The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, Harper & Row, 1963, 275 pp
I admit that I had reservations about reading this novel which is based on the author's own experience with mental illness. I put off reading it for years. Odd, because I have read other novels and memoirs featuring people who descend into madness and actually liked them. I think because we all know that Sylvia Plath committed suicide just one month after The Bell Jar was published, I was concerned about what I would find.
What I found was some of the more wonderful writing I have read. Poetic imagery, wry humor and pithy observations enough to make me wish I had known her. I did find mental anguish but not a victim mentality or even narcissism, just a sense of bewilderment about what had happened to Esther Greenwood, the autobiographical stand-in for Sylvia. Most telling though was her fear of the future once she was released from the asylum.
"I had hoped, at my departure, I would feel sure and knowledgeable about everything that lay ahead--after all, I had been 'analyzed.' Instead, all I could see were question marks."
Because the timescape is mid 1950s, one is given a patients-eye-view of the barbaric treatments of those times (shock treatment, insulin shock, and the sexism from male practitioners.) Now we have all these designer drugs for every mood and diagnosis. The fact that these drugs are also attempts to alter the mind and personality does not fill me with much more confidence however. I am not up-to-date on the current statistics as far as saving lives goes with the drugs, but I am up-to-date on some of their failures.
The final section of the edition I read is A Biographical Note by Lois Ames (at one time contracted by the family to be the official biographer.) That was the saddest part by far. It depicts a gifted and determined woman who struggled to overcome her demons but in the end succumbed within eight years of having been pronounced "cured."
Well, I have read it now. I am no longer afraid of the book but I am just as certain as I have always been that there is much more understanding of the human mind needed to help those who are afflicted with mental illness.
(The Bell Jar is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)