Suicide attracts speculation and prurience like flies to rotting food.
— Hadley Freeman in The Guardian
While I was traveling in Britain, I watched a BBC program about Ted Hughes. Hughes had, by the end of his life, attracted quite a following of detractors who blamed him for driving Sylvia Plath mad. The film Sylvia showed him slapping the American poet and yelling at her. Some of the material was drawn from Plath’s fulminations in her diaries and some from the imaginations of the script writers. Hughes’ critics act like Plath had never been mentally ill before she met him, that she was a happy-go-lucky girl who had the misfortune to marry a monster of a man. Of course, this is to completely ignore the history recounted in The Bell Jar and Hughes’ own side of the story.
One person who was interviewed was Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda. When Frieda finally broke her silence on her mother and father’s relationship, she was angry:
I was appalled that something that happened in 1963 could be carried forward.
‘What an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we have got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger (referring to Ted) for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answer.
The paper reported that she said: ‘For outsiders – because that’s what they are, outsiders – to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft. It’s an abuse.’
It’s an old story that gets told about the mentally ill time and time again: people with a mission — like blaming us for mass murders to divert attention from gun violence or invoking the works of anti-psychiatrists knowingly or unknowingly yolked to the Church of Scientology or some feminists out to blame Ted Hughes for Plath’s insanity — hijack our lives. They rewrite our stories to suit themselves. I have often tried to reason with them, to persuade them to let us tell our stories, but the bottom line is that they do not want the families and victims having a say about their own lives. When ideology trumps understanding, it is not good for any of us.
I get that Ted Hughes was part of the problem. He had a way of choosing vulnerable women in his young — his second wife also committed suicide. But this fact does not necessarily mean that he caused these deaths. Mental illness did. To deny this past is to do a disservice to those of us who have been on the brink of suicide.
When I was in my near-tragic mixed state, I blamed everyone around me — including my wife — for my electrified state of mind. Imagine if one of these suicide conspiracists had gotten hold of my story. Would they blame Lynn? Would they construct some model indicting me for patriarchal frustrations? I shudder to think of what they would have invented with their folk psychiatry. The fact is that I was undergoing a very dangerous mood swing over which I had little control. The right place for me was the hospital. Sylvia Plath never went there in her final months of life. But she wrote a great volume of poetry, Ariel, which feminists seized upon and put her on the pedestal of martyrdom.
Sometimes the dead are used for darker vehicles. In the special features for the movie The Hours, the creators describe Virginia Woolf’s self-destruction as heroic. Woolf panicked at the thought that the Germans were going to invade England; she drowned herself. The creators say that she was on a list of intellectuals to be rounded up, but the fact remains that the Operation Sea Lion did not happen; England was not overrun by Hitler’s hordes. Her prediction proved erroneous and the product of a diseased mind. Woolf was simply driven to a wrong conclusion. This is not heroism, this is a big mistake with roots in Woolf’s bipolar disorder.
The list of suicide romances goes on and on. This type of death has attracted all kinds of groupies. Courtney Love is blamed by some for Kurt Cobain’s death, for example. The mark of suicide drives art sales — after Mark Rothko killed himself, the value of his paintings increased, giving rise to the rumor that his manager had engineered his death. Why are we uncomfortable with the fact that there is nothing heroic in suicide? I think, maybe, it is because there is a streak in Western Society that denies mental illness. They don’t want to see the miserable ones like me as flawed, but avatars of art or literature who were hounded for their being different. Yet they treat people like me — who has wrought nothing of cultural value — as possessing wretched characters.
As I often tell the members of our support groups, recovery depends on our taking responsibility for our own actions no matter our mental state. I own my suicide. Woolf, Plath, Cobain, and Rothko completed the act by their own volition.
Hadley Freeman wrote of the war between the Plath-was-driven-to-self-murder and the Hughes family narrative of events in The Guardian. I think her conclusion is worth remembering:
…it does not follow that if one is pro-Plath, one is anti-Hughes. No one can know what really goes on in a marriage other than those involved, and the amount of intrusion – to say nothing of tragedy – endured by Frieda Hughes and her late father surely merits them some understanding and tact. Plath was killed by what she described as “the owl’s talons clenching and constricting my heart”. Hughes spent his life “permanently / Bending so briefly at your open coffin” (The Blue Flannel Suit). Mark the anniversary of Plath’s death by reading her work: the rest, to borrow a phrase that Plath, Ted and Frieda Hughes all employed for their voyeurs, is for “the peanut-crunching crowd”.
Please, let us struggle with our demons. Guide us to seek help.