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IlanaSimons
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Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

Sometimes we deal with heavy emotion by focusing on one rational thing.

 

That's a natural defense. For instance, some people deal with their hysterical or overly-anxious parents by adopting a lawyerly style to all subjects. They counteract that unbridled emotion with logic.

 

And, some people overcome their own drug or alcohol addictions by directing their sprawling energy onto something just as taxing but less destructive, like building model airplanes from found materials, or discovering and detailing new varieties of marine life. Call it a useful neurotic fixation.

 

Such was the case, I think, of Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath who recently committed suicide. Plath was famous poet who explored depression in her famously evocative prose. She also killed herself by asphyxiations in her gas stove, with two young children in the home, at age 30.

 

Her son Nicholas survived her--but of course he sensed her shadow. Nicholas must have lived through an onslaught of emotion, without its proper taxonomy, as an adolescent. (In fact, both of his parents were famous poets; both were depressed; and Nick suffered biologically based depression himself.) He probably needed to counterbalance that heavy history and emotion.

 

In turn, he quickly attached to the study of marine biology, with a special focus on fish in the northernmost regions of our waters--i.e. special species that dwell in the frigid and nearly unreachable waters of Alaska. He moved to a wooden hut in Fairbanks and--according to his friends and a recent The New York Times article--was more comfortable debating the small points of ice fishing than literature or his parents. Most of his colleagues at the University of Alaska didn't even know that he was the son of two famous 20th Century poets. If they broached the subject, he cut them off. He didn't want to "go there," as we say.

 

It's likely that Nicholas defended against complex emotion by simplifying and amplifying his academic focus. He had an active mind--but handled it by zeroing in on one pocket of life, reducing possible irritants. His parents had over-emphasized emotion; why shouldn't he de-emphasize it?  But Nicholas killed himself by hanging on March 16, 2009.  The emotion overflowed the frame.

 

Perhaps you know someone like this. This type is, by all accounts, intellectual and complex, but she maintains a narrow range. She is intricate in her "science"--whether that means researching fish in Alaska, doing 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, or putting the dishes into the dishwasher with an intricate protocol.

 

This is the mind that defends against emotion through a poetry of "reason" that's containable, and all her own.

 

Do you relate to, or know, someone of this type?




Ilana
Check out my book, here and visit my website, here.


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utopian
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

This story is so incredibly sad.  I think I'll go do a crossword puzzle.
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IlanaSimons
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.


utopian wrote:
This story is so incredibly sad.  I think I'll go do a crossword puzzle.

 

Hi Utopian.

I'm not quite sure if you're being sarcastic--but I'll fess up and say you've summarized exactly what I was trying to argue: that we sometimes counteract an emotion that's too big through tight, little activities.

(Were you being sarcastic, and if so, want to help me lend the post nuance?)




Ilana
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utopian
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.


IlanaSimons wrote:

utopian wrote:
This story is so incredibly sad.  I think I'll go do a crossword puzzle.

 

Hi Utopian.

I'm not quite sure if you're being sarcastic--but I'll fess up and say you've summarized exactly what I was trying to argue: that we sometimes counteract an emotion that's too big through tight, little activities.

(Were you being sarcastic, and if so, want to help me lend the post nuance?)


I was trying to say that I agree with your point.  I wanted to say something about the story but the more I thought about it the sadder I got and the truer and more sensible your take on it became.  I think we all have to distract ourselves from pain.  Sorry if I wasn't clear.

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holyboy
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

 Ilana,

 

What you wrote made me wonder about the apparent genetic predisposition for suicidal behavior and what is to be done about such a condition.  If, as you say, Nicholas chose to focus on one element in life, the rational pursuit of scientific discovery in order to ward off unwanted emotions/feelings of depression, then sadly that strategy was only successful for a while.

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Lurker
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

I absolutely can relate, but as someone with no shortage of mechanisms to defense against emotion, I find it far easier to identify the defensive mechanism -- in my case, a tendency toward compulsive orderliness and, yes, wanting the dishwasher to be loaded the "right" way -- than to identify the emotion.  I don't have a parental suicide or other obvious trigger to explain my behavior; presumably it would take a fair bit of couch time to figure me out!

 

But what does Nicholas's suicide tell us, if anything, about this common human trait?  The simple answer, in Nicholas's case, is that his defense mechanism didn't work, or perhaps worked for a period of time but untimately broke down.  What would the world of psychology say about this?  Are these defenses always prone to failure?

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IlanaSimons
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

I hear you--though the success vs. failure dichotomy is probably a bit rigid in assessing defenses.  Nick Hughes managed some fantastic thought through those very defenses which could not totally relieve his pain.

 

My favorite writer, V. Woolf, also killed herself--but I would not call her defenses (writing, embracing solitude, etc.) "failed" strategies.  She suffered.  But before that death, she made the world much richer and had the intermittent moment of joy.

 


Lurker wrote:

...

 

But what does Nicholas's suicide tell us, if anything, about this common human trait?  ... Are these defenses always prone to failure?


 




Ilana
Check out my book, here and visit my website, here.


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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.


holyboy wrote:

 Ilana,

 

What you wrote made me wonder about the apparent genetic predisposition for suicidal behavior and what is to be done about such a condition.  If, as you say, Nicholas chose to focus on one element in life, the rational pursuit of scientific discovery in order to ward off unwanted emotions/feelings of depression, then sadly that strategy was only successful for a while.


 

Hi holyboy,

Thanks for the post.  I just posted to Lurker about how I think that defenses can "work" even if they don't alleviate all the pain or even fend off suicide.  Nicholas suffered--but he probably also left lots of light.

 




Ilana
Check out my book, here and visit my website, here.


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IlanaSimons
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

Hi Utopian,

phew.  Gotta say--that's a relief.  Thanks.  I was ready to hear a counter-opinion, but also feeling tired about doing much revision.

 


utopian wrote:

I was trying to say that I agree with your point.  I wanted to say something about the story but the more I thought about it the sadder I got and the truer and more sensible your take on it became.  I think we all have to distract ourselves from pain.  Sorry if I wasn't clear.


 




Ilana
Check out my book, here and visit my website, here.


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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.


IlanaSimons wrote:

I hear you--though the success vs. failure dichotomy is probably a bit rigid in assessing defenses.  Nick Hughes managed some fantastic thought through those very defenses which could not totally relieve his pain.

 

My favorite writer, V. Woolf, also killed herself--but I would not call her defenses (writing, embracing solitude, etc.) "failed" strategies.  She suffered.  But before that death, she made the world much richer and had the intermittent moment of joy.

 


Lurker wrote:

...

 

But what does Nicholas's suicide tell us, if anything, about this common human trait?  ... Are these defenses always prone to failure?


 


Ilana,

Do you think Virginia Woolf's (or Sylvia Plath's, or Hemingway's, for that matter) writing practice was a defense mechanism against depression? Or more a way of expressing feelings? Perhaps a method for understanding them or understanding oneself?

 

 

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Sunltcloud
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

On the suicide of Nicholas Hughes

 

Does one really “simplify and amplify” by retreating into a particular way of life? Is it done consciously?  Does it work?

 

I am not a psychologist and can therefore only look to myself to find explanations of behaviour.

I wonder if it works in both directions. You give us a case in which a man experienced something traumatic as child, and sought to escape emotional “outbursts” by dedicating his life to scientific endeavors (that’s what it sounds like, but do we know that?) On the other hand, does the person, deprived of overt emotion in childhood, seek drama later in life? And, does somebody, Frieda Hughes for instance, who has endured the same as her brother, find solace in throwing herself into the overt emotional public life of poetry? Does she dare her mother’s legacy? In other words, does it make a difference if one follows the footsteps or walks into a different direction?

 

You say Nicholas “defended against complex emotion.” How do we know what he went through on his walks or when he went fishing? Or when his sister Frieda became estranged from the stepmother and battled her publicly over the estate of their father? How did he deal with living off the fruits of his mother’s tragedy? What went through his mind when “fame and fortune” hunters caught up with him? Seems to me that in spite of his remote location in Alaska, he had plenty of emotional baggage to cope with. And apparently he battled depression himself, keeping it under control with medication. Do we know how much of his depression was due to biological imbalance? Did he tire of fighting this illness? 

 

I had to ask myself all the above to be able to come up with some kind of statement of my own. I think that Frieda leans toward poetry because of genetic wiring that directed her toward her mother’s profession. Nicholas was wired into his father’s love of nature. I don’t see his life as having been conducted in a narrow range; research into freshwater ecosystems can hardly be called a narrow range. I see him as struggling with a medical problem and encroaching public appetite for sensationalism. Some of us struggle more successfully than others.

 

I was molested by my stepfather when I was thirteen. I tried to commit suicide when I was twenty (coin-operated gas stove). Both events are etched into my mind. Today I am a happy seventy-year old woman with a wide range of hobbies and interests. For all practical purposes I am mentally stable. I have never been clinically depressed. However, if I were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I might consider suicide.

 

Don’t worry; my mind is working just fine. I deal with emotional problems by writing about them and just finished a story about my mother-in-law who will be 97 soon. She told me the other day that she has dementia. Of course this made me think about aging. I always thought that one would not remember when one no longer remembers, but she clearly conveyed to me the sadness that comes with “diminished capacity.”

 

I walk a lot and I imagine wandering in and out of the fog on a country road. How far does one go before one has to make a decision? Do I keep on walking, hoping for a faint light in the window of a farmhouse, or do I sit down by the wayside because I am tired? At what point are “unbridled emotion and logic” drawn into the fog of sadness?

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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

You make a good point: Writing is an exploration--and maybe it's hard to classify creative writing as a defense.  I do think that by keeping a tight writing schedule, a writer can contain her demons, to some extent.  She can name those demons and offer them certain hours of her day.  Or she can tame a demon through "intellectualization" (naming her craft).

Kafka was a writer who both fuelled and contained his demons by valuing writing over any other sort of social life.  He lived through his desk.

 


holyboy wrote:

Do you think Virginia Woolf's (or Sylvia Plath's, or Hemingway's, for that matter) writing practice was a defense mechanism against depression? Or more a way of expressing feelings? Perhaps a method for understanding them or understanding oneself?

 


 




Ilana
Check out my book, here and visit my website, here.


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IlanaSimons
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

Sunltcloud,

You teach me so much every time you post.  I guess I have nothing to add but Thank You.  (and of course I'd want to read that short story!)




Ilana
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

 

IlanaSimons wrote:

Sunltcloud,

You teach me so much every time you post.  I guess I have nothing to add but Thank You.  (and of course I'd want to read that short story!)


 

I've changed a few names. The family is rather sensitive about all this. 

 

The Truth about Iris

 

The tender thread between annoyance and want of companionship vibrates on the third day of my visit. Mother swivels her chair away from the reading machine, toward me, and I, expecting her verdict on the political article she’s been scanning, look up from my knitting.

           

“I don’t remember anything,” she says, “not even the names of my friends.” After a short pause she adds, “ Of course they are all dead now.”

           

Then she talks about her friend Iris. About her Japanese heritage. About French lessons and writing classes at the Sunset Center.

           

“See! You remember!”

           

My remarks take her off course; irritability creases her forehead, “Remember what?”

 

A group of crows relieves me of an answer. We both watch them peck at the seeds in the chipped platter on the stone wall.

 

“I don’t let Tiger out on the patio any more; they get mad when they see him. And they warn every crow in the neighborhood. CAT! CAT! CAT!” She slants the birds’ usual caw, caw, caw into a bright screech and laughs. “He’s too old to jump up the wall, but they don’t know that.”

 

It’s difficult to judge what Mother can see; she says she has peripheral vision, that she can’t detect facial expressions, but she questions me when I raise my head to observe the protest of a nearby bluejay.

 

“What’s out there?”

 

“A bluejay waiting in the wings for his turn at the breakfast table.”

 

Discreetly I check my watch; my bus does not leave until three in the afternoon, but I intend to walk into downtown Carmel, have lunch in the park, window shop. If I leave by noon, I’ll have plenty of time to take pictures along Scenic Drive.

 

We discuss the planter Mother has readied for tomato seedlings and her worries that Frank will go overboard and pack the patio with all sorts of other plants.

 

“My son doesn’t know how to buy just one of anything,” she says.

 

She mentions the need for more decals on the glass wall, to keep birds from hurting themselves. And she thanks me, again, for sewing shut the holes in one of her favorite sweaters.

 

“Well, don’t tell anybody that it is my handiwork,” I joke, “I’ve never just pinched two sides together with thread before. But, I guess, it’s better than safety pins on your elbows.”

 

“Jane doesn’t want me to wear it, but I don’t get out to shop anymore.”

 

I want to remark on the many brand new clothes in her closet, but I keep the thought to myself. I understand about favorites. Maybe she bought it when Pop was still alive. Maybe it just feels soft and warm on her arms. I think we all have “things” that make us feel safe, remind us of happy times, promise continuity. I’ve never owned a thirty or forty year old pink lambswool sweater, made and bought in Scotland, but I tell Mother how I smile every time I wear my ten year old dark blue sweatshirt from Heidelberg. Yes, the one with the ratty sleeve edges and the cracked castle walls.

 

I excuse myself to finish stuffing my backpack. Should I tell Jane why the remote control for the TV is not working? Should I mention the damaged battery Mother was about to pull from the clock? How she spread butter on her toast with the same knife she used to cut up raw chicken breast? How close her fingers were to the blade? The way she reaches into the toaster oven touching the burning grill?

 

“It’s my diabetes,” she explained. “I have no feeling in my fingertips. Frank and Jane hate it when I do that.”

 

My thoughts track the results of my visit. I cut Mother’s hair and she loves it. I fixed her sweater, which made her happy. The bird clock is chirping again, and thanks to my intervention the corroded batteries have not left traces on the kitchen counter. We talked about conquering timelines.

 

“I upped my life expectancy from 75 to 83,” I admitted.

 

“I hope to see Obama bring our country back on the right track,” she confided.  

 

As I zip up the backpack Mother comes into my room. “You want to stay another day?”

 

I realize how her need to be around people has pushed aside her determination to be independent. Momentarily. By tonight she’ll probably comment on the fact that Frank will be here tomorrow and that she hasn’t been able to finish her chores. She’ll start getting anxious. She’ll tense up and her sciatic nerve will bother her even more. She won’t get enough sleep, because she wants to talk to me.

 

“I have to take the garbage out and water my plants,” I say lamely. Besides, you need your rest. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

 

We walk down the stairs together and while I put down my backpack on the chair by the front door, Mother asks Tiger where he’s been.

 

“He’s getting on in years, too,” she says. “I think he’s blind in one eye.”

 

We discussed his eye several times during my last few visits, but having somebody take Tiger to the vet after Truffles just died is too much for her. I sense that she doesn’t want to know the truth and am vague in my answer. “It looks different.”

 

She spends a great deal of time caring for the cat, the one being that truly needs her. She fills one of his bowls with fresh water, then turns the portable radio to full blast. Is she removing herself from my presence already? I join her at the kitchen counter and comment on the warmth of the sun that shines through the full-length window. Mother usually eats her breakfast standing right here; now she cleans up this morning’s remains. She picks up a banana from a bowl.

 

“I keep all my fruit right here; the sun makes it extra sweet. Do you want to take something for on the bus?”

 

I shake my head, feeling guilty for an instant, because I plan on buying cheese, some berries, and a roll at Nielson’s, to eat in the park. I think it has become hard for Mother to imagine a life outside her house. She no longer walks around the block, because she is afraid of cars and big dogs and children. They are much too fast for her to get out of the way. It wasn’t that long ago that we walked to the beach together. Or walked to dinner at the Mission Ranch.

 

Again she occupies herself with the radio, looks at the dials through a magnifying glass, and when she finds a particular station she says, “I have dementia, you know.”

 

This remark seems to come out of nowhere, and I don’t know how to respond.

 

“It’s o.k. at my age. My health magazine tells me to keep busy and eat the right food. I do that.”

 

The owl hoots the noon hour. Mother shuffles (yes, I have to use the dreaded word shuffles) to the far end of the kitchen to push the garage door opener. “The gardener is coming today; I better open the door for her. I wish I could help her pull weeds.”

 

I retrieve my backpack and kiss Mother goodbye. I have a hard time leaving today. Until now I thought if and when I got real old I wouldn’t know that I no longer remember. But she shows me how painful it is to feel diminished. I noticed how it upsets her not to be able to say her friend’s name.

 

“It’s Iris, Mother.”

 

“See, I don’t remember. I don’t even remember what she looks like.”

 

“But you remember her,” I offer.

 

“Not good enough,” she says. Not good enough.”   

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utopian
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

Wow, Sunlit.  The lump in my throat prevented me from finishing your story.  Very powerful.

 

 Must find another crossword puzzle!

 

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Sunltcloud
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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.


utopian wrote:

Wow, Sunlit.  The lump in my throat prevented me from finishing your story.  Very powerful.

 

 Must find another crossword puzzle!

 


Hey, utopian, I bounce between crossword puzzles and writing. When all else fails I take a walk. Best "lump in the throat" relief is weeding. It's not quite mindless, not quite creative, and eventually my back hurts and I have to take a nap.

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Re: Week 94: Sylvia Plath Killed Herself. Her Son Reacted.

Sultcloud,

Thanks so much for sharing Iris.  I can feel myself in the room and hear the shuffling in the kitchen.  The first line is so fine.  Also: "CAT! CAT! CAT" and "Is she removing herself from my presence already?"

You write so close to life.




Ilana
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