Believing Sylvia Plath: How Our Culture Continues to Blame the Victims of Male Violence

In a recent piece for Bookforum, the critic Moira Donegan called Christine Blasey Ford one of our culture’s “disposable heroes.” Heroic for going public about her alleged assault by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; disposable because we know what happened, in the end. During the now-famous hearings on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2018, Blasey Ford was nervous, but clear, “superlatively credible,” Donegan writes.

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According to Blasey Ford’s new memoir, One Way Back, she had wanted to come forward because she believed what Brett Kavanaugh did to her at a high school party morally disqualified him to serve on the highest court of the nation: “She left the Capitol exhausted but relieved,” Donegan writes. “She had been perfect up there. But all he had to do was be angry.” Four years later, Kavanaugh helped to overturn Roe v. Wade.

I risked being called a liar twice: first, in my claims about Plath’s experience of intimate partner violence, and also in my own.

In that time, as a result of consistent and credible threats to her life and the lives of her family members, Blasey Ford’s world has imploded. #MeToo has been functionally abandoned as a movement, now seen as a “cultural reckoning,” despite the fact that almost half the women in the country can no longer access legal abortion, and Donald J. Trump, a man credibly accused of sexual assault and domestic violence, may be re-elected president in November. As Donegan points out, far more attention is paid, on-screen and in print, to the men accused of wrongdoing than the women who came forward.

For the first year after the Kavanaugh hearings, Blasey Ford tells us, she could barely leave her home (the one she had to move to; her prior home was now a target for those threatening to do her harm). Her parents and brothers, members of the D.C. elite where she was raised, have cut her from their lives. By the time of the lockdown, she was relieved: wearing a mask hid her face from dangerous recognition.

I read Donegan’s piece in a paradoxical state—what I might call placid rage. I had read the One Way Back when it debuted. It brought back the time: marching on campus with my students, watching Kavanaugh testify and laughing out loud at his performative anger, all the while knowing none of it would matter, probably, and it didn’t—off he went to the Supreme Court, with our fate in his hands. Then, I teetered between gnashing my teeth and crying in the car on my way to work, banging the steering wheel as NPR regaled me with the latest horrors of the Trump administration. Now, I sit, quietly furious, and write.

When Blasey Ford testified, I was already at work on Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation, a book which comes out this week. The year before, “new” letters by Plath to her psychiatrist had emerged, ones that had been hidden for almost fifty years. In them, Plath wrote that she had been beaten by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and miscarried as a result. There was a literary scandal, one in which various writers professed to be shocked at this news. Hughes’s widow, Carol, made a statement to The Guardian, which broke the story, that anyone who knew Hughes well knew how “absurd” Plath’s claims were.

I was in my third year on the tenure-track at a local university, at the time, so the work I was doing on Plath was scholarly; but I couldn’t resist writing a quick op-ed about my absolute lack of shock at Plath’s claims. The evidence that Hughes had abused her had been there all along, for anyone who bothered to look, or listen. Or, more importantly, believe Sylvia Plath.

The op-ed landed me an agent, and then a book deal. Despite my certainty that it would be more than possible to write a “#MeToo book” about Sylvia Plath, it took me a long time to finish it. Partly because in the time after I signed the contract, in fall 2019, the world turned upside-down: Covid-19 landed my two children home for a full year, and I had a surprise baby in November 2020, at the age of 40. And partly because I was a little terrified. In my head, I rehearsed the litany of evidence of Plath’s experiences of marital violence, and the careful feminist theoretical framework I had to support it, and opened my laptop, full of confidence. And then I imagined the reviews, echoes of Carol Hughes’s party-line—Plath was a liar, her claims were ridiculous. I wrote a lot of wishy-washy drafts.

My terror was not just to do with the reviews. A small part of the book is about my own history, the two years I lived with a violent partner, a man who cut me off from my family, and physically and emotionally abused me and our infant son. My story was part of the theoretical framework of the book—feminist philosophers like Miranda Fricker and Kristie Dotson have written extensively about how our refusal to take seriously the experiences of survivors of rape and domestic violence keeps us from recognizing their experiences, even as they stare us in the face. In Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation, I argue that this has kept us from really hearing Plath when she writes about intimate partner violence and sexual assault. I also write that, in my own abusive relationship, I had experienced both; it was these experiences that helped me better understand Plath’s life and work when I revisited them, as an adult and a survivor.

One experience I repeatedly had was not being believed. My ex was a past-master at DARVO—the acronym social scientists use, meaning “Defend/Attack/Reverse Victim and Offender.” He was 6’ 6” tall; I was five feet on a good day, and had just had a baby, who was usually strapped to my chest, nursing. But, when I was out, he would trash our apartment, take photos of the mess, then send them to his parents, claiming I had destroyed it in a rage during which I had also physically attacked him. He was not above self-harm, which he would also photograph, telling people I had caused it. This happened, conveniently for him, in the small southeast Texas town where he had moved us, thousands of miles from everyone I knew and loved in New Jersey. His parents lived there, which was part of the point—they were supposed to support and protect the baby and me while their youngest son attempted to get sober. Once he turned them against me, I had nowhere to go when he turned violent. So, one October morning, we fled.

I was aware, then, that if I wrote this book as I envisioned it—and I did—I risked being called a liar twice: first, in my claims about Plath’s experience of intimate partner violence, and also in my own. And I knew there would be another hit coming. Some writer, somewhere, would say that I couldn’t write about Plath’s marriage because I didn’t have enough objectivity. That, rather than being able to better understand her life because I had experienced something similar—something so many women experience—I was just another messy woman, screwed up by abuse, imagining what isn’t there.

Kate Manne, another philosopher whose work helped me frame Loving Sylvia Plath, writes about this phenomenon in her 2017 book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Misogyny, she tells us, is “self-masking. Trying to draw attention to the phenomenon is liable to give rise to more of it.” I thought of this on Saturday morning, when the first of the reviews for Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation came out, by Julia M. Klein, in the Washington Post, in which Klein writes that in the book, I myself claim that I lack the critical distance necessary to unpack Plath’s marriage to Hughes.

On the contrary. Although my personal experiences probably make up three thousand words of a 300-page book—the rest is about Sylvia Plath—my argument is always that living through an experience makes us better attuned to understanding it. This is how, generally, we see the world—surgeons train surgeons. Mothers lean in to tell other mothers what they’re in for, and how to survive. We don’t dispute this until we come up against women taking on the power structures, both personal and institutional, that allow for the abuse and silencing of women.

The problem is not the people who choose to come forward—it’s those who…ignore or shame those willing to speak out, in repeated acts of punitive misogyny.

In the case of Sylvia Plath, that abuse and silencing was, and is, both personal and institutional. Because Hughes was famous in Plath’s lifetime and continued onto even greater acclaim after she died, the institutions of publishing and literary criticism had a vested interest in presenting her as a madwoman, to protect and sanction Hughes. In her review for the Post, Klein argues that Hughes is also “a tragic figure,” despite his “rampant infidelities and worldly successes.” In the comments section (I know; I know; don’t read the comments), one reader argues that Hughes is surely innocent of violence against Plath because he was named Poet Laureate by Queen Elizabeth II in 1984, a post he held until his death in 1998.

Neither writer, it seems, has considered Hughes in light of Christine Blasey Ford’s reasoning for coming forward against Kavanaugh, in 2018—that sexual assault, or wife-beating, or any number of violent crimes, should perhaps make one unfit to hold these offices, which should embody a moral high-ground. But men like Ted Hughes and Brett Kavanaugh have rarely been held to account; instead, they get promoted.

Which, in the end, is why I wrote this book. I agree with Andrea Robin Skinner, that telling the truth helps to rid us of shame, a crushing and silencing emotion. The problem is not the people who choose to come forward—it’s those who, as Kate Manne writes, ignore or shame those willing to speak out, in repeated acts of punitive misogyny. When I went searching for other women who had experienced violence at Ted Hughes’s hands, I assumed I would find it buried in archives, and some of it was. But most was long-published, and simply ignored.

In Klein’s review of Loving Sylvia Plath, she writes that I reported an old, uncorroborated story that Hughes had strangled Plath on a hillside, during their honeymoon, as though I simply copied and pasted it into chapter six of the book. She makes no mention of the fact that I rooted out the long-buried source of the story, supported it with the statistical reality that strangulation is one of the most common forms of intimate partner violence, and found another published report of Hughes strangling a lover during a tryst—in Burnt Diaries, Emma Tennant’s memoir of her time with Hughes. It was published twenty-five years ago and roundly ignored by a press who accused Tennant of hanging out the dirty laundry of a “great man.”

It might seem absurd to call Plath a “disposable hero.” She has not had to live with the consequences of writing publicly about the violence in her marriage. She died before she could, killing herself in February of 1963. It was fifty years before #MeToo, but just prior to the advent of the movement for Women’s Liberation, which saw in her poetry a woman trying to break free from a violent marriage, and wrote about it as such. Too often, those women were ignored, miscast as radicals and cult-members, or castigated as hysterical and shrill.

Which is, not coincidentally, precisely the word Julia M. Klein used to describe my own writing on violence against Plath, in The Washington Post: “‘Let us tolerate no bystanding,’ [Van Duyne] writes. ‘Let us shriek.’ That shriek may be a salutary provocation. But it can also become shrill and reductive.” In a potent irony, Klein either ignores or does pick up on the fact that, with those lines, I was aping Plath’s poem “Elm.” Originally titled “The Elm Speaks,” it was written and revised as Plath’s marriage was disintegrating and includes the lines, “A wind of such violence/Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.” Whether she realized it or not, Klein was calling Plath “shrill,” as well as a woman writer, another survivor, trying to give credence to her claims. The more we try to call attention to misogyny, the more it is heaped on our heads.

Nevertheless, we go on. I’ll keep writing about violence against women; I’ll keep writing about Sylvia Plath. And this week, on the West Coast for a book tour, I’m giving myself a present, some “shame-busting medicine”: a tattoo of the word shrill, in elegant script, on my left bicep.


Emily Van Duyne, Loving Sylvia Plath

Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation by Emily Van Duyne is available from W.W. Norton & Company.

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