May 1962: The black force grew imperceptibly. I felt panic-stricken – – – I had nothing to do with it, It controlled me. “I can’t help it,” I cried, or whispered, and then in three great bursts, the black thing hurtled itself out of me, one, two, three, dragging three shrieks after it: Oh, Oh, Oh. It was over. I felt the great weight gone in a moment. I felt thin, like air, as if I would float away, and perfectly awake. I lifted my head and looked up. “Did he tear me to bits?” I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me. “Not a scratch,” said Nurse D. I couldn’t believe it. I lifted my head and say my first son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes, blue and glistening on the bed a foot from me, in a pool of wet, with a cross, black frown and oddly low, angry brow, looking up at me, frown-wrinkles between his eyes and his blue scrotum and penis large and blue, as if carved on a totem. Ted was pulling back the wet sheets and Nurse D. mopping up the great amounts of water that had come with him. ~ from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
March 23, 2009: Nicholas Hughes, an evolutionary biologist and the 47-year-old son of writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,committed suicide last Monday in Alaska, where he lived and worked studying stream fish. His sister, Frieda Hughes, told the Times of London of her brother’s death, adding that “He had been battling depression for some time.” ~from a news article in Salon
I admit it- I was one of those young woman who was obsessed with Sylvia Plath. I was only 15 when I read The Bell Jar for the first (of many) times. I was in college when the book Letters Home was published, and I began to immerse myself in Plath’s life and times, the reality of her battle with depression, her failed marriage, her suicide in 1963. As a young wife and mother, I too was struggling to find a way to keep my self intact while managing a home and family. At that time (the mid-1970’s) women’s lives were becoming open to new and different opportunities, and I felt as if it should be possible to avoid Plath’s fate, to pursue my own dreams while still fulfilling the duties and expectations demanded of me by family and home.
Re-reading Plath’s poetry and journal now, from the perspective of 30 years, I’m taken aback by the raw pain and anguish evident in her poetry and journal entries. I can’t believe I ever identified even slightly with such deep emotional angst. But at one point, Plath’s life was oddly attractive to me – whether it was the mystique of the poet, the gift of her intellect, or just the lure of stark raving madness – I devoured every book about her I could get my hands on.
Happily, my life has turned out to be nothing like Sylvia Plath’s. I’ve not discovered my husband’s infidelity and thrown him out of the house shortly before giving birth to our son. I’ve not spent freezing cold nights in an upstairs London flat, wondering how to keep myself and two children warm and fed. I’ve not struggled with feelings of inferiority about my work, while words and images continue to gnaw at my imagination begging to be set down in black and white.
But when the headline about Nicholas Hughes suicide popped up on the internet, I felt a wrenching pain in my heart. All my information about this family ended with Plath’s suicide. I’ve wondered off and on over the years what became of those two wee ones – Frieda and Nicholas, who were asleep in their cots on that bitter February in 1963 when Plath placed her head in the gas oven and went to sleep forever. It haunted me quite a bit, actually, that she could, would do that with her helpless children just down the hall.
Frieda, who is very close to my own age, is a poet herself. Nicholas went into the scientific field, and was well respected by his colleagues in Alaska, many of whom had no idea who his mother was. “He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right,” a friend was quoted as saying. “That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”
Still, how desperately sad that the legacy of the bell jar continued, snuffing out one more life in this troubled and talented family. It is a legacy no mother could ever want to leave to her child.
Child, dated January 28, 1963, was written less than a month before Plath’s suicide.
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose names you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
Rest in peace, Nicholas Farrar Hughes.