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Writers Who Suffered From the Sylvia Plath Effect

I'm in a book club (we're looking for a quirky-yet-clever name for ourselves if anyone has any suggestions) and last week we discussed The Bell Jar. It's one of those books we all felt we should have read at some point during our high school careers and never did, so it was long overdue. In my research about the similarities between the book's main character and the book's author I came across something called Sylvia Plath effect.

It's a relatively new theory in the world of psychology – in 2001, James Kaufman conducted a study that showed creative writers, especially female poets, are more susceptible to mental illness than other types of professions.

Being a female writer (not a poet, though), I was understandably interested in this theory. There really is a disproportionate amount of writers who have committed suicide over the years, so to brighten your day I thought I'd look at a few of them here.

Sylvia Plath



It makes sense to start with the theory's namesake, I think. For those of you who haven't read The Bell Jar, it's a thinly disguised autobiography about one girl's spiral into depression including suicide attempts, hospital stays and shock treatment therapy.

The bell jar is used as a metaphor for the feeling the main character has when she's going through her depression – she feels like she's trapped under a bell jar, stifled and numb. Sylvia predicted her own future when she wrote from the perspective of her protagonist – "How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again?"

Despite marriage, children, a successful career as a poet and a promising one as a novelist, Sylvia's own bell jar did descend again. On February 11, 1963, she killed herself by putting her head in the oven with the gas on. (Photo from A.J. Marik via Find a Grave)

Virginia Woolf



Poor Virginia Woolf seemed doomed from the start. She suffered a nervous breakdown when her mother died when Virginia was just 13. Her father died just nine years later, causing another breakdown which resulted in a brief period of institutionalization. She and her sister were subjected to sexual abuse by their half brothers, which certainly did not help her state of mind.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia decided she had had enough, loaded up her pockets with heavy rocks and walked into the River Ouse near her home. Judging by her symptoms and behavior, modern-day doctors think she probably suffered from bipolar disorder.

Sara Teasdale



Sara Teasdale was a talented poet, which, according to James Kaufman, put her at a serious disadvantage when it came to battling depression. In 1918, she won the Columbia University Poetry Society Prize, which was the precursor to the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Toward the end of the 1920s, though, things headed downhill for Sara. The Great Depression hit the same year she decided to divorce her husband.
Plagued by financial problems, her close friend and former suitor Vachel Lindsay killed himself by drinking Lysol in 1931. Vachel was a poet, so you could say his suicide contributes to Kaufman's theory that creative writers are more susceptible to mental illness.
In 1933, Sara reunited with Vachel when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in her apartment in New York City, drew herself a warm bath and never got out of it. (Photo from quebecoise via Find a Grave)

Anne Sexton



Anne was never shy about admitting to her mental health problems and openly talked about her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder. She was somewhat of an instant success in her poetic career – after attending a workshop taught by poet John Holmes, she immediately had poems published in The New Yorker, Harper's and the Saturday Review. By attending workshops and adopting a writing mentor, Anne became friends with poets such as Maxine Kumin, W.D. Snodgrass and none other than Sylvia Plath. She was such close friends with Sylvia, in fact, that she wrote a poem entitled Sylvia's Death about, well, Sylvia's death. She outlived Sylvia by 11 years, though – on October 4, 1974, Anne had lunch with Maxine, returned home and killed herself by sitting in her garage with the door down and the gas running.

Sarah Kane



Kaufman's theory holds up even with contemporary writers. Sarah Kane was a playwright and screenwriter who suffered from severe depression. She was voluntarily admitted twice to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in London. She channeled her depression into plays which were performed by the Royal Court. Critics weren't too impressed when the plays debuted which may have lead to her suicide in 1999. After an overdose of prescription medication landed her in King's College Hospital but failed to kill her, she ended up hanging herself in a hospital bathroom. (Photo from IainFisher.com)

So, that was morbid. But it does provide some supporting evidence for Kaufman's Sylvia Plath effect. What do you think? Does the Sylvia Plath effect make sense? The other side of the coin is that there are a number of suicides with any occupation and these are just more public given the public nature of the work.

I'm not really sure which side I believe, but I am a little bit relieved to know I have no talent for poetry whatsoever.

I'm a writer myself, and female to boot, so this question's been dogging me, too. I used to think, before I really wrote much for public consumption, that writers were suicidal because they had to remain socially aloof, that they couldn't participate in life and observe it at the same time, and this would, naturally, make them sad, at least, if not hopelessly lonely.

Now I think that writers' block and depression are the same thing, that they have the same consequences and causes. I think that writing comes from the same fog-bog of the near sub-conscious as one's self-perception, that they are fished from the same place, that inspiration becomes everything that's good, and negative feedback becomes everything that's bad. They're tied together the minute you become a writer, like the Argentinean dollar was connected to the American. What drags one, drags the other.

I would say that nothing but an unbreakable ego will stave this off, but it didn't work with Hemingway, did it?

Future commenters: Go ahead, tear this comment to pieces. I'll just go cry in a broom closet or something.
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I wonder if this is a case of causes masquerading as effects... The word "susceptible" worries me - Post hoc ergo non propter hoc and all that. It seems at least worth investigating whether or not mentally unstable people select the profession, rather than the other way around.

Even though there are (proportionally) very few mentally unstable people, it would not require many of them to take up the pen for the effect to be noticeable.
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Magicmike-
I tend to agree with you. People with eccentric or escapist personalities are more likely to feel like outcasts, more likely to be creative, and more likely to become depressed. It's a vicious cycle. There have been males with similar lives, most notable painters like Van Gogh, and novelists like Hemingway.

I'm not sure I understand brightening our day by posting about suicidal people, but that book club could be the Dead Poets Society, after this.
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i'm a published poet as well as someone who suffers from severe depression and here is my take on the issue:

i think when someone suffers from a mental illness, finding a way to express the internal/eternal battle tends to verge towards the more artistic side of life. so rather than being a poet who becomes depressed and kills themself, it is rather someone who is depressed and also writes poetry, loses the battle and kills themself.
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as a side note to the first comment, i personally disagree with writer's block and depression being the same. i find that my poetry thrives more when i feel depressed.
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I believe that some people are born with an overly active inner monologue. The constant rumination of ideas, concepts, and (especially) the 'what ifs' results in an urge to seek a release of the inner thoughts through literary expression. God knows my inner monologue only shuts up when I write, even when what I write is crap (which others tell me isn't crap but I definitely perceive it as crap which leads me to believe that being overly critical of yourself is another trait of the same condition).

Look at J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonegut, Steven King, et al; none of them are right in the head. I suspect that suicidal behavior is more pronounced in women writers and poets in that since, historically there were more barriers to getting published, those who were published were really, really good (ergo closer to the wings of madness).
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It's easier to go through life not drifting into the deeper end of the pool...poetry is often the outward expression for these intrepid "deep sea divers" of philosophy. Tis a heavy burden to bear: knowing, feeling seeing all the foibles, follies, imperfections, beauties and cruelties of man. Too heavy for some? I don’t think poetry makes one suicidal, but those that are constantly involved in such heavy matter…eventually can be crushed by them.
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Firstly, I laughed so hard reading your last line, "...but I am a little bit relieved to know I have no talent for poetry whatsoever."
Secondly, I am a woman and a writer, and I have been writing poetry since elementary school. As a teenager I did have a very dark view of the world. Everything with despair, darkness and gloom. But I was more entranced with the theme, seeing as I have always been a huge science fiction fan and dark scifi like Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica are in my opinion, the best stuff out there. I am not however, and never have been depressed. A bit annoyed at times, always ready to smack someone for setting me off, but never thinking how much better the world would be without me. I mean, look at all the cool things there are to enjoy. If nothing else, heck, Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica starts april 4th. If that's not a good reason to live, I don't know what is.
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The misunderstandings here about mental illness are sad.

From NIHM:

About 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6 percent of the population age 18 and older in any given year,1 have bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. However, some people have their first symptoms during childhood, and some develop them late in life. It is often not recognized as an illness, and people may suffer for years before it is properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.

“Manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live. It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.”

“I am fortunate that I have not died from my illness, fortunate in having received the best medical care available, and fortunate in having the friends, colleagues, and family that I do.”

Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., An Unquiet Mind, 1995, p. 6.
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Donna-
That is indeed a very nice quote about manic-depression, but not all of those writers were diagnosed as bipolar, or expressed the proper diagnostic criteria. Without resurrecting them and having a long conversation, its hard for us to say whether they had bipolar I, bipolar II, major depression, schizophrenia or any number of personality disorders...
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Thank GOD better meds are available today than when ANY of these people were alive (yes, including the one who died in 1999!) Just imagine, if Virginia Woolf had access to Seroquel and Lamictal...
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i once read that suicides tend to be of above-average intelligence, which makes sense. asking lots of questions about the world is a pretty good recipe for depression. what i call the tyranny of aesthetics: the greater your ability to discern fineness of experience, the more things will disappoint you. ignorance may well be bliss.
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You can add to that list two more female writers from Argentina: Alfonsina Storni and Alejandra Pizarnik.

Alfonsina Storni walked into the sea ( like Virginia Woolf), Alejandra Pizarnik overdosed on Seconal.
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Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a book about the link between creativity and madness called "Touched by Fire". It's a very well-written and engrossing book that helped me make sense of my daughter's and my diagnoses of bipolar disorder. Her book "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" is also a great book, despite the subject matter.

I also have found that I write better poetry when I'm depressed. (not that it'd ever reach the level of the ladies profiled!)
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I think it's that creative people are often not likely to get the help that would keep them from suicide. First of all, people around them often fail to notice the signs of illness because creative people channel the dark things into art rather than shutting down, and mania goes unnoticed, masking itself as periods of intense creative output. And the regular eccentricity that makes them brilliant can hide the signs of things that are really serious. It's simply harder to tell where the artsy weird ends and the disturbed begins.

Secondly, even if the condition comes to light, creative people are less likely to be willing to submit to drugs or therapy that might change the way their mind thinks. They fear in tinkering with the mind to stop the insanity, they'll lose the genius,too. A plain normal mind is not a good option for creative people. They'd rather deal with the bad than risk losing the good. Sadly, sometimes they fail at coping with the bad and lose everything.
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This is only half related, but half is a pretty good start. The Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) lists the personality type INFP as one of the smallest of the general population with a disproportionate representation of great writers. (http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP_car.html goes so far as to state "It's worth mentioning that nearly all of the truly great writers in the world have been INFPs.")
Similarly, an informal poll (http://www.mcmanweb.com/article235.htm) found that the introverted and idealist personality types (INF)are most likely to report being diagnosed with depression. I personally believe that both are linked to personality type, being a oft-depressed INFP writer-type i fit the mold fairly well.
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Here's the thing, you can characterize anyone as having a mental illness. This type of "mystery" can be attributed to anyone with talent coupled with fame. Like the "27 club" of musicians. The reason we are all shocked is because we think someone who is beautiful, successful, or extremely gifted would have the ticket to happiness. Yet we are all susceptible to our own demons we have to fight. There is nothing to say women writers are likely to commit suicide than people tend to pair depression with women authors who've committed suicide. Depression is a crazy hall of mirrors where nothing seems to feel right, look right, or even seem right no matter what the public or loved ones tell you.
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Is it actually a higher percentage of the population, or is it just the effect of a spotlight? Also, can I be considered a poet even though I haven't published anything? so that if I did away with myself (see that technical jargon) would I be considered on the poet/writer suicide side? or the joe-blow suicide side?
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@G– You're absolutely right. The public tends to notice unnatural or a bad death when it happens to famous people. You could probably put together a convincing argument about all the joe nobodies in boring, meaningless jobs committing suicide because they don't have the creative abilities to express themselves.

Whether or not one needs to be nigh suicidal to be a creative genius, I don't know, but it's not a requirement to be good at your craft.
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i agree with kat...i consider myself a painter and i am bipolar...but i am far more productive when i am depressed.

it makes medication very difficult, because my mood is so much better, but then i am not creating anything and i absolutely love being so swept away in a painting fit!
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there is mental illness, and there is also attention. There have been accounts that writers who spend lengthy amounts of time alone begin to think that instead of writing such long books for a small amount of recognition, they could commit suicide, and go out with a big bang that will have there names seen everywhere, and with only five minutes effort involved. Suicide is a choice, normal death isn't. Feel sorry for those people.

Eva-Marchelline D'Zcholie
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I believe I was bi-polar since I was young. I don't remember a time when I wasn't depressed or manic. I was just diagnosed 3 weeks ago, and at 59 I may begin to quit having suicidal ideations. I write books and poetry. I am an INSF, and fit the profile to a tea. I've been made fun of all my life because of who I am. I'll see if the Limectal (sp?) helps. I don't want to kill myself, but the downward spiral is so scary that I wonder if one day I will just keep going down. Kinda scary to read about this, but I am who I am, and I accept myself, even if no one else does. I suppose I'm so far gone that the Lamictal won't really put a dent in my creativity, but hopefully the dark won't be quite so dark.
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The comment here that has most intrigued me is that which notes Virginia Woolfe's Adam's apple - given that there is no foolproof test for bipolar disorder in conjunction with the fact that untreated thyroid disorders present with similar emotional symptoms, it seems possible that she had a goiter!
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Hi there! I've found this particularly fascinating, so much so that I'd like to do a school project on the tragic suicides of famous authors. I was wondering if anyone could provide a list of some well-known authors who've commited suicide, preferably ones in the older literary periods. I would really appreciate it! I come, hat in hand, to benefit from anyone's wisdom. Thank you.
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In the universe of all poets and writers it seems like there is an enormous number of poets and writers who have not had mental disorders and who have not committed suicide.
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~

What i have found after years of intense inner work is that the causes of these states go very deep, perhaps even being past life issues, if that's your belief.

It has taken years of meditation, yoga, fitness, proper diet etc. to get to the point where i know the episodes, though damaging and draining, are not the end of the world.

And i can even at times have the ability to get
'on top' of a current emotional or psychological experience, transform the energy and heal the condition with awareness.

As far as medication goes, by far the best for me is to fry some cannabis in butter till very dark and consume
it. yes, that's right. i eat some of the mary jane and find a relieving, helpful and healing state of being.
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Wimps

Do you think life is just one big fun time joyride of love and dessert? Really? Happiness is the exception of existence, not the norm. Most of life is struggle, frustration, anger and depression. Hard work, anxiety, failure, getting knocked down and climbing back up, that is normal.

The good times, the happy events, the blessed miricles that occur, make it all worthwhile, but they are not going to happen every day, all day, and all night too.

Ninety Nine percent of you self diagnosed Bi-polar sufferers could be cured with a good swift kick in the pants.

Now get off my lawn.
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Solidarity often produces original thought at the cost of the undefinable disconnection with others. I personally had to make a decision as of how far I was willing to go for my writing, and it is true that I feel like a slave to it, more than the other way round.

Consider too that these creative types are self-admitted pioneers of the human experience by way of documentation. Adventuring into that dark cave can make anyone despondent over a long period, especially obsessive types, and those already predisposed to social conditions and depression. I don't believe it to be self-fulfilling prophesy for the most part however.
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randall-if you think that you have no clue how painful and crippling real depression is.

I'm on drugs for depression. With them I'm not in emotional agony all the time, only about half the time. I'm not looking for happiness, just releif form constant pain.
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This article is very interesting.
I aspire to be the best writer I can be in the future, since I'm only in grade 8, and a girl too I don't know what's ahead of me. Whether real or not, this theory states that I myself can be susceptible to suicide. We must all realize that whatever happens, we must hold on to dear life.I know there are obstacles ahead of me, and I will surely go through tough times. And if I would feel like a bell jar descends upon me, I will never let it stop me from striving on.

Hahaha! Sorry got a bit carried away :D
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Tamara - Sorry, I know this is morbid, but Plath did, in fact, put her head literally into the oven. She sealed the kitchen with towels and tape after leaving bread and milk for her children (and opening the window in their bedroom). She folded a kitchen towel, placed on the opened oven door and laid her head on it. We know this because of the testimony of those who found her (there was an inquest, which Ted Hughes attended, wherein her death was ruled a suicide). It was her doctor's belief that the anti depressants he had prescribed for her ironically contributed to her suicide,as the type of drug (mono oxidase inhibitor) can make a person more active but still feeling depressed, at the beginning of the treatment. What's striking for me personally, is that writers like Plath can write when depressed, that they are able to produce work. Anyone who has ever been depressed knows how difficult this must be. Plath wrote despite being depressed, not necessarily because of her depression.
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