Finding Sylvia Plath’s writing in my mid 20s changed my life. I was able to view the world through the lens of someone that I’d never meet, but felt I’d known forever. In ‘The Bell Jar’ her writing was the closest to my own I’ve read to date. When I read her poetry, I can only hope to be half as talented as she was.
When she killed herself, her daughter, Frieda, was two. Frieda has opinions about people’s continued appreciation of Sylvia’s work and obsession with her death. There’s a poem she wrote shortly before the Gwyneth Paltrow movie came out in 2003, it’s quoted below. But what Frieda doesn’t seem to understand is that Sylvia isn’t ‘our’ “Sylvia Suicide Doll”, those of us who care about her work, care about her death as much as her genius because it carries a huge amount of weight behind the writing.
When you read ‘The Bell Jar’, it ends on an ambiguous, semi-happy ending. Knowing that, in reality, she killed herself before it reached publication, before her poetry won the Pulitzer, it puts the whole thing into another perspective.
I found myself, a lot of my strength, my voice and mirror in Sylvia, in her writing, in her words and in her voice. She’s not a doll, or a macabre obsession — like a literary Charles Manson. If literature is my religion, Sylvia is my Jesus. She’s the center-point for my understanding of good writing, of love, of depression and loss. Frieda Hughes really doesn’t understand where the appreciation and connection comes from.
My father also committed suicide when I was two (via heroin overdose, he was facing jail time). If someone out there wanted to make a movie about Steve Russell, affectionately well-known through out Seattle in the ’70s as ‘Indica Steve’, I wouldn’t feel resentment or anger. I’d understand the interest in his story and the thought and art behind bringing him back to life. The awareness it’d bring about the drug culture and history. I wouldn’t feel possessiveness over my dead parent’s story.
If I hadn’t found Sylvia when I did, I’d be a completely different person. And if people hadn’t kept her alive throughout the years, it’s completely possible it could have happened. I just can’t understand Frieda’s point of view in this poem. She doesn’t seem to understand the impact that Sylvia has had on other people in their lives. She could have been my mother, my sister — she could have been me.
The tattoo I got this week was based on ‘Lady Lazarus’ a poem by Plath, which Frieda referenced in her poem. Sylvia’s poem is about dying, how she’s tried it three times before, sometimes not even intentionally. But it’s directed at the men in her life, the ones that control her and try to make her into what they want her to be, the ones that confine her and dominate her. I’ve come to many realizations in the past several years about the men I’ve let control my life, the ones that have come in and assumed and told me what I am and who to be. The ones who think they know me better than I know myself. The ones to whom I can’t even open completely up to, for the sheer fear of judgement and immediate abandonment. These are the men of my ‘Lady Lazarus’. In some cases, they’re men who haven’t even been lovers or relatives, just men who sit and observe my life and make judgements and mock my choices, thinking they know better. These are the men I called out in my Rape Culture article, and these are the men I’ve grown self aware enough to restrict from my life. Thus the lines I’ve permanently etched on my skin:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
My Mother—Frieda Hughes
They are killing her again.
She said she did it
One year in every ten,
But they do it annually, or weekly,
Some even do it daily,
Carrying her death around in their heads
And practising it. She saves them
The trouble of their own;
They can die through her
Without ever making
The decision. My buried mother
Is up-dug for repeat performances.
Now they want to make a film
For anyone lacking the ability
To imagine the body, head in oven,
Orphaning children. Then
It can be rewound
So they can watch her die
Right from the beginning again.
The peanut eaters, entertained
At my mother’s death, will go home,
Each carrying their memory of her,
Lifeless – a souvenir.
Maybe they’ll buy the video.
Watching someone on TV
Means all they have to do
Is press ‘pause’
If they want to boil a kettle,
While my mother holds her breath on screen
To finish dying after tea.
The filmmakers have collected
The body parts,
They want me to see.
They require dressings to cover the joins
And disguise the prosthetics
In their remake of my mother;
They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it –
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother’s words
To fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll,
Who will walk and talk
And die at will,
And die, and die
And forever be dying.