The Trouble-Making Mothers
[Image description: A young Joan Didion sits with her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, on her lap. Didion’s hand is in her daughter’s hair.]
Toward the end of the sole biography of Assia Wevill, a person history knows best as the woman who troubled Sylvia Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes, the writers Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev engage in a grim comparison. Like Plath, Wevill took her own life, but it was a murder-suicide; she also killed her four-year-old daughter, Shura, when she gassed herself in March 1969. Comparative discussions of both women’s suicides have abounded since the poet Robin Morgan first wrote publicly about Wevill and Shura’s deaths in her 1973 poem “Arraignment,” but Koren and Negev go a step further. Quoting Professor Anita Helle, a Plath scholar who has the odd distinction of also being Sylvia’s cousin, they describe Plath’s “desertion” of her children as an act of extreme cruelty, one somehow worse than Wevill’s murder of her toddler.
[Image description: Assia Wevill sits with her daughter, Shura, at a coffee table, outside.]
God knows it’s not a competition (had it been, everyone would have lost). But discourse about women writers, especially those who were mothers, seems destined to descend to the lowest common denominator. This has been on my mind since I saw Caitlin Flanagan tweet her 2012 Atlantic article about Joan Didion, “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” after the celebrated woman of American letters died last week at the age of 87. Flanagan seemed to think she was paying homage to Didion– she noted that people were asking where her obituary for Didion was, and that the last two paragraphs of the piece were it– but if that’s how Caitlin Flanagan honors writers she loves, I’d hate to be on her shit-list. “The Autumn of Joan Didion” starts by trashing Didion’s seminal memoirs about grief (her husband and daughter died within a handful of years of one another; Quintana, her daughter, was only 39-years-old at the time of her death). It then moves quickly to trashing Katie Roiphe’s and Meghan O’Rourke’s admiration for the books in question, on a 2006 Slate panel. Flanagan writes that O’Rourke “started talking gibberish,” something difficult to imagine for anyone who has ever seen Meghan O’Rourke speak publicly (I once saw her eat a salad at AWP; she did even that with aplomb). Flanagan claims Didion’s writing changed her life, and we may as well take her at her word, but the essay is shot through with malice that extended to the aforementioned tweet, which consisted of one word: “Winter.”
[Image description: a GIF of Lucille Bluth rolling her eyes and drinking a martini]
But Flanagan hits Didion’s motherhood hardest, at various points blaming her for Quintana’s alcoholism and mental illness. “Where was Quintana,” she wonders, “when Didion was living at the Faculty Club… or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.” That Quintana may well have been with her father during these times is never discussed, and we are left to understand that Didion’s absence from her daughter’s life when she was working (she lived “at the Faculty Club” when she was teaching at Berkeley for a month) is part, if not the whole, of why Quintana suffered, and possibly even died young. This illogic points to the ways we try writing mothers in absentia for their children’s perceived failings, or sufferings— they are always guilty, and their writing is always to blame. In 2013, reviewing several biographies of Sylvia Plath for the New York Review of Books, Terry Castle wrote that Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes’s 2009 suicide was a result of “Lady Lazarus [catching] up with him at last.” “His mother was by then long dead,” the piece ends, “yet even so I couldn’t help wanting to kill her.” Charming.
Castle’s hostility to Plath seems rooted in the same place as Caitlin Flanagan’s—rage at a woman who dared to make herself the center of her own story. Didion’s most famous collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, takes its name from Yeats’ most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” with its declaration that, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” but the center of Didion’s work was her narrative voice and style and it held right up to the end. Flanagan’s declaration that Didion’s writing suffered because she “got old” (did she have another choice?) flies in the face of the countless people who looked to her later work to help them navigate loss and grief. And it’s the flip side of the same coin used to argue against Plath— we only love her because she died young, she is only famous because she died young. Plath may have died 57 years younger than Didion, but she prioritized her time, her writing, and her career in much the same way, marrying a fellow writer who supported her ambitions and (clutch the La Peregrina pearls) sometimes leaving her kids with family or sitters to work: record for the BBC, give readings, or just travel.
[Image description: Sylvia Plath holds her infant son, Nicholas, while her two-year-old daughter, Frieda, stands next to them. They are in a field of daffodils.]
Writing is a solitary business, but the truth is, we don’t like mothers to be alone, and we hate mothers who express the desire to be alone. Dying by one’s own hand is the ultimate act of isolation, a leap into the solitude of the abyss, so it’s no wonder Plath has suffered the kind of hostility she has in death. Mothers are supposed to be surrounded by their children, who can keep watch; those children’s eventual growth into a healthy adulthood serves as the stamp of proof that their mothers did what they were supposed to do: they were there, all the time, at every minute, watching, tending. To do otherwise is not just to fail, it’s to sin, to commit a crime that can resonate decades after you die. Small wonder that Koren and Negev preferred the story of Assia Wevill taking Shura with her into oblivion to Sylvia opening her children’s windows and sealing their doors so she could leave them, safely. And I get it— I’m a mother and a writer. Sometimes I ogle my other mother-writer friends who take weeks-long residencies to start, or finish, books. I don’t begrudge them; I just couldn’t do it, for whatever reason (hence my writing this on my living room couch while my husband and children watch Rare Exports, a Finnish Christmas-horror movie… “Hold onto your horns!” my daughter just shrieked at the tv). But is that my desire to be with my kids at all times? Or my internal misogynist censor, forcing me to believe the insane lie that I can get all this done in the scant twenty hours a week this house is child-free? That I should be able to? And how much of that is tied up in Plath’s mythology, in my internalization of Anne Stevenson’s characterization of Sylvia’s last year— that there is always time to write, if you look, that Plath wrote her great poems between four and eight in the morning. Because she had to. And therefore, I can, too.
Whatever my personal neurosis is, Joan Didion didn’t buy it. She took her time as she saw fit and she wrote extraordinary books and people hated her for it. I’d like to say those people were mostly men, but Flanagan’s (and plenty of other women’s) writing proves me wrong. Yeats, beloved by Didion and Plath, wrote for some years in a literal stone tower, but his solitude is seen as noble, while Flanagan characterizes' Didion’s interest in retreat, in being alone with her thoughts (how the hell else do you write?) as that of the “eternal girl.” Like everything else in the piece, Didion’s interest in solitude is used to infantilize her— she’s a girl-bride tottering in her four-inch heels who deserves to be punished for her depression (or “sulks,” as Flanagan calls them) during her marriage, instead of “rewarded” with a family trip to Mexico where she is “allowed” to read in a hammock. When Flanagan describes Didion coming to her parents’ home for a Berkeley faculty dinner party in the mid-1970s, she mocks her relentlessly for wearing a Chanel suit (“She seemed like someone who owned one good thing to wear”). Every Plath, Hughes, and Plath-Hughes biography on record, meanwhile, notes that Hughes, at Cambridge, wore the same black corduroy suit and army coat everywhere in awed tones— when a male writer has one good thing to wear, he’s a sex-god bohemian. When a woman has one good thing to wear— or is even perceived as having one good thing to wear, since by then Didion was already a success— she’s a deviant child in need of watching. Keep your eye on her.
I don’t claim to know if Joan Didion, or Sylvia Plath, were good mothers. I never met either of them, and I didn’t—don’t— know their children, although I was lucky enough to once meet Sylvia’s daughter in an English graveyard. I do know they were both great writers. I also know that the quality of their motherhood had nothing to do with their decision to write and, as the writer Julia Fine put it on Twitter, “…it is entirely possible to be both a bad writer and a bad parent.” I know that, as a mother of three writing a book under deadline and working my day job from home during a pandemic while the kids have more or less been in the house for almost two full years, I have given up on varying my outfits in the ways I did in the before times— who has time to think about what I’m wearing? These jeans and black t-shirts are my one good thing. And everything else is shit because it takes away from the sand timer running in my head every time I sit down to write. (I don’t shave my armpits anymore either, but that’s for another essay.)
And I know that the essays, the biographies, the sound, rather than the hot, takes that I want to read on writing and motherhood and Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill and anyone else navigating this quagmire are not a competition about who was the best mother under the absolute shittiest circumstances, are not whether it was better to kill yourself and your kid or just yourself while you spared your kids. They are essays and bios that expose the layers of a culture where being a single mother was so anomalous and terrifying and mental health care was so hard to come by that Plath and Wevill thought it made more sense to, as Wevill wrote, “…execute yourself and your little self” rather than seek help. Because look— there was no help. I want essays and bios that don’t just wring their hands to the tune of “What was she thinking??” about Sylvia— I want work that asks what Ted was thinking, knowing his wife was in the state she was in and leaving her, day after day, alone with their children, who could, along with everyone else in the apartment building, easily have died from gas poisoning, or an explosion, that terrible day. I want essays that ask how we can learn from the tragedies of these women, Quintana Roo included, about how to keep women alive. And writing. Joan Didion could have written that essay. Or Sylvia Plath.