The paternal grandfather of Henry James, an Irish immigrant who became quite wealthy, had little time for James’ father Henry James, Sr. James, Sr. himself was injured in a fire as an adolescent and lost his leg. He remained bedridden for a few years which finally garnered the attention of his parents. He too was a writer (newspapers), dabbled in theology, but was disinherited by his own father after a few years as a wayward youth. Having felt unloved by his father, James, Sr. was determined to shower his first born son William (the American physician, philosopher-- and psychologist who met Freud) with attention. Tragically, his controlling ‘love’ of William, and of his second born son Henry, left both sons feeling oppressed by their father’s attention, something from which both struggled to free themselves, but not without life-long battles with depression. It is thought the suicidal William was bipolar as well. Their younger siblings, Wilkerson, Robertson, and Alice (the recipient of inappropriate courting from William) all suffered mental illness as well, e.g. Bob with alcoholism, Alice with ‘hysteria’.
Henry James never married, but he wrote about some of the ‘ghosts in the nursery’ [what therapists know as fear, helplessness, rage]. These ghosts are intergenerationally transmitted, speak to the pain of multiple losses [such as loss of recognition, attunement, love, and actual caregivers]. In The Turn of the Screw, Miles and Flora have lost first their parents, then grandparents, then their beloved governess. The governess narrator arrives and devotes herself to her wards, reminiscent of Henry James, Sr.’s crippling devotion to his two elder sons. Only after the two children are separated from one another, the governess – unable to bear the sadness of her wards’ many previous losses [much like the hapless therapist]— in the last straw, the turn of the screw, in ‘saving’ Miles from his demons, contributes to his fatal injury. The governess has failed to hold Miles in mind, having deprived him of healing through relationship. Much like Henry, Sr., she has blurred the distinction between her own needs and those of her charge.
That which is disavowed can return with a vengeance. James deftly leaves us to consider whether the ghosts here are from within or from without, or both.