The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962

I want this review to mean something to me. Something big. Because I don’t ever want to forget how this book made me feel. Her words should be branded on my mind for as long as I live, so that I remember what living on the edge really feels like, without ever having to experience it. A cold stark reminder of the brutalities of a deeply depressed mind. It can’t get worse than this and that’s why her story is important to me.

When I first read SP’s semi-autobiography The Bell Jar I saw an uncanny resemblance to my inner most thoughts with those of Esther’s Greenwood’s (fictional character). The book reminded me of an old Hemmingway quote:

Write hard and clear about what hurts.

She said certain things so easily, where I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s not often that you ask yourself “How did the author know so much about me?” It wasn’t enough, I needed to know more. I decided, that an autobiography wouldn’t be enough; too many angles, too many perspectives and none of them hers. So I picked up her memoirs. I needed to understand what made her express her emotions so vividly, so easily. She removes all abstract elements out of complex emotions and strips them bare of any ambiguities until you finally see with your own eyes, the complete mental illness manifesto and in it all the bleak colours that ever existed.

Depression isn’t just sadness or self-hatred, it’s like the numbness you feel when your limbs fall asleep, but it’s in your head all the time. (Source: Unknown)

The journals begin in the summer of 1950, when Plath is just 19 years old starting off at Smith College Massachusetts. And her last entry was in April 1962, 10 months before her death. This memoir was like her personal playground where page after page, she evolved from a girl to a complete writer, poet and novelist. But the poetry was always there from the very beginning:

I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a taj mahal in the future.

Her words are overwhelming, mentally entangled and hard to decipher sometimes. You could follow through the timeline of her literary activities, achievements and failures. She makes her failures your failures, you dread her rejections as if they were yours. She has YOU living each of her experiences. Where in some places, there was self-scorn, extreme pain, sadness, mental paralysis, there was also a lot of self-motivation and the urge to keep pushing her creative drive:

Winning or losing an argument, receiving an acceptance or rejection is no proof of the validity or value of personal identity. One may be wrong, mistaken, a poor craftsman, or just ignorant –but this is no indication of the true worth of ones total human identity; past, present & future!

Not a lot of sources talk about her happy side, but she talked about it often in her journals. She loved to travel, to bake cakes and pies. April’s spring time was her favourite season. Her favourite accessory was a worn out red head scarf and red gloves, one of her favourite pastimes was at the beach tanning her body or lightening her hair. She was a meticulous housekeeper and a tidy home made her happy. She loved clipping rose buds from gardens at night, so it could bloom in her sitting room window the next morning.

If her writing liberated her, I felt she was also weighed down by it. Her failures seemed heavier when she scarred her journal with each and every one of them. Like heavy chains that followed her everywhere. She dreaded the ticking clock that never hesitated to remind her of every wasted second. She always felt horribly lacking, always felt incomplete. Her love in herself depended highly on the approval and rejection of her work by others.

 “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” 

Deep inside, she always knew that she was on the path to self-destruction from the onset. But it wasn’t all of her doing. Was it the lack of love from her mother? The trauma from her father’s early demise? Her failure to get into Harvard? The pressures she faced when she was a guest editor for the Mademoiselle Magazine? Or her husband’s (Ted Hughes) infidelities? Or was it one of London’s worst winters of February 1963?

She was raised by her single mother, her father Otto Plath died when she was 8 years old. And she loved her father dearly. In her poem ‘Daddy’ she wrote depicting Ted Hughes as a male presence to substitute her father.

‘And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look’

 Her mother, constantly weighed her down with criticism for her life’s choices. And it was much later when Sylvia understood that what she thought was love, was merely approval. And that made her feel terribly sad:

It is not that I myself do not want to succeed. I do. But I do not need success with the desperation I have felt for it: that is an infusion of fear that successlessness means no approval from mother: and approval, with mother, has been equated for me with love, however true that is.

Love; SP was love hungry just like you and me:

I want to love. Because I want to be loved.

Critics say her failed relationship with Richard Sassoon drove her into the arms of Ted Hughes whom she married in June 1956 and eventually separated in December 1962 due to his many infidelities. Ted’s betrayal was her last and ultimate blow.

 What I cannot forgive is dishonesty – and no matter what, or how hard. So what now?

Suicide; SP made 2 known failed suicide attempts. Her first was in August 1953 by taking a dose of sleeping pills. She was found 3 days later under her house by her mother and brother. Post this attempt she did not keep a journal for one year (I wish she did). She eventually succeeded on the early hours of the 11th of February 1963 by gas asphyxiation in her kitchen. Leaving her two children Frieda and Nicholas in the safer part of the house. Below is an excerpt from her poem Lady Lazarus:

Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.

The journals leave me pretty much hanging and without closure on SP’s last crucial months. The Journals from late 59 to “within last 3 days” of her death are not included in this book (Dec’59 to Feb 63). One is said to be destroyed by her husband for the sake of their children. The other is still missing. These 2 journals were her most important journals as they documented her most progressive time while working on the bulk of her last poetry works Ariel and her writing for The Bell Jar. They were also during the period that SP discovered Ted’s affair with Assia Wevill who later committed suicide in a similar way as SP in 1969 as well as taking the life of her four year old daughter.

SP’s last words in her main journal were: A bad day, a bad time.

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