bummer to say so, perhaps, but Schenkar offers some of the most searing and honest writing I’ve read about everything that can go wrong, psychologically speaking, in lesbian relationships, especially between two fiercely independent creative women. (Put The Talented Miss Highsmith on a short list with Marina Tsvetaeva’s Girlfriend Poems and Violette Leduc’s La Bâtarde.) Not that I’m suggesting heterosexual relationships, or any other kind of erotic pairing, are less vulnerable to chaos and crack-up; an explosion of mad, melodramatic stupidity can overtake any couple at any moment. But Schenkar gets the dyke-drama specifics just right. In the case of Highsmith – and here Schenkar is both delicate and direct – it was above all the incestuous message delivered over a lifetime by the treacherous and infantile Mary Highsmith – the archetypal go-away-a-little-closer Medusa-mother – that doomed her daughter to an affective landscape of unmitigated pain and conflict when she tried to find love elsewhere.

Schenkar’s study has both an astute moral purchase and a great sympathy for Highsmith. I wish I could say the same of Richard Bradford’s new Life, Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires. As the ill-advised title might suggest, the book is a sad mess: shallow, mistake-ridden, voyeuristic in tone. It’s hard to get through for a number of reasons. Tellingly, there are no scholarly notes or citations: Bradford’s sole documentation is the occasional page or date reference to Wilson or Schenkar (about whom he is often churlish), or to the Highsmith diaries and notebooks held in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. One has to take great gobbets of what he says on faith as there is no way of tracing his sources. He seems, in any case, to have done very little original research, and most damningly (as far as I can tell), no new interviews. Any lively quotes or choice anecdotes almost always turn out to be borrowed or paraphrased from Wilson or Schenkar. There are proofreading gaffes throughout, including a shocking number of grammatical errors. (The publisher is Bloomsbury – Highsmith’s own – yet fact-checking and copy-editing seem close to non-existent.)

But Bradford’s responses to Highsmith’s personality and achievement are even more disturbing. A small but typical example: writing about the plot of The Price of Salt, he asserts that ‘there’s no hint that either [Carol or Therese] has previously had a relationship with, or been attracted to, another woman’, an error so basic that it makes one wonder if he has read the book. (Therese has long had a crush on one of the Sisters at her convent school; and Carol, as even those who’ve only seen the movie may recall, has a major ex-lover named Abby, archly played in the movie by the cigarette-waving sapphic beauty-pizza Sarah Paulson.)

Bradford is curiously unwilling to grant Highsmith’s own erotic life much real-world heft or relate it to any obvious historical context. One of his stranger ideas, educed on the feeblest of evidence, is that in her diaries and notebooks the young Highsmith regularly ‘invented’ girlfriends for herself, and that many of the women who appear there, including her first female lover, Mary Sullivan, a Manhattan bookseller, were only girlfriends in ‘fantasy’. He hints that she may never even have met Sullivan. (The discussion of Sullivan, Highsmith and a mutual friend, the lesbian photographer Ruth Bernhard, that he offers in support of this theory is frankly incoherent.) But he goes further still: some of Highsmith’s lovers, he writes, may not have been real people at all. Interviewed fifty years after the fact, Kate Kingsley Skattebol, Highsmith’s closest friend at Barnard, could not, he points out, recall her mentioning (let alone dating) anyone called Virginia when they were at college, even though a woman bearing that name appears as a major pash in Highsmith’s notebooks of the time. Why hadn’t she told Skattebol about her? Perhaps, Bradford suggests, because she didn’t exist. He raises similar suspicions about someone he calls ‘the legendary Chloe’, with whom Highsmith went to Mexico in 1943-44 (a trip documented in detail in her journals). Indeed, he asks, didn’t the very fact that diarist Highsmith referred to Chloe and Virginia only by their first names imply that she had invented them? That they were, in fact, among her first ‘fictional characters’?3

These vaguely accusatory musings are bizarre. As Schenkar explains in The Talented Miss Highsmith, Skattebol was straight, and, as she herself admitted, an unusually naive young woman when she and Highsmith met. Pat, she later realised, had kept most of her lesbian affairs a secret from her for years. Highsmith, Schenkar concurs, was a virtuoso at ‘compartmentalising’ her life. And why do this? Bradford seems oblivious to the fact, banal though it is, that it was dangerous in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s to let one’s homosexuality become publicly known. It is not so easy to admit to loving members of your own sex when killjoys everywhere want to knife you to ribbons for it. In the 1940s and 1950s especially, one lied; one hid things (even from straight friends), both for one’s own safety and that of others. Highsmith herself was self-protective to the point of paranoia; real names were not for spilling. Yet rather than acknowledge the homophobic attitudes of the era or, god forbid, the necessary but exhausting apparatus of self-concealment known as the closet, Bradford finds it more plausible to argue that Highsmith kept her sex life under wraps because her ‘lovers’ weren’t real. He carps at Wilson and Schenkar for taking Highsmith’s all too credible diary narratives at face value, as if his two predecessors were simply her credulous dupes.

I dwell on the fantastication here because it gradually morphs into a wearying insinuation that one does well to discount just about everything Highsmith ever said about herself. (Did the young man she claimed she saw one morning on the beach at Positano – her ostensible inspiration for Tom Ripley – really exist? Might she have made up those drinks and lunches with Peggy Guggenheim? Was she prevaricating when she said she met Auden at his home on Ischia? Gotcha, Pat.) It’s a perversely disabling point of view for a would-be biographer, this tetchy refusal to credit one’s subject. How to determine even the non-controversial details of a person’s experience if you are disinclined to trust anything she ever said about it? Over the course of the book Bradford becomes oddly derisory about Highsmith’s fiction – each new novel, he complains, seems more inept and implausible than the last – but he is even more hostile to the woman herself, in an ultimately tedious, dull-edged and deadening way. Often enough, she is little more than a cardboard specimen of cruelty and untruth: ‘a liar and a sadist’.

By the end, not surprisingly, Bradford seems overtaken by a kind of reductive mania. If Highsmith’s purported self-revelations are to be taken as more ‘fictional’ than ‘real’ – the flat-character terminology is his own – the opposite, he concludes, is the case with the actual fiction. Highsmith’s novels are more ‘real’ than ‘fictional’: the direct (if unconscious) transcription of some taboo truth about herself that she couldn’t reveal any other way. When it comes to explicating a specific work, he has, indeed, only one tendentious way of reading it – as a crudely disguis­­ed, cognitively compromised, typically dishonest allegory for whatever mucky-murky affair Highsmith was having at the time she wrote it. Character X ‘must’ be Highsmith; Character Y ‘must’ be, well, whatever her name was. If X happens to eviscerate Y in a fit of rip-’em-up horror, it’s because Highsmith was fighting a secret urge to unleash similar havoc on the Cynthia-of-the-minute. In The Talented Mr Ripley, for example – which, along with The Blunderer (1954), Bradford thinks illustrates the pattern most strikingly – the murderous relationship between Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf is only a slightly grislier version of that between Pat and Ellen Blumenthal Hill:

There is no evidence that Highsmith deliberately planned to bring her partner’s life to an end, but it is clear enough that she knew precisely the levels of stability beyond which Ellen’s precarious psychological state would be ruinously undermined.

Highsmith had not clattered Ellen over the head with an oar but her callous disregard for her fate when she left the apartment on the evening of [Ellen’s] suicide attempt came close to wishing her dead.

Highsmith did want Ellen dead, and like Walter [a character in The Blunderer] she was not a murderer – at least in the sense that she would not fire a shot or deliver a blow – but she knew that her desertion of the drug-filled Ellen on 1 July was murder-by-proxy.

It’s all a bit like someone clattering you over the head with an oar.

Bradford’s lurid picture may be accurate up to a point. Highsmith herself recognised the link between the grotesque acts she dramatised in her fiction and some long-standing malevolence in her own nature. As she wrote in a journal entry from 1970, ‘I learned to live with a grievous and murderous hatred very early on. And learned to stifle also my more positive emotions.’ Wilson and Schenkar, too, see a continuity between Highsmith’s past, her literary imagination and the emotional cruelty of which she was capable, in her erotic life in particular. Schenkar even describes her as ‘killing off’ a real-world lover – symbolically – when she shows a fictional stand-in taking revenge, oxymoronically, on a hated beloved. But something about Bradford’s unsubtle harping on the murder-by-proxy theme, his prosecutorial tone and absence of counter-balancing sympathy, not to mention his weirdly insistent assertions that Highsmith wasn’t actually a murderer, leave one baffled by his psychic stake here. If she was so sordid and pointless a human being, why write about her?

With Highsmith, it’s a matter of where one places the emphasis. I feel sorry for Pat. She was cursed by life and by her drastic sentience about her predicament (our predicament, that is). Indeed, she had an awareness of evil that was as visceral, vivid and appalling as that found in the work of the most tragic, scarified, god-abandoned artists. One can only guess at the causes, but she seems to have lived a life damned – almost moment to moment – by the psychic torment one confronts in the works of Swift and Goya: a sense of the absolutely intolerable. Like them, she came very close to being maddened by the acts of human predation she saw all around her, most piercingly because she recognised that she was herself capable of similar depravity. Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. It was like suffering from some perpetual, crazy-making, metaphysical ringing in the ears.

Given all this, might one not feel – as Schenkar obviously does – some human sympathy for her? Highsmith didn’t kill anyone. She never broke the windows, kicked down the doors, shot someone. She never dismembered the corpse. Bradford may be right that she wrote about killing compulsively both to keep herself from self-slaughter (she had sentences to write) and to avoid killing someone else. She wrote as a protective reflex, just as she drank, pursued the wrong people, and reviled her least favourite human beings. But I think he also has it wrong. Highsmith had many ways of losing control – of yielding to vicious destructive impulse – but dreaming of delicious murder wasn’t one of them.

Just as there is a difference between thinking and doing, there may be a difference between seeing a mental picture of something awful and wishing for it to happen. The involuntary image of oneself striking someone dead can invade the mind in an instant – you see the act as suddenly and clearly as the devil at noontide – but this is not the same as wanting the act to occur. Highsmith may have seen the image, but she didn’t welcome it. It wasn’t – pace Freud – a wish. If we try to imagine her inner life, instead, as one in which unwanted demonic forms constantly intruded, as an unstoppable hell of morbid ideation, kinetic horrors crowding in on the mind’s eye, yammering voices urging her on towards mayhem, her self-restraint may begin to look like melancholy courage. When it came to full-on Kronos-cannibalism, Highsmith was able to resist. She channelled her worst thoughts into her art – imperfectly, perhaps, but effectively. And awful though the vision was, her art remains something we can use. One might even bless her for it.

Listen to Terry Castle discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast.

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