Writers Who Suffered From the Sylvia Plath Effect
By StacyBee on writers
I’m in a book club (we’re looking for a quirky-yet-clever name for ourselves if anyone has any suggestions) and last week we discussed The Bell Jar. It’s one of those books we all felt we should have read at some point during our high school careers and never did, so it was long overdue. In my research about the similarities between the book’s main character and the book’s author I came across something called Sylvia Plath effect.
It’s a relatively new theory in the world of psychology – in 2001, James Kaufman conducted a study that showed creative writers, especially female poets, are more susceptible to mental illness than other types of professions.
Being a female writer (not a poet, though), I was understandably interested in this theory. There really is a disproportionate amount of writers who have committed suicide over the years, so to brighten your day I thought I’d look at a few of them here.
photo from A.J. Marik via Find a Grave
It makes sense to start with the theory’s namesake, I think. For those of you who haven’t read The Bell Jar, it’s a thinly disguised autobiography about one girl’s spiral into depression including suicide attempts, hospital stays and shock treatment therapy.
The bell jar is used as a metaphor for the feeling the main character has when she’s going through her depression – she feels like she’s trapped under a bell jar, stifled and numb. Sylvia predicted her own future when she wrote from the perspective of her protagonist – “How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
Despite marriage, children, a successful career as a poet and a promising one as a novelist, Sylvia’s own bell jar did descend again. On February 11, 1963, she killed herself by putting her head in the oven with the gas on.
Poor Virginia Woolf seemed doomed from the start. She suffered a nervous breakdown when her mother died when Virginia was just 13. Her father died just nine years later, causing another breakdown which resulted in a brief period of institutionalization. She and her sister were subjected to sexual abuse by their half brothers, which certainly did not help her state of mind.
On March 28, 1941, Virginia decided she had had enough, loaded up her pockets with heavy rocks and walked into the River Ouse near her home. Judging by her symptoms and behavior, modern-day doctors think she probably suffered from bipolar disorder.
photo from quebecoise via Find a Grave
Sara Teasdale was a talented poet, which, according to James Kaufman, put her at a serious disadvantage when it came to battling depression. In 1918, she won the Columbia University Poetry Society Prize, which was the precursor to the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Toward the end of the 1920s, though, things headed downhill for Sara. The Great Depression hit the same year she decided to divorce her husband.
Plagued by financial problems, her close friend and former suitor Vachel Lindsay killed himself by drinking Lysol in 1931. Vachel was a poet, so you could say his suicide contributes to Kaufman’s theory that creative writers are more susceptible to mental illness.
In 1933, Sara reunited with Vachel when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in her apartment in New York City, drew herself a warm bath and never got out of it.
Anne was never shy about admitting to her mental health problems and openly talked about her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder. She was somewhat of an instant success in her poetic career – after attending a workshop taught by poet John Holmes, she immediately had poems published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and the Saturday Review. By attending workshops and adopting a writing mentor, Anne became friends with poets such as Maxine Kumin, W.D. Snodgrass and none other than Sylvia Plath. She was such close friends with Sylvia, in fact, that she wrote a poem entitled Sylvia’s Death about, well, Sylvia’s death. She outlived Sylvia by 11 years, though – on October 4, 1974, Anne had lunch with Maxine, returned home and killed herself by sitting in her garage with the door down and the gas running.
Photo from IainFisher.com
Kaufman’s theory holds up even with contemporary writers. Sarah Kane was a playwright and screenwriter who suffered from severe depression. She was voluntarily admitted twice to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London. She channeled her depression into plays which were performed by the Royal Court. Critics weren’t too impressed when the plays debuted which may have lead to her suicide in 1999. After an overdose of prescription medication landed her in King’s College Hospital but failed to kill her, she ended up hanging herself in a hospital bathroom.
So, that was morbid. But it does provide some supporting evidence for Kaufman’s Sylvia Plath effect. What do you think? Does the Sylvia Plath effect make sense? The other side of the coin is that there are a number of suicides with any occupation and these are just more public given the public nature of the work.