Thursday, March 19, 2009

Confession: I think Sylvia Plath was kind of an asshole

It was the summer Lorena Bobbitt cut her husbands dick off with a Ginsu knife...

I first read The Bell Jar when I was 11 years old. I often joke with my mom about how appropriate it was for her to hand that particular book to a girl that age- but she maintains that 11 would be the time to read something like that, considering how mental everyone is during puberty. I think now that it might have been because it's one of the few times in one's life where being an ungrateful twit seems like a rational personality option, and thus the book would be more appreciated at that age.

Truthfully- the only thing I *really* liked about it were the parts with Doreen- who seemed pretty bad ass, and I didn't quite approve of Plath's somewhat snide attitude towards her, anyway. Even when I read it later in highschool, I found it difficult to muster up a huge amount of sympathy for either Esther or Sylvia. It just wasn't in me to do it. I tried, but my head kept popping up with things like "Oh for godsakes. She should go out in the world and meet some people with real problems and then try feeling sorry for herself." She just seemed so ungrateful for the things and opportunities she was given. I don't know, I think I read Jonothan Kozol's Amazing Grace at around the same time- so my empathy level for such people was not exactly at an all time high.

It's not that I don't think she was a good writer, but I do think she was an asshole. It's perfectly possible to be an asshole and a writer at the same time. I can provide you with some examples if you like.

I think she was an asshole for killing herself with her kids in the damned apartment. I mean, I think you have to be pretty selfish if you're going to go and off yourself when you have children that are dependant on you, and, you know, might want a mother-- but to not care if your kids saw you lying there dead- well, you might as well be a sociopath.

I think she was an asshole because Olive Higgins Prouty was kind enough to finance her education, as well as her stay in the sanitarium- and she thought she'd pay her back by writing a scathing caricature of her as Philomena Guinea. That was a crappy thing to do. If someone paid for my school and my treatment in a fancy dancy sanitarium, I would probably have nothing but lovely things to say about them. But that's just me. What kind of an asshole to do you have to be to turn around and do that? And may I just mention that Prouty was alive and well at the time The Bell Jar was published (which, along with her snide depictions of other people, is why it was originally published under a psuedonym).

Would you want to be friends with Sylvia Plath? I sure wouldn't. Nothing you did would ever be enough for her. You'd probably have to sit and listen to her prattle on endlessly about her psychic pain for hours and hours, and she'd never say thank you- she'd just assume that the privilege of being privy to her deep thoughts and unending anguish was thanks enough. She'd deliver a lot of hidden stabs about you being "shallow" as well.

By the way, I happen to like Prouty a lot- she wrote the novels that two of my all time favorite movies were based on- Now, Voyager and Stella Dallas, which is how I started reading her books in the first place. She's actually pretty awesome, and I'd heartily recommend checking her out.

I've never found weakness and frailty to be especially charming qualities in a person. I think that part of what bothers me about Plath is actually something Bette Davis once said:

"The weak are the most treacherous of us all. They come to the strong and drain them. They are bottomless. They are insatiable. They are always parched and always bitter. They are everyone's concern and like vampires they suck out life's blood."

True dat.


allison said...

Why does having crippling depression make her "weak"? The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it makes people feel weak (and thus, bad) for having mental illness they can't control and it winds up dissuading them from seeking treatment.

Sylvia Plath certainly acted in very selfish ways when she was depressed, but that doesn't make her a terrible person. There is a point where you feel so worthless that you don't even care who you hurt, as long as you can just survive. And it's not right. We're lucky that today, people with depression can get treated without as much of a stigma, but she was dealing with circumstances that made being depressed extremely isolating.

And this:

"Oh for godsakes. She should go out in the world and meet some people with real problems and then try feeling sorry for herself."

Is it really a matter of willpower? That's what someone like Tom Cruise thinks. I'm disgustingly depressed for no apparent reason and lord knows I've tried to snap out of it and meet people. All kinds of people do. And the guilt they face, at being depressed for seemingly no reason, especially when others have it so much worse, is enough. We don't need to be publicly shamed for it, too. There are plenty of wonderful, beautiful, successful people who are faced with crippling depression. It doesn't make sense, because it's a matter of brain chemistry. How are you supposed to snap out of chemical imbalances in your brain?

I'm sorry, but this really rubbed me the wrong way. It's fine that you don't like Sylvia Plath, but it sounds like you're railing against all inexplicably depressed people.


PrettyPrettyPrincess said...

Allison, IMO, it's one thing if someone suffers from a mood disorder and wants to get help. In this case, we are talking about someone with am apparent personality disorder who did not seem to want to fix it. I think it's ok to call a self-absorbed sociopath an asshole.

Even if we are talking about a straight up mood disorder, even in this day and age, if you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from a mood disorder and they are not making a real effort to come out of it, most therapists will tell you it's like dealing with an addict. They are impacting your life, sucking your energy, and not trying to recover. If someone is depressed or bipolar and they don't TRY to treat it, knowing they are miserable and making everyone around them miserable - what else is that, besides massive assholery?

I say this as someone who is bipolar. I've been the asshole who was too caught up in her head to notice what was going on around them. I've been through so much with it and I sympathize with anyone dealing with any kind of mood disorder, but they do need to DEAL with it.

Miss Robyn said...

I don't think that at all. I thought she was weak because she acted like an asshole, not because she was depressed- I brought it up because yeah, she did kill herself while her kids were at home. I don't think her depression was related to doing jerky things- I think she was an asshole who happened to be depressed. If there are assholes who aren't depressed, isn't it possible that there are some assholes who are?

Also, Prouty was in an institution as well for similar reasons, which is why she was so inclined to help Plath out.

I don't think it's a matter of willpower- I said what I thought when I read the book in *highschool* after having read *another* book about kids living in abject poverty and with AIDS. And yeah- I do still feel a little worse for kids like that than for women who have everything handed to them but are depressed.

allison said...

Comparing people with depression to people in poverty is such apples to oranges. There is always someone better off or worse than you, but it doesn't negate your own unfortunate situation.

It just seems callous. There are a lot of people with problems -- mental illness, facial deformity, financial hardship -- and yeah, they are more fortunate than most of the world's population. But luckily, sympathy is not a finite resource.

I have to say, I was pretty jealous of all her opportunities and completely confused about why she was depressed. At the time I first read the Bell Jar, I would have killed to work at a women's magazine. But that doesn't negate the sympathy I have for her. Besides, her life was not all sunshine and puppies. Her dad died when she was 10. She was obviously shaken by it. I can't even fathom having a parent die at such a formative age.

It's chilling about her kids being in the house when she killed herself. I'm not gonna lie, it makes me uncomfortable.

And as far as Sylvia not getting treated, well, she did. She saw a psychiatrist, she tried psychotherapy, and she underwent electroshock therapy. And the climate back then was much more hostile towards mental illness. I know personality disorders are incredibly frustrating to deal with. But...I still have lots of sympathy for her.


Miss Robyn said...

"There is always someone better off or worse than you, but it doesn't negate your own unfortunate situation."

I disagree, I really do- for me, personally, at least. When I was a kid, and I'd get all self-pitying about something, my mom would put up pictures on my wall of kids in Bosnia with their legs blown off. I got the point and I quit it. When I was older and I got that way, I got sent to volunteer some place. I am so ridiculously grateful for this, I can't even tell you. So now, as an adult, when I start thinking about how horrid my own personal problems are, I feel too foolish to get into it too deeply- because really, things could be much worse- I have legs, and no one can send me to Vietnam.* Now, it's totally possible that I am the only person in the world that this would work for- but it does help me. A lot, actually.

*That's sort of a family saying. My Uncle, who *was* sent to Vietnam, said that once to my mother when telling her about how something wasn't that big of deal, and we've all sort of adopted it because it's just too perfect.

allison said...

There's a difference between getting upset over little things ("I feel fat!", "I want something I can't afford!") and legitimate issues. Her dad died. People get abandoned by parents. It's not okay to feel bad about things of that magnitude because there are kids in Bosnia in unspeakably horrific situations?

Miss Robyn said...

Of course it is. It's ok to get upset about things- it's not ok to let the bad things that happen to you screw up the rest of your life. At the very least it's not the best option anyone's got. And bad things happening to someone will never excuse them going off and being an asshole to other people. It might be a *reason* for why they would do that, but it's not a get out of jail free card.

And I still think Sylvia was kind of an ass.

Jha said...

"And bad things happening to someone will never excuse them going off and being an asshole to other people. It might be a *reason* for why they would do that, but it's not a get out of jail free card."

I don't understand why this is so hard to grasp.

And yeah, I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Unlike many people, I know someone who actually dealt with Sylvia Plath. An old professor of mine from college was teaching at Amherst when she was a student at Smith, and after her first psychotic episode her mother brought her to talk to him. Mrs. Plath was desperate to make her daughter understand that it was possible to write and not be a despairing wreck.

My old teacher said that he talked to her for several hours. She was very polite, very intelligent, clearly talented (he'd read her work and saw the potential), and nodded up and down at all the right places...and he knew within five minutes that she was so in love with the idea of the Doomed Romantic Poet Dying Young that not one single word had gotten through to her.

So yes, I agree. In a lot of ways, Sylvia Plath was an asshole.

Miss Robyn said...

I knew it! That so does not even surprise me at all. Lots of writers are like that- even more since she died because so many idolize her. I think it's obnoxious and fake.

There are just some people who delight in being miserable.

Anonymous said...

Short version: "having a mental health problem doesn't preclude being an asshole for other reasons" - which I realised when I discovered that soccer player Stan Collymore really did have depression - and then discovered that he was still an asshole in ways that really had nothing to do with that.

And of course, being depressed or whatever isn't actually an excuse for being shitty to other people anyway.

E said...

I'm glad someone finally wrote this. I was reading your post on Jezebel and got curious. I think Silvia Plath was an asshole. I know she was trying to convey the image of her being drowned in sorrow, but to be honest it sounded like whining for the entire duration of all of her work. The Bell Jar is self important and terribly one sided. Just because she could express her feelings does not make her a great writer. Thank you.