Return to Plathland

Like many depressed, agitated, inward-looking girls, I found Sylvia Plath in high school and immediately felt seen. The Bell Jar articulated certain agonies I’d been unable to express, and I soon found myself reading Crossing the Water in Animal Behavior when I was supposed to be studying the anatomy of small amphibians and writing lots of grim, Plath-inspired poetry about winter and worms and death, etc.

Then I headed off to IU, where I was shocked and delighted to learn that I, a lowly undergrad, could sit in the Lilly Library with the Plath collection (you mean they just let you in there?!), sifting through her poems and diaries and spending hours poring over everything: her handwritten letters, her meticulously-typed drafts with their carefully spaced margins, her childhood drawings of girls in pastel petticoats. I felt as though I were conjuring a ghost. It was thrilling and eerie, and it was also terrifying. What would it feel like to have my most private thoughts and terribly earnest high school poetry preserved and handled by white-gloved strangers long after I could protest? Would Sylvia—by all accounts a perfectionist—have wanted this?

I’ve been back in Plathland this week because I’ve just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s brilliantly meta anti-biography biography, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which is fascinating and masterful and unexpected in so many ways. Malcolm’s book is as much an indictment of the biography genre as a study of the Plath/Hughes mythology, and she uses the form to explore the cottage industry surrounding the literary tragedy—excoriating the voyeurism masquerading behind academic civility, journalism, and literary criticism.

The book brought up important questions I’d contemplated in the Lilly Library but had forgotten until now: questions about the public consumption of artists and the privacy afforded or denied the still-living players in a scandal. Also: questions about the reliability of narrative, especially when it’s being used for personal gain or notoriety. Narratives are slippery things. It’s difficult to divorce ourselves from the motives that inspire our investigation and culminate in our carefully edited dramas. It’s always a tricky business, whether we’re constructing our own narratives, or they’re constructed for us, or we’re constructing them for other people using what they’ve left behind. We create stories out of artifacts. We shape memories into art. It can be restorative. But it can also feel like nailing moths to a wall. Like pinning down living, breathing, transforming creatures and watching until their wings quiet. I went to the Lilly to meet a literary giant, sure, but I also went to soothe my own sadness and search for some indication that I, too, might possess some of Plath’s terrifying magic—that it was something I could achieve if I worked hard enough.

After reading The Silent Woman this week, I rented The Bell Jar and started skimming the first chapter, which has maybe my favorite opening line in any novel: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” It’s perfect, immediately establishing Esther’s voice, the social climate, her dilemma, the scene, the disquieting tone. The prose is sharp and crawling and yellow right out of the gate. And Plath will revisit electrocution when Esther Greenwood is hospitalized after her suicide attempt and undergoes electro-shock therapy. As the novel closes, there are glimmers of hope that the suffocating fog of Esther’s mental illness may be lifting. That she will breathe again.

Yesterday, I went to plug in my computer to work on this essay. As I did, I accidentally grabbed hold of the metal part of the adapter. I felt a horrible, burnt-from-the-inside, all-the-way-alive pain jolt through my body. I’d been shocked—at something like 220 volts, I’m told. For a few moments, I couldn’t let go of the wire. I watched as the sparks jumped from the metal to my shaking hand and felt a surge shoot through my chest, which continued to throb for hours. (I may have still been damp from the bath when I grabbed the charger? I don’t know.) Just to be safe, we drove to an ER in Switzerland. I felt overly dramatic and embarrassed, but the nurse took my vitals and whisked me back to a bed and performed an EKG. Turns out I was fine. My chest muscles had contracted violently during the shock. It was a bad cramp that needed to work itself out. The pain was lifting. I could breathe again. I came home and watched Murder She Wrote. And I vowed to bury my old journals.