Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: A Factitious Death?

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In 1953, the year the Rosenbergs were convicted in the electric chair, Esther Greenwood (a.k.a. Elly Higginbottom), poet Sylvia Plath’s alter ego (further complicating the picture, Plath wrote under the pen name “Victoria Lucas”), underwent electroshock therapy. Electricity, neurological connections, high-strung emotion, madness, suicide (which the real-life Plath committed ten years after the setting of The Bell Jar), hidden identity, social invisibility, and the conventions of the overachieving “good college girl” trying to understand the male ego are all part of this disturbing autobiographical novel. I highly recommend it, whether you have never read it, or have not in a long time, as in my case.

Esther loses all interest. She goes days without washing completely; for three weeks without sleep. After completing part of “the Rosenberg Summer” (the summer the present blogger was born) in New York, apprenticing for a fictionalized fashion magazine, back home in Boston the young Plath stand-in goes mad.

“‘I’m through with Doctor Gordon,’ I said after we had left….’You can call him up and tell him I’m not coming next week.’ My mother smiled. ‘I knew my baby wasn’t like that.’ I looked at her. ‘Like what?’ ‘Like those awful people [at the sanitarium]. I knew you’d decide to be all right again.'”

When Esther writes about her long, lost weekend, the story comes back with the professor’s word, Factious, scrawled on it.

How sad. Emotions are real. Emotional problems are true. Denial is strong and hurtful.

I had a colleague many years ago and many years older that wrote the screenplay for the Olivia de Havilland vehicle, The Snakepit. (It was recently broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.) This colleague, this terrific but sometimes refractory novelist and poet and editor, Millen Brand, also wrote The Outward Room. From the same era, my much closer friend, Lucy Freeman, published, at the same publishing house I worked for, though many years before, around the time of the Rosenbergs’ trial, Fight Against Fears. Lucy was a suburban woman, the chocolate-allergy-suffering daughter of a doctor, then trapped in a job everyone envied: a New York Times reporter, the first female reporter for that newspaper. But Lucy was terribly sad. She did not meet the fate of Sylvia Plath. Therapy saved Lucy Freeman’s life. The poetic genius the world lost in Sylvia Plath will never be replaced. Hardly a factitious life. Or death.

(The reputation and efficacy of ECT [electroconvulsive therapy] has changed since Plath’s treatments. It is used much less frequently, referrals are only for persons who have been treated by other means, and for some it is the only treatment that can give them relief from incapacitating depression.)

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