Mad Girl’s Love Song
by Andrew Wilson
369 pages / $30 buy from Amazon
1. After reading the Bell Jar and the biographical note in the back, the next piece of information about Sylvia Plath that I encountered was the only point of reference I had about her for a very long time. Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good features an essay called “Sylvia Plath: an Example of Forbidden Suffering,” in which Miller illustrates a scene of young Plath presenting to her mother and grandmother a pastel piece on which she has worked hard. The ebullience she demonstrates in showing off her achievement made a searing impression on me—I was not used to seeing female artists proud of their work; I was used to seeing them compromised and unfulfilled. The conclusion of the scene is equally powerful and so devastating, it remains my primary reference point regarding Plath as a depressed person: when her grandmother stood up, she smudged the pastel enough to ruin it. Plath’s flat affect, her inability to situate her disappointment where it belonged, has never not occurred to me when I’ve read about her, even though this scene does not recur with the canonical relish of, like, the St. Botolph’s Review launch party. By virtue of this scene’s inclusion in Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, I was swayed at first.
2. Plath’s writing is very important to me, and I love biographies where she is treated as the inexhaustible writer she was. As a subject, though, the way her work is so visceral, so loaded with the feelings that connect her to contemporary readers, that access overwhelming emotion, when she was remote, blank, totally affected: that I find riveting. Death notwithstanding, the more accessible her work, the less accessible she was. One cannot experience the closeness with her as a subject that one feels through her writing.
3. Although I bought and read the book because it’s about Plath, I am reluctant to use the biography as a means to discuss her because her work is more interesting than she is, so there’s that shame: why not talk about the work? In Wilson’s case, I do agree that the events of her young life are unfairly glossed over when she was so productive and disciplined so early, and for that I was excited to read Mad Girl’s Love Song.
4. The people in proximity to Plath aren’t ghosts here, either. Wilson talked to people who remembered her petulantly in some cases and fondly in others, and all vignettes get a greater sense of who they were than who she was, which makes for a livelier telling than what occurs from corralling facts from her archives—how real personalities generally unmoved by her achievements react to the young, raw person who remains animated in their pasts.
5. Her sexual voracity is emphasized as soon as possible, and much dwelled on are the rape fantasies she confessed to correspondent Eddie Cohen. The sole editorialization by the Wilson surrounding these incidents—which occur throughout the book—is: “We have to remember that Sylvia was a young woman overloaded with a huge store of sexual energy that she was not allowed to express…” This is pretty remarkable considering how Wilson handles other events.
6. Besides the unprecedentedly thorough examination of Plath’s childhood and Smith College years, the big news of this biography is how she demonstrated the tendency to self-harm in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death, and that self-harm manifested in the deliberately extreme and suicidal manner of attacks on the throat. This new fact, central to Mad Girl’s Love Song’s purpose, was the point at which I started to feel like I was reading Us Weekly not in terms of content but in terms of how I felt like, why am I reading this, I am so full of shame.
7. An aside: in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer knows she’s about to die. Agent Cooper points out how, while she did not commit suicide, she did consent to and prepare for her murder. In her last days, she warned her best friend, Donna, not to wear her stuff: don’t fetishize me, she was saying, don’t make me into a symbol or a set of aspirations, don’t channel me as a transcendent measure to get free from your boring suburban life; I am a broken person and I am in so much pain. It’s an incredible privilege that the dead girl gets – the audience is not only used to her as a structuring absence, but they’ve also seen Donna access her sexual awakening by wearing Laura’s sunglasses. Mad Girl’s Love Song is the kind of book Donna would have written about Laura Palmer: endowing talismanic power to incidents and items in lieu of presenting the facts of her life and why she is worth discussion.
8. “Although I thought [Plath] might be awfully good, I was on the cusp a little on how she might fit in. Her behavior was almost a performance, which I found a bit of a problem. You might be there another day and find an entirely different personality.” – Gigi Marion, college department, Mademoiselle
9. Eddie Cohen chastised Plath for her complete inability to be spontaneous, and the roots, extremes, and repercussions of her constant performance are explored fully in Mad Girl’s Love Song. Mademoiselle‘s ambivalence about Plath provides a great launching pad for a vital paragraph on the magazine’s own artificiality. The way the magazine fully constructed the “New York” experience that the co-ed guest editors has for too long gotten off without comment, but it is so much a part of what powers the Bell Jar, to wit, the conclusion may justifiably be drawn, it made a serious impact on Plath. It’s one thing to put on a face and look the sweetest and the most congenial, it’s another to play along with the mass hallucination that high-rise parties with hired dates have any place in reality.
10. “It was a lunch designed for the girls to get to know one another a little better, and we were at that stage where we were watching one another very carefully, all of us groping to see what we should do, how we should behave. Very shortly after we were seated—at this nice table with a white table-cloth—a large bowl of caviar was served. The caviar was supposed to be for everyone on the table, but Sylvia reached out for it, pulled it in front of her, and began eating. She proceeded to eat the whole bowlful of caviar with a spoon. I remember thinking to myself ‘how rude’…” – Ann Burnside Love, guest merchandise coordinator
11. After wrapping up the events of the Mademoiselle fiasco, Wilson, who has integrated the extreme facts of self-harm and rape fantasies without tonally dislocating the narrative, gets full-on salacious with some juicy, pot-boiling speculations. Among them, the one Wilson posits and examines with the greatest suspense, which has the greatest implication on the events of Plath’s adult life, is also the most porous. The rest are the results of his speculation and inappropriate reactions, respectively.
12. For all her meticulous documentation, Aurelia Plath failed to keep a piece of paper so central to the Plath narrative that it does justify some wild suspicion: the rejection notice from Frank O’Connor’s Harvard Summer School class that came on the heels of Plath’s discouraging time at Mademoiselle, that drove home her suicidal urges, that occasioned the sleeping-pills-in-the-crawlspace incident that landed her at McLean. Complete with the image of Plath’s gashed, maggot-ridden face, this is drama befitting of Wilson’s subject’s sensibilities.
13. However, Carl Rollyson published a Plath biography, American Isis, a month prior to Mad Girl’s Love Song, in which he makes reference to a remark by Frank O’Connor himself, who stated he thought Plath too advanced for his class. The quote is not cited, and Rollyson does not provide the source.
14. More than other biographers, Wilson is invested in Plath as a mentally ill person and, thanks to taking the time the facts of her young life merit, he draws superior contours in support of her pronounced instability as an adult. Although her breakdown is troubling and true and the loss of her father and her young struggles tangible, Wilson illustrates how defective coping mechanisms and maladaptive behavior did not serve her well when they collided head-on with reality and mental illness, but he goes overboard when it comes to Plath’s hospitalization. Wilson speculates that when Smith classmate Jane Anderson joined Plath at McLean to recover from her own breakdown, it was Plath’s ruthless ambition, her irrepressible competitive urge, that ultimately got her out of psychiatric treatment.
15. Whether the circumstance of Plath’s release as Wilson paints them is true or not, it almost overwhelms the heretofore unexplored fact that Plath’s analyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, was a trainee, and Plath was a lot to contend with as a case so early in her career.
16. “…psychiatrist and patient had seen each other for only twelve sessions since Sylvia had left McLean. This disclosure calls into question the validity of Beuscher’s opinion: were twelve sessions of intermittent posthospital therapy enough to warrant a statement that effectively promised Plath a clean bill of mental health? In some respects, it seems as though Plath, the consummate actress, duped Beuscher into believing that she was well, and Beuscher let herself be duped. Beuscher—who could not countenance the possibility that she had, in effect, been managed and manipulated by Plath—could see only the positive aspects of Sylvia’s character and she remained blind to her patient’s faults and weaknesses. A few years before Beuscher died, she was interviewed by Karen Maroda, who wondered whether Ruth had been right in maintaining that Sylvia had been stable enough to travel to England. ‘How could she not pursue a Fulbright?’ Beuscher responded. ‘And how could I stand in the way of her doing that?'”
17. Use of the Bell Jar as the prime autobiographical reference point makes me petulant. Mad Girl’s Love Song is particularly guilty of this.
18. Page 244 features a flamboyant retrodiagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder for Plath! I do not support this practice and it comes off that, as Wilson became familiar with the stories of others about Plath, he looked for a way to justify and name his mode of disappointment in Plath’s conduct.
19. The retrodiagnosis seems particularly off-base in light of how Plath and her mother shared a room when she was growing up until who knows when, until she was in college, potentially—that fact is sorely unexplored. If one shares a room with one’s mother growing up and later on, boundaries are difficult to erect, no wonder.
20. My favorite line in the entire book concerns Plath experiencing what I experience when I discuss her, as she does the far weightier thing of worrying how serious she has to get about criticism at Cambridge: “She would…have to curb her habit of being indiscriminately gushing about everything.”
21. The low point comes when Plath’s report that she was raped is met with doubt by Wilson himself. Documenting the doubt expressed by those who knew her is one thing, but they say something, Plath said something else, and what a horrific thing to waste time speculating that she may have lied about, when one could be letting the facts stand.
22. The end is graceless and bashes into a wall with Plath split three ways, man-wise, and finds herself having to channel her energy into Ted Hughes. The way Wilson luxuriates in the facts and events and the overall rhythm of her young life: that’s what I have wanted to see, that has really been missing from other Plath biographies, but the ending could have been handled in such a way that the significant moments were effectively presented so as to not make the whole narrative feel anticlimactic. As it is, it if the reader was unsatisfied by the book in the first place, the end is liable to make that reader angry. If the reader was engaged, that reader will have to pick up another Plath biography and may or may not revisit this one.
23. If revisits are likely, it’s for the trash factor: this and Rollyson’s American Isis make so much of Plath’s beauty and her physical life that it’s really uncomfortable. They are facts that actively formed what her life as a poet was, but the extent to which her appearance and sex life supersedes her hard work that yielded her continued relevance, why she merits so much biographical treatment in the first place, that is harmful and reinforces why her significance is the subject of debate. Plath does not endure just because she was beautiful and dramatically struggled with being an ambitious, gifted woman in the late 1950s and early 1960s and committed suicide—she also wrote great poems and a great novel. But because of the former points, the work she did is subject to reevaluation and continued speculation as to why it survives. The sensational aspect of her waking life, though, does not get reevaluated, it only gets perpetuated.
24. I believe I have successfully curbed my habit of being indiscriminately gushing about everything.
25. Wilson does not seem to like Plath. I can speculate if he can.