who’s afraid of Sylvia Plath?

I am. Or, I was.

Here’s what happened.

I was seventeen the summer after I graduated from high school. My family and I took a trip to the beach. It wasn’t something we did often. We were more of a hike-in-the-woods family than a sand-and-surf family. I’m pretty sure we went because I insisted that we go on one more family trip before I went off to college. I think. That’s not the important part.

The important part is that I marched out to the sand every morning with a battered library copy of The Bell Jar tucked under my arm. I slathered my pale Irish skin with sunscreen and followed Esther Greenwood to New York City, noted her inability to identify neatly with either the adventurous Doreen or the piously well-behaved Betsy and clenched my teeth through her encounter with an attempted rapist. I was moved by her apathy towards the city, moved by what felt like her pursuit of a uniquely paved path.

If you haven’t read The Bell Jar and don’t want it spoiled for you, I suggest you stop here. Otherwise, let’s carry on. Where were we? Esther Greenwood is back in her hometown in Massachusetts.  

Her mother informs her that she was not accepted into a prestigious writing class, the one she was certain would transform her into an established writer, the kind that writes Something Important. Without that, what could she accomplish? What does she know outside of academia, a world that she has dwelled in and excelled in her whole life? What if she can’t do anything else? What if that’s the closest to doing Something Important that she’ll ever get?

Cut to Esther leaving the note that she’s going out for a walk and crawling into a hole in her mother’s cellar, downing a bottle of sleeping pills, remaining in this dark, damp space, not-quite-dead, for—we don’t really know how long. Then the discovery, the extraction, the mental hospitals. The psychotherapy, the shock therapy. We’re led to believe that Esther is getting better, but we don’t know if we believe that. We leave Esther in the waiting room on the brink of a potential exit interview.

“The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

The end.

Esther Greenwood scared me. I didn’t like her—I don’t know that she’s a likable character—but I identified with her. She scared me because she was a few years my senior, she had more accomplishments under her belt, was closer to a career in writing than I, and still she wanted to die.

Let’s go back.

+

Halfway through my senior year of high school, I was slipping. I was dead set on getting into a university well out of my league. I was taking all AP classes and clawing onto a 4.0 GPA at all costs. I was neither happy nor myself. None of it made sense anymore but it was the only thing I knew how to control.

Then came the medication and things got worse but I couldn’t afford that and so I grasped at the idea that suicidal thoughts were a temporary side effect while my mind and body adjusted to these new chemicals. Things would get better because they had to get better.

I told no one that could do anything for me about the lease on life I’d torn to shreds. I know I told a close friend because I distinctly remember his text, “Please stop telling me these things.” I remember feeling betrayed, alone, finished. Of course, I know now that his request was valid and that it was far from a betrayal. At seventeen, I only knew that the one thing that seemed to interest me was my own disinterest. I wasn’t myself anymore and so I had to be this empty space, instead.

I’m not ready to go into detail. We’ll save that for another day. I will simply reveal the facts. One night, I took some pills. I tried to throw them up and couldn’t. I went to sleep and awoke three hours later, groggy but relieved. I did some research. I went downstairs and told my parents what I’d done and that I was afraid for my liver. They took me to the ER. A nurse hooked me up to an IV. She took my blood. We waited around. I wanted my book—I had three more chapters to read before class the next day. The tests were clear, we were finally told, but I didn’t need to worry about the book or the unread chapters or class the next day because I wouldn’t be going. That’s when the state of Maryland twisted—more like broke—my parents’ arms into granting permission for a stay of undetermined length in a hospital called Sheppard Pratt.

Let’s get back to Esther Greenwood.

Actually, let’s get back to Sylvia Plath.

+

I think we were already home from the beach when I read the biographical statement at the end of The Bell Jar, the one that said Sylvia worked as an intern in New York, Sylvia got rejected from the writing class, Sylvia crawled into a hole with the intention of dying, Sylvia received shock therapy. Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia. It was, with the exception of names and minor details, all true.

I don’t think anyone recognizes the name “Sylvia Plath” without knowing, too, that she did kill herself at the age of 30. This was in 1963, ten years after the attempted overdose in her mother’s cellar. It was sometime after she drove her car into a river. This time, it was the oven. As in, she stuck her head in the oven and turned on the gas.

Pardon me for saying this, but I think many of us have made light of this death at one time or another. It just sounds absurd. “She stuck her fucking head in an oven.” I know I’ve said it. I know others have said it.

Of course, it’s not absurd. When you look at the bigger picture, it’s gut-wrenching. She went on medication for her worsening depression and her doctor arranged for her to have a live-in nurse. Ted Hughes was living elsewhere, the couple having separated six months earlier. Sylvia had the kids.

The nurse wasn’t there yet, she was due at 9:30 AM. Sylvia locked the door, sealed off the gaps to her children’s bedroom with tape and clothing, turned on the gas, stuck her head in the oven, and died.

There are people who believe that she didn’t want to do it. Not that it was foul play but that it wasn’t truly her acting that morning. I understand this belief. I’ve lived this belief.

Some say that if she’d only held off another week or so, the medication would have taken affect. Others say that it’s strange that she asked a neighbor when he’d be leaving for the day, that maybe she’d hoped he would smell the gas, knock down the door, and stop her. Others point to the note she left instructing whomever might stumble across the scene to call her doctor.

Then there are the people who eye Ted Hughes with suspicion—not that he killed her but that he ruined her, in some way or another. That he was a bad man with ill intentions. He did, after all, release all of her journals for publication except the last, which he claims to have destroyed. He did, after all, have a mistress who, six short years later, killed both herself and their four-year-old daughter. Hughes, the concealer of tortured women’s secrets. Hughes, the harbinger of death-by-suicide.

I wish I could ask those who don’t believe it was Sylvia’s intention to die why they feel that way. Not as a challenge, not from a place of doubt. Simply to understand where they’re coming from, why it’s easier for them to say that she didn’t mean to than to believe that she couldn’t envision a livable future for herself.

Perhaps they are afraid of Sylvia Plath. Perhaps they, like a younger version of myself, are afraid to stare her in the face and recognize that she was in too much pain to keep going because they are afraid that it’s like looking in a mirror or reading a prophecy.

The thing is, if a young Sylvia Plath was on her way to a successful writing career, the grown Sylvia Plath already had one. The Colossus and Other Poems was published in 1960, receiving positive reviews. Every poem in it had already been published elsewhere, from Harper’s to The Times.

Just before her death, The Bell Jar was published in the UK, although her novel did not go over as well as her poetry. It was rejected by a Harper & Row affiliate who felt that the novel was juvenile. When it did get picked up, people were mostly uninterested. That is, until the author killed herself, and then it was read like a diary or a tabloid, picked apart to see what pieces of her the readers could extract. Morbid curiosity.

The Bell Jar, as we all know, is well-regarded now. It makes lists with titles like “Best American Classics” and “Top 20 Novels Written by Women.” It makes me sort of sad to know that Sylvia doesn’t know that. It makes me sad, too, to think that to know Sylvia, to love Sylvia, is to love a woman who is so often reduced to her own mental illness.

This is not uncommon for the depressed (and repressed) women of our cultural history, which is, perhaps, sadder still. Young women are routinely led to the startling realization that many of our role models are best known for their highly publicized breakdowns, their romanticized loss of control, their suicides. In a conversation about this very topic, friend and fellow avid read, Kelly, noted, “Thank god for Joan Didion. She’s my most stable icon.” And it’s true, isn’t it? Of the world’s most beloved women, those known for their stability are few and far between.  

How does this speak to young women? What does this tell us about what the world expects from us? How are teenaged girls, uncertain of their futures, supposed to respond when, alone in their bedrooms, they discover the truth about The Bell Jar, about Sylvia Plath? Some of us write about mental illness in an attempt to save ourselves. It didn’t save Sylvia. So, what does that mean?

+

There’s a sort of stigma surrounding a young woman’s love of Sylvia Plath, like it’s too obvious or too contrived. Announcing to a poetry class that Plath is your favorite poet is, I imagine, like telling a group of musicians that your biggest musical influence is the Beatles. Like saying, “This person who inspired an entire movement in the arts? They inspired me, personally.”

The difference, I think, is that when you say you love Sylvia Plath, you are almost unequivocally saying that you have a relationship with her, not just with her work, which tends to produce an even larger eyeroll from the cynics. My first piece of advice is to ignore them and unabashedly admire whomever you admire.

My second piece of advice, one that I wish I could go back and give my younger self, is to avoid confusing admiration with full-blown, one-for-one identification. Feeling seen by Plath’s description of mental illness does not mean that you are exactly like her. You may start your writing career emulating her style but that does not mean that you will follow her lead to the end of your own life.

Who’s afraid of Sylvia Plath? I once was. To this day, I love her dearly and yes, I’d say that I continue to have a relationship with her. But I’m not afraid of her anymore.

1 Comment

  1. Linda Newsom says:

    I like Jane Austen. I think it’s because she saw the shortcomings in the society in which she lived and made fun of them. She had a lot to say about the role women were forced to live and how they were so much more.

    Liked by 1 person

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