[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.
My father was a writer, and completely absent from my life. My mother was incredible, the kind of woman who was entirely nonplussed when I banged on pots and pans and sang at the top of my four year old lungs. In turn, I was a so-so mother, not abusive or truly neglectful, but a woman who discovered after childbirth that I was not really cut out for the 24 hour emotional vampires that are our children. Not their fault, but I need an enormous amount of alone time, far more than most "normal" people. And while I am only a writer in my head, I could easily be accused of being a bad mother, and if I'd had more gumption, and actually pursued an actual literary career, I would have been exactly that kind of mother. I think that most people do the best they can given the circumstances, and I think women like Flanagan are terrified of being judged and found lacking, so they make it a point to judge others first. Or maybe that's complete nonsense and she's just a raging harpy. Either way, I loved Joan Didion and she could have been the world's best mother who never left her child's side and still had a daughter who was mentally unstable and turned to alcohol to self-medicate. Great mothers still produce unhappy, unhealthy, children and the children of terrible mothers sometimes still manage to sort themselves out.
I am so glad you wrote this. You could write that essay someday, about keeping women alive. Or I could, although I’m not a mother (although I do occasionally joke that my husband is “my children”). Or another woman who lives and considers these things. It’s a sad truth most of us know. Others, welp; not so much. You hit my frustration with Flanagan’s essay pretty squarely. What the heck with the wardrobe criticism, name calling, and general dismissiveness? Then the commentary regarding Didion’s parenting and loss of her daughter … revealed a bit about Flanagan and nothing about Didion.