Farewell to Janet Malcolm
In the spring of 2001, I was a junior at Emerson College and working at Brookline Booksmith, the landmark indie bookstore on Harvard St. I had terrible two-toned, bleached blond/black hair. I smoked Camel Lites. I was depressed— not clinically, but existentially. The previous summer, one of my close childhood friends died very suddenly and the world cracked open. I spent the winter plagued by recurring nightmares about her, waking in a cold sweat. The nightmares gave way to insomnia, and before I knew it, I was spending hours staring at the ceiling of my bedroom in my shitty Allston apartment, wondering… what? Why? The thread of meaning that had woven my world into a bright tapestry had unraveled and the edges were frayed: objects and people seemed to vibrate, as if threatening to come apart. This had old roots— as a child in church, listening to the Nicene Creed, I would panic at the line, And his kingdom shall have no end. Eternity made my stomach bottom out: the world became that ride where you spin and the floor disappears. I was free-floating, disintegrating.
I hated that feeling. I wanted to banish it.
Maybe I should have been a physicist or a philosopher, but the endless universe turned me into a poet, and so, that spring, as the weeping willows on Boston Common popped their green seedlings, I turned as ever to Sylvia Plath, whose wry takes on existential crises comforted me like nothing else could: Eternity bores me,/I never wanted it, she wrote in “Years,” a poem full of sex and nature and death and a dull god she brushes off like Beyonce in the club: Boy, Bye. The world wasn’t disintegrating when Sylvia wrote that poem: the years are animals approaching a holly bush all greenness, darkness so pure we’re practically stabbed by the spikes. So tricky, that Sivvy. Able to bring the thing itself to life. I turned the page and nursed my wounded thumb—the world was temporarily itself again, thanks to Sylvia Plath.
No surprise, then, that when I heard Peter Davison, longtime editor at the Atlantic and one-time boyfriend of Sylvia was reading at Brookline Booksmith, I went. His reading left me cold, but he wasted no time announcing his relationship with his ex-girlfriend to the room during the Q&A, so afterward I approached him and asked if he might considering answering some questions about a long paper on Plath I was planning on writing in my approaching senior year. He declined (that, as the kids say, is a whole-ass other story in itself), but he made a recommendation: Get The Silent Woman. By Janet Malcolm.
I had never heard of Janet Malcolm or the book, but the Booksmith had a copy so I left with it that night. It feels like I finished it about two hours after I got home. Malcolm’s writing was so intolerably good that I didn’t even notice she was writing against Sylvia Plath until she literally wrote out the words I, too, had taken a side— that of the Hugheses and Anne Stevenson. I stopped and reread the sentence at least four times. She had? She was? But— but— WHY. She was so good, we needed her on our side! Malcolm’s declaration of Hughesian sentiment came as a result of her criticism of another beloved Plath tome, Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Rose claimed she had no emotional investment in the “real” people Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, only in their writing and editing. Malcolm called bullshit, announcing that all writing is animated by taking a side, and Rose was Team Plath.
At the time, as a literature and creative writing major, I wanted to be like Jacqueline Rose. I was steeped not only in Plath, but in post-structuralist theory. I spent much of the preceding year reading about the death of the author, the Pharmakon; I read Spivak reading Derrida reading Freud until my head spun. But I did, at the end of the day, get “it,” whatever “it” was— tough theory you could, upon wrapping your head around it, apply to the poems and novels and songs you loved so that they broke out into a brand new thing that looked almost like it was yours, even though it wasn’t. I could talk the Jacqueline Rose talk like a champ (by the close of that year, I think I said “liminality” or “abject” in every fifth sentence), but it was Janet Malcolm I returned to time and again. Her arguments were like arsenic: they arrived with absolute clarity in a prose so engaging, you felt like you were drunk on ideas, on the hunt for them, which was its own reward. By the time you realized she had betrayed you, you were already half-dead, which is to say, you had already internalized her thoughts. Which were hard to let go.
For years, whole chapters of The Silent Woman lived inside me. Malcolm’s Plath took her place alongside my Plath. Mine was in a white hot rage; Malcolm’s was sneaky. She whispered lies that hissed like gospel truth. Then, before you could respond, she disappeared. The book became so much a part of me that it was like a favorite album— the tracks played on repeat and, in my head, I began to make arguments against them. I began to scribble them in the margins. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2010, trapped in the swampy heat of Beaumont, Texas, trying to escape my dangerous ex while I nursed my infant son that I began to type them— haltingly, with one hand, while the baby slept on me. Malcolm said Plath was “a master builder” when she wrote about death in “Lady Lazarus.” “Or a master ironist,” I wrote back. I felt like I was sticking out my tongue at her! I felt like she could hear me. I was alone in the middle of fucking nowhere and my family wasn’t speaking to me and I lived with a maniac who wanted to destroy me.
But Janet Malcolm got me to talk. After a while, I wrote enough for a single critical essay on Plath, partly a critique of The Silent Woman, partly a very personal memoir. It was published in 2013, just as I was thinking, adjuncting at four different campuses as a single mother, living with my parents and dead broke, that I would never make it out intact.
But I did.
A lot of women saved my life, in those days. There was Kesha, the Texas mother of three who shoved $40 in my pocket and said, You gotta get out of here, girl. There was Dawn, the Texas mother of seven who I met in al-Anon, who didn’t know me from Adam but let me run to her house, helped me see a lawyer, helped me get on an airplane back to New Jersey so I could begin the hard work of making a life for my son and myself. There were my sisters, my aunts, my mentors. There was Brenda Shaughnessy, writing Born to a liar who is learning to change, the words that made me want to do the same. There was Sylvia Plath. And there was Janet Malcolm. Saying, You think I’m wrong, kid? Go ahead. Prove it. Do the work.
So here I am, doing the work.
Janet Malcolm died June 16. She was 85-years old. I never got the courage, as I so often have, to write to her and ask her if I could have a chat with her about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. If only I had. She may have said yes. Or she may have said nothing at all. But I doubt it. Unlike the silent woman of her book, my most beloved of all Plath texts, Malcolm talked back. I was so lucky to listen.