Objects, Auras, and Mysterious Transactions

Imagine a person, years dead. A dead poet. Physically gone, or so it seems. A plait of hair in an archive still shiny, still lustrous and alive, handwritten manuscripts with ink blotches and fingerprint smears, spilt coffee stains, traces of skin cells, tears, blood. Laundry lists, household chore rotas, menu plans, half sewn scarlet material lying in a sewing machine, cheque stubs, receipts, the blue eye of the turquoise swinging on its silver chain. Traces, residues. What constitutes a body of work asks Foucault? Is it everything that someone has ever written, uttered, deleted? Passages, drafts, plans? He asks, ‘How can someone define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his [sic] death?’ (104).[1] Things are somehow more solid than traces, more there and the temptation is to treat them as something more reliable because of this physical presence. Both in conversation and in her writing, Plath discussed just how this solidness seemed important:

I do not trust the spirit. It escapes like steam

In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole. I can’t stop it.

One day it won’t come back. Things aren’t like that.

They stay, their little particular lusters

Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.              

                                                                         Last Words (172)[2]

There is an uncontrollability and unpredictability about something that ‘escapes like steam’ – it can’t be stopped. It is also impermanent and irretrievable (‘one day it won’t come back’). In direct contrast, Plath’s speaker states clearly how things are not like that. They are permanent, they stay, respond to handling, enjoy handling even, so that they almost purr. The comforting solidness of these warm things in their little lustres explains further why in conversation Plath would state ‘I love the thinginess of things’. Indeed, her archives confirm Plath’s claim that things last and are durable. Her childhood paper dolls and toys, intricate pastel drawings, illustrated letters, locks of baby hair.

It must be remembered though that the importance of the objects lie not only in their physicality but in their significance and use to the person who is no longer alive. So, the seemingly solid based reality of these things becomes instantly undermined if we consider our fascination with them not so much as how-they-are-now but how-they-were-then. The relics that we invest so much meaning and value in, may for example, have been irritating clutter to Sylvia Plath. Once we have written shopping lists or menu plans, do we ever revisit them as sites of great knowledge or are they usually thrown away and forgotten about? Moreover, if Plath herself did not invest value in these objects, why would we? How can an object be both significant and unimportant at the same time?

Karl Marx discusses how the ‘mystical character of the commodity does not arise from its use-value’ (10).[3] Rather Marx suggests that something a little inexplicable can occur to objects, something almost secretive. He cites the example of a piece of wood made into a table. Although the wood is altered to become a table, the table continues to be wood. But for Marx, as soon as this table emerges as a commodity, something else happens, ‘it transcends sensuousness’ (ibid) and a whole range of unthinkable transformations can occur to this piece of wood until it ‘evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will’ (ibid).

We see a fine correlation between Marx’s example of the table and one object stored in the Smith College Archives in Northampton, Massachusetts. For hanging there on the wall is the large six feet long elm plank that Sylvia Plath used as her writing desk. In itself, this is a piece of wood, wood made into a table and table that is still nevertheless wood. However, what occurred on this table (the writing of the Ariel poems), the person who used this table (Plath) lends a kind of mystical quality, a value that goes beyond economics. This elm plank is transformed in a way that we cannot quite define. Walter Benjamin (1973) describes the ‘aura’ of an original object and how this aura exists simply because the object is unique. The more an object is reproduced, the more precious the original becomes. Yet in the case of Plath’s desk, although it may be reproduced visually at least, it cannot be reproduced in any other way. There is only one desk upon which she wrote those Ariel poems, there is only this one desk that holds the ink stains and traces of that time. It is this uniqueness that makes it so special and perhaps it is Benjamin’s notion of the aura which affords it what Marx calls a ‘mystical quality’.

Perhaps it is because objects are curious things. Often inanimate and ordinary, they can be transformed into something imbued with power and meaning. This transformation that occurs seems to be a process brought about by a complex use of fantasy, social meaning, and the cultural biography of the object.

In the recent Sotheby’s auction of Plath possessions there was a range of items, such as a tarot card deck, two wedding rings, letters, recipe cards, and family photographs. Each had a unique monetary and emotional value placed upon them. Each had, what Benjamin would refer to, as an auratic presence. The pleasing mystery is how that auratic presence transfers itself into an inanimate object and becomes active. Whatever that process is, seems to me to be the real valuable transaction taking place here. Unique and secretive. You can almost hear the objects purr.

[An adaption from my book The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath (2017), Chapter 5 ‘Objects’]


[1] Foucault, Michel, 1984. ‘What is an Author?’ in Rabinow, Paul, (ed.), The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, 1981. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber.

[3] Marx, Karl, 2000. ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret.’ in The Consumer Society Reader. (ed.), Martyn J Lee,Oxford: Blackwells.

What cost, Sylvia Plath?

Today, watching Sylvia Plath’s Sotheby’s auction, I felt myself feeling a little like the “passionate, fragmentary girl” Plath wrote about in her journal. My self of sense was utterly splintered and if this seems a messy, tangled, off-the-cuff blog post, I guess that’s because it’s exactly what it is.

For anyone viewing the bidding this afternoon, it was an intense, emotional experience. The voyeur part of me watched fascinated, excited, disbelieving. The scholar in me watched appalled at the collection being broken up and sold into (presumably) private hands (though we don’t know this yet). The sociologist in me had whirling thoughts about the significant historical moment and the cultural biography of objects. The daughter in me felt I should wind my neck in, these items have been preserved by Frieda Hughes for decades. They belong to her, she has every right to do with them what she wants. Then there was just me, Gail Crowther, reader-fan of Plath, feeling somewhat melancholic and not really sure how or what to feel or why and because of that, a little confounded.

Moments like this matter, and perhaps they take some time and reflection to understand why. But being caught in that confusion can start some interesting conversations about what we value and why? Who gets value attached to them? Why are objects so important? Why would a writer’s set of tarot cards sell for significantly more than a handwritten letter? Where and why we place ourselves in somebody else’s life that we never even knew.

In the next few days, the items will be packaged up and sent off to their new homes almost certainly all over the world. They will be treasured, I’m sure. Some we may never see again. They will start a new cultural part of their history, their provenance firmly cemented. They are safe and most importantly preserved. But still I kept thinking: what cost, Sylvia Plath?

The Anonymous Photograph

While I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz my research took me to Boston. A highlight of the visit there was to be shown the room where Plath and Sexton met for their poetry workshop with Robert Lowell in 1959. It was a small room and felt much unchanged from the 1950s. A wonderfully old, worn, wooden floor; a narrow shape leading to a bay window overlooking the Charles (just). The back wall by the entrance door lined with bookshelves and the edges of the room lined with chair-desks.

Although initial research had suggested to me that the room was small, nothing much prepares you for the actual dimensions of a space you have only read about. The staircase leading up from the entrance hall has a beautifully carved balustrade. The red, white, black tiles on the floor are original and jaunt their way along corridors. It is easy to imagine Plath and Sexton making their way to class; Plath early and organised in her camel coat, Sexton late, rushing up the stairs in her printed dresses with jangling jewellery and dropping cigarette ash.

It was while I was researching photographs to include in my book that I came across an old press photo of Sexton teaching her writing class. I bought a print because the details in the image were wonderful. Had I not visited Room 222 on Bay State Road, the significance of the image may have passed me by. I immediately recognised that in a wonderful cyclical turn of events, in the late 1960s, Sexton ended up teaching her own writing classes in the same room that had housed Lowell’s workshop. Of course, I immediately wanted this photograph for my book, but first I had to clear copyright and get written permission.

This is where the problems began. From sketchy writing on the back of the picture it suggested that this image was perhaps used by a Boston newspaper to accompany an obituary of Sexton, but which Boston newspaper was not clear. Archive searches revealed nothing. So, I contacted Boston newspapers. Nothing. Then I threw my net wider and contacted Magnum, Getty, Associated Press, and a company that claimed (quite wildly) to be able to find all photos used in American newspapers. Nothing. Other images that seemed to be taken from the same era were found but there was no photographer’s name attached to them.

After months, and many transatlantic twists and turns, I did not find the photographer. I could not clear copyright. I could not use the image. I am posting it here because it is too good an image not to be seen. And the thing about posting on a blog (as opposed to in a book) is that if the photographer does recognise the image, I can either credit them or remove the post.  

The details in this image make me smile: Sexton’s ever-present cigarette with a convenient ashtray built into her chair. The shoe half-dangling off her foot. Not enough seats for everyone so students have to sit on the floor. The room temperature clearly low as many are huddled in coats, apart from the brace girl in sandals. Sexton is in the middle of explaining something, her hands flaring, papers balanced on her checked-trousered legs. The floor is the same floor that I walked across. This photo from the late 1960s helps us visualise how crowded that room must have been ten years earlier with 18 students jammed into Lowell’s workshop, the fug of Sexton’s cigarettes, and the awkward silences in so small a space. A tiny space housing what now feels like the giants of Plath and Sexton.

I wish that this photograph could have been in my book, but I am glad that it is here, for now.  

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz can be ordered from here

(All photographs, other than Sexton, copyright Gail Crowther)

“Hysterical, shrill, and self-dramatizing”: The Gendered Nature of Book Reviews

Having dipped my toe into exploring the gendered nature of book reviews, it seems to me to be a topic worthy of a book in its own right. One comparison that stood out in particular while I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz was the different ways in which Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were reviewed.

When Lowell published Life Studies in 1959, critics hailed it a brave book full of personal, serious experiences such as the suffering of mental illness and the frailty of recovery. John Thompson in the Kenyon Review wrote, “For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest. What they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”[i] In contrast, with the publication of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, Sexton already began to get the type of reception that would dog her career. James Dickey opened his review with the words “Anne Sexton’s poems so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.”[ii] The rest of the piece dismisses Sexton’s work as that of a superficial A-student writing contrived and artificial poetry. Sexton was stunned by this review and she carried a copy of it around with her for the rest of her life.

Lowell got praise pretty much across the board, to the extent that twenty-six years after the publication of Life Studies, Stanley Kunitz described the collection as “the most influential book of modern verse since T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.” Sexton’s reviewers were so very obviously gendered. May Swenson regarded To Bedlam and Part Way Back as containing poetic mastery, a “courageous” book which was followed by the “remarkable” All My Pretty Ones containing solidity of form and expertness. Swenson also is one of the first reviewers to identify and point out Sexton’s humour. Yet in reviewing the same book, Thom Gunn claims Sexton’s poems contain “facile” symbols and rely too heavily on the influence of Lowell. Furthermore, he’s sniffy about Sexton’s first volume claiming, “What is most encouraging about this collection is that she is getting rid of the faults of rhetoric and self-dramatization of her first book, in spite of all her admirers.”[iii] Louise Bogan regards All My Pretty Ones as a courageous, highly controlled volume telling women’s secrets in a way that do not normally get told. Sexton, she claims, “writes from the center of feminine experience, with the direct and open feeling that women, always vulnerable, have been shy of expressing in recent years.”[iv] Ian Hamilton appeared to share Thom Gunn’s concern about the number of people reading Sexton claiming the real danger is she will be “translated into yet another cult-figure of neurotic breakdown, valued not for what she has written but for what her suffering seems to symptomize.” Apparently according to Hamilton this sort of reading doesn’t matter if the poet is dead, but since “Mrs Sexton” was still alive, “it is likely to encourage exactly the kind of facile exhibitionism which is even now a constant worry in her work.”[v]

So, for Lowell, the question of propriety when it came to the subject matter of his poetry no longer existed. Sexton was not afforded this honor. When Lowell wrote about mental breakdown and suffering, he was serious and brave. When Sexton wrote about it, she was self-dramatizing and inappropriate. While female reviewers seemed to appreciate what Sexton was trying to do, many male critics simply could not cope.

All of this played out years before Plath’s Ariel was published posthumously. Then, on its release, as my book explores, her male reviewers starting throwing words around like “shrill” and “hysterical”…

For more on this read Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz available to order here


[i] Thompson, ‘Two Poets’ in Kenyon Review 21, 1959, pp. 482-290.

[ii] Dickey, Anne Sexton The Artists and Her Critics, p. 117

[iii] Gunn, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.125.

[iv] Bogan, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.126-7.

[v] Hamilton, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.127.

The Stories That Don’t Make The Cut

Sometimes what gets edited out of a book can be just as interesting as what gets left in. There are many reasons why certain stories or lines of thought get removed. Sometimes it can be to do with word length, or that it takes things off at a slight tangent, or that it simply doesn’t quite fit at that moment in the narrative. I am lucky to have a superb editor, Alison Callahan at Gallery Books, whose judgment is always spot-on, because sometimes as writers we get so lost in our own texts that it becomes difficult to see when we are wandering off and losing ourselves.

One story in my new book Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz that ended up being cut was a story about Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes. It is a story not without humour, because it encompasses a classic literary spat – about associations, reputations, and perceived slights.

It all began when Ted Hughes wrote a piece for the fall issue of Tri-Quarterly in 1966. In his essay he made the claim that Plath was different to Lowell and Sexton. Plath, he wrote, certainly shared characteristics with them, such as “shattering the self” and their “East Massachusetts homeland”. But beyond this, Hughes claimed that Plath’s poems were completely different to Lowell’s and Sexton’s whose work was “truly autobiographical and personal, and their final world is a torture cell walled with family portraits, with the daily newspaper coming under the door.” According to Hughes, Plath used autobiographical details in her poetry quite differently, “She sets them out like masks, which are then lifted up by a dramatis personae of nearly supernatural qualities.” (p. 81)

This claim enraged Lowell who appeared to have an active aversion to being what he regarded as “lumped into” the same category of writing as Sexton (this attitude of Lowell’s alone is worthy of study – but that’s another story). A furious Lowell wrote to Hughes accusing him of “tasteless vulgarity.” He felt that Hughes belittled his and Sexton’s work by comparing it unfavourably to Plath’s and no amount of “uxoriousness” excused this. Having agreed to appear at a London poetry festival organised by Hughes in 1967, Lowell said “of course” he would no longer be attending unless Hughes apologised to both him and Sexton. The drama!

A contrite Hughes wrote to both immediately, though he may not quite have anticipated Anne Sexton’s brilliantly defiant “acceptance” of his apology. In his letter to Sexton, held at the Harry Ransom Center, what he actually meant, Hughes wrote, was that he was trying to show how Plath’s poems operated in the “dimension of the spirit”, whereas Lowell and Sexton’s operated in the “dimension of nature and society.”

In a wonderfully grudging response, the fiery Sexton replied that she would accept his apology (although I have to say her letter implies the exact opposite). And in what must be one of the best uses of underlining ever she finished her paragraph with the devastating retort that she was “not sure what your terms ‘spirit or nature or society’ mean…but if you say so.”

In the end, the waters got smoothed over, they all became friends again, and Sexton at least appeared at Ted Hughes’ Poetry Festival in 1967. It was there that she then got into a tussle with W.H. Auden, but that story did make it into the book…

Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz can be ordered here

The essay referred to in this piece is Ted Hughes, ‘Notes on the chronological order of Sylvia Plath’s poems’, Tri-Quarterly, No. 7, Fall 1966, p. 81-88.

(My thanks to Amanda Golden for clarifying that Lowell did not attend the 1967 Poetry Festival in London)

The Extension of a Portrait

On the day that we arrive in Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston, snow is blanketing everywhere with a silent white. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue, and the sun is bouncing leaving us slightly dazzled and snowblind. We are looking for Anne Sexton’s grave, but the cemetery is enormous and I can’t quite read the map and many roads are hidden by pristine drifts. We drive around and around. We take in the laden trees, the lake, the grand mausoleums. When we eventually find Sexton’s grave, it is in the family plot, a large, beautiful granite tomb etched with the names of all the people I have been writing about for the last year.

I am curious how you photograph a grave, I mean really professionally photograph a grave. How is it different to photographing a person? How do you set a mood? What do you look for? What do you need to do? I am doubly fascinated because the person that I am with, photographer Kevin Cummins, is much more well-known for photographing musicians. How does photographing a grave differ from a living breathing singing person?

Photographing a grave he tells me is like “the extension of a portrait”. You have to turn up, spend some time in the place, get a feel for the environment and how to portray it. Just like photographing a person, you have to spend time with them, understand how they see themselves and how you see them as a photographer. It can’t be rushed. It takes time.

But isn’t there an inherent melancholy of photographing a grave, I ask? The person is gone and absent. How do you deal with that loss, visually? He replies that the one thing about photographing a grave is the “absolute stillness” of it. There is the architecture, the style, the inscription, the objects left behind. But one way to capture that stillness is to place it in context, to show a depth of field. Alternatively, you can isolate it off and focus in on just the grave itself, some sort of detail that captures you (I guess this is a version of Barthes’ punctum?) These pictures of Sexton’s and Plath’s grave show both of these techniques. Plath’s headstone sits forefront in a sea of other graves jumbling back to the edge of the shot. Sexton’s tomb is tight, up close, with a rosary dangling over the edge.

The day we are there, I brush snow off the top of the grave and unearth love letters that have been left for Sexton. One is signed “All your pretty ones”. There are acorns beneath the snow covered in tiny ice crystals. The photographs take time. The light is not quite right. We need to wait so we drive across the cemetery to visit e.e.cummings’ grave and walk by the lake. By the time we return, the light is in the right place and the photographs begin. I am surprised how long it takes. Hours to get the right conditions, the right atmosphere. It’s like re-phrasing Plath: “Photography / Is an art, like everything else.”

The final pictures perfectly capture the dignity of Sexton’s resting place. Just as the photographs of Plath’s grave taken a couple of years earlier capture the wild beauty of her setting in Heptonstall. I am lucky to have photographs from these shoots in my book. There is a true stillness about them. But there is something about the poets captured there too. Gone but not gone. Immortalised and remembered, or as Roland Barthes says, much more elegantly than I ever could: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”

That unique, rare one-offness of Plath and Sexton. 

Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton can be ordered here

You can see more photography by Kevin Cummins here

The Poetics of a Book Cover

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” Chip Kidd, graphic designer.

While I’m a firm believer that the content of a book is the most important part, I do like a good book jacket. I love designs that set a mood, or capture certain times, places, moments. Even an abstract jacket through shapes and swirls can project the feel or tone of a book. In other words, the “haiku of the story”.

I think probably any author is nervous about what their book will look like. I know I am. So it is always a thrillingly terrifying moment when the pdf of your book cover appears in your inbox. With my latest book, Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz, I was sent three potential designs. I liked all of them, but one in particular stood out because for me it captured a very definite cultural moment. Both the front and the back of the jacket have visual prompts to the contents of the book and certain objects that appear in it. The hardback, in monochrome, conjures a particular feel and time.

Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were discriminating about their book covers. Sexton obviously got to see more of her own than Plath and loved some more than others. Plath delighted in the green blockiness of The Colossus (but was less delighted with the dreaded typos that slipped through).  

Book covers tell their own stories. They set visual expectations. They create the wraparound environment of the book. Here is the book jacket for Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz.

(The book can be pre-ordered here: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/three-martini-afternoons-at-the-ritz-the-rebellion-of-sylvia-plath-and-anne-sexton/9781982138394)

What Sylvia Plath Can Teach us About…Gaslighting

gaslighting2
Gaslighting: a form of psychological manipulation to make someone doubt their own memories, beliefs or reality.

I believe that in 1962, Sylvia Plath experienced gaslighting.

I realise that this is a contentious statement and is probably open for discussion. However, I not only believe that she was gaslighted but that in her usual ahead-of-the-times way, she started to offer us a blueprint of how to deal with gaslighting, how to give the gaslighter a chance, and ultimately how to resolve it.

Gaslighting in many ways is a slippery concept. It is mostly (but not exclusively) done by men to women. It is always destructive but seems to reflect gendered power relations in such a way that bizarrely many men who gaslight are not even really aware that they are doing it. However, the nature of gaslighting is such that it is almost impossible to tell a gaslighter they are gaslighting because…well, they’ll gaslight you about that too.

After reading Plath’s letters and endless psychology reports, it seems there are some common features of gaslighting. First of all, it can take a long time to realise you are being gaslighted – sometimes years. This is because the main aim of gaslighting is to make everything seem it is your reaction to things that is the problem. It is also designed to undermine, to create chronic self-doubt, and to make you feel as though you are being unreasonable towards the gaslighter.

Before looking at Plath’s experience and her response, it might be useful to outline some of the key features. This list has been drawn from about thirty different articles and includes those characteristics that appear in all of them:

  1. The downplaying and minimising of emotions – suggesting how you feel is an overreaction, invalid or just plain wrong.
  2. Endless lying, even about meaningless, trivial stuff, as though lying is the default setting. Often the lies will have some kernel of truth but will be slightly twisted. When busted on this there are commonly two reactions from the gaslighter: (a) the decision to lie will be blamed on you because you are so unreasonable they are not able to tell you the truth, or (b) they will persist in the lie and continue to deny the undeniable, even in the face of solid evidence.
  3. You cannot hold the gaslighter to any sort of scrutiny – if you do, they will compound the lie further, become defensive and aggressive, accuse you of stalking them / being a psycho / engage in ‘diversion’ (i.e. turn it on you and your many faults) / engage in ‘countering’ (blame you instead) / withhold or project (accuse you of the very thing they are doing themselves). According to most psychologists, the biggest flaw of a gaslighter is that they are blatant liars and in that sense are bankrupt in character or integrity. The likelihood is that some don’t care, some will have a bizarre way of justifying it to themselves, and others will get so caught up in their lies they may even become to believe them to be true.
  4. Forgetting or denying – gaslighters have very patchy memories when it suits them. They can’t possibly remember something that happened two years ago / last week / yesterday, and if you do, then you are just weird.
  5. Knowledge shaming – as part of the general undermining, gaslighters like to knowledge shame which is a key tactic of humiliation and is always prefixed with something like ‘you can’t possibly NOT know…’ i.e. how stupid can you be? So stupid it bewilders your much better-informed partner, obviously.
  6. Psychologists pulled together the common phrases that gaslighters use all of which are designed to wrong-foot and undermine but most importantly designed to make you understand that everything is your fault: ‘You’re a psycho’, ‘You’re overreacting’, ‘Calm down’, Stop taking everything so seriously’, ‘Stop being dramatic’, ‘You always want an argument’, ‘You treat me like shit’, ‘You are missing the point’, ‘I was joking’. The purpose of these comments is to not only make you take responsibility for everything but to wear you down. To make you realise that you are crazy, unreasonable, self-dramatising, stupid, and a bad person with no sense of humour. A gaslighter uses faux humour to be especially vicious and then has the double whammy of being able to explain it away with the secondary insult that you are just too po-faced to understand how hilarious they are.
  7. Play the victim – gaslighters like this almost as much as lying. If they are challenged or scrutinised about anything, however trivial, they will often fall back into victim mode: ‘what have I done wrong now?’, ‘There’s just no pleasing you.’
  8. They are quite often rude about your friends or family – they will expect you to fully assimilate into their life, but they will not return the favour. There will always be something wrong with your friends, and they will sometimes make you choose between seeing your friends or seeing them and this can be incredibly stressful and upsetting (and dangerous – the obvious extreme end of this is that gaslighting can result in isolation).
  9. For a gaslighter, nothing is ever their fault; they are never wrong, they never apologise, or they engage in insincere non-apologies that suggest how you feel is the problem not that they caused it (‘I’m sorry IF you feel upset…’)

Given this list, the obvious question to ask is why anyone would go anywhere near a gaslighter in the first place once they reveal these delightful characteristics. But gaslighters are often charming, talented, interesting, so it is possible for people to become sucked in before the more undesirable aspects begin to emerge. Plus, according to psychologists gaslighters know when to pull back – they often counter all of this behaviour with regular declarations of love and tell you just how amazing you are. In fact, gaslighters are very good with words, just as they are very adept at managing people.

plathhughes

From spring 1962 onwards, I would suggest that Plath was subjected to gaslighting. My purpose here is not to indulge in any Hughes-bashing. As mentioned above, he may not have realised what he was doing. There would be an argument that he would have even less chance of realising it back in 1962, pre-second wave feminism when gendered behaviour was much less scrutinised. Plath though, realised that something was ‘off’ with Ted Hughes’s behaviour, but when she questioned him about it, she was told she was pathologically jealous and suspicious (i.e. the ‘you’re a psycho’ line). Of course, the reality was that Hughes was starting an affair with Assia Wevill, but his response made Plath doubt herself and what she was feeling (despite her gut instinct and just knowing). Her emotions were minimised, she was accused of overreacting while simultaneously being lied to. When the affair was exposed, the type of conversations placed the blame on Plath: she was unreasonable, the marriage had stopped Hughes being able to write, she wasn’t physically attractive enough anymore (‘a hag in a world of beautiful women’), she had trapped him into having children he didn’t want, he only married her because she asked him, she was childish and needed to grow-up, she had a death-ray quality etc. A re-framing of their history together made Plath doubt her own reality. On a trip to Ireland in September 1962, Hughes disappeared leaving her there alone, in a move that he had pre-arranged. He organised a friend in London to send her a telegram to say he would be in the city for two weeks and would be in touch soon, but really he had gone to Spain with Wevill. Lying about secret trips with another woman – the ultimate gaslighting move. Plath was distraught.

But what is fascinating, is how Plath mobilised herself to deal with this, because many of the things she did are the exact advice given by psychologists today to deal with a gaslighter. First of all, you have to decide whether you still want them in your life. If not, walk away. This of course is much easier for some than others. If there’s just you and you’re financially independent you can leave at any time, but if you have children, or are in any way vulnerable or dependent, then it becomes much more difficult.

At first, Plath seems to have decided to try and resolve things. Here’s her (and current day) advice on how to handle the situation:

  1. Trust your gut instinct – don’t let a gaslighter make you agonise with self-doubt. They are accomplished liars. Know this and never doubt it. They will not hesitate to lie to you under any circumstances about big or small things. You have absolutely no obligation to believe them (about anything). Plath’s letters demonstrate a real release of liberation at the point she realises this.
  2. Gather evidence, observe carefully, keep a note of everything, keep a journal, take screenshots. Regain some of the power that has been taken from you by the lying. Do not reveal to the gaslighter everything you know. Having solid evidence they do not know about can help you judge the extent to which they are prepared to lie to you. This puts the power back into your hands (while they are likely thinking they’ve got away with it). Hughes complained that Plath had apparently employed a private detective (unconfirmed) or got friends to report back to her. He did not like this level of scrutiny and was unsure just how much she knew about his behaviour.
  3. Speak up – tell the gaslighter their behaviour is unacceptable, let them know you do not believe them, but refuse to take it further. Refuse to argue, say you don’t want to talk about it (you don’t need to – you know they’re lying and you know how they’ll react if you challenge them, but nevertheless let them know you know). According to psychologists this is your best chance of getting the gaslighter to reflect upon their behaviour and change their ways.
  4. Stay calm. Plath realised this after losing her shit with Hughes. By the time she moved to London in December 1962, they were becoming better friends as she pointed out he had nothing to fear from her now there were no scenes between them. Gaslighters want a reaction, they want you to be angry and upset so they can tell you that you need to calm down and to point out how unreasonable and over-emotional you are being.
  5. Ask friends or family for advice. A gaslighter will make you think you are a terrible person and that you treat them badly. Repeat conversations you have had, show text messages to a trusted friend or family member (someone you know will call you out if it actually is your fault). Plath’s letters to Ruth Beuscher (and to a lesser extent Olive Higgins Prouty) are perfect examples of Plath doing this – deep analysis of what she was being subjected to, her role in it, what she needed to do, and how she needed to handle Hughes and herself.
  6. Self-care and belief in yourself and your version of events. Once Plath realised she was being lied to, she had no further reason to doubt herself and much strength can lie in this position. She confronted Hughes and asked him to always tell the truth, however painful it would be and he promised to always do that. Her second devastation came when she discovered that he had continued lying. Having offered him some sort of truth amnesty as a way to resolve matters, being lied to a second time seemed to be the point where Plath decided to leave.
  7. Leave the relationship. Once you realise gaslighting is part of your relationship, you can as Plath did, try to resolve it. There seems to be a spectrum on how long people give this. In Plath’s case it was months, for some people it is years. The main difficulty is not being able to talk to the gaslighter or reason with them. Ultimately Plath ended her marriage and many psychologists acknowledge that in the end most people do walk away from a gaslighting relationship after years of being lied to, ground down, and disrespected. Although gaslighters are intelligent people, they rarely have the moral courage to confront their own behaviour, listen, and be willing to change. The difficulty is that often a person becomes so assimilated into the gaslighting relationship that they lose a sense of self. Plath’s final letter poignantly describes how she felt she had lost her sense of identity, and that finding it again felt impossible.

Succinctly though, what Sylvia Plath can teach us about gaslighting is: trust your instinct, initially give someone a chance (on the off chance they don’t realise what they’re doing), stay calm, look after yourself, know your own worth, and the point at which it all seems hopeless, if at all possible, walk away.

www.relate.org.uk

www.womensaid.org.uk

www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk

Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

Lost Lives, Invisible Women: Friederike Reichler

Women often become lost in history: forgotten, erased, wiped out. Their stories become difficult to uncover and sometimes the traces they leave behind are so very faint that it is almost as if they never existed at all.

Last week I discovered Freiderike (Friedl) Reichler. I read her name through a circuitous route having been gifted a book, The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun. During the 1930s as Europe was heading towards war, Keun was engaged in a messy and unstable affair with the writer Joseph Roth. At the time, Joseph Roth was married to Friederike Reichler, though she seemed completely invisible in his life. Wondering why, I began to dig a little deeper.

Friederike was born in Vienna on May 12, 1900 and married Joseph Roth at the Leopoldstat synagogue in 1922. She was described as ‘beautiful’, ‘delicate’ and ‘unassuming’ (male descriptions).

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Photographer unknown, photograph in public domain.

For the first few years of their life together they lived in a rented apartment in Berlin, but Roth who was working as a reporter made many trips across Europe, taking Friedl with him until the unsteady life of travel and hotel living began to exhaust her. In contrast, Roth continued to live a nomadic life, in 1927 alone travelling to Germany, Alsace, and the Soviet Union. Increasingly left alone, Friedl began to experience anxiety attacks and in 1927 suffered a mental breakdown. She developed what was referred to as ‘progressive schizophrenia’. After a brief rest cure in Saint Raphaël in the South of France in early 1928, Roth decided a series of travels would be good for them. In the spring, he took Friedl to Poland, Switzerland, and Austria. But Friedl became exhausted once again by hotel life and moving around, and they settled in Marseille in 1929 where Roth started drinking heavily and seeing other women.

While all of this was taking place, Friedl’s voice appears to be silent. I wonder, what did she do with her days? How did she fill her time when she was left alone? What were her own wishes and ambitions? Were they thwarted by traveling around Europe with a husband who was constantly in debt, an alcoholic, and cheating on her?

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Photographer unknown, images sourced from Cafe Marquardt

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In September 1929, she was admitted to Westend psychiatric hospital in Berlin, and in effect, that was the end of Friedl’s freedom for the rest of her life. Over the coming years she would be moved to a closed psychiatric unit in Vienna, cared for during a short period by her family, but mostly shipped around different clinics depending on the funds available to care for her. She seems to completely disappear from history between the years 1931-1933. Presumably living day by day the institutionalised life of a psychiatric patient. It was during these years that Roth met and started an affair with Irmgard Keun (and many other women) as his debt and drinking deepened. The writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Friederike stepped in to help with care for Friedl, often covering the fees from various clinics and exploring new avenues of treatment. In 1935, Roth started divorce proceedings, but when Friedl was moved to the Mauer-Öhling Institute at Amstettan to be treated free of charge, he decided not to divorce her after all.

There is no readily accessible information through these years about Friedl’s condition. She does not seem to feature in Roth’s day to day life as he became seriously involved with at least two other women. However, his heavy drinking created serious liver disease and by 1939 he was sick himself. In May he collapsed in a Parisian café and died in Necker Hospital on the 27th.

Historically, all of this was happening as Europe was falling to Hitler’s National Socialist Party, so perhaps the turmoil seen in Roth’s life was a micro-reflection of what was going on at large. But after Roth’s death, I wondered what happened to Friedl. The age-old tale of the wife locked away in a psychiatric hospital, forgotten to the outside world.

In July 1940, Friedl was taken to Hartheim Institute near Linz in Austria. Here she was assessed by a panel of Nazi appointed doctors to determine whether her condition was incurable. If a patient received more than three crosses during the examination they were regarded as irredeemably sick and in need of ‘disinfecting’. Hartheim, a foreboding castle like building, had vaulted brick cellars. On July 15th, Friedl was euthanised by gas, in what Hitler deemed a ‘mercy killing’.

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Photograph from private archive, sourced kakania. squarespace.com

It is hard to image the end of a life in this way, the young woman with the sharp-bobbed hair appearing in her photographs smiling, or stroking a pet dog, leaning against a tree looking happily into the sky. So few traces left behind. The lost story of Friederike Reichler (1900 – 1940).

The Comforts of Whiteness

Yesterday during the Sylvia Plath Zoomposium, Dr Maeve O’Brien gave a powerful talk about Sylvia Plath and the White Literary Imagination. For the rest of the evening I was thinking about some of the points she raised – Plath’s entirely white reading history, her entirely white teaching notes, her problematic use of certain racial tropes in her work. And I was thinking about this while watching the horrors unfolding in America at the brutality inflicted on protesters expressing their anger and despair in response to the police murder of George Floyd.

I suspect that Plath’s readership is not exclusively, but predominantly, white; Plath scholarship is certainly so. Since I first read Plath, I felt uncomfortable with some of her language and representations (see the poem ‘Ariel’, see The Bell Jar). And while Plath was not what we might call a conscious racist, her white progressive liberal background left her open to the comforts of whiteness, where racism can seed itself unconsciously, safely cushioned by social privilege. That Plath could use the ‘n’ word in a poem shows that she did not engage with the history or power of language in this instance, or consider the impact of perpetuating it. This is where the argument ‘Oh but it was different back then’ comes in, ‘It was ok to use language like that back then.’ Except of course it wasn’t. It has never been ok to use language like this. Perhaps what this argument really means is that when people did use language like this back then there was less chance of them being called out for it. Social acceptance is not the same as something being morally acceptable.

Am I being too hard on Plath? No, I don’t think so. It is precisely because we love her so that we should call her out on this. And if it makes for uncomfortable conversations, that’s because it should be uncomfortable. White privilege bestows this comfort, but not of course, to everybody. And if Plath, who regarded herself as liberal, who would have been appalled to think she was being racist, used racist language and tropes, then those of us who also inhabit that comfortable space of whiteness need to think about where we are situated in it and what we do about it.

Like Plath, I too would be appalled to think that I displayed any racist tendencies. As a white, working class, northern woman, I am aware of a lack of social mobility, that life is not a level playing field, that oppression takes many subtle and even invisible forms. But there were moments, particularly when I began studying for my degree in Women’s Studies, where this self-mythologising was blasted apart by conversations with some of my black feminist colleagues. I realised that I was using my position as a white feminist to think that I understood all forms of oppression, when clearly I had no idea about the ways in which social characteristics intersect to create a poisonous mix of power, privilege, and subjection. I realised that I did not think of my whiteness as a ‘racial category’, that I ‘othered’ certain groups, that I used language in a way that displayed this ignorance, and that even my thought processes and discourse allowed me to sink back into the comforts of whiteness. It was a horrible moment of realisation. But, I was lucky to be surrounded by amazing women who made it clear that white privilege, once seen, becomes the responsibility of the person taking comfort in it, to dismantle it. I realised very early on that it was my responsibility to address this, to educate myself, and to somehow try to stop using white privilege to make myself feel better at the expense of others. I also knew from my own experience that groups who are oppressed need to preserve and save their energy for getting through the struggle of day-to-day life as well as bigger struggles, so why should they also take on educating their oppressors too? If an oppressor truly wants to change, then they need to deal with it themselves; listen, learn, and educate.

I began reading voraciously – lots of fiction and memoirs, as well as feminist accounts, from black women’s voices and the Indian Women’s Movement.

I explored the idea that equality does not equal sameness, and I tried to unpick where and how I fell back into the comforts of whiteness. This involved reading about whiteness itself, making visible what had been constructed as invisible and ‘normal’. This is an ongoing process. I catch myself out all of the time, appalling though it is. But if white people, truly want to be allies, to politically and emotionally support anti-racist movements then these are the actions that need to be tackled first of all. Encountering racist language in the writer that you love is devastating – is that why so many shy away from it?  But why leave all the work to be done by BAME readers and scholars of Plath? It’s an odd parallel to draw, but last year in the UK when Murdoch’s ‘newspapers’ engaged in an onslaught of racist coverage of the Man City footballer Raheem Sterling, he finally spoke out, eloquently and movingly about what this did to him. Some of the responses were well meaning, with white people tweeting “You go Raheem. Lead the way and we will follow.” Except of course, why should he? Raheem Sterling is not the problem. Why should he do the emotional labour to expose the racism at the heart of his media representation?

I keep returning to a passage in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Selling of My Name. She describes the clinical, bland whiteness of an ice cream parlour and a visit to Washington, D.C.

I think about how whiteness covers things up, things that should never be covered up. As a white woman it is all too easy to think that Plath’s problematic use of language and imagery is not something that I should tackle. On a much bigger scale of life and death, it is all too easy to see protests taking place in major cities around the world, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and think it is not something that I can do anything about. This privilege of silence and absolving of responsibility is the comfort of whiteness. It needs challenging and dismantling, for if not now, when?