Authors: Elizabeth Benedict
My Disquieting Muse
In the spring of 1982, I was a twenty-year-old exchange student at Harvard, struggling in a Freud seminar so far over my head that I sometimes wondered whether the class was being conducted in German. In my downtime, I wrote poetry, which I'd been doing for years. I thought of myself as a poet, but the cold hard truth was that I hadn't read much poetry.
at is, by poets who were not . . . me.
To my younger self, nothing seemed wrong with that situation. After all, I considered poetry to be all about self-expression, sort of like therapy, not to be picked apart orâ
. Not to be considered in relation to history or literary convention. Not to be, you know,
in any way, except by how it made the reader
. And if the purpose of reading other people's was to feel what they were feeling when they wrote it, well, I was a little too busy with what
was feeling for that sort of thing.
At the same time, I didn't allow the fact of my being poorly read to keep me off the Harvard poetry circuit. I remember arriving late to a reading by Allen Ginsberg, where the only available floor space was next to a man with a long gray ponytail, who, I would learn, was Ginsberg's lover, Peter Orlovsky. When he began rubbing some strong smelling unguent on his palms, rocking back and forth, and chanting along with the poet, I understood why everyone had given him a wide berth.
Orlovsky certainly seemed to be feeling what Ginsberg was feeling. He chimed his agreement like a congregation of one, grunting and rocking to the poet's homoerotic declarations (still just a tiny bit shocking to my twenty-year-old sel
) and his complaints about convention, while I leaned away from him in extreme discomfort.
Clearly, I was not bound for disembodied poetics; I was far too uptight to turn on, and too ambitious to drop out. When it came to my own poetic allegiances, Ginsberg (and Orlovsky) could probably have taken one look at me and pegged me exactly. I was adolescent (still), poetic, moody, feminist, andâit went without sayingâmisunderstood. It was only a matter of time before I fell beneath the sway of a certain strain of lyrical intensity, a white-hot declaration of brilliance and femaleness and power.
e verse, in other words, was already on the wall.
In the dollar bin of a Harvard Square bookstore I found a paperback edition of Sylvia Plath's
Letters Home: Correspondence 1950 â 1963
ose lettersâI swallowed them whole: the brave soldier in her scholarship-girl dormitory, working far more diligently than I ever had (she would not have had the slightest difficulty in my Freud seminar); the breathless correspondent from the land of WASP affluence (her description of William F. Buckley Jr.'s sister's coming-out party is an astounding document of the times); the American abroad, voracious for life experiences.
e sheer force of Sylvia Plath overwhelmed me. Just imagining the energy required for her to be good at so many things made me exhausted. Her studiousness, the hours hunched over the thesaurus to produce her poetry, draft after draft of each poem, the magazine articles, the stories, even the letters themselvesâoften typed and running pages longânot to mention the rumored, unpublished journals. Where did she find the time?
e energy? I could barely do my schoolwork and dash off a poem now and then.
Well, that semester I found the energy to read Plath. After the letters, I read her poems. I read her stories in
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,
e Bell Jar.
I read the firstâand probably the worstâof the many inadequate biographies to come (Edward Butscher's
Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness
). I began to assemble an idea of Plath, a composite of her art, the memories of others, and the letters, which (in that time before her journals were published) seemed to me the best available insights into her private thoughts.
I wanted very much to know what those thoughts had been.
Most likely I already knew that I wasn't alone in my fixation. I'd caught glimpses of what Anne Sexton famously called “her kind” as I went my poetic way, immersing myself in Plath's life and work. She was hardly obscure, and I was hardly the only young, sensitive, and, for that matter, angry young woman to fall beneath her spell. And though I loved her, and though my reverence for what she had accomplished wasâand indeed remainsâwell nigh limitless, I had a sense that we admirers were probably legion. I might have begun the term as a bourgeois, poetry-writing exchange student from Dartmouth, but within weeks of encountering Plath's letters, I was heading straight for “Death Girl” territory. (
e Death Girls, protagonists of Meg Wolitzer's first novel,
published that year, were black-clad college-girl acolytes of Plath and Anne Sexton who gathered in their dorm rooms amid candlelight and cigarette smoke to read the poems and invoke the presences.)
at spring could not have been the first time I had ever experienced mild depression, but it was the first time I remember thinking of what I was feeling as depression. It was also the first time I ever romanticized depression. It was occurring to me that so many of the great writers, the ones Plath and I both admired the most, had suffered crippling mood swings and devastating sadness, not to mention actual psychosis.
e tribe included not only Plath and Sexton, but Robert Lowell, their onetime teacher, and his friend John Berryman. Byron! Keats! And those were just the poets. At the end of the day, it felt as if the entire
had done time at McLean and Austin Riggs!
at semester, depression and madness were
downright enthralling. I couldn't stop myself from taking constant
personal inventory of my own tendencies, and wondering if every instance of Sunday morning blues might be cultivated to produce a full-blown suicidal ideation.
I didn't understand
it at the time, but it's clear to me now that I was heading for a very unhappy place. I was heading there, but I never got there, because something stopped me. Something came slamming down in my path and blocked the way, as dramatically, if not as comically, as the animated foot of God descending from the cartoon clouds in the Monty Python credits.
at foot was my mother.
I turned twenty-one in May of that year, and the gift I asked her for was the newly published
Journals of Sylvia Plath,
edited by Frances McCullough with Ted Hughes consulting. Like most of Plath's admirers, I had heard about the journals, and two weeks before my birthday, on May 2, I had avidly read Nancy Milford's review in the
New York Times Book Review.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on the new book, so when my mother called to ask whether there was something I especially wanted, I put in my request.
It is time, as Charles Ryder might say right around now, to speak of my mother.
You have to understand, I was not thinking about her at all. She was not part of the picture, that spring.
e voice in Plath's poems and her college girl novel, the voice of the (mostly) loving daughter in the lettersâthat was
the voice of someone my own age, someone going to classes, mooning over boys, worrying about whether she was good enough as a poet and pretty enough as a woman and generally capable of doing everything she wanted to do in life. I heard her as a friend, as someone who would understand my own concerns had she alighted, through a warp of time and space, beside me in my Dunster House dormitory room. I had never conceived of her as being remotely like my
It had not dawned on me that my mother and Sylvia Plath were almost exact contemporaries, or that the two children left behind by Plath's suicide were almost exact contemporaries of . . . me.
I know. I know. Even all these years later, it still amazes me.
e fact was that Sylvia Plath and my mother had entered college only a year apartâPlath at Smith, my mother at the ultra-arty Goddard College in Vermont. Goddard was so out-there and countercultural that when I happened to visit it years later, I immediately phoned my mother to ask, “What were you thinking?” What she was thinking was that she was going to Goddard, then an experimental, unaccredited college, because of a sculptor on its faculty named Richard Lippold, with whom her high school art teacher had suggested she study. As fate would have it, however, Lippold sold his first piece to MoMA that year, and departed Goddard with all due haste. My mother never even met him. Instead, she spent two years in northern Vermont, wearing flannel shirts and having (she assures me) a very good time, but learning absolutely nothing, until she realized that she was on track to graduate without having been educated.
en, in what may have been her first recorded act of coolheaded, world-class negotiation, she persuaded the comparatively conventional Sarah Lawrence College to accept her, in spite of an academic transcript their admissions office could not even understand, let alone evaluate. My mother proposed
that the school accept her conditionally, “without status,” and that if her work was sufficiently good at the end of the semester, she could be registered in the junior class; if not, they could enroll her as a sophomore and she would repeat the year. (Perhaps not quite so coolheaded, she now admits: “Also, I cried.”) Sarah Lawrence said yes.
Sixty years on, my mother still admires Richard Lippold's sculptures in the atrium of Avery Fisher Hall, and dangling over the bar in the Four Seasons. Do I need to add that she never became a sculptor? She became a therapist, making it her life's work to say the right thing at the right time to any number of people as clueless as I was on the morning of my twenty-first birthday.
I remember any number of these right things. Perhaps we have time for just one more.
In 1992, when Woody Allen left Mia Farrow for her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, I was in a quandary. I
Woody Allen. I liked his films, liked his way of looking at the world, and the way I sometimes saw him slouching around Manhattan, where we both lived. Most of all I liked how he loved our city, because I loved New York the same way, and when he filmed it at its most ravishing, I swooned right alongside him. When he ran off with Soon-Yi Previn, I wanted not to be furious at him, because I wanted to continue going to his films and thinking well of him. I talked this over with my mother.
“I'm sure he didn't plan for this to happen,” I said to her. “You can't choose who you fall in love with. â
e heart wants what it wants' and all that,” I added, quoting the man himself.
My mother regarded
me with an expression of purest disgust.
“He couldn't have found . . .
. . . nineteen-year-old girl?” she said.
It hit me like a ton of bricks on a freight train. Oh my
. She was totally, totally right.
e man was scum, utter, thorough scum. What the hell was he doing, sleeping with his partner's daughter, or his stepdaughter, or whatever she was to him? Did it matter what she was to him? She was something to him that
you do not sleep with
at was twenty years ago, and I have never paid money to see a Woody Allen film since.
But I digress.
On my twenty-first birthday, my mother came to celebrate with me in Cambridge, and presented me with the brand new
Journals of Sylvia Plath.
I still remember my first sight of it, the shiny lilac damask cover that has now spent thirty years on my bookshelves, in every place I've lived since then: Cambridge, Massachusetts; Cambridge, England; Ireland; New York; Massachusetts; and now Princeton, New Jersey. I wanted to start reading it right away.
But then I read the inscription my mother had written on the book's flyleaf: one sentence plus a fragment or two that would instantly and forever alter the way I felt about Sylvia Plath, her work, and all three of our lives:
For my wonderful daughter. Beautiful, joyous, full of
life and talentâand so much more fortunate
than Sylvia Plath. My love always darling, Mom.
All spring, as I had read and thought about Plath, I had been building an idea of her, a kind of amalgamation of facts and settings and ideas, but even as my grasp on the details of her life grew tighter, the wholeness of herâher
(a word I had somehow managed to learn in that selfsame Freud seminar)âhad seemed to be slipping away.
And that “away” was a very different place than where I was living. It was a place of chaperones and irredeemable bad girls and the rank terror of getting pregnant before marriage. Plath had had to live in a world in which being female and anything elseâapart from a mother and homemakerâwas as absurd as it was suspect, where a generous neighbor might offer a writer/husband with a new baby the use of a study in which to work, but never think to offer the same study to his writer/wife.