The Big Strip-Tease
Pain, Privacy and Exploitation in the Work of Sylvia Plath
There is probably no writer more associated with suffering and mental illness than Sylvia Plath. The fact that Plath committed suicide in February of 1963 is the first — and sometimes, the only — fact anybody knows about her. That she was “crazy” soon follows, if it is not implied. Yet, for all that Plath’s work has done to give voice to a female experience of depression — The Bell Jar is practically a synecdoche for adolescent female angst, at this point — the question of who owns that pain, and who has the right to witness it, remains remarkably vexed. That much was proven this month, when bookseller Ken Lopez emerged to sell a collection of documents that may be the Holy Grail of Plath research. His discovery promises to resolve some of the most charged and long-standing questions about Plath’s life. Nevertheless, its existence has managed to rip open old and deep wounds regarding who has the right to control Plath’s narrative.
We seemingly know both everything and nothing about Plath’s final months. The basic outline of the story has been raked over ad nauseam: The revelation that her husband, Ted Hughes, was sleeping with another woman. Their separation. Plath’s creative breakthrough, with the best work of her life — the Ariel poems — bursting out of her all at once, in a mind-boggling five-month stretch. Then, suddenly, death; her head in the oven, while her children slept. This one terrible winter has been turned into novel-length fan fiction (Wintering, by Kate Moses), Oscar-baiting biopics starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Sylvia, 2003) and countless biographies.
And yet, the final piece of the explanation has always been missing. Plath’s final journals, along with the manuscript of her second novel about the dissolution of a marriage, were destroyed or “lost” by Hughes, because (he claimed) her children would be hurt by reading them. Of that final journal, Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and agent of Plath’s estate, would say only that “I read it, and I think it could have been a nightmare for them.” For all we have, we don’t have the last note, her final words. Thus, those crucial months remain both overexposed and out of reach.
This is the void Lopez attempted to fill by selling the Harriet Rosenstein collection: Heretofore unseen letters from Plath, written to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher, covering the final half-year of Plath’s life, along with the hospital records from her first suicide attempt in 1954. Lopez estimates that “twenty-eight pages were written after Plath discovered Hughes’s infidelities and their marriage disintegrated.” This alone would be a major discovery. But then, slipped quietly into the Paris Review summary, is the bombshell: “Plath writes to Beuscher… of physical abuse and psychological torture at the hands of her husband.” The price was set at $875,000.
It’s the “physical abuse” bit that is potentially revelatory. Did he hit her has always been the untouchable third rail of Plath scholarship. Ted Hughes sued feminist writer Robin Morgan’s poem “The Arraignment” out of existence for accusing him of it. Hughes partisans, and most respectable critics, dismissed the idea as sheer feminist paranoia; a conspiracy theory from the “libbers” who constituted Plath’s most passionate early readers, born of nothing but a few misreadings and a pathological need to reduce every issue to sexism. Anne Stevenson, who wrote a Hughes-approved biography of Plath, deplored “the identification many people still make with the persecuted woman of their imagination, the helpless victim of ‘patriarchal society.’” Stevenson would later say that Ted Hughes had personally instructed her to delete anything in her book which assigned him responsibility for the break-up. Olwyn Hughes merely sniffed that “[Plath] has been idolised by women’s libbers and iconised for all the wrong reasons, and that is why they always make such a ridiculous fuss about everything and mostly get it wrong.”
Meanwhile, the feminists pointed out, Plath’s work incorporated her life, often in an extremely literal way; when she wrote lines like “I have been drugged and raped” or “the boot in the face, the brute / brute heart of a brute like you,” her language have might been hyperbolic, or she might have actually gotten a boot in her face at some point. There was clearly something in those final journals we weren’t supposed to see — some “nightmare” Hughes would destroy Plath’s work in order to cover up. His overreaction to Morgan or his interference with Stevenson could have been grief, but it could also be the reaction of a man afraid that his secret had gotten out. Either way, it wasn’t an irrelevant (or “idolatrous”) question.
Nor would this be the first time readers have made fools of themselves by refusing to take Plath at her word. For decades, critics accused Plath of cultural appropriation or hysteria for calling her father a Nazi in “Daddy.” George Steiner called it “histrionic” and asked whether a poet “[commits] a larceny when he invokes the echoes and trappings of Auschwitz and appropriates an enormity of ready emotion to his own private design;” even the most sympathetic critics called the depiction uncharitable. At least, they did until it was revealed in 2012 that the FBI had been investigating Plath’s father for Nazi sympathies. This actually shouldn’t have been a shock: In her unexpurgated journals, published in 2000, Plath flat-out said that Otto Plath “heiled Hitler in the privacy of his home.” Yet somehow this, too, was dismissed as exaggeration until the day his FBI file turned up.
So, maybe Plath called her Dad a Nazi because he was a Nazi. Maybe she said Ted abused her because he abused her. And maybe it was just plain sexist for us, her readers, to assume that she wasn’t telling the truth, or that her furious depictions of those men were mere “histrionics.”
Yet, if these letters do in fact say what the Paris Review claims they do, there’s also something massively depressing about seeing the answer to one of 20th-century literature’s great questions played out like this — with the victim’s confidential psych records, including letters that are essentially remote therapy sessions, displayed in public and sold to the highest bidder.
This commodification of Plath’s mental illness also has its roots in sexism — especially given how eager some have been to dismiss the actual testimony of Plath’s work. This may explain why Plath’s younger feminist fans have responded to news of the collection, not by celebrating the gains for scholarship, but by deploring the fact that they’re being sold.
“Don’t get me wrong, there is a part of me that desperately wants to read these things. And a part of me that says ‘well, for posterity,’” Tweeted writer Anne Theriault. “But, look, I can’t get around feeling deeply gross that a man unrelated to Plath is profiting off stuff that she never wanted anyone to see. Even Ruth Barnhouse didn’t want anyone to see these documents. SHE TOLD PEOPLE SHE HAD BURNED THEM. Now a dude’s selling them for $875,000.”
Commodifying Plath’s mental health is a way of removing her authority to tell her own story. By reducing Plath to her death, we reduce her to craziness — “a suicide,” a human symptom in search of a diagnosis. Indeed, many readers view her as little more than a collection of clinically significant behaviors. Nominally responsible psychiatrists have written lengthy papers attempting to diagnose her based on second-hand anecdotes. Here’s Dr. Brian Cooper:
“If her upswings of mood are regarded as evidence of hypomania, the appropriate DSM-IV diagnosis for her major illness then becomes bipolar II disorder. Closer study of her life pattern reveals, however, not the spontaneously alternating mood-states of an underlying cyclothymia, but rather an overresponsiveness to daily experiences — a heightened reactivity to life’s ups-and-downs, and above all to interpersonal tensions — that was the hallmark of her personality.”
Once upon a time, we would have called that “heightened reactivity” the “artistic temperament,” maybe even found it necessary for a poet of Plath’s caliber — but for Cooper, it’s a sign that she had “major depressive disorder, recurrent, in the setting of a borderline personality disorder.” Nor is BPD the most insulting conclusion writers have come to about Plath. One infamous Salon article — by Kate Moses, the woman who turned Plath’s last days into her own novel, and drawn from a little-known theory by graduate student Catherine Thompson — actually argued that Plath committed suicide due to the world’s worst case of PMS.
At its worst, this attitude reduces Plath’s entire body of work to a symptom — something she produced because she couldn’t help herself, and which may have killed her. Al Alvarez, who was sympathetic to Plath, still wrote that “the very source of [Plath’s] creative energy was, it turned out, her self-destructiveness… though death itself may have been a side issue, it was also an unavoidable risk in writing her kind of poem.” Another psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Ryle, has argued that her very ability to write was a “borderline trait,” saying that it “represents a dissociation from current surroundings and preoccupations, even when these are difficult, as they were while she was writing Ariel.” Of course, if the ability to “dissociate” from other tasks long enough to finish a piece is a symptom of borderline personality disorder, then every writer since the dawn of time has been borderline — including Dr. Anthony Ryle.
The idea that intellectual work will drive women crazy or kill them is not new. Our treatment of Plath reaches all the way back to Victorian superstitions which argued that women who read too many novels would become incurably insane. If even picking up a book is too much for the fragile female psyche, woe betide the woman who tries to write them. Yet all the concern-trolling and Yellow-Wallpapering we do to Plath — she might be alive today if she hadn’t tried to write all those poems, the poor thing — also speaks to the fact that, though we do not traditionally let “crazy” women tell their own stories, we love to tell stories about them. Ever since the era of public viewing days at mental hospitals, the idea of a girl gone out of control has made for lurid spectacle.
Yes, Plath was mentally ill. Healthy people don’t stick their heads in ovens. But, in Ariel, she specifically set out to be an authority on her own illness. Writers use the material life gives them; if Plath’s material was a Nazi dad, a bad divorce, and suicidal tendencies, well, others have done worse with better. She even seemingly predicted the tendency some people would have to sensationalize her suffering, to reduce her to a subject of pity or a crazy-girl freak show. In “Lady Lazarus,” the narrator refers to her work as “the big strip-tease,” and warns “the peanut-crunching crowd” that comes to gawk:
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart —
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
The dynamic Plath envisioned was one of exposure, yes — but it was also one of control, of ownership over her own story and her own suffering. She exploited her audience, not the other way around: You get the blood, but she gets your money.
The problem is that Plath put in the work, but died before she could collect. Ever since, her narrative has been controlled by outsiders, who may not always have had her interests at heart. On the one hand, there was an urge to suppress her story — from Ted’s need to burnish his own reputation and avoid blame, or from Olwyn, who described Plath as “straight poison” and seemed so committed to her personal dislike that she could not allow for more sympathetic perspectives. This very suppression has created an understandably ravenous appetite for un-edited documents, unaltered facts — something that allows us to perceive the truth of Plath’s life without the filter of the Hughes’ opinions or emotions.
Indeed, one of the biggest problems with placing the collection on the open market is that the Plath estate (now run by Sylvia’s daughter Frieda) may buy it, and prevent it from ever seeing the light of day. If the collection is as advertised, it will change the face of Plath scholarship and biography. Not to go all Indiana Jones, but this situation actually merits the full Indiana Jones: It belongs in a museum!!! Or a library. Or anywhere but private ownership. It should be donated, not sold, just as Plath’s work should belong to history, not to Ted Hughes.
Yet there’s another danger lying in our hunger for those raw facts. It’s the danger that makes a hundred-thousand-dollar commodity out of a young girl’s hospital file — a drive to consume female suffering or gape at freakish female insanity, the kind of lust that reduces a great writer, over and over again, to armchair diagnoses and clinically significant factoids, that will listen in on her therapy sessions or her relatives’ FBI files before listening to the testimony of her work. It insists that Plath was nothing more than crazy — and that crazy women make great characters, but can never be storytellers. It makes novels and major motion pictures out of a woman’s life, yet refuses to accept that woman as her own primary authority, no matter how loudly or how often she has spoken about the facts at hand.
The fact is, we do have Plath’s account of that final, awful winter. It’s called Ariel; it is, and always has been, the best account of her marriage or her mental health that anyone could hope for. We already know what that first suicide attempt was like, because it is more or less the entire plot of The Bell Jar. And, though the circumstances that inspired those works were not within her control, the art most definitely was; she told the truth about her father, or Ted Hughes, but also transmuted them into larger-than-life, mythic figures, appropriating their actions to the service of her own greatness. It is the art that made her Sylvia Plath, not just another psychiatric case file.
It’s that greatness we miss when we commodify Plath’s suffering, or reduce her to her craziness. There is no mental illness that can make someone write the greatest poems of the 20th century. No matter how crazy you get, you will never write Ariel. Only Sylvia Plath could do that — and no matter how much we study her, we will never know how or why. That’s what genius is; how it works. Sylvia Plath owns Sylvia Plath’s suffering. We’re just the peanut-crunching rubes she roped in to watch the show.