Discover more from Loving Sylvia Plath
What does it matter if a book gets written?
Notes from isolation
[Image description: Sylvia Plath sits in front of a fireplace, holding her baby son, Nicholas. Her two-year-old daughter, Frieda, sits to their left, holding a teddy bear.]
This March, it will be two years since we first entered lockdown. I was newly pregnant, then, so newly pregnant that no one but my husband and three of my friends knew. At the time, I was still considering aborting the pregnancy. A month earlier, I had been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach at Aristotle University, in Thessaloniki, Greece, for the spring of 2021. That August— 2019— my agent had sold my first book, Loving Sylvia Plath, from which this newsletter takes its name. On January 23, 2020, I turned 40. On January 24, 2020, my then-longtime boyfriend, now husband, Vincent, and I went to Manhattan to spend the evening with my British friend Gail Crowther, who was in the States doing research and publicity for her book Three Martini Afternoons At The Ritz. We had heard news of a novel virus in China, one that had jumped from bats to humans— our Uber driver said, “You guys heard about this crazy thing in China? You know why that happens? They eat bat soup over there. Hey, bat soup.” As we drove to the city, I felt a twinge— we live in a little beach town at the Jersey shore. In the winter, it’s a deadzone. And we were leaving it to go Manhattan, international travel hub. We walked through the Met that afternoon, Vincent agog over the musical instrument wing. People from all over the world walked next to us. If there was anywhere we wouldn’t want to be, if this virus is really bad, I thought, this would be it. And walked on.
Even now, Vincent and I periodically look at one another and say, in a heavy New York accent, “Hey, bat soup.” It’s a joke about the weird things you hear from strangers, but it’s also part of our intimate language— Remember when things were normal? It seems likely, now, that we conceived our son Bowie that weekend in Manhattan, just as the world as we knew it ended, and our new life began, after a lush dinner in Little Italy. Over Chianti and grilled octopus and homemade pasta, Gail and I and our friend Suzanne gossiped about Harriet Rosenstein’s newly-available archive, and Vincent and my old friend Ming, who works in the city, talked hip-hop and fashion. We could not have known— this was the last time we would be able to do this, for an unforeseen period of time.
As February progressed, I thought I was in early menopause. I had not considered the possibility that I was pregnant. I had wanted to be pregnant for so many years, in what I now know was a desire to correct the terror of my first pregnancy, when I lived with a dangerous addict. I wanted a baby with Vincent— a pregnancy and a baby in warmth and safety. But by February 2020, that desire had passed. I had the book to write. And now, we had the Fulbright— I had won a fellowship to bring the whole family with me to Greece, in spring 2021, for four months. In the last days of February, I took a pregnancy test “just to put my mind at ease.” I was so sure I wasn’t pregnant, I only took it so I could stop wondering. I wasn’t even anxious as I took it. And then, I was pregnant. I wept. Vincent held me. I said, I can’t do this. He said, Are you sure you’ll be able to go through with an abortion? I said, Yes! And felt another twinge.
At the time, a baby— a baby! It’s hilarious, now, given, well, everything— seemed like the biggest possible impediment to traveling and teaching abroad with our family. I kept trying to imagine it, but “it” was indelibly crossed with my earliest memories of my older son’s first months. He was a poor sleeper, but besides that, his father was an active opiate addict and a sociopath (there is no other possible word). Our lives were in danger. If I tried to sleep when the baby slept, he made sure I could not, stalking me through the house, or raging at me. At one point, he drugged his son, who wasn’t quite seven weeks old; at one point, he drugged me. Those months— that first year— were the hardest of my life. I walked through them in a stupor of sleeplessness and terror. I was going to al-Anon while his father “got sober” (he was never sober for a single day that we were together, but he enjoyed exploiting people and systems, and 12-step programs allowed for both), and I would frantically say the Serenity Prayer in my head, misinterpreting the bit about accepting the things I couldn’t change as meaning, I had to stay with him because he was my son’s father. It had not yet occurred to me that accepting the things I could not change could mean, Leave him behind. Run. I had to just let him do what he would do, and I would do what I could do.
The problem was, living with him, I couldn’t do anything. The moment my attention moved its laser-focus from him for even a moment, he acted out to swing it back. He was an empty vat; he filled himself with my words, my needs, and my deeds. He hated my friends and family, because they took that attention. He hated our son for the same reason. When, once, I said, I can’t do all of this, I can’t, I have a new baby to care for, he screamed, violently, his face inches from our newborn, The BABY, the BABY, you only care about the fucking BABY, you BITCH!
By March 2020, nine years had passed since that time. Although I had built myself a new and different life with a loving partner who was also, when we met, a single parent, I was haunted by my old one. I am haunted by it. I won tenure and promotion in the spring of 2019, but not without a fight— although I exceeded the university standards in every category, I had become embroiled in a battle with the administration about what I saw as their gross negligence in handling campus sexual assault. I was an outspoken critic of this, especially when students filed nine individual lawsuits about it in the summer of 2018. As a survivor of rape and domestic violence, I was sure we could do better, and I said as much, publicly and in writing. It just kept happening— the university would make a public statement or hold a watered-down “town hall” to discuss the problem, and I would try to keep my tongue in-check. Then I would feel something inside of me burble and split and almost before I could really think of what the consequences were, I would speak out, publicly, or write something in response. And post it. My own students, so many of them with histories like mine, or much worse, seemed to live inside of me like fierce femme homunculi, whispering their stories. By February 2019, as I submitted my file for tenure and promotion, the university began a bogus investigation of my teaching and scholarship, under claims it was somehow retaliatory against certain students, and sexually discriminatory against men. It stretched on, into the summer. I was sure I would lose my job. And then we would lose our home. And then we would lose everything.
To deal with this, I drank a lot. There is no other way to put it. I drank more than I ever had before and more than I hope I ever will again. I drank wine, mostly, dry, cold, white wine that took away my sense that the center had abandoned me, again, and that no matter what I accomplished, no matter how many outside institutions recognized my abilities, I would never know peace or success because to know that within an American academic institution, you either have to ignore their immorality or condone it, and I couldn’t do either. I tried. And the homunculi hissed at me— Speak. “O my/Homunculus, I am ill./I have taken a pill to kill//The thin/Papery feeling,” Plath wrote in her great poem “Cut.” She was writing about a particular injury, when she nearly lopped the whole top of her thumb off. But she was also talking about what I’m talking about— the way a tiny pill or a fizzy drink can push away the chaos for a moment. The chaos, then, was everywhere. And wine was a small thing I could control.
The night I took the positive pregnancy test, I lay in bed with Vincent, weeping slow, silent tears. And I drank red wine, little goblets I kept having him refill. What did it matter, I thought? I would abort the pregnancy as soon as possible. It is almost impossible to write this down, because of the shame I feel, but here it is— I didn’t want to have the baby for a lot of reasons. But mostly, I didn’t want to give up alcohol.
That night, I fell into a deep sleep. And sometime in the very early morning, before the sun rose and before I woke up, something happened to me. My friend Cynthia, someone with more than a decade of sobriety, called it “a moment of clarity” when I described it to her. I can’t describe it to you as I did to her, because she was facing me— we were nursing our newborn sons, hers born a scant month after mine, and I could use my hands to talk, and she could see my face. Whatever happened to me that early morning in late February 2020 happened in my sleep, and it happened in my body, and though I would, that same morning, as I drove to work, sob to my friend Deb that I could not have this baby, I could not bring a baby to Greece, I could not— in my body, I knew I carried another body, one that was half Vincent, half myself, and all their own, and I knew I had to bring them into the world, or at least try. And I knew I had to stop drinking— not just for the baby, for me. If I could stop drinking, I also knew something else— I could find some peace. And if I could find those things, I could write a real book about Sylvia Plath.
So— as anyone who has been reading this newsletter already knows— I didn’t abort my pregnancy, and as the world went into lockdown, and almost everyone I knew drank copiously, I was pregnant, sober, and trying to write that book. I adore our son, Bowie, who was born healthy in November of 2020. I would never make a different choice, now, and it’s a stupid thing to ponder, since it’s spilled milk. He is here, and this is my new life, a true vita nova— a new baby in a new world. I can’t put him back, and this has heightened my sense that there is no going back to normal, a state of return I constantly hear others discuss, which makes me laugh. This is our world, now; it won’t ever be what it was. When I had my moment of clarity, I thought, I will be sober, the kids will be at school and camp, I will finish the book this summer.
And then I was sober.
And then came lockdown. Homeschool. Zoom teaching. Zoom learning. The terrible weight of choosing— masked school without them vaccinated, or the misery of Zoom? For one full year— March to March— the big kids went to school on a computer. In fall 2020, as I was out on leave and so many of our dearest friends were forced to return to work, and terrified of their kids at school with no vaccine, we had five other kids come to our home for Zoom school, and I tutored seven kids, including our two, enormously pregnant, while Vincent cooked and cleaned and played Solitaire. The baby was born in November 2020, and in January 2021, I went back to full time teaching, online, breastfeeding Bowie off-screen while I recorded video lectures about the history of the sonnet and the social construction of gender and the big kids Zoom-schooled, looking at me with hollow eyes. The Fulbright got deferred. The book did not get done. Then, it was February 2021. My colleague and friend, Heather, called me to check in and I said, I feel like a ghost. I stole an hour to write, in the only possible privacy, the baby’s nursery, while he slept on top of his father and the kids did homework. I could still feel the internal stitches of my C-section, feel the hot red scar across my lower abdomen. I looked around the room; barely 5 pm, but so dark out. The kids hadn’t seen their friends in weeks and weeks. I had been up at 4 to breastfeed and hadn’t been back to sleep. The book wasn’t done. I was on an extension, but how, in this environment, would I finish? I called out for Vincent, and he came, the baby asleep in his arms, not yet three-months-old.
“Is this how we live, now?” I said. “Forever?”
Nothing lasts forever, or so people say, but as of this writing, another year has passed. We are slated to fly to Greece January 22, but this past Saturday, we were exposed to Covid, indoors, at length, and now we are all in isolation. As our 13-year-old had the most direct exposure, she is alone in her bedroom; we bring her meals to her, and she stares from her bed and we laugh and say how weird it is and how we love each other and then I sit at the dining room table and cry. The baby isn’t vaccinated, yet. As the holiday break ended last week, I thought, I have two weeks to write before we leave. And then, this.
This. What does it matter, this book? The baby isn’t vaccinated. My baby might have Covid. Our kids might. We might. Shouldn’t everything else pale in comparison? On the phone, panicked loved ones check in, ask what we need, when can we test, when has enough time passed. I say, I don’t know when I will write, and their tone shifts, ever-so-slightly. Yeah, well… They trail off. I tell one of them, I have no idea how I will get any of this done, before we leave.
Anything I can do? They ask.
Nothing, I say, honestly, and sadly.
It’s just… writing. Scholarship.
They clear their throat. Yeah. Well…
My son comes in for his 99th hug of the hour. The cats fight. My husband drops the laundry on the floor to begin folding and the noise makes me startle. Yeah, well. Any artist or writer knows the worst part of this gig is trying to make anyone understand the impossible nature of carving out a space to do it in a culture where anything you can’t punch a clock for, anything you can’t immediately sell or consume, isn’t even considered worth discussing. Who cares, really, if I never finish this book? Who cares if every mother and caregiver in America collapses from the strain of the laundry, the cats, the hugs, the homeschool, the terror, the death? Books unwritten? Songs unsong? Who has barely fucked their lover, their husband, their wife, their best friend, for two years because the kid coming in for the 99th time for the 99th hug of the hour is always right there?
Who is alone? Who feels it?
In Harriet Rosenstein’s archive, there are hundreds of hours of taped interviews with Sylvia Plath’s nearest and dearest. One of them, Clarissa Roche, is a fascinating insight into Plath’s last months, during which Roche visited her twice, staying at her country home in Devon. As Roche gets more and more intimate with Rosenstein, she says, She didn’t have to write, she didn’t have to wake at 4 am to write, it was madness, implying, like so many others, that Plath’s emotional collapse and suicide was a result of her writing poetry. That, had she not written Ariel, she would be alive.
I won’t die if this book doesn’t get written. I won’t drink myself into a stupor.
Why this insistence that writing either kills us, or doesn’t matter? Why the tacit understanding, accompanying acceptance, that writing, especially women’s writing, doesn’t matter— can always come last, or not at all?
What would have happened if Sylvia Plath had never finished Ariel? What does it matter if a book gets written? Who would I be, without her work? Who am I, now?