Brief musings on costumes, artists, and mental illness.
by Drew S. Cook, Poetry Reader
A surprising number of photographs of people dressing like Sylvia Plath for Halloween can be found via a Google image search. One might ask: what does a Sylvia Plath costume look like? I imagine her 1953 interview of Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle. In the months leading up to the interview, she shopped voraciously, feeling a tremendous pressure to not only give a good interview, but to meet the standards of appearance that were aggressively asserted both by Mademoiselle and society at large. Despite the pressure, Plath delivered in terms of both substance and form, nailing her first interview for the magazine, to which she wore a highly fashionable dress, fitted jacket, pearls, and gloves.
If we accept The Bell Jar as autobiography, then the entire Mademoiselle-New York adventure is prelude to a significant mental health crisis. Yet, this is Sylvia Plath. Driven by self-loathing and genius to persist, to outshine, to overcome, Plath’s smile seems genuine in the photos that remain of that momentous occasion—after months of certainty that she will fail, she discovers that she is knocking it out of the park. This is the smile of a mentally ill person who has, yet again, kept herself alive in the land of the sane. Three years before her fateful encounter with Olympic-tier gaslighter Ted Hughes, Plath is a young woman who, on her own in the big city, survives. She despairs, she is outside, she is neurodivergent, but she belongs wholly to herself.
The iconic moment with Bowen is not the costume, though, that Halloween celebrants choose. To them, Sylvia Path is a woman—any woman—with a cardboard, mocked-up oven over her head. Plath is only her suicide, only her sickness. She is not even a poet anymore. Instead, she is just a joke about a chronic, sometimes fatal condition known as bipolar disorder.
Plath’s story offers a cautionary tale to mentally ill artists. No matter one’s achievements, no matter the effort, to write as a mentally ill person is to expose oneself to ridicule from bad actors, and uninvited psychoanalysis from the well-meaning. It is, in the terminology of feminist rhetorical theory, to subject oneself to “containment.” One can no longer write about a thing; rather, one is perceived as writing from a place.