In 1963, Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven, turned on the gas, and committed suicide as her children slept. Her friend and fellow poet, Anne Sexton, memorialized Plath with a poem that linked them as suffering women who both had “the suicide inside” them:
Thief / how did you crawl down into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long, / the death we said we both outgrew, / the one we wore on our skinny breasts, / the one we talked of so often each time / we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston, / the death that talked of analysts and cures, / the death that talked like brides with plots, / the death we drank to, / the motives and the quiet deed.” *
Ten years later, after a number of failed attempts, Sexton also committed “the quiet deed,” pouring herself a glass of vodka, locking herself in her garage, and starting her car, poisoning herself with carbon monoxide.
Sexton and Plath have always been two of my favorite poets. I love the confessional poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, so sensitive and honest and personal, and I especially admire the ways that Sexton and Plath used this newer kind of poetry to examine themselves as women and think about what it meant to be female in their particular worlds. Who can forget, for example, Plath’s chilling words to her father, her declaration that “Every woman adores a fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you“? Sexton wrote about sex, adultery, menstruation, masturbation, abortion, motherhood, and her own lifelong struggle with a complicated set of debilitating psychological disturbances originally diagnosed as “hysteria.” Her specific personal experiences became the subjects of her poems, and she boldly published work related to her failures as a mother (“You did not know my voice / when I came back”), her problematic use of psychiatric drugs and sleeping pills (“Fee-fi-fo-fum / Now I’m borrowed. / Now I’m numb.”), and her repeated attempts at suicide (“I pretended I was dead / until the white men pumped the poison out”). ** This choice of material, combined with the fact that she ultimately killed herself, ensured that people would remember her, like Plath, primarily as a tragic “suicide poet.”
It’s understandable that we think of Plath and Sexton in that particular way. And yet something about the way we remember them – something, even, about the way that I have personally read their work and thought about their lives and deaths – bothers me. It bothers me a lot. And it’s not just that their dramatic suicides eclipsed the fact that they produced, during their short lives, what writer James Carroll has called “some of the best poetry” of the twentieth century. It’s something more than that, something hard to articulate; it’s something that has to do with our tendency to see romance, maybe even beauty, in lives that culminate in these tragic, self-inflicted deaths – especially, perhaps, when the lives in question belong to women.
I don’t mean to argue, here, that we never romanticize the suicides of men – we certainly do, though often in different ways. I could write an entire blog post about male suicide, too, about how men are trained to cover and deny their emotional impulses in a way that can lead to serious mental health crises. For now, though, I want to suggest only that there is a gendered component to suicide and a gendered component to the way we, as a society, react to female suicide. Diane Middlebrook’s biography of Sexton touches briefly on this issue. Middlebrook notes that the feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who saw nothing romantic or beautiful about these sorts of deaths, spoke at Sexton’s funeral and immediately placed the tragedy of her personal suffering in a larger, profoundly disturbing context: “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” The quotation struck a chord with me, in more ways than one; it made me think about why I loved these poets, and it made me think about their connection to feminism and women’s history, and it illuminated part of what bothered me so much about the image of the beautiful, suffering, “suicide poet.”
Self-destructiveness: the sole form of violence permitted to women. Isn’t this point worth examining? I don’t think Rich meant to argue that women should go out and perpetrate acts of violence against other people instead, at least not in the literal sense. She meant, I think, that when women’s lives become unbearable, when social and political and personal circumstances make them feel desperate, they often silence themselves, even doing violence to themselves, rather than making noise and fighting against those external forces. And she was right, wasn’t she? At least to some extent? I’m thinking, here, not only about suicide but also about eating disorders and self-injury behaviors like cutting. Women, Rich would argue, express negative emotions and claim whatever small measure of power they can grasp not by striking out at those around them but by hurting themselves.
I recently finished teaching a course on U.S. women’s history – the first half of a survey, dealing not with the gendered problems of the twentieth century but, instead, with colonial, Revolutionary, and antebellum women. During discussion one day, a student asked me several questions, all of which boiled down to something like, “why does it seem like men have looked at the problems around them and blamed other people and other forces, while women have seemed to think the root of those problems comes from inside themselves?”
This perspective is oversimplified, of course, but I knew what the student meant. In class, for example, we had talked about the centrality of religion in the New England colonies, and they’d read Elizabeth Reis’s brief article on women’s witchcraft confessions, which argued that in church conversion narratives, men tended to focus on specific sins they had committed, while women tended to focus on their personal qualities, their inherent “sinful natures.” We had discussed the implications of that distinction at length, noting that in this particular worldview, men might do bad things, but women were bad people. We’d explored the powerful – and powerfully gendered – concept of shame. And once the students understood that particular dynamic, they saw it everywhere, all through the class. They pointed out, for instance, that the contradictions and complexities of the Second Great Awakening and the Cult of True Womanhood meant that if men went out into the world and sinned, their actions could be traced to the failures of women, and, furthermore, that those failures were not simply about what women did (or failed to do) but about what women were (or failed to be) – they were not pious enough, not pure enough, not “true” women.
So when my student asked about why men looked at social problems as external while women turned inward, I understood what she was getting at. Unfortunately, as so often happens when my students suddenly ask me big, broad, philosophical questions, I struggled to provide a halfway decent answer. On the fly, I found myself speculating about the gendered constructions of guilt and shame, about the ways that people with power – white people, wealthy people, men – have managed to blame the suffering of the powerless on innate deficiencies or on personal failings. And I wish I had read the Adrienne Rich quote before that particular class; if I had, I would have included it. I would have told the student that one consequence of all of this was that “self-destructiveness” became “the sole form of violence permitted to women.” In general, women were not (and sometimes, still, are not) allowed to fully express their anger or frustration or outrage, not without incurring serious penalties. Consequently, they push those burning, painful, disruptive emotions inward. They punish themselves, hate themselves, cut and starve and kill themselves; they turn those noisy, disruptive feelings against themselves and commit “the quiet deed.” The problem, they affirm, is inside of them; it has to do with their existence, with who they are. And we look on their choice of suicide as somehow more acceptable than some of the alternatives. They do not blame other people; they do not curse society; they do not make too much noise. And when they eradicate their very selves, we see a kind of beauty in it – something poetic, something pure.
Why do we find female suicide romantic or beautiful? It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond Plath and Sexton. We think about Virginia Woolf that way, and about other famous women who have killed themselves; we see these kinds of deaths romanticized in literature or in film. Why? Part of it, I think, is that women who choose to kill themselves are choosing not to do something else, something we might strangely find less acceptable. What if Sylvia Plath had abandoned her children, pursued some other dream, sailed back from England to America? Would people have called her a horrible person? A bad mother? A monster? Why does the fact that she abandoned her children by choosing to die make us view her more positively? Does suicide somehow prove that her suffering was pure enough, that her pain was real? Or does it reassure us, somehow, by suggesting that the problem was her all along — as opposed to society, patriarchy, the institution of marriage, the current modes of treatment for mental illness, or any number of incredibly complex external forces, forces that would prove so difficult to alter?
Just last month, Vice published a fashion spread (seriously) that featured models reenacting the suicides of famous authors, including Plath, Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy Parker, Elise Cowen, Iris Chang, and Sanmao. This decision represents a somewhat extreme version of the romanticization I’m talking about – a kind of fetishizing, really – but it should not be dismissed as “just” a bad or tasteless decision on the part of the editors. We can read it as an extension of the idea, sometimes silent but nevertheless present in much of the discussion of them as artists or as women, that these authors had romantic deaths, that their pain was somehow pure or beautiful.
Though Sexton felt attracted to the idea of suicide for most of her adult life, and though she documented that attraction in her poetry, she also pointed out that her suicidal feelings were agonizing and that the misery she felt, the mental illness she experienced, was not beautiful. In a poem addressed to one of her mentors, John Holmes, who warned her that her personal and unconventional choice of poetic subjects might alienate people and humiliate her family, she described her reasons for writing her poems: “Not that it was beautiful, / but that, in the end, there was / a certain sense of order there; / something worth learning / in that narrow diary of my mind, / in the commonplaces of the asylum / where the cracked mirror / or my own selfish death / outstared me.” *** This is worth noting, isn’t it, that even Sexton, she who openly envied Sylvia Plath’s death, found her own suicidal impulses “selfish” and not at all beautiful, not at all romantic? She was in pain. She was desperate. She was suffering. What on earth is supposed to be beautiful about that?
Like Adrienne Rich, I’ve had enough of this particular trope. Enough suicidal poets. Enough suicidal women. Enough of violence toward oneself being the only form of violence allowed to women. Enough of painting self-destructiveness as something beautiful and pure.
Death is final. These women don’t get to be resurrected.
For further reading:
Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Woman’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835. Second edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Reis, Elizabeth. “Confess or Deny? What’s a ‘Witch’ to Do?” OAH Magazine of History (July 2003).
Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.
* These lines come from Anne Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death.”
** The first quote comes from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” The Anne Sexton ones come from “The Double Image” and “The Addict.”
***These lines come from Anne Sexton’s “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.”