The Lancet Psychiatry | The merciless mirror: Sylvia Plath’s art, suicide, and influence

SYLVIA+FACEBOOK

The relationship between Sylvia Plath and suicide – the extent to which she glorified death in her work, and has been glorified for her death posthumously – has niggled at me since I was a teenager reading her for the first time. In an essay at university, I compared her to Medea based on a fairly overwrought reading of one line of Ariel: not strictly supported by the text, but the closest I could get to explaining the witchy and destructive power invested in her most famous work.

Yet the death she is famous for is a poor representative of her as a writer. It gives no account of her vivacious wonder at the miracle of her own children, for example, in a poem like You’re: “Right, like a well-done sum. / A clean slate, with your own face on.” Nor does it recognise her tremendous funniness: The Bell Jar is savagely witty, something that comes as a delightful surprise every time I go back to it.

When The Lancet Psychiatry commissioned me to write an essay about art, influence and the phenomenon of suicide contagion, it became an opportunity to reckon with all the parts of Plath I struggled to reconcile. The end result is something that made me understand her, and the cult around her, more than I ever have before. 

Sylvia Plath was 30 years of age when she died by suicide in 1963, and in her lifetime published only one volume of poetry and one pseudonymous novel. But in the subsequent decades, this material has been joined by a large body of posthumous work and has become the basis of a furiously contested mythology, profoundly shaping the understanding of the relationship between art and suicide. Indeed, her death inspired the landmark work of literary criticism on the subject: her friend Al Alvarez’s The Savage God.

Read the full essay at The Lancet Psychiatry (subscription or purchase required)

I blame the software

The PCC is a pretty scary institution. “Nothing makes editors scream louder than when they know a complaint is going to go to a formal adjudication”, says outgoing PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer: “I tell you, this really concentrates the mind – to be named and shamed in their own newspaper.” So, when the PCC tells a newspaper to do something – like, say, removing an excessively intrusive and graphic story from their website – you’d expect the terrified publication to comply.

Well, obviously that didn’t happen. But I bet the PCC has got some eyewatering punishments in place for those recidivists who fail to comply. I bet they fine the hell out of anyone who’s guilty of that sort of thing. So, I emailed to find out and this is the PCC’s description how the case proceeded:

The Daily Telegraph piece was initially removed when the Commission investigated the matter.  It reappeared due to a software error and has now – following our contact with the paper – been removed once more.

Software errors do happen, and maybe that really is how the Telegraph‘s article came to be available on the internet even though the PCC requested that it be removed. But if I was an editor in the process of withdrawing something potentially harmful from circulation, I’d probably try pretty hard to ensure it was permanently erased: partly from wanting to repair the original error, and partly because I’d expect an extraordinary bollocking if I didn’t comply. Apparently, that didn’t come into the Telegraph‘s thinking – reasonably enough, it seems, because the PCC aren’t going to do anything about it.

Self-destruction and self-regulation

Earlier this week, I was blogging about the reporting of suicide. This weekend, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column is a much more thorough treatment of the same subject. On the 20 November last year, many UK newspapers carried a story taken from the Press Association about a death by suicide. Complaints were lodged with the PCC against 14 of these papers; 12 complaints were upheld; one of the reports found against was in the Telegraph, and this is the one Goldacre writes about:

“Man cut off own head with chainsaw” was the headline: “A man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leave his repossessed home.” What followed this headline was not a news story: far from it. What the Telegraph published was a horrific, comprehensive, explicit, and detailed instruction manual.

In fact this information was so appallingly technical and instructive that after some discussion we have decided that the Guardian will not print it, even in the context of a critique. It gives truly staggering details on exactly what to buy, how to rig it up, how to use it, and even how to make things more comfortable while waiting for death to come.

I’ve read the article: if I was contemplating suicide and looking for a method, I now know everything necessary to copy this example. By the PCC’s own guidelines, it should never have been published. According to the PCC’s judgement, I shouldn’t be able to read it now:

[The Telegraph] suspended the article from its website following the contact from the PCC.

Which is funny, because I took this screengrab today (handbook bits blacked out):

Screengrab 28 March 2009

So, to review this cascade of twattery: the PCC has guidelines on how suicide should be reported. These guidelines were ignored in 12 cases. The PCC was especially critical of the manner in which the Telegraph‘s online article breached the code, and “expected that the situation would not be repeated”. Two months later, the material is still there and still extravagently explicit. Excellent self regulation there. Fearsome and authoritative as ever.

In the comments thread on the Bad Science blog, this was quickly dragged into freedom of speech bickering. “Freedom speech is not a zero sum game”, said one exasperated commentator: “Free speech and freedom of information is not freedom to shout about it.” This story could have been a news-in-brief. It could have excluded all the detailed instruction derived from the coroner’s report. It could have followed The Samaritans’ simple guidelines for reporting suicide in the least damaging way possible.

Not only did it fail on every particular, but the online article goes on to make things astonishingly worse. Have a look on the left at the “related articles” box: if death-by-chainsaw doesn’t appeal, a thoughtful Telegraph sub (or handy algorithm) has picked out five more power-tool and self-destruction related stories. How about making an exit via wild herbs? Hanging? Seriously, your suicide method could be just a click away, and the Telegraph‘s editorial policy is apparently to make sure you’ve got every detail you need to clinch your own fatality.