“[The Bell Jar is] an autobiographical apprentice work,
which I had to write in order to free myself from the past.”
(The Bell Jar (biographical notes) – Page 213)
I met Esther Greenwood, from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, when I was twenty. I don’t know exactly how we became friends, but we did. It was fate. It was as if Sylvia Plath and I knew each other completely, in another lifetime, and Esther was created on my behalf.
I had never met mental illness face to face before Esther. Except for in my own reflection in the mirror. Her story struck me to tears. I related to Esther when I couldn’t relate to anyone else. She explained my emotional struggles and feelings of mediocrity with a prolific simplicity I hadn’t encountered before.
“I felt myself melting into the shadows like the
negative of a person I’d never seen before in my life.”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 8)
My feelings of nothingness and loneliness, that I had dealt with since birth finally had a partner who understood. We were on the same journey of self-discovery, and understanding the place we held within an ever-changing world.
My condition finally had a name, Depression. My poetry finally held truth. I now knew poetry wasn’t just a piece of dust. Poetry held structure to the infinite accumulation of shadows I held on to like friends.
“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be
shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow.
There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and
shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of
people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles of it, on the night
side of the earth.” (The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 120)
My writing efforts paid off. I was discovered as a real poet. Not just writing poetry for the therapy of it, hidden in some shadowy corner of my room, but an honest poet. I read at local poetry readings, and had a book of poetry distributed at my community college. My writing mentor, Dr. Robert Sanborn, encouraged me and likened me to Sylvia Plath, as my journal entries were poetic and prolific. Of course I didn’t believe him. Any positive accomplishment, as far as my writing was concerned, was a fluke. But at least I had finally found something to identify with. I was a writer.
Prone to being provoked, neither Esther nor I had the knack for quick comebacks. We would be faced with an argument, or pushed into debate, and our cleverness would be replaced with daftness. We sometimes, hesitatively, agreed or just said nothing to the contents contrary because our mouths and minds went dry. But days later we would replay such conversations in our heads, leading to the cleverest and most astute comebacks no one would ever hear.
“These conversations I had in my mind usually
repeated the beginnings of conversations I’d had with Buddy,
only they finished with me answering him back
quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying, ‘I guess so.’”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 46)
Like me, Esther did not fit into a mold of womanhood that society deemed acceptable, or the one they deemed unacceptability for that matter. We were plain and adequate. We didn’t draw attention by our aesthetics like Esther’s friend Doreen. A person had to dig deep into our psyche to find our true beauty. We rejected the idea of falling in love, marriage, and the double standard that men could do but women should not do, due to virtue.
“I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single
pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 66)
Nonetheless, there was still a part of Esther and I that desired being desirable. We had wild dreams of exotic worthy men falling deeply in love with us, taking us around the world and back, until we were tired of them. Instead we met all the same hypocrites, women-haters, and weasels. Which for me included my father.
“I began to see why woman-haters could make such fools of women.
Woman-haters were like gods: invulnerable and chock-full of power.
They descended, and then they disappeared. You could never catch one.”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 88)
Esther and I faced fatherly abandonment issues, as did Plath. We never got the chance to fully develop connective relationships with our fathers. The presence of a prominent male role model was very nearly vacant. Plath’s father, Otto, died when she was eight years old. He was a scholarly fellow, but according to speculations, he was a bit of a brute with tendencies toward adultery. In The Bell Jar Plath rewrote the role of her father. She wrote Esther’s father as a scholarly man just like her real life dad, only without brute tendencies and infidelity. She of course was his favorite.
“I had a great yearning, lately, to pay my father back for
all the years of neglect, and start tending his grave.
I had always been my father’s favorite, and it seemed fitting
I should take on a mourning my mother had never bothered with.”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 135)
My parents divorced on April 16, 1983, just before my eighth birthday. My father cheated on my mom with several different women. When I was six, I was playing office on the kitchen desk. I picked up the ringing phone by accident and the woman on the other end said hello. She asked for my dad. Being the momma’s girl that I was I handed the receiver immediately to my mother. All color drained from her face. I will never forget the tears welling in her eyes, but never falling…at least not in front of me.
“I could feel the tears start to spurt from the
screwed-up nozzles of my eyes”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page 122)
For years I imagined my father was dead, or didn’t ever exist, to get through the void of a father figure. But he was alive and fully functioning right down the street at his parent’s house. We barely saw him when he lived with us, and I can’t say I missed him. What I can say is…a consistent positive male entity would have been of great support.
I’ve avoided the subject of suicide, until now, on purpose. You may ask, did I contemplate suicide and attempt to commit suicide like Esther Greenwood?
“Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths.
Wrapping my black coat round me like my own sweet
shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started
taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one.”
(The Bell Jar – Plath – Page138)
The answer is: I had had suicidal ideations, but never went as far as attempting. I didn’t necessarily want to die; I more or less wished I were never born. I wished I didn’t FEEL so much all the time. I wished I didn’t THINK so much all the time. I wanted to actually be the numb nothing I thought I was. I could never have gone through with the act of suicide, for I couldn’t disappoint my mother or make her feel that loss again. My grandmother suffered from depression, and committed suicide when my mom was sixteen. This family secret was only revealed to me, when I was twenty, and reading The Bell Jar.
When we were asked, in class, to read The Bell Jar, I remembered that it was one of my top five favorite books. Rereading it was like a reunion of kindred souls reminiscing together, and trying to play catch-up. I had spent the ten years between now and then, ignoring my faith in writing and repressing the individual I truly was inside just to live a somewhat “normal” life. The truth was that I already knew who I was back then, and I am rediscovering her now.
Within that dim ten years I had chosen a partner that was more like my father than I care to admit. I spent far too long trying to repair my relationship with my father, through a significant other who talked a good game, until I gave up trying and let go. I was finally able to release this life sucking relationship, and of the vacancy of a father at the same damn time. When I reread accounts of Sylvia Plath’s marriage with the poet Ted Hughes, I noticed with her too, the mirrored similarities between Hughes and her father. Unfortunately, Sylvia never reached the point of letting go of the relationships that no longer served her for her greater good.
Plath’s mental state and emotional struggles remained in such turmoil, that the only way out, to her, was to end her own life. But Esther and I won’t let her, or her life’s work, be cast aside like a piece of dust. We’ll share The Bell Jar; we’ll share her poetry and journals with anyone who will listen. We will spread the word, without shame, about mental health and be advocates to change how society thinks about it. We will protest the double standard while staying true to the virtue we set upon ourselves, and not the one society sets upon us. And I will continue to write my own story, in hopes it will help someone else, like Sylvia Plath helped me.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 1981. Print.