I Hate Sylvia Plath
I told Kate I was afraid I was circling the drain. “What if writing my book wasn’t enough? What if it didn’t save me? What if I’m just slowly circling around the inevitable slide into failure?”
I’d thought it was worth everything to get my book done. I hadn’t wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and die before I saw my work in print, but now I was faced with the aftermath, with living an impoverished life of a committed writer where the creditors had me on speed dial and where I was living at a friend’s house and walking to appointments instead of driving.
Mornings, fueled by caffeine, fat, and sugar, I feel purpose-driven. Get up, write, get something that is on your mind on paper. Create. It feels good to walk to my office and do massages. It feels good to read emails and texts from adoptees I’d met after writing my book and learn what they are thinking and feeling. Evenings tend to be a little rougher. Self-doubt loves the dark.
When I was in the office with Kate, talking about circling the drain, Kate said, “But drains go somewhere,” and suddenly I saw it: I could slip right down the drain and the long release of slide could be fun! What if the drain went straight to Paris, and suddenly, in the gutters of that magical city, out I popped? My daughter is there on winter break. Wouldn’t she be surprised to see her dirty-haired mother climbing out of the drain! She’s such a cool kid, she probably wouldn’t even act surprised. She’d probably just say, “Hi, Mom. What’s up?”
I could take the worst failures of my life and end up in Paris. This is why I go talk to Kate. She opens doors where before I’d only seen wall.
“I could take the drain anywhere I wanted to go!” I said.
“And where do you want to be?” Kate asked.
I thought about life beyond the lip of the drain. I’d felt so deep in the mud just minutes earlier, I hadn’t been able to even imagine a future I wanted to live. But now I saw a way out of the mud. Down.
“I want to teach,” I said. “I want to work at N.Y.U. or Middlebury or Kenyon, or…” a feeling of disbelief stopped me cold. “Damn it,” I said. Kate just looked at me. “Or Smith.”
I looked at Kate. How could I tell her about Smith in less than two minutes so I didn’t eat up the rest of our session.
“Because I hate Sylvia Plath,” I said.
“Aaaah,” Kate said. “Okay.”
This is one reason I love Kate. She plays well with others.
I had first encountered Sylvia Plath's work when I was in high school. We read The Bell Jar and Lady Lazarus, and I was interested in her writing in the same way I was interested in my older neighbor across the street who had tried to teach me to light matches and smoke cigarettes. I wanted to be that girl, the one who leaned against a tree and looked cool, but I was afraid of burning my fingers and so I kept my distance.
In the pictures, Sylvia Plath looked like a nice girl with her smooth hair and trim sweaters, but her words were jarring. She wrote about lampshades made of skin.
When I was young I used to think Sylvia Plath and my mother had been roommates at Smith, and while it is true that Sylvia Plath and my mother both went to Smith in the 1950’s and that they both won the Wellesley Women’s Scholarship and had both lived in Lawrence House, they never in fact shared a room, and, as my mother clarified when I was older, they never exchanged a word.
When I was a child and my mother had told me about her time at Smith, about seeing Sylvia walk past with her admiring throng, I created a world where my mother and Sylvia had walked leafy campus paths together, talking about T.S. Elliot (my mother had told me that the first time she’d read The Waste Land, she’d gone to a back stairway in Lawrence House and had just sat there, holding on to the top of her head), and planning their meteoric rises and their terrible deaths. Or, what I imagined more precisely, Sylvia planned her death and my mother took notes, planning to follow suit.
Sylvia Plath’s recorded voice is nearly unbearable to me. She speaks as if her mouth is full of sharp rocks, and she emphasizes syllables in strange places, as if she is from another planet and has decided to take the English language, the language that is mine, and mock it, twist it to her broken heart’s will. I hate her because she climbed into the basement of her house and pressed herself into the dirty floor and tried to die. I hate her because she just couldn’t let it go and had to do it again, leaving her children to wonder for the rest of their lives what they had done wrong.
I never knew what the thing would be that would set my mother off for the kitchen, but, ultimately, cancer did the job, and my mother disappeared before she finished her life's work, just as I always feared she would.
Here's where the real trouble starts. I lied about something.
I didn't tell Kate I wanted to teach at Smith. I needed to say that to you so I could make the essay flow. I needed to get from Kate's office to the subject of Sylvia Plath, and so a little lie about saying I wanted to teach at Smith seemed like a harmless, clever way in.
Only now I have told people I want to teach at Smith College, which, I have to tell you: I don't. Thirty-three years ago I got on my bike after attending Smith as a sophomore for ten days because I hated it there. It was my mother's dream to go to Smith, not mine, and I'd made the mistake of following her life instead of learning to listen to my own desires.
So maybe the hiring committee at Smith will read the first part of this essay and decide I'm exactly the kind of person that school needs in its English department, and I'll say yes because I didn't get any other offers, and there I'll be in Northampton, once again, desperately wishing I could go home.
One lie can change everything. If, for example, I contact my birth mother and she lies to me and tells me I have the wrong person, that she is, in fact, not my mother, I could spend years looking for someone I had actually already found. I could put off enjoying my life fully with the thought that once I find her I can settle down and get to the business of living.
Or parents can adopt a child and tell the child his name is Waldo when, in fact, on the original birth certificate, which is not available to this adopted person because the state has strict laws, the child's name was Mozart. Do you think the parents of Mozart had different dreams than the parents of Waldo had? Do you think that if Waldo knew he was actually Mozart-Waldo he might have a clue as to why he thinks in notes and might be more apt to follow his interests?
If I tell you I want to teach at Smith, I could well end up there. And I don't. I want to teach at N.Y.U. Or Middlebury. Or Kenyon.
If you tell me it doesn't matter where I was born, or to whom, or, really, when even, that is a lie, and you know it. You wish it didn't matter, and it doesn't matter to you, but it matters to me because they are my facts of origin and, just like eye color, they root us--me--to self.
Don't lie to people who are adopted. And lies of omission are lies. For years my parents knew the name I'd been given at birth but they had forgotten to tell me. Parents who adopt have the habit of forgetting. Each bit of information a person has regarding his heritage and DNA is another rootlet taking hold. Be real. Be honest. It's the right thing to do. Why? Because, as Keats said, Beauty is truth, truth beauty.
So, okay, this whole essay was a way to get to this last part. I'm sorry for all the trickery. It's hard to get you to listen. Thank you for being here. It means the world to me.