Discover more from Loving Sylvia Plath
"Life begins at 30."
[Image description: Sylvia Plath on a Paris street, near Notre Dame, March 1956. She wears a khaki raincoat, a blue turtleneck, and a red-and-white-striped headband. She looks away from the camera, smiling.]
Today is the 59th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s 1963 suicide. Early in the morning of February 11, 1963, Plath gassed herself in her London home at 23 Fitzroy Road. She was 30-years-old. She left behind some of the most extraordinary poems of the 20th century, work that would forever change the way we read, write, and talk about literature. Despite her fraught reputation— her name has become synonymous with scandal, secrets, and the macabre, her work banned, at one point, in England for fear young people would want to end their own lives if they read it— she remains one of our most read, most relevant writers.
I have spent my entire adult life chasing after Sylvia Plath’s legacy in one form or the next. At the age of 17, grieving the loss of a beloved family member, a bad break-up, and surviving my first bout of a lifelong struggle with acute panic attacks, I became suicidally depressed. I reread The Bell Jar. I knew it was a bad idea, but I felt like each page was a grim advent calendar, telling me my fortune. Like Sylvia Plath— although I didn’t know it, then— I was practicing bibliomancy, or the art of fortune-telling through books. I knew what was coming for Esther Greenwood— she lives— but I also knew that Plath didn’t survive, not least because the edition of the book I owned had a “biographical note” tacked onto the end that closed with Plath’s suicide. Like Plath, I was a poet— a precocious, third-generation great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants on both sides, reading the newspaper to astounded houseguests at the age of 3. By 17, I felt like Plath’s famous elm tree— only instead of having a “great tap-root” by which I might access some vast hidden earth, I was tapped. I had won so many prizes, so many crew races, kissed so many boys, and still, it wasn’t enough. I drove over bridges and thought, just swerve. We lived on a barrier island. There were so many bridges.
But I never swerved. Or, at least, I never went off the bridge; cut my wrists; swallowed the pills. That’s not to say I didn’t make a lot of metaphorical swerves, breaking off from the prize-winning path I had been on in high-school to wander: flunk courses, make a bad marriage. Cheat. Every swerve led me somewhere— sometimes the same shit place I had been before, sometimes somewhere brand-new. But Sylvia Plath was with me all the time. When, in 2012, I found myself a single-mother, alone after a violent, disastrous relationship with a poet I (cringe) thought of as “my Ted Hughes,” I understood something brand new about myself, and Sylvia Plath: Take great care in deciding who tells your story. Stories are alchemical. A tale can become its narrator. A subject can transform.
In 2012, I barely recognized myself. I came to know myself, again, by reading and writing about Sylvia Plath. In 2012, I was an adjunct, teaching at four different campuses— a single mother of a little boy, living at home again with my parents, who were wary of me, afraid that at any moment, I would run away again with their only grandson to live a dangerous life with a violent man. Instead of running, I stayed, and did the work. Now, I write this from the sunroom of our little house in Greece, just outside the city of Thessaloniki. We arrived— my husband, our three children, and myself— the first of February, so that I could teach at Aristotle University on a Fulbright Scholarship, devoted to the study of Sylvia Plath.
It’s fitting, then, to celebrate Plath’s life on the anniversary of her death, as I stare out at a place so devoted to the celebration of being alive. Through my window, there’s an olive grove. In the distance, I can see the bright blue Aegean, Mt. Olympus rising above it, snow-capped peaks touching the paler blue of the Greek sky. Sylvia never visited Greece, but she loved its history, philosophy, and mythology, studying Plato like mad while on her own Fulbright at Cambridge University, from 1955-1957. One of her most successful early poems was called “To Ariadne, Deserted by Theseus,” about which the critic Diane Middlebrook wrote that Sylvia was saying, Don’t be a sob-sister, Ariadne; what are you going to do now?, a modern, Plathian take on a mythological bad breakup that foreshadowed her most famous poems, which read like fierce torch songs: What would he do, do, do without me? Plath’s speaker asks at the end of “The Jailer,” one of the poems Ted Hughes excised from Ariel, when he published it in 1965. Hughes sold us a Plath who was a high-priestess of gloom and doom, but when I read that poem, I see yet another woman who survived the toxic violence of her so-called genius husband: the recently late, great Ronnie Spector, hair piled high in her famous beehive, in conversation with Plath’s beekeeping heroines, crooning in harmony with her background singers: Do, do, doooo without me.
Sylvia Plath brought me to Greece as good as if she flew the plane herself. Or, at least, that’s how it feels, much of the time, as my children head off to Greek school every morning and the baby lisps Yassas at passersby. But while I look for, and never fail to find, great beauty and joy in Plath’s legacy, there is tragedy there, as well— the failure of society to care for the lonely, the mentally ill, the single mother, the people who live on the margins. And that, too, has followed me here. Last Sunday, after our neighbors grilled octopus for us on their wood-fired grill, I came back inside to a message that an old friend had chosen, in the long wake of a terrible divorce from a toxic spouse, to end their life. They had been in touch in the last months, reaching out to ask how I survived my own version of this awful song. There was— is— no short or simple answer. All I could tell them was they deserved a different life, a better one. That it was out there waiting for them. They came for lunch. We drank tea in the sunshine. They talked. I listened. I heard— as I usually do, because once you publicly declare yourself a survivor of domestic violence, people tell you their stories— all the old notes, the ones I can sing by heart, as hard as I try to forget the tune: It was my fault. What did I do? What can I do? I shouldn’t have— I didn’t mean to— At the same time, I heard the harmony of doubt, of self-knowledge and faint, old stirrings of self-love creep in, too: But some of that wasn’t true, I mean… I never did that. That was a lie. I’m a good person. We hugged and hugged and I told them, Come back. Meet my kids. Have dinner. Come anytime. I tried many times to get them to return, but they wouldn’t, or couldn’t. They canceled. They rescheduled. Around New Year’s, they texted— I want to see you before you go! I wrote back, Me too! Come anytime! We’re here. But we never saw one another again. The last image I have of them is watching them walk down my street as I waved from the porch: their rich brown hair and jaunty stride the same as it was in college, in high school, in the seventh grade. We knew each other a long time.
At the very end of Sylvia Plath’s life, she had a friend, Jillian Becker, and her husband, Gerry, trying hard to intervene and, if not save her, help as much as possible. Plath stayed with the Beckers the last weekend of her life. They welcomed her and her children into their London home, cooking them beautiful lunches and dinners. Jillian helped bathe the babies, listened to Sylvia weep and rage against Ted. When Gerry brought the three of them back to Plath’s flat on Sunday February 10, the last night of her life, he begged her to stay. Just stay. But she was determined to go home, whether because she just wanted privacy, or she was planning to end her life, or both— we’ll never know.
As a young woman, like many young people, I identified completely with Sylvia Plath, sometimes in the most unhealthy ways. I did romanticize her death. We all did. There was a glamour to it— she said the wildest, strangest, scariest things, to her father, her mother, her shit of a husband, and then she just ghosted. She pulled a Sappho and jumped. She never, I thought then, had to answer for any of it. I saw that as a glamour, and it was, as in, it had nothing to do with reality and was instead a fiction I could dive headlong into.
Except that it led me nowhere, as stories like that will do. It was my dogged pursuing of Plath’s life and writing that led me here: olive trees. Babies. The beauty of morning coffee. Like Sylvia, my friend ended their life, and like Sylvia, the news of how they died is slow to announce. I’m so far away, so I scroll Instagram, waiting to see a single friend— we shared so many!— post a picture of them, or a tribute. Plath’s own mother lied to her own father about the way Sylvia died for years. We don’t want to talk about suicide, we say— we act as though talking about it makes it catching, like it’s a contagion fixed only by silence. When, of course, the opposite is true, usually.
As a 17-year-old, I thought I was Sylvia Plath. I never thought I’d be Jillian or Gerry Becker: Come anytime. Stay. Stay with us. I never thought I’d be a survivor.
But here I am. And so, I invite you— if you feel like the world around you is a place you can no longer inhabit— come to mine, just for a little while, and tell me about it.
Come anytime. Stay with us. Stay. Stay as long as you’d like.