Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.
Is this something that people do? Celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death? Certainly celebrate is the wrong word – mark is probably better, or even observe.
Today I am observing the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.
It’s no secret that I love Sylvia. I mean, I named my blog after her only novel (actually, I named it after what I would have called my all-girl rock band if I’d had one, but the band was named after the novel, so really it all amounts to the same thing – but anyway, I digress). I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I’ve even joked about being her reincarnation. I mean, there are a few similarities between us, right?
We’re both depressed, oversharing lady-writers, for one thing. We both come from families that didn’t have a heck of a lot of money. Her father died when she was eight; mine left when I was thirteen. Of course you can’t compare death to a divorce, but I think it would be fair to say that those events left us both dealing with what are colloquially referred to as “daddy issues.”
Oh, and my son was born on the same day as her son, Nicholas. So there’s that, too.
Of course, this is basically where the similarities end. Sylvia worked hard throughout high school and ended up attending Smith College on a full scholarship. She then went on to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, I burned out early in high school, too tired and sad and stupid to get my shit together, and went from being an honour roll student in grade nine to receiving mostly Cs and Ds in my final year. I did get into Dalhousie University (though just how I managed that, I’m still not sure), and while there had all As and Bs, but still, I was never the academic star that Sylvia was.
Sylvia published her first poem when she was eight, and went on to publish several poems and short stories before she finished university. One of her stories, Sunday At The Mintons, won her a coveted spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York.
I published my first poems and short stories, well, never, and I can’t even properly edit my own stupid blog, let alone a whole magazine. I’ve also never been to New York (although I have watched a lot of Friends and Mad Men, which is basically the same thing, right?).
I guess that, all in all, Sylvia and I aren’t much alike, at least not on the surface. But when I read her writing, I feel that, as The Bell Jar‘s Esther Greenwood says about her friend Doreen, everything she writes is “like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.”
I get Sylvia Plath. I mean, I get her. I get her dark, sad, humour, and I get her anxieties, and I get her hopelessness. Up until now, I’ve used her as a sort of guide in the darkness, reading and re-reading my well-thumbed copies of her books, looking for passages that will get me through my fits of depression. A paragraph here, a stanza there, a kind of spiritual sustenance to tide me over until things get better. For most of my adult life, I’ve looked up to her.
But then, for all of my life until now, she’s been older than me. Wiser, hopefully. Maybe even more mature.
What do I do now that I’m about to out-age her? She’ll be thirty years old forever, but I’ll only be thirty for a few more months.
How do I continue to look up to someone who will soon be younger than me? Will I still love her writing in 10 years’ time? In 20? Will I look back someday and, instead of finding inspiration in her words, discover that all along she’s been a boring, self-obsessed, talentless hack?
What happens when you outgrow the people you admire the most? Probably nothing. Probably it’s normal.
But in a strange way I feel that by letting go of Sylvia and moving on, I’ll be abandoning her. In a funny way, I feel that she needs me, as much as I need her.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her last few weeks alive. Not much is known about what was going through her mind, since Ted Hughes burned her last journal, but we do have a handful of poems dating from late January and early February and, of course, a few firsthand accounts.
We know that the quality of her poems changed in those last weeks, becoming less about the self, their mood more disembodied, alien. We know that her incandescent poetic rage, for which she had been so famous, had begun to fade in her works, replaced by a sort of resigned hopelessness. We know that she worked feverishly, producing poem after poem, trying to translate her tangled thoughts into perfectly-ordered words.
We know that Sylvia went to her doctor and told him that she felt as if she was heading for a breakdown. We know that she began taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. We know that she reached out to her friends, Jillian and Gerry Becker, for help and a place to stay. We know that several days before she died, her doctor began trying (unsuccessfully) to find her a spot in the hospital.
Each night that she stayed with the Beckers, Sylvia would take her sleeping pills and recite a sort of monologue about all of the people who had wronged her, all the men, beginning with her father, who had deserted her, and how utterly miserable she was. She would go on and on, ignoring any questions that Jillian put to her, as if she was in a trance. Eventually she would pass out.
Having Sylvia stay with them began to be a strain on Jillian – she had to do everything for Sylvia and her children, cleaning, feeding and entertaining them. When Sylvia announced on Sunday, February 10th that she wanted to go home, Jillian didn’t press her to stay. There was supposed to be a nurse coming to help Sylvia the next morning, and besides, surely the doctor would find a hospital bed for her soon. And also, as Jillian said in the article I linked to above, pity tires the heart.
Gerry drove Sylvia home Sunday afternoon, and she wept the whole way there.
That night Sylvia left the window in her children’s room open, and shoved cloths and towels underneath their door. She also placed tape all around the door frame, to stop up the cracks. She then turned the gas taps in her oven on all the way and, placed a little folded cloth in the oven to act as a pillow, and laid down.
She was found the next morning by the nurse and a handyman working on the property who broke into her flat when no one answered the door.
By that point, she’d been dead for several hours.
Her children, though cold from having slept next to an open window in February, were fine.
And pity tires the heart.
I think that there’s a state that you sometimes get into when you’re deeply depressed. You feel as though you’re walking along a sort of knife’s edge between artistic inspiration and suicide. In an instant, all the dead, flat hopelessness you’ve been feeling gives way to an ecstatic misery. You suddenly feel as if you’ve been given a special insight into how the world really is, and you work like mad to get that insight down on paper or on canvas or whatever. And you know that you’re playing a dangerous game, but you also think that it’s worth it.
It’s worth it to go that close to the edge, if there are rare, exotic gifts to bring back.
It’s worth risking death, so that you can tell everyone else what it was like.
It’s worth almost everything, if it means that you’ll write something great.
It’s like circling round and round a black hole, getting a few inches closer each time. You’re discovering all kinds of amazing things that no one has ever known before, but you never imagining that you yourself might be drawn in.
It’s like standing at the edge of a lake of poison, and knowing that the poison, if taken in small enough quantities, will give you brilliance and genius that you’ve only ever dreamed of. The poison, if taken one spoonful at a time, will give you an enormous drive to create. And you want that. Oh, how badly you want that, want all of it.
But even though you know that the poison could kill you, you’re not overly wary of it. You’re that you’ll be able to set limits. You’re confident that you’ll be able to stop when you need to. But after taking one sip, you talk yourself into taking another, and then another. And you feel fine, not sick at all. You drink and drink and drink, and maybe even dive right in.
And it’s not until it’s too late that you realize what a mistake you’ve made.
And maybe there’s no one to save you. Because pity tires the heart.
I am trying so hard not to tire all of your hearts.
Sylvia, I am thinking of you today. I promise that you do not tire my heart.