When I set up this blog, I chose to set my header text to “A Passionate, Fragmentary Girl,” because it sounds good and also because I feel it describes me very well. I can’t take credit for the phrase, though; that goes to Sylvia Plath.
Mention Sylvia Plath to most English majors, especially ones from my alma mater, and they’ll probably start to salivate. Personally, I’ve never liked Plath’s work. Plath went to Smith College and briefly taught there, so it was inevitable that I would read her poetry. Ariel bored me, and in a journal entry, I compared reading The Bell Jar to stepping into an ankle-deep puddle to get to the crosswalk–unpleasant, but necessary, as I had to read it for a class.
And yet, Plath haunts me. After I read The Bell Jar, I was required to read parts of Plath’s journals. In class, I heard people discuss how intense her journals were, how they couldn’t imagine experiencing life as Plath did. I was shocked, because when I had read the journals, I had thought, “God, this woman really understands!” I had underlined passages, noting in the margins, “We kindred are.” Reading Plath’s journals was like hearing myself speak.
I wrote a not-very-good poem about the experience:
I’ve always hated
her poetry, but Sylvia’s
got her revenge now,
for in the raging pages
of her journals I
have found myself
so perfectly described I
am beginning to fear I
am Sylvia Plath,
all the pain and desperation
and love and ache
tumbled out of the oven
like a soufflé—
tread carefully, or I
It was unnerving to see myself reflected so well in Plath’s words, considering her end. Looking at her, I think not only about myself but also about the connection between mental illness and great creative works. Would Plath have written what she wrote had she not struggled with depression? What about one of my favorite authors, Virginia Woolf, who also suffered from depression? Or van Gogh?
I don’t think it’s bold to claim that we as a society romanticize mental illness in the creative figure. We look at mental illness as the source of creative thought, and science has found a connection between creative individuals and mental illness.
Not too long ago, I saw a book discussing creativity and mental illness. I could hardly tolerate to read the description of the book. It wasn’t what it said as much as the tone. Yes, he seemed to say, those people suffered, but look what their suffering produced!
There’s not a doubt in my mind, not a single moment of hesitation, when I think of freeing those people from their mental illnesses. I would give it all up, even my beloved Virginia Woolf’s work, if it meant they could have been happy. And I truly believe that if we had–in the past and in the present–better ways of treating mental illness, we would see so many more beautiful works being produced.
It’s easy enough for me to say that I’d give up all of Plath’s poetry; I don’t really like it. But would I give up what some would think say gives me my creative force? I wouldn’t hesitate, even if I was told that I’d no longer be the creative person I have been all my life. For only those who have suffered for years can understand that happiness is everything.
And I don’t believe that I would lose my creative ability. For years, I languished in unhappiness, and in all that time, I couldn’t bring myself to create. Now that I’m doing better, I’m producing work again. It’s not easy, but I am writing again, after so many years when I didn’t.
There are things that haunt me still. In Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the main character hears that a man has committed suicide, and she thinks to herself that she was glad he had done it, glad he had thrown it all away. I have put that book away, knowing that I can never read it again, even though I love it. I remember too well how I thought obsessively about those lines, how I too was glad he had done it when I heard about a man killing himself. I don’t read my own half-written memoir, knowing it is harmful to my mental health. I try not to think about Sylvia Plath too much; I have always seen too much of myself in her, and I don’t want to see myself in her end.
Sometimes I think about all the voices we never heard, all the lives cut short because of mental illness. As much as we romanticize mental illness, it is in fact very ugly. It is the thing that steals yourself from you.
There is such a deep misunderstanding of mental illness in society. Those who should seek help do not, due to the stigma attached to mental illnesses. We have so much work to do to remove that stigma. But we must also stop romanticizing mental illness and look at it straight on, so that we can see the ugliness it is and the loss it often leads to.