If You Think Sylvia Plath Was Crazy, Think Again

If you’ve seen the movie Sylvia and you still don’t understand it, this may help. And if you haven’t seen the movie Sylvia, this will definitely help.

The Gilmore Girls Fanatic recently mentioned how much she is enjoying learning about Sylvia Plath, one of the most mentioned cultural figures on Gilmore Girls. I almost heard the Fanatic say she was ashamed to admire a giant so disturbed. But I imagined it.

Then writer Charles Deemer, at The Writing Life, asked, “Why do so many writers commit suicide?” There’s a long list, including Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, and of course Sylvia Plath. It almost makes one think of writing as a dangerous occupation.

And then I fall head over heels for Sylvia, a film that may have generated more complaints than understanding.

The problem is that Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, like many artists, are so frequently misunderstood. The gift the artist has is a double-edged sword. It allows him to move others with nothing more than shapes on a canvas, or words on a page, or vibrations in the air. But artists are a special breed. They are passionate and temperamental. Their feelings flow into the work they create. And they love it when you identify with and appreciate what they’ve created, because by doing so you are identifying with and appreciating them. Artists can be impossible to get along with, or even to get to know. But if you can know one, he’ll become a most understanding and dedicated friend, more loving than an old dog. I know, because I’ve known enough artists. And I myself am one. I’ve been a musician since I was a little boy. And I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. And I understand what makes artists tick.

In The Heart of the Artist, Rory Noland tells the story of Dan, a twenty-year-old art student. Dan spends innumerable hours with his paintings and drawings. Sometimes, he forgets to eat and to sleep, because he’s so involved in a project. He’s eccentric and passionate. He wears his heart on his sleeve, but he socializes almost not at all. He allows himself only one activity besides his art.

Marshall stacks don’t know Christians from atheists.

Dan appreciates his spiritual side. There’s a part of art that is innately spiritual. In fact, in this age of pop secular humanism, I don’t think many people realize how important a healthy spiritual life is. Especially for an artist. Sometimes, it’s all that holds you together, all that connects you with who you are and with how you feel.

So once a week, Dan visits his friends Fred and Nancy at their home bible study. It’s the only time he spends with other people.

Fred is studying to be a pastor, and this week he asked each person to select a passage from the book of Psalms. But not just any passage. Each person should pick something that describes his life right now. Fred went first. He opened to the very first Psalm, a passage he had just been studying. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners.”

Nancy went next. She wanted to talk about how well she and Fred were doing financially. Her voice swelled as she read. “The Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Adele’s turn came next. Fred and Nancy have been trying to fix up Dan and Adele. She just started a new job, and she’s been having problems making it work. So she chose a passage about trusting God. “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.”

As Adele finished and closed the book, everyone’s eyes turned to Dan.

Dan has been feeling a little depressed. No one knows why, not even Dan himself. Maybe it’s that he’s been having trouble getting started with his latest project. Or maybe it’s the fact that he just started a new semester at school, and he’s got all new classes, and he’s still adjusting. Maybe it’s because he has some money issues, as many students do. Or maybe it’s just because the cold, wet winter is dragging on, and the weather is getting him down.

The group stares at Dan as he begins to speak. He tries to explain, where his life is, why he chose the passage… But everything comes out in gibberish, pieces of half-understood, half-pieces of words and sentences, incoherent. How can Dan explain the way he feels when he doesn’t even understand it himself.

Suddenly, he stops. He stands up and reads:

I cry to you for help, O Lord;
In the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, O Lord, do you reject me
And hide your face from me?

From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered Your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
They have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
The darkness is my closest friend.

Silence.

Dan sits back down.

The room is still.

Fred swallows, then clears his throat.

“Why, Dan,” he says, “with all the blessings God has given, I was hoping you would read something uplifting, like one of the praise psalms.”

Thwack

Right about this point in the story, I feel like slapping Fred upside the head.

I unfortunately have known enough of these types, too busy to listen, too busy to care. I’ve known enough of these types to notice that each of us does this at least once in his life. We each have become one of them.

And they said Sylvia Plath was insane. I would be lucky to be so insane. And inspired. As it is, I only fall into depression with the coming of winter. This winter has been especially hard, with all of the sadness and little of the inspiration I have come to appreciate. Yet I would have it no other way. I enjoy being able to lose myself in a sad movie, and I enjoy being able to cry.

But I digress. My point is simple. Don’t look at Sylvia as a tragic case of a woman troubled by depression, unable to escape, until finally it took her life. Yes, her story does kind of give that impression. Even Sylvia may have thought of herself in those terms. The Bell Jar she wrote during the last part of her life. She based it on her own experiences. The main character is a reflection of Sylvia herself. Except that in The Bell Jar, Esther gets help and escapes the bell jar. Or at least we can imagine that she did.

Even the ending to the story parallels how Sylvia must have felt writing it. We never actually find out whether Esther makes it out of the insane asylum. This was Sylvia’s cry to escape the suffocating confines of the bell jar. And would she succeed? Even she did not know the ending to the story.

Writers often write of the worst experiences in their own lives. Except in the story, the hero conquers the challenges. Sometimes, there has to be a happy ending. A story is a wish.

They say Sylvia gives short shrift to the real Sylvia Plath’s life. Of course it does. How can you sum up a person in 110 minutes? They say it is inaccurate. Yes, it is, to an extent. But I still believe it captures a part of the person that makes her worth admiring.

And they say Sylvia Plath was insane. But don’t look at Sylvia as a tragic figure so overcome by depression that it killed her. Rather, see in her a heroine, a Christ-figure even. Because Sylvia gave her life for us, those who now understand her through her art. The passions that tore her apart were also what enabled her to create:

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through…

Please, make me cry

I love stories of all sorts. A character doesn’t have to have any particular characteristic in order for me to sympathize with him. Usually, attempts to build a character out of interesting, as it were, characteristics, these attempts just come out gimmicky. But Sylvia is one of those stories that affects me in a special, very personal way. Because she’s not just a compelling character. Sylvia reflects part of who I am, making the bittersweet denouement all the more intense.

But I would have it no other way. I like losing myself in a sad movie. And I want it to make me cry.

Check out reviews of Sylvia at Amazon.
About J. Timothy King
J. Timothy King

I'm the eldest of three siblings, a stay-at-home father of two daughters, the husband of a wonderful wife, and an indie author of life-expanding character fiction. When not writing, I read, watch old TV and movies, play bass guitar, and tend to my family in our Boston-area apartment.

Catch me on:  my web site Facebook Twitter 

Comments

Reading this post really helped me sort out the way I felt about Sylvia Plath. I was a bit unnerved at first at why I liked the “Bell Jar” so much, but I think it’s because she was so honest & so human & overall just a great writer & I have a lot of respect for that & the life she lived. You are a wealth of knowledge.

J. Timothy King

Thanks for writing. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has such strong feelings for great art. I probably overstated it, as I don’t glorify suicide as some artists do. But like you, I have a lot of respect for the greatest writers, who are frequently very disturbed by so-called normal standards.

-TimK

[…] Tim King presents If You Think Sylvia Plath Was Crazy, Think Again posted at Be The Story. […]

[…] creepy. But maybe there’s a lot of sympathy among writers in this area. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll end up like Sylvia Plath. Fortunately, my situation has never been that dire. But sometimes, I do sympathize with […]

Apparently I am commenting years after this post has been written, but I feel obliged to comment nonetheless.

This is the most amazing post I have ever read anywhere. As a fan of Sylvia Plath (Anne Sexton is my favourite poet, but Sylvia and her are always battling for the spot in my mind!). In any case, as a fan of her works, I find it refreshing that this wasn’t another cliche article by someone who clearly knows nothing of writing or mental illness. I myself am mentally ill, I have been considered “the worst case” for many of my past doctors, however I am not ashamed of this. Writers with mental illness (whether or not they have attempted and/or completed suicide) should never be written off, as they are by some holier-than-thou people. Sylvia poems are not famous because she is dead. They are famous because she is a damned good poet. A great one. I was worried about watching the film Sylvia, as I am not a fan of Paltrow at all. I was impressed. She did her justice. I didn’t think she could replicate that passion, but she did her best! This post is just so refreshing and understanding, as opposed to the critical, judgmental stuff I tend to see in regards to poets (or writers in general) who have taken their own lives.

THANK YOU so much for writing this. I am saving it on my mac so I can read it again sometimes.

The only thing I don’t agree with is the title. By definition, Sylvia Plath was crazy. I know this because crazy knows crazy. The problem is “crazy” has always been such an awful word. It really isn’t – you know – “there is no genius without a touch of madness”. So many thought Einstein was a loon.
I prefer to refer to myself as “crazy” or “mad” as opposed to the pc term “mentally ill” because the former two words capture the passion, and crazy people tend to be passionate people. Yes, I am mentally ill, and as an advocate for mental health awareness, I certainly am not ashamed. But face it, crazy is just plain easier to say. ;-P

I am still trying to get better, but I never want to be completely cured or “sane”. I know where my creativity comes from, and it comes from my trauma, my depression, my rage, my madness… and even though these things keep me from living life in a way others would want me to – I wouldn’t trade them in for sanity for anything. If I couldn’t write, then I REALLY would have NO desire to live.

I love Sylvia Plath’s works, and the movie ‘Sylvia’, and I want to hate Ted but I can’t because I understand. My husband is a warrior for sticking with me!
Also, I love this post. It’s insightful and it should be printed everywhere where Plath’s name is mentioned, so people can get their facts straight!

Again, thank you for posting this and have a lovely day/night.

J. Timothy King

Thanks so much for your gracious comment, Nisha. I agree that “crazy” is not a very good word. I used it in the title to reflect the dismissive attitude many people have toward others, especially those who struggle with psychological health issues. Then I was trying to dismiss that idea, with “think again.”

-TimK

my topic is
the poetry of sylvia proves not her insanity but genius.

can you help me to write research paper on this topic?

Sylvia Plath was one of the greatest writers to come along in my opinion. I read “The Bell Jar” in 6th grade and it helped me understand my own depression and anxiety. ‘Esther’ explored all the taboo topics that no one else could or would explain to my 12 year old self. Your post is such a wonderful tribute to my beloved Plath. Her journals are profound and touching that compete fiercly with her poetry and prose. Thank you for keeping her alive with your words.

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