The Case Files: Sylvia Plath

I’ve always been curious about Sylvia Plath. She seemed like this woman shrouded in mystery to me, but always one I wanted to know a little bit better. A brilliant woman and artist, Plath also struggled with suicidal ideation and chronic depression throughout most of her life. She eventually committed suicide in 1963.

I watched the movie adaptation of her life starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig (swoon) while I was in Seattle and I was freezing my Florida-braised bum off. I had decided go outside for the day was a stupid idea and watching a movie about Sylvia Plath was a great idea. I was finally going to learn about this mysterious woman.

What I got from the movie was a few things:

1. Sylvia Plath was brilliant. She was awesome at writing and painting and showed promise early-on for pretty much doing whatever she wanted to do in the arts.

2. She did not think too much of herself. She actually thought quite poorly of herself.

3. I was right. She was mysterious and fascinating.

Born during the Great Depression, Sylvia was well off. Her father was a German immigrant who was a biology and German instructor famous for writing a book about bumblebees. Her mother was of Austrian descent and was 15 years her husband’s junior. Sylvia’s life was quite picturesque until her father’s death when she was 9 years old.

Based on the movie and what I’ve read about Sylvia’s feelings on this matter, she basically felt the death of her father also ended her life in most ways. She regarded her life as careless and happy prior to his death, but shortly after began her many suicide attempts. About the first 9 years of her life, she wrote they had, “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”.

Not to be taken lightly, Sylvia was a beast at academics. The woman just had smarts. She attended Smith college in 1950 where she kicked ass editing for The Smith Review and later got a job in New York working at Mademoiselle magazine as a guest editor for a month. The position did not go as planned and spurned Plath’s first documented suicide attempt. After receiving electroshock therapy for her depression, she took a bunch of her mother’s sleeping pills and crawled under her house. She was only discovered after 3 days of lying there. She wrote she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.”

She rebounded after six months in psychiatric care and some insulin shock therapy. She returned to college in 1955 and turned in her thesis, graduating with highest honors. After that, she received a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge where she continued to write and publish her work.

Then, Sylvia read some poems in a local magazine featuring a fellow by the name of Ted Hughes. Professing her favor for his poems at a party to Mr. Hughes, the two began a furious courtship writing poems back and forth and basically just being awesome together. Ted was quite the looker and the movie adaptation portrayed him as a devoted husband who was quite desired by the ladies. He definitely had a sexy Bill Pullman thing about him.

They bobbed back and forth from England to the U.S. Sylvia taught at Smith College for a while and struggled to find her voice writing. After taking a few writing seminars and discussing her suicide attempts, she was encouraged to write about “what she knows” which turned her writing into what she is known for today along with a uniquely feminine perspective that was rare during her time. She also continued to see a psychologist.

Her and Ted eventually ended up in England with the birth of her daughter and the publishing of her first book entitled Colossus. Plath’s second pregnancy was a miscarriage which she wrote about in-depth. Eventually, the couple moved once more renting out their apartment to another couple of poets. Hughes was struck with the wife, Assia Wevill, and he wrote:

“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it,”

Plath discovered the affair and once more attempted suicide by crashing her car. The movie portrayed Plath as an insecure and paranoid woman who basically drove her husband to an affair with her fear of infidelity. Paltrow and Craig have it out in a scene where Sylvia supposedly suspected Hughes of cheating on her with a student. Whatever the case was, the couple separated as a result of Hughes’ infidelities.

One thing Ms. Plath was good at was finding her creativity in strife. After her separation, she wrote furiously with a sudden explosion of creativity. Much of what she wrote during this time is what she is most acclaimed for, including her novel of poems entitled Ariel and her semi-autobiographical novel most of us are familiar with, The Bell Jar.

She was living in England at this time and it was cold. Like, the coldest it had been in 100 years. Her kids were constantly sick and it was a perfect storm for Sylvia’s depression to resurface. Friends knew she was at-risk and a neighbor and doctor had prescribed an antidepressant and arranged for a live-in nurse to come by and assist Sylvia while she struggled with her Black Dog.

The day the nurse showed up to help Plath, they found her dead of carbon monoxide poisoning from placing her head into her oven with the gas turned on. She was 30 years old.

Some claim it was a cry for help that went unanswered. Some believe it was Plath’s final and serious attempt at death. Either way, it was tragic. The world lost a brilliant mind. Hughes was devastated since they had been separated for only 5 months. People have vandalized Plath’s headstone over the years from anger over the use of Hughes in Sylvia’s name. Drama intensified when Hughes’ partner (and mistress) Assia Wevill killed herself and their 4-yead-old daughter Shura years later. Hughes has basically been under attack ever since, becoming a relative recluse and refusing to comment on Plath’s life and death until many of his writings on the subject were published posthumously.

Even sadder, Hughes and Plath’s son Nicholas, hanged himself in 2009 after a history of depression.

I could go on and on about Sylvia Plath and her work. I’d prefer to keep it simple and talk about her life and her battle with depression. It’s obvious to me that there was a history of depression within her family based on her severe symptoms and her many attempts at suicide along with her son’s suicide. While depression is genetic, it’s also nurtured. Both Sylvia and her son suffered traumatic events in their lives. We’ve talked about resiliency before, and it seems that Hughes was attracted to women who lacked resilience while he himself carried the load of mental stability.

When I read the things Plath wrote about her depression, I feel her speaking directly to me. In the above picture with the arm tattooed with thoughts from Plath’s diary; I just get it. I remember feeling the way she felt. I remember feeling hopeless myself. I remember being convinced I was a lost cause and that there was something wrong with my mind.

What’s interesting, is that intelligent people are more commonly depressed than those who are less intelligent. Why? Because they see the world how it truly is and they take a realistic approach to life. Life sucks and then you die, right?

Wrong. Yeah, life can be super shitty. Your dad can die unexpectedly and your husband can cheat on you. I totally get the everlasting emptiness that you could feel because of that situation. On the other hand, Sylvia was a fox who deserved much better than a philandering Ted Hughes. I don’t know all the details but if she was ragingly insecure (which is my guess since she wasn’t a big fan of herself and spent a large portion of her intellectual ambitions beating herself up) then it would make sense why Hughes might want to stray. This is not me advocating cheating, it’s me advocating a sense of self-love and compassion. She was freaking brilliant! I’m sure her and Ted had a fiery romance, but there are a lot of people in the world, too. I bet there was another post who was single, just as dreamy, and full of fiery romance.

I should stop rambling and just leave it at that. Sylvia Plath was awesome and she died far too soon. I wish she had gotten the help she needed.

Sources (1, 2)

Any Sylvia enthusiasts out there? What did you think?

Anyone else identify with her writings?



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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Mind, The Case Files
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.

  • Crollyson

    You might be interested to know that I’m publishing a new biography of Sylvia Plath. AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SYLVIA PLATH will appear on February 11, 2013, published by St. Martin’s Press. I have new information on the last six weeks of Plath’s life and on the factors that led to her suicide. I also have conducted new interviews and have new photographs.

  • texasjo

    I just found this. When I was 19 yrs. old at UNM studying psychology, the professor talked about Sylvia Plath, and I believe he mentioned the Glass Bell Jar (not sure, if that is the name, but this was in the 50′s and she didn’t die until ’62). I had an immediate connection to her! I was very popular on campus, yet I had periods of being blue for no special reason. I thought of the world quite a bit, had gone to many different schools, and studied to be a Catholic. I was also in music my first year, so had that sensitivity. When I saw the movie “Sylvia,” I was captivated, and the lead actors are my favorites. In fact, Daniel was so good at being Ted, I didn’t know who it was! I loved parties, also did all of the skits and song fests for my sorority, winning prizes, yet I was a virgin. The boys thought I was wild, but I wasn’t, I was just very happy at times. I’m not bi-polar, but have ADD and not enough filters. There is strong connection between mind, body and. spirit, as I learned in California years later. I’m still trying to figure things out even though I’ve had around five different lifestyles. I’m coming back to my original faith, after trying a bit of this and that. I didn’t become a psychologist because I felt their pain, REALLY, so can’t take a lot of others’ problems, but have people I help and they say I’m their best friend (but, I’m not, I just understand, don’t judge, and tell them what I did to help similar problems). PS: I believe you used “her” in the place of “she,” a couple of times. Well, I’m a critic what can I say. I enjoyed your writing about Sylvia, and a poem comes to mind. Yes, I attempt poetry late in life…Who is Sylvia (remember that one?)