Sylvia Plath

Each day at least 10 people die of suicide in Canada, leaving behind seven to 10 so-called “suicide survivors.” And yet, the shame and stigma surrounding the taking of one’s own life has led to a troubling (and decidedly counterproductive) underreporting and lack of honest discussion about the problem. It’s a safe bet that many now reading this piece have been touched by suicide, whether they know it or not.

Indeed, the recent Nova Scotia government report “Preventing and Reducing the Risk of Suicide” notes that in an upward trend, about 124 residents of the province are known to succumb to suicide annually.  Numerous other suicide deaths in Nova Scotia are never officially recorded or publicized.

The Lionel Desmond Inquiry now probing the horrific 2017 murder-suicide of a family in Guysborough County has placed a much needed spotlight on the complex mental health issues and other societal factors that can lead to such devastating loss.

Media coverage of the Inquiry has also prompted reflections on my far less traumatic but nonetheless memorable encounter with a suicide survivor, the mother of poet Sylvia Plath. It was 57 years ago today that the writer, then age 30, committed suicide after making sure that her sleeping toddlers (“two children, two roses”) were safe in a nearby room.

I met Sylvia’s mother in the 1970s shortly after I’d begun college in a Boston-area suburb. Reportedly drawn to the enclave because of its excellent public schools, Aurelia Plath, a widow, had lived in the town since 1942. Then age 10 and already published, young Sylvia was soon lauded as one of the most gifted students in the community.

Encouraged by her mother, Sylvia joined a prison ministry during her teenage years. “She traveled into Boston with her Sunday school group to visit the Charles Street jail,” writes Andrew Wilson in Mad Girl’s Love Song (2013) which details Plath’s life before her ill-fated marriage to British poet Ted Hughes. There, Plath mingled with a “smattering of murderers, gunman and thieves” during church service, Wilson notes.

As for me? Mindful of the many 1960s-70s era Black freedom fighters who’d been incarcerated (among them Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Assata Shakur), I’d entered college determined to become a prison warden.

In addition to my coursework, I longed for “hands-on” experience in the field of corrections and was thrilled to discover that a group of local women visited inmates at a nearby facility. I arranged to join them.

On a bright Sunday morning, I was picked up at my dorm. The driver introduced me to the other passengers whose names I barely registered but met with a nod. Settled into the backseat, I did note the lustrous crown of auburn hair on the woman next to me. It stood in stark contrast to her somber demeanour.

After clearing security at the prison we were escorted into a chapel for worship service. I don’t recall the sermon. But I’ll never forget the inmates who sat, stony-faced, on the opposite side of the sanctuary surrounded by armed guards. “This might not be a fun career,” I thought to myself.

After church, visitors were led to another room to “socialize” with the prisoners. Directed toward a ring of folding chairs, I took a seat. By chance, my backseat companion on the morning drive sat directly across from me.

Eyes trained on a stream of sunlight from a distant window, I listened as the inmates (still under armed guard) and guests introduced themselves. After a few people had spoken, the woman from the car said her name; one that hadn’t sunk in when I’d first met her: Aurelia Plath.

In the sliver of silence before the next voice, I locked eyes with the woman whose daughter, in the small hours of February 11, 1963, had gassed herself in a frigid, London flat. Aurelia Plath held my gaze until a mutual flash of recognition passed between us. She knew that I knew. And vice versa.                                                               

Astonished by the realization that I was in the presence of Sylvia Plath’s mother, I went blank. I couldn’t concentrate as I thought about the brilliant writer who’d chronicled her debilitating depression in The Bell Jar and later, in Ariel, the posthumous poetry collection (“The woman is perfected”) that secured her international acclaim.

Back then, I didn’t have the capacity to convey my condolences to Aurelia Plath nor to understand the impact of our encounter in that setting. But I was indelibly shaped by the experience which effectively ended my prison warden ambitions. In hindsight, I know I couldn’t handle all the sorrow that marked the day.

Thinking now about Afghanistan war veteran Lionel Desmond, his mother Brenda, wife Shanna, and daughter Aaliyah, I recall the words Aurelia Plath penned in her book Letters Home (1975): “Although Sylvia had for so long managed to be gallant … some darker day than usual had temporarily made it seem impossible to pursue.”

And it’s not been lost on me that the cause of Sylvia Plath’s death was first reported as viral pneumonia. There was no mention of suicide.

If you are in distress or considering suicide, there are places to turn for support. Nova Scotia’s Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team can be reached at (902) 429-8167 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also has information about where to find help.

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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