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The Lure of a Birthright

From “Why the Plath Legacy Lives On”

Grave of Sylvia Plath. Photo: Mark Anderson. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Grave of Sylvia Plath. Photo: Mark Anderson. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Suicide runs in families. It’s not entirely clear to what extent this is a genetic predisposition, and to what extent having a parent who has killed himself or herself simply makes the option feel more readily available, though both are certainly true.

Suicide is the end point of many depressions, but there are plenty of people who, though acutely depressed, do not become suicidal. Committing suicide requires a mix of depression and impulsivity; so much of depression is passive and meek and deactivating. The pain may be intolerable, but the prospect of doing anything as deliberate as suicide is overwhelming.

The model of the literary suicide, of the writer whose thrall to craft is either the consequence or the cause of most dire depression, is a frequent one; David Foster Wallace is the latest link in this sorry chain. Sylvia Plath wrote about depression so explicitly and so beautifully in “The Bell Jar,” where she described how:
I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

For anyone who has been depressed, that description rings astonishingly true. She had talent and looks and was married to a great poet, but these externals cannot assuage that eye-of-the-storm despair. For a long time, all of Plath’s work (as Virginia Woolf’s) was read through the lens of her suicide. She is in fact a remarkable poet, whose writing would warrant our attention even if she had lived her days out happily taking her children to soccer practice in suburbia.

Now her son has killed himself, after a long battle with depression. It’s sad to think that in this time of psychopharmacological and cognitive-behavioral wonders, he was not able to get above his illness. I do not know what treatment he received or sought, but I do know that he had a birthright to the dull eye, and to that sadly final way of dealing with it. Parents who suffer from depression cannot help passing along that illness.

Those who commit suicide implant the idea that this is a viable option, but it seems likely that Nicholas Hughes was beset by demons he can rightly call his own. And every life that is lost to suicide is tragic, be it associated with poetry or not.