When the twenty-two-year-old Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother one bleak January day, both women were wading through a darkness of the soul. Science was only just beginning to hone the tools with which to begin dissecting the elemental mystery of what makes us who we are: how much of our psychology and what we experience as our personhood — whether we call it self or soul or spirit — is a product of our physical constitution, of the particular biochemical processes coursing through our particular infrastructure of matter that we experience as our body. Neuroscience was then an infant science — it still is — and the helix of heredity had just been discovered, hinting at the promise of new clarity on the ancient puzzlement of nature versus nurture, new insight into how much of our psychology is a biological inheritance and how much an ongoing composition continually revised by the confluence of chance and choice we call experience.
Several years earlier, the teenage Plath had begun contouring her consciousness and mapping its psychological promontories, its luminous surfaces and its dark edges, rhapsodizing about the joy of living, thinking deeply about free will and what make us who we are, and composing her first tragic poem in response to a minor domestic accident. Two years before she shaded in what was becoming an all-consuming darkness in “The Disquieting Muses,” she wrote to her mother in a letter included in the posthumously collected Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library):
I don’t know whether it is an hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.
But then, with the presence of mind and the triumph of spirit that allowed to live through the remaining years of her life — years she filled with some of the most timelessly exquisite poetry ever written — she adds:
But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy… Your present life is the important thing.
There is a dangerous fallacy — a biological falsehood, a feebleness of empathy, an ethical failing — in the view that people who die by suicide after living with mental illness have somehow failed at life. It is one thing to feel deeply the tragedy of that loss, to rue the help not available to them in their time of struggle; it is quite another to fault the faulty instrument itself. It is impossible for any one consciousness to truly know what living inside another is like in the first place — we make art and poems and songs to try to show each other what it is like to be alive in this body-mind. But it is especially unfathomable for a mind coursing with fairly ordinary biochemistry, housed in a brain with fairy ordinary neurophysiology, to grasp what it might be like to live with a mind inflamed by ceaselessly misfiring neurotransmitters or a mind housed in a brain with a large tumor pressing against the amygdala at every moment of every hour. To survive even a single day with such a mind is no small feat. To have not only survived thirty-one years, as Sylvia Plath did, but to have filled those years with works of staggering beauty, with poems that irradiate generations of lives — that is a rare triumph of the spirit.
Complement with May Sarton on the cure for despair and Lorraine Hansberry — another visionary artist of Plath’s generation, who also lived and made in the darkest depths — on the most reliable antidote to depression, then hear Meryl Streep read Plath’s stunning “Morning Song” and savor a rare glimpse of the poet’s inner world through her little-known paintings.