The letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her therapist are not ours to see

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Newly uncovered correspondence between poet Sylvia Plath and her therapist alleging that Ted Hughes beat her are being considered for sale. But should private thoughts ever become public property? 

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By Ella Risbridger on

Is there anything more intimate or more private or more personal than the relationship between a person and their partner? If there is, maybe it’s this: the relationship between a person and their therapist. 

These two relationships see people at their most unguarded, and we have both the right and the expectation of privacy within them: when I tell my therapist, or my partner something in confidence, I expect them not to tell anyone else. I expect nobody else to be listening. And I certainly don’t expect anyone else to open my letters to my partner, or my emails to my therapist. 

These seem like reasonable demands – one that anyone might make! – and yet with the (now postponed) sale of Sylvia Plath’s letters to her therapist, detailing her relationship with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, we seem to be willing to ignore them. 

Put up for sale by an “antiquarian bookseller”, these nine letters were written a week before Plath’s death, and after she discovered her husband’s affair. They are supposed to contain “explosive claims” about the relationship, including alleging domestic violence. 

The letters are “tantalising”, according to the editor of Plath’s collected letters. “He added,” writes the Guardian, “that he expected them to reveal details that would otherwise be unknown in the absence of her journals and other letters.” He called the collection “amazing”. 

There is something very revealing in that word “tantalising”, as if Plath were somehow revealing her pain inch by erotic inch. In the absence of her private writings, never intended for publication, we might not know these details; in the absence of people profiting from her private work and in her absence, we might not know the intimate details of a marriage neither party is here to explain or defend or accuse. Show me the dead woman’s most intimate, vulnerable moments: I can pay.

“The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see” Plath wrote in her poem Lady Lazarus “Them unwrap me hand and foot…” These letters are private: about dying and betrayal and the sudden loss of love. They are written under intolerable stress, and with a terrible, all-encompassing mental illness. These letters are, in short, not for us. 

I have written to my therapists before: short notes, long rambling emails for us to discuss later. Not all of the things in those messages were true, in the strictest sense of the word; sometimes they were things I was afraid of, sometimes they were dreams. Sometimes they happened. 

In reading these letters, we are overriding the wishes of everyone involved, both living and dead: just because you've written, does someone else have the right to read?

I can’t tell you whether Ted Hughes beat Sylvia Plath. It doesn’t seem to me necessarily unlikely, and that’s about as far as I’m willing to speculate. 

We know already that their relationship was a violent one: after all, it’s “literary history” that the first time Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes, she bit him on the face hard enough to draw blood, and leave a “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for a month. That would, for me, be a deal-breaker – but it was not for them. 

And this is not my relationship. This is not your relationship, either. This is, in fact, the relationship between two people both long dead, and as essentially unknowable as dying itself. "For outsiders – because that’s what they are, outsiders – to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft,” their daughter told a TV interviewer. “What an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we have got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answer.”

This is their daughter’s story. These, as she told the Guardian last year, are her parents. “Not yours, not someone else’s, they are mine.” I cannot begin to imagine finding out that my beloved late father had apparently beaten my beloved late mother in the pages of a daily newspaper, and not being able to ask them about it. I cannot begin to imagine how it feels to have strangers rake through your parents’ marriage; your own conception; your mother’s death. 

The editor of Plath’s collected letters “hope[s],” the Guardian reports, “to include the newly discovered material in volume two,” presumably to make it easier for anyone with a vague interest to peer in to the most intimate, vulnerable and violent details of a completed life. 

And, presumably, as editor he stands to gain financially by it: just as the sellers and the auction-houses stand to gain financially from the sale.  “There is a charge,” wrote Plath, “For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge/ For the hearing of my heart-/ It really goes. And there is a charge, a very large charge/ For a word…”

We know how Plath felt about her private life being public, because she wrote about it in her poems; we know how Hughes felt, too, because so did he. We know how their daughter feels because she has said so, repeatedly. In reading these letters, we are overriding the wishes of everyone involved, both living and dead: just because you've written, does someone else have the right to read? And does the answer to that change just because people really, really like the things you've written? Does someone else's desire to read your private correspondence mean you have to let them? Does someone else's desire to read your mother's private correspondence mean you have to let them?

Who has the rights to your life? And do you forfeit those rights by your talents? And do you also forfeit your children's rights? What about their children? Theirs? 

What's the price for having written a handful of genuinely perfect poems? I don't know the answer, but Hughes thought he did: "you will have paid for it with your happiness," he wrote, long after her death. "Your husband, and your life." 

Could we not let that be enough, now? Could we not let Plath and Hughes rest in peace – and let their daughter live in peace?


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Photo: Getty Images
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Arts & Culture
domestic violence

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