Author Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers, is about the human incapacity to make sense of the lives of public figures we think we know. In this excerpt, he reconstructs the last days of the poet Sylvia Plath as a case study.
In the fall of 1962, the American poet Sylvia Plath left her cottage in the English countryside for London. She needed a fresh start. Her husband, Ted Hughes, had abandoned her for another woman, leaving her alone with their two small children. She found an apartment in London’s Primrose Hill neighbourhood—the top two floors of a townhouse. “I am writing from London, so happy I can hardly speak,” she told her mother. “And guess what, it is W.B. Yeats’ house. With a blue plaque over the door saying he lived there!”
At Primrose Hill she would write in the early-morning hours while her children slept. Her productivity was extraordinary. In December she finished a poetry collection, and her publisher told her it should win the Pulitzer Prize. She was on her way to becoming one of the most celebrated young poets in the world—a reputation that would only grow in the coming years.
But in late December, a deadly cold settled on England. It was one of the most bitter winters in 300 years. The snow began falling and would not stop. People skated on the Thames. Water pipes froze solid. There were power outages and labour strikes. Plath had struggled with depression all her life, and the darkness returned. Her friend, literary critic Alfred Alvarez, came to see her on Christmas Eve. “She seemed different,” he remembered in his memoir The Savage God.
“Her hair, which she usually wore in a tight, schoolmistressy bun, was loose. It hung straight to her waist like a tent, giving her pale face and gaunt figure a curiously desolate, rapt air, like a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult. When she walked in front of me down the hall passage…her hair gave off a strong smell, sharp as an animal’s.”
Her apartment was spare and cold, barely furnished and with little in the way of Christmas decorations for her children. “For the unhappy,” Alvarez wrote, “Christmas is always a bad time: the terrible false jollity that comes at you from every side, braying about goodwill and peace and family fun, makes loneliness and depression particularly hard to bear. I had never seen her so strained.”
They each had a glass of wine, and following their habit she read to him her latest poems. They were dark. The new year came and the weather grew even worse. Plath feuded with her ex-husband. She fired her au pair. She gathered her children and went to stay at the house of Jillian and Gerry Becker, who lived nearby. “I feel terrible,” she said. She took some antidepressants, fell asleep, then woke up in tears. That was a Thursday. On Friday she wrote her ex-husband, Ted Hughes, what he would later call a “farewell note.” On Sunday she insisted that Gerry Becker drive her and her children back to their apartment. He left her in the early evening, after she had put her children to bed. At some point over the next few hours, she left some food and water for her children in their room and opened their bedroom window. She wrote out the name of her doctor, with a telephone number, and stuck it to the baby carriage in the hallway. Then she took towels, dishcloths, and tape and sealed the kitchen door. She turned on the gas in her kitchen stove, placed her head inside the oven, and took her own life.
Poets die young. That is not just a cliché. The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and nonfiction writers by a considerable margin. They have higher rates of “emotional disorders” than actors, musicians, composers, and novelists. And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates— as much as five times higher than the general population. Something about writing poetry appears either to attract the wounded or to open new wounds—and few have so perfectly embodied that image of the doomed genius as Sylvia Plath.
Plath was obsessed with suicide. She wrote about it, thought about it. “She talked about suicide in much the same tone as she talked about any other risky, testing activity: urgently, even fiercely, but altogether without self-pity,” Alvarez wrote. “She seemed to view death as a physical challenge she had, once again, overcome. It was an experience of much the same quality as . . . careering down a dangerous snow slope without properly knowing how to ski.”
She fulfilled every criterion of elevated suicide risk. She had tried it before. She was a former mental patient. She was an American living in a foreign culture—dislocated from family and friends. She was from a broken home. She’d just been rejected by a man she idolised.
On the night of her death, Plath left her coat and her keys behind at the Beckers’. In her book on Plath (everyone who knew Plath, even tangentially, has written at least one book about her), Jillian Becker interprets that as a sign of the finality of Plath’s decision:
“Had she supposed that Gerry or I would come after her during the night with her coat and keys? No. She had not expected or wanted to be saved at the last moment from self-inflicted death.”
The coroner’s report stated that Plath had placed her head as far inside the oven as she could, as if she were determined to succeed. Becker continued:
“She’d blocked the cracks at the bottom of the doors to the landing and the sitting room, turned all the gas taps full on, neatly folded a kitchen cloth and placed it on the floor of the oven, and laid her cheek on it.”
Can there be any doubt about her intentions? Just look at what she was writing in the days before she took her own life.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment…
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
We look at Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her history and catch glimpses of her inner life, and we think we understand her. But there’s something we’re forgetting—the third of the mistakes we make with strangers.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Talking to Strangers’, by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Penguin Random House