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Why We Must Remember Sylvia Plath for More Than Her Suicide

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My favorite author is Sylvia Plath. I am well aware of how so-called “Plathies” are perceived by society. I’m guessing you immediately pictured me as a pale girl, dressed in dark colors with a sad expression. I’m not especially pale. I’m currently wearing purple and black and most of the time I’m laughing. Of course I get sad too, perhaps more than usual. I frequently have no motivation at all combined with a desperate desire to do everything perfectly, which leads to sitting on the kitchen floor crying. Yes, I’m a very mature 16-year-old. Anyway, I found “The Bell Jar” before I knew very much about it. I related to Esther, watching the world go by and wanting to feel something. Her blunt, witty, poignant writing struck me. I loved how much she wanted to get better. And Esther does.

Heartbreakingly this is where the book differs from Plath’s own life. Try as she did, recovery escaped her. I was drawn in by the fact Esther fought to feel better and by her relationship with Dr. Nolan (her psychiatrist). I read “The Bell Jar” a few times and then moved on to Plath’s poetry. I loved it. I read “Ariel” in a few days and the words felt true in a way I could not imagine. My favorite poem is “Elm,” a story about womanhood and growing up. I did not interpret it this way, but this is of course, the beauty of poetry. I believe the best line in the book is from that poem:

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.

To me this line is about conquering fear. To get over your fear you must know it. You must know it and seize it. She does not hide from the bottom, she claims it. Takes ownership of her own darkness.

So, here is my problem with how we discuss Sylvia Plath. I bet if I posted a question on my Facebook asking people for one fact about Sylvia Plath the answers I would receive would not be about her writing and academic achievements, nor her role as a mother. They would mostly likely be about her death. It often seems like this is all she is remembered for. If she had died another way, it would be heartbreaking and terrible, but she would still be remembered for her talent. She fought her battle with mental illness for many years and she produced amazing work in spite of or because of it. It is not fair to reduce her lifetime of achievements to the final hours of her life. She died because she was intensely depressed. She was not weak. She was not a bad mother. Not whiny, not self-centered and not a quitter. She was an incredibly talented woman who unfortunately died by suicide to escape a situation she felt trapped in. I wish she had survived, both for her sake and the sake of readers who wish there was more to read. But we cannot continue to limit someone’s life to their death. She will continue to be my favorite author, not because of how she died, but because of how she lived.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Sylvia Plath Facebook

Originally published: February 9, 2017
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