Sunday, March 8, 2020

Carl Rollyson's "The Last Days of Sylvia Plath"

Carl Rollyson is professor emeritus of journalism at Baruch College, CUNY. He is author of many biographies, including American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath; Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography; A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews; and Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Revised and Updated. He is also coauthor (with Lisa Paddock) of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, Revised and Updated.

Rollyson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new biography, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, and reported the following:
Page 99 in The Last Days of Sylvia Plath occurs near the middle of my biography and begins by describing a letter that the poet’s therapist wrote to her, asking what kind of help her patient needed: “Am I being consulted as a woman (mother) (witch) (earth goddess) or as a mere psychiatrist?” The very question suggests that Barnhouse was all of these and more to Sylvia Plath, struggling with the demise of her marriage, a shaken confidence in herself, and coping with the burden of single motherhood. Barnhouse had been the only doctor at McLean Hospital who had effectively been able to help Plath recover from a suicide attempt in 1953. Now, ten years later, Barnhouse attempted to minister to Plath’s psychic anguish from afar, since the poet remained in England and unable to return to Barnhouse’s U. S. practice.

I used the word “minister” advisedly, since Barnhouse brought a spiritual dimension to psychiatry that her friend and fellow psychiatrist Robert Coles thought was missing from contemporary therapy. What ailed people, Coles and Barnhouse believed, went beyond some technical definition of a psychological disorder. In fact, after Plath’s death, Barnhouse became an ordained Episcopal priest, and one reason why she had been successful with Plath is that Barnhouse knew that “mere” psychiatry could not heal people. Plath, who had worked in a mental hospital and had read a textbook on abnormal psychology, expressed her own skepticism of psychiatry in her story, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams.” She needed a therapist who understood the limitations of therapy, and was prepared, because of her own wide ranging experience, to treat a poet. Indeed, Barnhouse wrote poetry which Robert Coles praised as “touching”: “I’m amazed at your control over words and the intricacy of your phrasing,” he wrote Barnhouse.

All this you will learn on page 99, as you realize how limited previous versions of Plath’s life have been, treating her and Barnhouse in isolation, so to speak, and not realizing that both were involved in investigating the way the world itself confined and categorized individuals. Both Plath and Barnhouse wanted to break out of an imprisonment that often led to the institutionalization of brilliant women.
Visit Carl Rollyson's website, blog, and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue