Sylvia Plath’s #MeToo Stories

I was born in 1963. It was the last year of the Baby Boomers. It was the year MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and JFK was assassinated. It was the year we went from the Bop to the Beatles, from Father Knows Best to Sex and the Single Girl. It was the year Sylvia Plath committed suicide.

As I grew older and became a Plath scholar, I spent a lot of time reading her journals, letters and, of course, her very autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar—all from this era. And there’s plenty there to show that long before there were such things as hashtags, women—and Sylvia Plath especially—dealt with the same issues we’re reckoning with now in the #MeToo moment.

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Everything was changing by the time I came into the world—the day after JFK’s funeral and nine months after Plath’s death. By elementary school, the 1950’s had been presented to me as a gentler, more wholesome time; my understanding came mainly from the TV sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. But in the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, a 16-year-old Plath wrote about the young men who forced themselves upon her, and the confusion of the sexual double-standard in 1950’s America.

There is a scene early in her journals when she wrote of picking strawberries on a farm alongside the handsome Estonian refugee, Ilo Pill, in July 1950. She quoted his seductive words before he took her into a barn alone: “You like Frank Sinatra? So sendimental, so romandic, so moonlight night, Ja?” And then, Plath’s writing flashes forward to the confusion of the scene. She hides details, as teenagers do. The reader is not sure from her words whether or not what happened was under her control and whether or not it was consensual.

It seems not. “A sudden slant of bluish light across the floor of a vacant room,” she writes. “And I knew it was not the streetlight, but the moon. What is more wonderful than to be a virgin, clean and sound and young, on such a night? … (being raped.)” Plath’s parenthetical “being raped” is written in her hand in different ink, like an afterthought or a confession. I dare say that almost every young woman has been there. We ask: Is it rape if he takes liberties with her body but does not penetrate? Do women have a say about withholding their bodies?

Plath kept writing and corresponding with Ilo while she was away at Smith College. She even asked her mother to frame his picture for her room. Was this rape? Does it work that way? There are no rule books for this, not then and not now. To this day, girls grow up to learn that they are attractive and wanted by men. In the 1950’s, if not also now, there was a cultural requirement to please a man, and perhaps also guilt in owning this allure but not fulfilling his desire.

In Plath’s very next journal passage, she wrote of another boy making her feel guilty because she called him out on his only being interested in sex. (As if being a teenager isn’t confusing enough.) “This is I, I thought, the American virgin, dressed to seduce,” Plath wrote. “I know I’m in for an evening of sexual pleasure. We go on dates, we play around, and if we’re nice girls, we demure at a certain point. And so it goes.” Plath learned the high school tricks of “everything but” to preserve virginity and reputation. At this confusing emotional age, she learned that men were allowed to get away with certain behaviors women could not.

Her writings list example after example of her exasperation over men’s sexual freedoms. And having a say over her own body put her immediately at odds with the men whose approval she wanted: “…to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn’t satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast.”

Plath’s boyfriend in 1951, Dick Norton, told her that “there are times when a man wishes a woman were a whore.” On several occasions, Plath wrote that she expected violence from Dick for not allowing him full sexual satisfaction (there’s an easy joke there). Plath considered after one unsatisfying date that he might “rape a stranger” and another time that he could rape another girl they both knew. The teenage Plath also fantasized about being raped so that she could scrap all of the sexual rules. But fantasy rape isn’t real rape, which frightened her.

I began this essay with a clear end-goal: to show Plath as a sexual victim, in a way #MeToo readers might relate. I am a #MeToo, too. Yet, things became less clear as I gathered the details. Like women today on the teeter-totter of complete sexual freedom and feminism, I wrote myself into a trap. (And I hadn’t even gotten to the emotionally complicated scenes in The Bell Jar, which is our principle historical record, as Plath didn’t keep a journal in the summer of 1953.)

In The Bell Jar we are introduced to creepy Marco, the Peruvian “woman-hater” the protagonist, Esther (whom we know to be Plath), meets at a country club dance. Despite her protests that she does not want to dance, he tosses her drink into a plant and forces her to tango. We get that he’s a brute. The first unsettling hint that he’s actually a total psycho is when he tells Esther to pretend she is drowning to let him maneuver her upon the dance floor.

“It doesn’t take two to dance, it only takes one,” Esther sadly narrates, surrendering her control to him. Ultimately, Marco pushes Esther in mud, climbs on top of her and rips off her dress. She tells herself that if she just lies still and does nothing, “it” will happen. “It” in this case, is the loss of virginity—as if this act, even committed in horror, is the necessary event to transform her into a woman. Still, she can’t bear his treatment. He calls her a slut, and she punches him in the nose. Marco relents, but not until the final humiliation of smearing Esther’s cheeks with the blood from his nose and threatening her life.

And then there is Irwin, an older professor with whom Esther consciously chooses to lose her virginity. Esther chose this man because he was intelligent, experienced and unknown. She wanted to sleep with an “impersonal, priestlike official, as in the tales of tribal rites.” Something goes wrong on a date with him, however, and Esther begins to hemorrhage and must go to the hospital.

In numerous biographies, but most especially in 1973’s A Closer Look at Ariel, author Nancy Hunter-Steiner explains that the character of Irwin was based upon a real man, mathematics professor Edwin Akutowicz, and a true event. Nancy was Plath’s roommate in the summer of 1954; they went to Harvard summer school together. They met Akutowicz together, and he first tried to score with Nancy, chasing her around the sofa of his apartment saying, “I always make the ladies happy.” Apparently, he did this even if the ladies didn’t want to be made happy. Nancy later collapsed sobbing into Sylvia’s arms.

Every time Edwin called for Nancy, Sylvia took the phone and refused to allow him to speak to her friend. And yet it seems they struck up a friendship—and Sylvia began to see Edwin, in secret at first. Maybe Plath chose a man she didn’t love as a way to transition into adulthood without her heart breaking. She had perhaps never recovered from the loss of her father when she was eight, and, in choosing this man 10 years her senior, she might have been trying to correct something in her psyche. We can’t know.

In The Bell Jar, Esther calls Irwin after her emergency room visit, demanding that he pay her doctor’s bill. He agrees and asks when he will see her again. She answers “never,” and hangs up. Esther feels free. In real life, things were more complicated. Plath spent the night at Akutowicz’s apartment. The next morning, Akutowicz called Nancy to tell her Sylvia had hemorrhaged but was feeling better. Back at home, Sylvia continued to lose blood until she collapsed. Hunter-Steiner says Plath continued to see Edwin, as she continued to see Ilo and Dick before him, even inviting him to visit her at Smith College. During the bleeding incident, Plath told Nancy that Edwin raped her, and she later told a boyfriend back home that she was attacked without provocation.

What was true? Had she lied to save her good girl reputation? Did she wonder if it was rape since she intended to have sex but it went wrong? Had Plath used Edwin? Did Plath, when she began writing The Bell Jar seven years later, have a new understanding of the event which she could not have comprehended at the naïve age of 20? Sexual experiences are confusing for the young and inexperienced, and sexual abuse may never be fully understood.

In her Smith College scrapbook, Plath mentioned Akutowicz in a caption as an assistant physics professor at MIT and noted that he seemed to “get along well with the ladies.” Indeed.

Plath had met Edwin in a weakened emotional condition. The summer before, she was in New York City, serving as a guest editor for Mademoiselle Magazine. Shortly after that time, she went through depression and a mental breakdown, attempted suicide and endured electric convulsive treatments and institutionalization. She lost a semester of school. Somehow, she got it together and went on to graduate Smith College and then go on to Cambridge with a Fulbright Scholarship.

There, on the fateful night of February 26, 1956, she met the “hunky” poet Ted Hughes at a party. Her date for the night, a young man named Hamish, detected her interest and warned Plath that Hughes was the biggest seducer at Cambridge. Here is where the warning bells might go off for a lot of us—but they did not for Plath, who went on to marry Ted Hughes, and, in reading the journals and letters, faced physical, emotional and probably sexual abuse.

It’s all so confusing, isn’t it? Abuse is like that. People don’t want to believe different facts about someone they like, love or respect. Plath did not want to believe her boyfriends were terrible until they were. She did not want to think ill of her husband—and neither did the world, who later named him Britain’s Poet Laureate. Until recently, there had been a turning and looking the other way over inappropriate male behavior. But Plath’s story shows us that it’s not just about the abuser. There is quite often a codependent connection between abuser and victim.

During her marriage to Hughes, Plath blamed her culture. On the Sunday night of April 6, 1957, she journaled of reading McCall’s and the Ladies Home Journal magazines:

“[I]rony upon irony… McCall’s, the “magazine of togetherness” is running a series of articles on illegitimate babies & abortions, an article on “Why Men Desert Their Wives”; three stories & articles considered, seriously here, humorously there, suicide from boredom, despair, or embarassment. [sic] The serial story, “Summer Place”, by Sloan-the-Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit Wilson is about a miserable middle-aged woman named, significantly enough, Sylvia, who commits adultery with the man she should have married twenty years ago but didn’t because she was foolish & didn’t realized when he raped her at the age of sixteen that they were meant for each other.”

And, irony upon irony, nothing has changed in over 50 years. Who is to blame for our sexual schizophrenia? Plath scholars know that this fiercely disciplined and even rigid young woman, while amassing the impressive publications any adult writer would envy, also had a wild sexual side and more lovers than anyone has been able to count. Did Plath change roles, from victim to predator, depending on the man? Did her earlier abuse create an oversexed persona, to feel power?

In our more permissive times, most Plath fans can comfortably accept her sexual freedom, but this is only within the last 10 years. In 2017, discussion of Plath’s emotional and physical abuse was only just acknowledged. Plath’s near-obsessive interest in the occult has not been examined with any seriousness outside of my own work. And to my knowledge, no one has mentioned Plath’s early teen journal entries of girl crushes and cuddling with female camp counselors.

We are a world where the awkward and uncomfortable stuff is still not discussed; a world where our image of someone is one thing, like an impressive movie producer or a Poet Laureate, and so we don’t dare rock the boat. What’s next to blow the lid off of? What are we still repressing that we don’t even recognize? How many of us will be able to say #MeToo?

Julia Gordon-Bramer is a Plath scholar, poet, professor and professional tarot card reader in St. Louis. Her most recent books are Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”: Discover the Layers of Meaning Beyond the Brute, and Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: Freedom’s Feminine Fire.

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Comments

  1. Dennis Fleming says:

    Wonderful essay. As one unfamiliar with Plath’s work, I see its particular relevance today and am out to obtain a copy of The Bell Jar today.

  2. Wonderful article!

  3. Rosemary Clark says:

    I think Plath could turn predator. I was thinking of her treatment of Peter Davison, and how she told him their relationship was over before she departed for England and Cambridge in 1955. When the letters Plath wrote to Ruth BeuscherBarnhouse are available for researchers, it will be fascinating to read what Plath says about Hughes. I think Plath and Hughes were on different planes as far as the occult was concerned. Hope to read your biography of Plath in the future.

  4. You do a great job of pointing out a very basic and universal truth — that life is messy and people are messy. It is impossible to sum up a person’s life in a black and white manner and why would we want to anyway? The gray is far more interesting. Gray helps us to think, to ponder, to wonder. Gray stretches our minds and makes them grow whereas black and white causes minds to shrink. This is a very thought-provoking essay.

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