Our Reading Lives

The Mad Girls: Coming to Terms with Sylvia Plath

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Holly Genovese

Staff Writer

Holly Genovese is a Ph.D student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also completing graduate portfolio programs in African and African Diaspora studies, as well as Women's and Gender Studies. Her writing has been published in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, Electric Literature, The La Review of Books, Literary Hub, Hello Giggles, and many other places.

Writing about Sylvia Plath—as a girl who wants to be a writer, who struggles with mental illness, who sees big things for herself—isn’t so unique. It’s trite, done to death, a cliché.  But I will write about it anyway, just like I will continue reading Sylvia Plath even though men will judge me for reading silly sad books, and I will get an “I am” tattoo, even though my friends think it’s a corny cliché.

I’m 26, not so far removed from childhood. But looking back now, I can see things that I never knew were there.  I can see I was a depressive and anxious child—full of mood swings and panic attacks and irrational fears of toilets flushing and drowning in the pool and of any sound during the night. Of what could happen to my parents when I couldn’t hear them talking. Of the faces in the wood paneling.

This general state of fear led to something more in adolescence: social anxiety and general anxiety and depression and PTSD. I, like many girls in 8th and 9th grade, struggled with my sexuality and with suicidal thoughts and with my history of abuse, all while I was still adjusting to having grown boobs. My family, in the grand scheme of things, was very supportive of mental health and mental health treatment; I was far from the only one suffering from these issues in my family. But I was terrified of therapists: I was afraid they would tell me I was irreparably broken, that my sexuality was wrong, that I was actually going to kill myself, that I could never succeed. This was only bolstered by my experience with family therapy, in a shitty office in downtown Baltimore that overwhelmingly smelled like pee. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.

So I tried to self soothe and to repress, primarily by avoiding my problems or anything unsettling. I refused to read books with a “sad” ending, lest they convince me I might be depressed. I refused to read anything remotely sexual, as I wanted to avoid the issue for as long as possible. I buried myself in school work and Gilmore Girls and Live Journal and Harry Potter cosplay. I avoided making friends with anyone outside my family and dreamed, and planned, and schemed to get out of my small town.

As I went through high school, I got better. Or maybe not better, but better at dealing with my problems. I knew what would set me off and what wouldn’t. I knew friends were helpful and I actually made some. I knew when I needed to leave a situation and what to do when I was panicking. But I still wouldn’t read or talk about my depression, and I got so good at hiding it that my family no longer knew it was there. I kept it that way. To me, it seemed, like I was the only one with this problem—with anxiety and depression that seemed to form my brain, rather than temporality inhabit it. It was me and this scared me. I was convinced that a therapist couldn’t fix it.

During college, I thought it was over, that my time with anxiety and depression, my lifelong companions, was over. As I entered unhealthy relationships and developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and connected my entire self worth to my grade point average, I thought I was better. I didn’t realize that my bad relationships and obsession with grades were results of my low self-worth. I didn’t know that alcohol was my coping mechanism, as it had been for many of my family members before me. But I wasn’t so scared of killing myself anymore, and my sexuality was no longer a point of anxiety. I could read sad books and talk about my feelings. I had great friends, best friends, some of whom I haven’t talked to since freshman year and others who will one day be in my wedding. I told them about my fears and my sadness, and my childhood. But I still didn’t think there were many people like me. People whose brain seemed to have a mind of its own, operating  separately from one’s consciousness.

It wasn’t until my 2nd  year of graduate school in South Carolina that I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I had long ago dispensed with the idea that sad books are bad, but the cultural connotations of Plath kept me away. A friend told me that reading Plath was a cry for help, a sign of major depression. In my favorite show, Gilmore Girls, Plath had become a kind of signpost for the crazy: Rory shouldn’t write her essay about her, Rory shouldn’t talk about her. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that Plath was far from the only novelist who had committed suicide: that alongside Plath there was Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace and Hunter Thompson. And even though the deaths of these authors were often discussed, their names hadn’t become a cultural stand-in for suicidal tendencies. Certainly because of her gender and her age and the rumors spread by Ted Hughes and the subject of The Bell Jar, Plath had been defined by her death.

But in the midst of a depressive episode, brought on my romantic travails and thesis deadlines and the prospect of leaving a place, where I had once again found great friends, I wandered into the Barnes and Noble on campus. I would sometimes pop in and buy a few books, even if the selection was scarce. I needed a pick-me-up, so I purchased The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I had clearly let go of my sad book ban.

The next day was Saturday, and even though I should have been working on my thesis or reading books for school, I laid in my bed until noon reading Sylvia. I loved Esther. I loved her ambition and her love of writing and her admission of her issues. I also loved the way her despair and her anxiety had a mind of their own. I even loved the description of the mental hospital. By this point, I was in therapy. I had never been in a mental hospital myself, but I had visited enough family and friends there to know it wasn’t the place of Esther Greenwood. I realized my friends were wrong. Reading Plath was enjoyable, but more than that, it made me feel less alone: I wasn’t the only with crazy ambition and a brain with a mind of its own. I’ve since read Ariel and Johnny Panic and her journals, and have started Volume 1 of her letters (not the bikini cover, mind you). I still love Sylvia, even though I have long since started taking medication and am hovering farther from depression than I ever have.

And maybe this is proof: Maybe reading Sylvia Plath is a cry for help, only meant for us mad girls. That’s ok, because there sure are a lot of us.