Black Girls Don’t Read Sylvia Plath
It was another muggy summer, the summer I discovered Plath. If I had discovered her legacy later in life, it may have served as a calming revelation, the meat of hindsight. Wonderment not as thorny and beloved.
I discovered Plath through the typical girlhood grapevine: a slumber party. A friend who looked like Stevie Nicks circa Rumors but had suited up in detail-heavy riot girrl gear mentioned Sylvia Plath. She had just finished The Bell Jar. She wanted to know if I had read it. She casually said, like a cowboy flicking a cigarette stub to the side, I think you’d like it.
Old journals act as sacred evidence; thumbing through the pages also feels like handling the soiled souvenirs of a serial killer. The scraps of someone I unchained myself from and pushed to the bottom of the ocean. I held my breath and stayed under, just to make sure that this version of me had fallen far enough. I wanted to make sure that she was unable to escape the gaping mouth of the abyss.
I chronicled the seventh grade in a slime green composition notebook. There are some moments of carefree, giggling girl silliness, like entire paragraphs dedicated to the way a certain crush looked on that Tuesday afternoon in the cafeteria, the way he looked right through me, or musings on what it would be like to date a member of a boy band. At twelve and thirteen, I think of these moments like little fish dying beneath an oil spill. Many of the pages are odes to rage. To pain. To loneliness. To a certain kind of internalized hatred molded by universal barbed insecurities, then sharpened to fangs. New England hospitality, at best, is a polite form of nosiness, a thinly veiled fear of the unknown.
I lived on a forgettable street. My family was neither rich nor poor. We could afford nice things, but never too nice. On the surface, people assumed we were comfortably middle-class. Both of my parents worked full-time. We could never get too comfortable. My mother managed the finances and my father had an easier time spending money than hoarding it for rainy days. When my parents fought, it almost always revolved around money: too much thrown to superfluous things like toys or takeout, too little forked over to the bill collectors.
The neighborhood children my age were rough-housing terrors. The boys liked to practice their ever-expanding knowledge of curse words on me. One week I was a whore, the next week I was a slut. Trying to navigate this strain of adolescence required a certain amount of toughness, a jaw-clenching moxy that I couldn’t grasp. My mother would have preferred if I developed sudden deafness and blindness to the harassment. She believed that by reacting to their teasing, I was only giving the situation more energy, more motivation for them to continue. Never let them see you cry. Sometimes I kept my head up and managed to feel invincible. Most of the time I found comfort in other voices.
My journals were trusted confidants in a way that my white friends could never be. My white friends would never have to grapple with what it meant to grow up in a society that was trained to hate you on sight. My white friends would never be called a mutt or a mulatto by the boy they worshiped from afar. My white friends would never have to sit in their third grade class and have the teacher make fun of your hair, only to have the rest of the class join in, itching to release their stones. My white friends would always have the comfort and protection of white beauty, the fairy godmother waiting in the wings. My white friends would never take the time to think about racism or how it could fester, infect the limbs of your family tree, the way its sleepy sickness attached itself to your paternal surname.
In the seventh grade, I admitted to myself that I wanted to die. It wouldn’t be enough to disappear; I wanted slit wrists or handfuls of sleeping pills, I wanted death to stop for me. Each journal entry is threaded to the inevitable. The wish to die wasn’t triggered by an isolated event, just in the way that a riot is not really the spontaneous combustion of repressed emotions. It has to build, to brew until the only solution is release. I could dream of leaving behind state lines, but freedom couldn’t happen soon enough. The bleak persistence of the present began to eat its way into my brain and my body. I tried not to look into mirrors but sometimes I needed to look into a mirror to prove that I was still hideous.
The self-disgust bloomed from mistaking Hollywood escapism for the golden rulebook, a template of what life was supposed to be. I had drunk up the magic of women’s magazines and makeup and glamor, then was disappointed that I didn’t sprout upward and outward like Alice.
The self-disgust also bloomed from the limitations of my environment. The passing years encouraged my poisoned way of thinking, the psychological ramifications of believing that you are as ugly and repulsive as a chorus of white faces wants you to believe. The same faces that later buy tubes of sticky gloss cleverly named Lip Venom in order to temporarily plump up their pouts. The same faces that gaze with drooling desire at the first gravity-defying ass that does not belong to the body of a black woman.
In early adolesence, the backhanded “compliment” of “exotic” was yet to be bestowed. I was a black girl with a United Colors of Benetton family: black and Native American on the paternal side, Filipino on the maternal side. My peers were convinced that my blackness was a shoddy front. In a way, I think they felt cheated. They wanted entertainment, they wanted a punching bag, and they wanted a clown. They wanted someone to affirm the perceived superiority of their whiteness. But I didn’t fit their stereotypes, because I was quiet and I found salvation in books. I couldn’t remember all the lyrics from any rap song at will like some vaudeville act built-to-please by any means necessary. My introverted nature pushed my natured and nurtured anxieties to the surface. The anxieties were amplified by the constant weight of racism. Fruit flourishing in various shades from the same doomed tree.
Why Plath? People are surprised or disappointed or embarrassed when I automatically cite her as one of my writing influences, one of my life influences. I think it’s because of the stigma of suicide and ingrained bias. She’s a polarizing figure, serving as a feminist icon or a creative failure, depending on the person wearing the judges’ robes. Why Plath? Maybe they think that a young black woman wouldn’t hold much regard for a white woman author who died decades before she was born. What do the black woman in your life have to say about you liking Plath? Maybe they assume that my mother is black and I was surrounded by a group of female elders who taught me This Is What Black People Do and This Is Not What Black People Do.
My environment and my fuzzy state of mind drove me into the waiting arms of Plath. We didn’t talk about depression or mental illness in my family. My parents didn’t believe in therapy, in spending your hard-earned money to sit in some stranger’s beige office and air out your dirty laundry. I was not depressed, I simply had “an attitude problem.” They knew this was true because this was how teenage girls behaved, they all were mouthy and disobedient, and I was pushing it to the extreme. My parents reasoned that if I couldn’t sufficiently explain what was “wrong” with me to them, how could they trust me to properly communicate with a person paid to listen?
What’s wrong with you? My mother would ask, exasperated, sitting on the edge of my bed and attempting to get an answer as though it were the next bothersome chore on her after-dinner routine. It seemed so apparent to me what was wrong: everything.
When my friend recommended The Bell Jar, it was like traveling to another galaxy and realizing that you could take off your helmet and breathe the air. I’d stretched past the point of kiddie books like The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High. Claudia Kishi was the only babysitter I really cared about and those Wakefield Twins were too California perfect with their never-fluctuating size 6 figures.
I needed a patron saint of suffering, of potential cruelly wasted. The public library wasn’t going out of their way to stock Toni Morrison or bell hooks or Angela Davis or Nikki Giovanni or Alice Walker or Lorraine Hansberry or Zora Neale Hurston by the truckload. I wasn’t introduced to the words of such scholars and thinkers as Franz Fanon or Steve Biko until my undergraduate years in Boston. In history class, the Civil Rights Movement was compacted into a few days that skimmed the surface of anemic compulsion. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were posed as two opposite enemies hoping to eradicate the same national affliction. Yet Malcolm was the villain and King was a mystic with Buddha-like serenity, removed from the lynchings and the burnings of crosses and turned into a walking embodiment of “We Shall Overcome.” None of my peers thought it was that interesting or relevant because after all, that was so long ago and now that black people had equal rights, how could there be such a thing as racism?
Why Plath? Why not? She exposed the dirty truth about depression: sometimes it never got better. Sometimes you could be brilliant and have the world open up its mouth to reveal a pearl and you still crumbled. In The Bell Jar, Plath’s fictional stand-in, Esther Greenwood, says to her therapist about her mother, “I hate her.” Her doctor says, “I suppose you do.” I hated my mother in a way that was really soul-shaking disappointment. I hated her because I loved her and her love felt conditional, a terse treaty meant to make me feel stupid and ashamed. Simply put, she was not on my side.
My mother saw that I’d been cutting myself. It was foolish to think that she’d think the bright red scars on my left arm were scratches from a tree branch or some friend’s angry cat. My mother warned me that normal people did not hack at their arms with broken pieces of porcelain and that the people who chose to act out this way were probably crazy. Crazy as in padded rooms with slits in the doors to shove through meal trays for the mentally comatose patients and too-tight strait jackets. Crazy as in a regime of state-approved drugs and maximum-security fortresses. My silence became the best defense.
I wanted to know more about Plath, the real Plath. I went and bought a copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. I wanted her raw poet insight and the guts of her ambitions spelled out in front of me.
January 10, 1953: Look at that ugly dead mask here and do not forget it. It is a chalk mask with dead dry poison behind it, like the death angel. It is what I was this fall, and what I never want to be again. The pouting disconsolate mouth, the flat, bored, numb, expressionless eyes: symptoms of the foul decay within…I smile, now, thinking: we all like to think we are important enough to need psychiatrists.
For someone that was suddenly infatuated with death, Plath’s unabridged journals went down like sugar-heavy alcohol. This voice from the past was identifying my very real emotions. This woman was not the sum of a gas oven and two sleeping children nestled in their beds. I read Plath and thought that maybe I was not as “crazy” as I thought. Someone else, a perfectionist, an intellect, a scholar, a daughter, a young woman, had traveled to the bottom and known what I feared.
When I went off to Boston for college, I packed all of my Plath books: The Bell Jar, Ariel, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. It was my security blanket. It was a badge. It was a way to remind myself of who I was and how far I had come. I was living with this hellhound but if I could just focus, I could make it. Depression does not like people who fight back, who somehow break through the surface of its rolling, dagger-like waves.
If I had lived in a different town, a different city, in a place where all of my teachers were not white and I was not constantly surrounded by white faces, perhaps I never would have read Plath. If I had been born to different parents, ones who did not think of mental illness as a reflection of faulty parenting skills and run-of-the-mill rebellion, maybe I would not have been so obsessed with plotting my own death.
Because I found kinship with the voice, the sometimes confident and optimistic and sometimes dark ramblings of a young woman who was lying down in the same expanse of darkness I occupied. We were separated by race and time and highway lines and a few feet of hard packed cemetery dirt. She was the only resource I trusted, a cross between a weary boatman navigating the River Styx and a repressed Cassandra, her eyes reflecting fires yet to burn. Which came first? The depression and anxiety or the suicidal tendencies? It would be a conscious act of dangerous deflection to say that racism was not a factor in the deterioration of my mental health. On the other hand, once I left my town for college, I was not instantly cured. I was able to keep depression at bay until I lost control. By the middle of freshman year, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t sleep. I had obsessive, fanged thoughts. I could walk down a busy street in Boston and feel as though a stranger or a car or a taxi could zoom right through me. I prescribed myself a manic cocktail of self-conscious trips to the gym, occasional dips into underage drinking (mostly cheap, light beer, Corona when we wanted to feel like summer was around the corner, Malibu when we wanted to stop overthinking our lack of love (hookup) lives like a morgue worker tossing a white sheet over a cold body), and work, work, work. I would start assignments weeks before the due date, fretting over the slightest change in word choice or sentence structure. I would stay up until first light, staring at my computer screen, wired on nothing but the toxicity of my fucked up brain wires. I’m sure my roommate thought I was a little too intense and moody. But for the most part, she peacefully slept through my midnight sessions of self-flagellation.
Because I’d always been a writer who didn’t know how to channel her creativity beyond self-destruction. Despite her untimely death, Plath recognized the importance of persistence, of even working against the current. She took her writing career with the utmost seriousness, like a monk determined to show sincerity of faith by taking a vow of starvation. Plath’s journals outline a strict writing routine. She wanted a paperweight of pages as much as she wanted to craft beautiful images. She said, “I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living.”
Plath’s depression may have split her psyche, but it was not the core of her personality. This was a message that I never received from my parents. Their views about mental illness have softened over the years, but they are still uncomfortable acknowledging its very real existence. For them, admission of my depression meant that I was admitting that I was defective. I was around twelve or thirteen when I first wanted to die. Ten years later I’m no longer that girl. I still know that girl; how could I forget her? But I have left her behind, just like those green composition notebooks squirreled away in my closet. I still have my ups and downs. I still struggle with self-esteem and self-love. But through artistic diligence and the decision to get help for me and me alone, I have shed the constant compulsion to die, the non-stop spinning record of kill, kill, kill.
My friend did more than a favor when she recommended The Bell Jar. She gave me a lifeline.
Vanessa Willoughby is a graduate of Emerson College and The New School. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, and Thought Catalog. She is the Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review and writes at www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com. Tweet her @book_nerd212.