(Photo: Rollie McKenna)
It has been 46 years since Sylvia Plath gassed herself to death in her kitchen, and it was worldwide news when her daughter Frieda Hughes announced that Plath’s 47-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes, a fisheries biologist in Alaska, killed himself last week.
Why, of all the stories of creative, brilliant people who have suffered from fatal depressions, does Plath s tragic legacy resonate so widely? Here, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter D. Kramer, Erica Jong, Andrew Solomon and Elaine Showalter offer their thoughts.
- Joyce Carol Oates, novelist
- Peter D. Kramer, “Against Depression”
- Erica Jong, novelist and poet
- Andrew Solomon, “The Noonday Demon”
- Elaine Showalter, professor emerita, Princeton University
Her Reputation Rises, as Others Fade
Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of “Dear Husband,” a story collection.
The suicide of Sylvia Plath was and is obviously of enormous cultural significance because Plath was a brilliant poet — at the time of her death she was already considered a very important poet and since her death, her reputation has risen continuously while others who were her gifted contemporaries — Anne Sexton, John Berryman, even the much-acclaimed Robert Lowell — appear to have faded.
Also, Plath wrote specifically about suicide — her own suicide, much-meditated and plotted — and her much-publicized ill treatment at the hands of her husband Ted Hughes made her into a feminist martyr of a kind. (Though Plath herself was contemptuous of feminism and of most other women.) It is probably not the case that “creative” people commit suicide to a degree beyond that of the general population but this is the popular stereotype.
It is known that a suicide in a family may precipitate subsequent suicides in the family; one can surmise that for the children or relatives of suicides, especially those who are prominent and whose suicides have been much dramatized, self-destruction provides an “exit” that seems ready-made, as it would not be for others. (I cannot comment on Plath’s and Hughes’s son, because I don’t know his personal history.)
Ernest Hemingway, who committed suicide at the age of 62, has the father in his short story “Indian Camp” offer an explanation of an Indian’s suicide — “Maybe he just couldn’t take it any longer.” A young person associated with both Plath and Hughes would have had to contend with the literary-journalist’s equivalent of Tabloid Hell; maybe he couldn’t take it any longer. (The kindest response would be a sympathetic silence on the part of the media.)
Serve the Sufferers
Suicide is humbling for us, the observers. In the case of Sylvia Plath, we have all the narrative information anyone could wish: her prose fiction, her poetry, her correspondence, her journals, and then the Husband’s, too.
With all this testimony — brave, generous, self-aware, subtle, forceful — we do not know. Does Ted drive her to it, and his next wife as well? Or is it progressive deterioration of the brain? (Now that we’re better at examining them, we can say that the brains of suicides look very bad.) Both, is the sophisticated conclusion, environment and genes, social circumstance and biology, cognition and animal drive — which is to conclude vaguely indeed.
“Of course there are two,” Plath writes in her poem “Death and Co.,” meaning the wife and the husband — but now one might think of the mother and the child. Two turns out to be a low estimate.
What we know most about is the horror of suicide, for the ag ent, for the survivors. Advocates who speak on these matters say that death from suicide is about as frequent as death from the common cancers — only a bit rarer than death from breast cancer, for example — but that while there are breast cancer centers, for treatment, for prevention, for research, at many hospitals, there are suicide centers at almost none. Tonight, that mundane observation seems to me as thoughtful a response as any to these losses. As doctors, given copious testimony, we should be able to comment with more wisdom; as a culture, we should to be able to serve sufferers better.
An Exemplar of Inexorable Fate
Star-crossed lovers always fascinate, and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were surely star-crossed. Their attraction was fierce and they both chronicled it with brilliance. Sylvia Plath wrote powerfully of her attraction to suicide, then killed herself. Ted Hughes was also no slouch when it came to the pull of mortality (witness his book, “Crow”).
We are often drawn to characters who seem to be exemplars of the inexorability of fate, of destiny. And they were such. In their lives, in their work, they seemed to exp ress the darkest workings of the unconscious.
People born to do that are not often steady parents. And we know that suicidal parents often produce suicidal children. I knew Ted a little, did not know Sylvia, but was very sad to hear of their son’s death.
The legend of tragic, fated lovers seldom includes happy children.
The Lure of a Birthright
Andrew Solomon is the author, most recently, of “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” and of the forthcoming “A Dozen Kinds of Love: Raising Challenging Children.”
Suicide runs in families. It’s not entirely clear to what extent this is a genetic predisposition, and to what extent having a parent who has killed himself or herself simply makes the option feel more readily available, though both are certainly true.
Suicide is the end point of many depressions, but there are plenty of people who, though acutely depressed, do not become suicidal. Committing suicide requires a mix of depression and impulsivity; so much of depression is passive and meek and deactivating. The pain may be intolerable, but the prospect of doing anything as deliberate as suicide is overwhelming.
The model of the literary suicide, of the writer whose thrall to craft is either the consequence or=2 0the cause of most dire depression, is a frequent one; David Foster Wallace is the latest link in this sorry chain. Sylvia Plath wrote about depression so explicitly and so beautifully in “The Bell Jar,” where she described how:
I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
For anyone who has been depressed, that description rings astonishingly true. She had talent and looks and was married to a great poet, but these externals cannot assuage that eye-of-the-storm despair. For a long time, all of Plath’s work (as Virginia Woolf’s) was read through the lens of her suicide. She is in fact a remarkable poet, whose writing would warrant our attention even if she had lived her days out happily taking her children to soccer practice in suburbia.
Now her son has killed himself, after a long battle with depression. It’s sad to think that in this time of psychopharmacologic al and cognitive-behaviora l wonders, he was not able to get above his illness. I do not know what treatment he received or sought, but I do know that he had a birthright to the dull eye, and to that sadly final way of dealing with it. Parents who suffer from depression cannot help passing along that illness.
Those who commit suicide implant the idea that this is a viable option, but it seems likely that Nicholas Hughes was beset by demons he can rightly call his own. And every life that is lost to suicide is tragic, be it associated with poetry or not.
A Rare Genius
Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University and the author of “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.”
Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of 30, was one of the great American poets of the 20th century. No other poet in English except Keats, and no American poet, produced so much enduring work in such a brief lifetime.
Plath’s ambition to become what she called “the Poetess of America” and her fierce preparation to fulfill that ambition added to the unique intensity of her life and legend. Plath’s poetry and fiction, appearing during the decades when women were demanding liberation from secondary lives, spoke to its readers with searing immediacy. Our sorrow at the waste and loss of a brilliant writer, and our anger at the restrictions and prohibitions Plath faced as a woman artist, fueled her legend.
In short, Plath was not just “talented and creative” but a rare genius. Her story will continue to compel attention for a very long while.