It’s a chicken-and-egg question. Must you love yourself before you can love someone else? Or must someone else love you before you can love yourself?
What follows is the story of an adulterous love triangle in which both women ended up gassing themselves to death. While the guy moved on and became Poet Laureate of England.
The image above is from the 2003 film, Sylvia. It depicts the real-life suicide in 1963 of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Sylvia Plath, who ended her life at thirty.
This is one of the most disturbing photographs I’ve ever seen. It shows what can happen when you are convinced that no one loves you, or that the person you trusted to love you unconditionally—doesn’t.
Sylvia was a troubled soul from youth. She didn’t get along with her mother and deeply resented her father. Even though he was a renowned scientist, he failed to seek medical attention for the gangrene in his leg. Sylvia interpreted this not only as him having committed suicide, but also as having deliberately abandoned her when she was eight years old. It happened to also be the age at which she published her first poem—in the children’s section of the Boston Herald.
When she was twenty, and a brilliant college student, Sylvia tried to commit suicide with an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills. She underwent psychiatric care for depression, which included electric and insulin shock treatment.
Following her graduation from Smith, while studying under a Fulbright Scholarship at Cambridge University, she met Ted Hughes, a rising poet who would eventually become Poet Laureate of England.
Ted and Sylvia shortly after marrying.
Within months they married, in 1956, and she wrote to her mother, “Ted is the most wonderful man that ever lived—far above any dreams I ever had!”
In another letter: “Ted is the one person in the world I could ever have married; it is simply impossible to describe how strong, and kind of fun-loving and brilliant he is.”
As it turned out, her husband proved to be strong, all right. Sylvia claimed that Ted beat her two days before she had a miscarriage in 1961, and that he told her he wished she were dead.
In the summer of 1962, Sylvia discovered that her husband was having an affair. Ted left her to marry the woman with whom he was committing adultery, and he subsequently had a child with her.
After the separation, Sylvia was further disheartened by tepid reviews of her recently published, semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.
Within months, February 1963, she was dead—found with her head in the oven and the gas on. Sylvia had sealed the kitchen with wet towels to stop carbon monoxide leaking out to where her children were asleep in the next room.
A few years later, Ted’s new wife committed suicide in exactly the same way—a gas oven. Except she took her and Ted's child with her in death.
Last week I was reading Sylvia’s novel, The Bell Jar, for the second time. By coincidence, my daughter, Wendy, happened to bring to my attention a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, of all people.
His thoughts are relevant to the story of Sylvia Plath, and maybe to some of us:
Josef Pieper [a late German Catholic philosopher], in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: ‘It is good that you exist.’ This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: It is good that I exist.
In one of her letters, Sylvia wrote: “I talk to God but the sky is empty.”
The tragedy is that she never knew The Bell Jar would today be regarded as the feminist equal to J. D. Salinger’s classic Catcher in the Rye.
Nor did she know that her Collected Poems would earn her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
And she never understood that God does not dwell in the sky, but in our very core.
A Triple-Face Portrait painted by the teenaged Sylvia Plath.
Evil exists only if you let it. If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available in both print and Kindle from Amazon.