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Affected by the Sylvia Plath Effect

Content warning: This article includes brief mentions of suicide.

I mentioned back when I did my article on Shirley Jackson that before I teach about a particular author, I like to study their background with my students so that they can gain a better understanding of the thought processes behind the author’s works. Sylvia Plath is no exception, and like Jackson, there is a long discussion to be had on their life before anything can be said about their writing.

Whenever I teach Sylvia Plath to my students, I ask them to look for markers of resilience in her poems. I ask them to really look, because it's there. The strength of mages in "Lady Lazarus." The resolve of the abandoned but still living daughter in "Daddy." The passionate, hopeful lover of "A Mad Girl’s Love Song." I don’t want to be one of those English teachers responsible for Plath’s unfortunate reputation as "the depressed poet." History tends to forget the full richness of her sensitive, adventurous spirit that kept bees, rode horses, travelled abroad, and swam like a siren in freezing waters just to feel alive. I cannot, with an unburdened conscience, allow my students to exit class with the idea that the same person who wrote "I rise with my red hair, and I eat men like air" was just "the depressed poet."

Nevertheless, the inevitable conversation cannot be avoided or even delayed, which is that Sylvia Plath not only suffered from severe clinical depression but also died of suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty. And when students ask me why she did it, I have to tell them the truth. "Things were different back then than they are now. She didn’t get the help she needed." What she got instead, if she was telling the complete truth in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, was ignored, electrocuted, and given ineffective medications. By men she really should have eaten.

Now consider my reaction, while preparing my lesson plans beforehand, when I discovered that there is a whole psychological condition named after her: the "Sylvia Plath Effect". I can’t say that I was particularly surprised by this new knowledge. Congratulations to the psychologist who would not have to awkwardly name his findings after himself, thanks to the convenient death of a famous mentally ill poet. The opportunity was there, and he took it. This invention was the work of James C. Kaufman, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, back in 2001; around forty years past Plath’s death, and three years too late for Plath’s famously prickly husband Ted Hughes to potentially sue (Hughes died in 1998).

The thesis of Kaufman’s “Sylvia Plath Effect” is that people with artistic ambitions, especially poets, are more vulnerable to mental illness than others who do not share the same drive to write and to channel their emotions through writing. In 2011, Kaufman conducted a study where 1,629 writers were psychoanalysed for signs of distress or derangement related to their profession and concluded that female poets were especially the most susceptible. A second study brought in a further 520 women of different but still intellectually demanding professions so that their states of mind could be compared to lady poets. Again, the same conclusion.

The Wikipedia page for the Sylvia Plath Effect features lists of writers, both female and male, who might have had this ambigious disorder, on the basis that they were writers and were mentally unwell in their lifetimes (Anne Sexton is there, along with Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Dylan Thomas, who was Sylvia Plath’s literary hero). But there are too many factors with each individual case for an official stamp. It’s mostly speculation.

Now, there is something of common sense at work here. Yes, it does piece together that writers, more in tune with their conscience and more sensitive to the world’s many injustices, would be more likely prone to depressive periods. And for women the lack of respect and recognition they often receive for their efforts can be a staggering blow (as a female writer myself, this is something I'm familiar with). But, and I really have to ask this, did this phenomenon have to be named after Sylvia Plath?

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against advancements in psychological research. But I just can’t shake off the feeling that naming this mysterious disorder after Sylvia Plath is something of an insult to her memory. It commodifies her, overrides her individuality, and her right to be remembered as a full human being rather than as a condition. I think Plath’s still-living daughter Frieda Hughes probably shares my sentiments. Hughes was not particularly impressed with how her mother was portrayed in the 2003 biographical film Sylvia and would later describe the film’s appropriation or romanticisation of Plath’s predicament in her own poem as “their Sylvia Suicide Doll.” Like Barbie, it seems like Plath’s name has become synonymous with ideas and stances rather than personhood.

And then there’s the secondary factor that makes my relationship with the Sylvia Plath Effect unpalatable. I know that by doing my own extensive research on this I put myself at risk for going down the very same rabbit hole I went down when I thought I had (and was proven wrong in having) pink eye, heart disease, oral thrush, eczema, and at one point a tumour in my bladder. I am a chronic offender of the dangerous, jeopardising self-diagnosis. There have been too many times where a doctor’s take on things is one opinion, and Google’s is another. I know it’s wrong, but I keep on doing it. Traversing the Sylvia Plath Effect is far beyond just scholarly curiosity; it’s an off-the-beaten-track pathway in my ongoing adventure in determining "what on God’s burning Earth is wrong with me."

Like Sylvia Plath was in her lifetime, I am infected with a constant, overbearing urge to write that itches so fiercely that it might as well be eczema. It’s my curse, my poltergeist. It gives me no peace. At night I lie in bed, trying to sleep, and my brain clears its throat, "Ahem. Now that you are unoccupied and I have your full attention, I have fourteen new ideas that I am going to run by you. Firstly, a complete rewrite of that sloppy paragraph you just slap-dashed together in your book review for The Monitor. Secondly, a letter of complaint to The Globe and Mail about the faulty lights at that one intersection you strategically avoid while you’re driving. Thirdly, a complete first draft of that fantasy short story you’re thinking of writing about that myth with Loki and the horse…"

Periods of not writing, not producing, not making good on my promises to the literary world sometimes send me spiralling into these black voids of depression that can only be alleviated by, what else, writing. Could this be the Sylvia Plath Effect in effect? As a creative, am I doomed to be always anxious, stressed, sleep-deprived and depressed because of my calling’s disproportionate power over me? And by telling my students, many of whom are aspiring writers, about this, am I putting them at risk for fretting over the exact same thing?

What I'm saying is, contrary to my disapproval over the name of the Sylvia Plath Effect, I may need more developments to be made on this. For both professional and personal purposes.

1 Comment

John Kemp
John Kemp
Dec 23, 2023

Wow there are so many causes for people to take their own lives. I shall be sad for all of

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