Book Five: Rough Magic, A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexandar
I picked up the Plath biography because she is a writer I have always appreciated, though I am only familiar with her poetry and not her novel. It seems that she is as famous for her life story as for her work. She showed an incredible drive and commitment to writing from a very young age. She started submitting her work to magazines before her teens and by the time she entered Smith she had already began to develop her reputation as a writer.
While in school, she applied to anything and everything. One thing I am learning with each biography I read is that every success is born of so many failures. I have yet to know of a successful person who had a golden road before them. Even the most brilliant and accomplished people failed and failed and failed. (This gives me a lot of hope because I am very good at failing.) Here, Plath received about ten to twenty rejections (at least) for every piece of hers that was accepted. Even though she was a writer from the start, her best work didn’t come until the end of her life.
She was plagued with depression for most of her life and her first recorded suicide attempt came while she was at school at Smith. She took rejections to heart and held herself to an incredibly high standard in everything she did. When things didn’t work out, she would fall into a very deep darkness. Complicating her situation was the fact that she had started seeing a doctor for her depression who prescribed electric shock therapy. The therapy which in retrospect is barbaric and cruel was made worse so for Plath because it was not administered properly. She was left alone in the room after her shock treatments. The physical and psychological effects devastated her and seem to clearly lead to her suicide attempt.
I wonder if we will ever understand mental illness. Who can really know anything about it? The patient is lost and confused because they are stuck in a never ending circle of trying to reconcile if how they are feeling is basically nothing more than a severe personality defect or a basic inability to ‘handle’ life or if there is a true chemical cause for their moods and reactions to life. Even when doctors tell someone that they suffer from one mental illness or another, it is extremely difficult for the patient to draw the line as to where their self-responsibility ends and where the illness takes over.
No one can know the darkness, the hopelessness and the paranoia that comes with mental illness unless they have themselves experienced it. Outside of this personal experience there is often doubt, criticism and misunderstanding. Often times, inside of this experience, there are similar feelings as well.
So, as much as we dissect and try to understand Plath, to some extent we will never be able to. Her personal demons were surely elusive, even to her. One person who is portrayed as the great antagonist in her life is her husband Ted Hughes. They entered a whirlwind romance and were soon married. The marriage was both extremely productive and destructive. From this biographer’s account, Plath set the foundation for Hughes success in many ways. She secretly submitted his work to many publications and was his literary agent. She helped him make his name and encouraged him to write, always putting her own work on the back burner to help maintain Hughes.
What was Ted Hughe’s role and responsibility in the death of Plath? There are those of the school of thought that an individual does not have a responsibility for any other human. I strongly support this view unless (and forgive my legal side here) they assume the responsibility. If someone enters into a relationship with a mentally vulnerable person, if they know that someone is suicidal and self-destructive and then they offer themselves again and again, then they have assumed a responsibility for that person. Here Hughes does exactly that. He knows Plath’s vulnerabilities and then exploits them. He uses her loyalty to him for as long as he needs it and when something else comes his way, he abandons her. He knows that it is killing his wife for him to abandon her. He does not give her warning or preparation. One day he loves her and the next he is walking into another lover’s arms. It is my view that there is nothing more inhumane, selfish and monstrous than walking away from someone who loves and needs you. Perhaps it is too demanding a view of the world but the consequences are severe, and so perhaps it is ok to demand such a high standard.
Here, Hughes leaving Plath led to her most severe bout of depression leading to her suicide soon after. Hughes’ curse does not end there. He marries his mistress and she moves into the home he shared with Plath and attends to her two children. Soon, she too has a child with Hughes. She is also a writer and lives in the shadow of Plath. Not many years later, she kills herself as well. However, unlike Plath she also kills her baby. Perhaps she could not stand the idea of another one of Hughes lovers stepping in and raising her children like she did Plaths. Almost forty years after her suicide, Plath’s son with Hughes also kills himself. Could Hughes have prevented all this? I think so.
Although the writing in this book is pretty terrible, Plath’s story is an amazing one and this book is definitely worth the read. It is mesmerizing and highlights the frailty of someone who suffers from mental illness despite any of the successes they may have in this life.