Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sylvia Plath's Psychoanalyst

When she gassed herself to death in her London apartment in 1963 Sylvia Plath became a martyr for the cause of women’s liberation. Having grown up in post-war America, a product of the 1950s, a woman with prodigious talent, Plath traveled to England, married poet Ted Hughes, bore him two children and suffered the indignity of seeing him run off with a married woman.

It was more than she could handle. She had already had one nervous breakdown  in America. She had been hospitalized for depression and was treated by an American psychoanalyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher. In London, while suffering another breakdown, she wrote plaintive letters to her former American psychoanalyst, among others. The letters have recently been published in a third volume of Plath’s letters, thus giving voice to a woman who silenced herself far too soon.

For this she has been made into a feminist martyr, victim of the patriarchy, destroyed by a perfidious man. And yet, reading about Plath's letters to her analyst, it also becomes a story of failed therapy.

And this matters. The massive amount of work about Plath tends to promote a very specific narrative. It says that Plath was too much of 1950s America, that she died because she did not have feminism to teach her to be independent and autonomous. Thus, she has been fashioned into the prototypical victim of male chauvinism and toxic masculinity… before those became household words. In principle, she would not have reacted so badly to her husband’s betrayal if she had been strong and empowered, like today’s young women who are, after five decades of telling themselves that they are strong and empowered, being sexual harassed on a regular basis, in the workplace and on their Tinder dates.

One might conclude that Plath suffered from too much domesticity. If only her husband had been sufficiently liberated to do an occasional load of laundry. By that logic, she put her head in an oven and turned on the gas because she was protesting the thankless roles of housewife and homemaker. Why she chose to abandon two young children remains mysterious.

Anyway, what with the appearance of Plath’s new letters, Emily Cooke writes in Bookforum that she is especially interested to read Plath’s letters to her psychoanalyst Dr. Ruth Beuscher. Cooke finds these letters in particular to be compelling… first for what they showed about Plath’s state of mind, but second for what they showed about Beuscher.

While Plath was desperately reaching out to Beuscher and trying to establish some kind of connection, the analyst remained Freudian to the end, failing to respond to most of the letters, offering the kind of oracular stupidities that tended to demean and insult the recipient. While Plath has been dubbed, by Janet Malcolm in particular, “the silent woman” one comes away from Cooke’s summary of Plath’s letters to Beuscher with the impression that the real silent woman was Beuscher. And that Plath’s failure to connect with her imperious and grossly irresponsible analyst contributed to her choice to commit suicide.

Cooke describes the letters thusly:

As eloquent a portrait of domestic enchantment and its rapid corruption as any, the Beuscher letters, a kind of collection within the collection, offer a concentrated record of Plath’s bleak final year and confirmation of her superlative creative powers. That they were private documents meant for a single reader, mostly composed during agonies of varying intensity and in the hope of some therapeutic relief, seems only to heighten their power as literary objects. In Plath’s appeals to Beuscher she is plainly desperate for help, yet the rhythms of her sentences, her bitter humor, and the flamboyant performance of her plight reveal the artist at work as much as the woman in pain.

For Plath it came apart when her husband began an affair to with one Assia Wevill. Plath and Hughes separated three months later, leaving Plath alone to bring up her two-and-a-half year old daughter and her nine-month old son. 

Many of the letters to Beuscher are bookended by heartbreaking pleas: for a “good wise word,” “some good talk to carry me on,” “any advice about these other women,” “your help as a woman, the wisest woman emotionally and intellectually, that I know.” “Do write,” Plath begged in September, two months after the first revelation of adultery. “If only a paragraph. It is my great consolation just now, to speak & be heard, and spoken to.” Her eagerness issued in part from the recovery Beuscher midwifed when Plath was younger: “I still credit you, I think, with some vestige of supernatural powers which can transcend the factual lumps of experience and make them harmless, or at least, not seriously or permanently wounding.” Yet she was aware that her impulse to imagine Beuscher as so powerful was a young person’s feeling, a naive desire to hand over responsibility for one’s experience to someone else. That she didn’t—that, perhaps, Beuscher wouldn’t let her—signals her forcible maturation, the dread ripping away of illusions that real adulthood brings. “Ted made much better love while he was having these other affairs,” she admitted to the analyst, “& the tart in me appreciated this.” She felt that if her relationship with Hughes survived, she would need to come to terms with his being involved with other women in the future. She understood it might not survive.

Plath was reduced to entreaties partly because Beuscher did not always respond with the alacrity her patient hoped for. “Do answer this,” Plath begs or commands at one point. Elsewhere: “I’d be awfully grateful just to have a postcard from you saying you think any paid letter sessions between us are impractical or unhelpful or whatever. . . . It is the feeling of writing into a void that never answers, or may at any moment answer, that is difficult. I’d rather just have you say ‘shut up’ than feel my words dangling in space.” And: “Please just say it won’t work or you’ve a full schedule or something. I would be glad of that definiteness.” Beuscher did write back to Plath at least some of the time. An example of her counsel, tucked into a footnote in this volume, reveals her to be authoritative and wise: “First, middle and last, do not give up your personal one-ness. Do not imagine that your whole being hangs on this one man.” Plath thanks her, repeatedly, with harrowing gratitude.

We can provide eloquent rationalizations for Beuscher’s dismissive attitude, and it is fair to try to do so, but the analyst turned her back on her former patient in time of severe trouble. As for her words of wisdom, Beuscher offered feminist philosophical platitudes… directing Plath to be more independent, to achieve “personal one-ness.” The culture might not have been completely infused with feminism, but Plath had a seriously feminist analyst. And yet, as you read the analyst's words, do you not see something of a a prophecy: Plath must have believed that she was being cursed to be alone… forever. 

True Plath wanted to put her marriage back together, but why did she not just pick up and move back to America? Why did she not ask family members to come to London to help her? I do not recall the reasoning. Apparently, Beuscher did not understand that Plath needed real help from real people in her everyday life. 

One does not like to see credentialed medical professionals failing at their jobs, but clearly Dr. Beuscher failed her most famous patient. We have learned, perhaps to our detriment, that we must remain silent when therapists fail. Has anyone imagined that Princess Diana's feminist analyst bears any responsibility for the way the princess was conducting her life? And let's not forget the unfortunate Marilyn Monroe, treated by one of the best analysts in Los Angeles.

Plath’s letters to her analyst fill out a picture that, until now, had been distorted for ideological effect.


Sam L. said...

You may want to rewrite "... bore him two children and has suffered the indignity of see him run off with..." to "bore him two children and HAD suffered the indignity of
SEEING him run off with"

Unknown said...

Theodore Dalrymple calls Sylvia Plath the patron saint of self-dramatization, although he does not doubt the sincerity of the self-pity in her poems. "My face a featureless, fine Jew linen" she wrote after one of her suicide attempts. This was not the only time she assimilated herself to the Jews (she was not Jewish) who suffered the Holocaust. As to the above reference to human skin and lampshades, it eradicates the moral distinction between immolating oneself and being immolated. In order to attract the attention of the reader to her suffering, Plath felt it right to allude, all to often, to one of the worst and most deliberate inflictions of mass-suffering in the whole of human history. May be her analyst understood her all too well...and stopped feeling empathy for her.
At any rate, Plath is a most perfect example of today's Cult of the Víctim.

UbuMaccabee said...

The lie of Plath's martyrdom to the Patriarchy will never die anymore than socialism will be discovered to be a mass-murdering failure by the secular intellectuals. It's feminist gospel, like the 75 cents to a dollar. It's joined the ranks of historical bunk being passed off as wisdom and that's where it will remain, in the official canon of received opinion. Those are the things our elites know that make them more qualified to tell us what to do.

Poor woman was abandoned. Theory is thin gruel. I'm sure they all shook their heads and said, "Good god, people just don't do such things."

I passed through a long period of thinking about Epictetus's adage that "The door is always open." I could have used a living person for some conversation and a kind word. I sought therapy along the way, but when I walked out, I felt twice as nihilistic as when I went in. One thing I got from therapy: I am completely on my own here--embrace it and accept it. You right yourself or walk out of the party. Amor fati.

I found my friends, Montaine and Emerson, William James, Voltaire and lastly, Alfred Jarry and together, we patched things up and got the carriage, the horse, and the driver back on the road and communicating again. The Torah helped. There is more wisdom in the Torah that at Harvard University.

I did not find my personal one-ness, btw. I drew exactly the opposite conclusions: I am a rotating collection of unique I's, and each one claims to be the authentic me, at least until the next one shows up and pushes the last one off the stage. Watched this cycle around for a couple decades and decided the observer is the point of reference. We're all just one happy family now, with some members locked in the attic, and several others chained down in the basement, being starved to death.

Off to the gym to do what therapy failed to do.

Walt said...

Speaking (as we weren't) of "The Bell Jar," though it was some years after Plath, a friend of mine won that same contest--Mademoiselle magazine's writing contest for college girls (though my friend wryly calls it The Sylvia Plath Memorial Award). Point being, she lived the same summer at the same hotel, doing the same things as Plath but she's said that Plath's perspective on it --through a glass darkly--her taking the thing so seriously to the point of suffering and breakdown--indicated that Plath was so, at least seemingly, congenitally bent that the wonder wasn't that she eventually killed herself but that she had managed to cope well enough to marry, to write, and to live as long as she did.

Unknown said...

It's very difficult to find people who share the same opinion. Would like to discuss this topic in more detail. Would you be willing to?

Unknown said...

It's very difficult to find like minded individuals. Would like to discuss Plath in more detail with you. Would you be willing to?