Tuesday, June 29, 2021

"One Sweet Ulcerous Ball": A Chronology

Aurelia Plath suffered from and wrote frankly about her stomach ulcer before studies in the 1980s proved that most chronic ulcers are caused by a bacterium, H. pylori, spread by person-to-person contact and treatable with antibiotics. Before then doctors said stress caused ulcers. In white-collar cases, it was “executive stress,” which gave those ulcers value as proof the sufferers had worked too hard and given too much.


So Aurelia very much wanted her ulcer story, and its dramatic surgical cure, written into the Plath narrative. She tastelessly told People magazine (October 27, 1975) about her ulcer, and in her introduction to Letters Home linked its origin and episodic activity to the burdens she carried as a wife, widow, and breadwinning mother. She linked ulcer attacks to Sylvia’s 1953 suicide attempt in Letters Home (138) and blamed those events for her 1955 subtotal gastrectomy in a letter to Judith Kroll (1 December 1978) and in notes for a speech in 1979. For the latter, Aurelia wrote, in Gregg shorthand, “Mention my operation following her [Sylvia’s] recovery for her breakdown. She had said, ‘You pretended it hadn’t happened.’ With 3/4 of my stomach removed, the long scar on my abdomen alone would not allow me to forget! I lived in dread of a recurrence.” (1)


Otto Plath’s final illness and leg amputation haunt Sylvia’s life and later creative work. Aurelia Plath’s 17-year illness, with its gruesome internal hemorrhaging, does not; or maybe it does and no one has yet perceived it. (2) Sylvia’s Journal belittles Aurelia’s bleeding as drama, calls her “one sweet ulcerous ball,” and mentions bad breath, a symptom of H. pylori infection. (3)


Aurelia in Letters Home wrote that her duodenal ulcer formed two years before her husband Otto’s death, meaning 1938. The family was then living in Winthrop to enjoy its beaches, so it is possible Aurelia became infected or co-infected with the parasitic Giardia duodenalis from the sewage piped into Boston Harbor. (4) In February 1943, the Plaths’ first winter in Wellesley, Aurelia hemorrhaged while shoveling snow and was hospitalized. In March, Sylvia mailed letters to Aurelia at Pratt Diagnostic Hospital, where Aurelia’s brother-in-law Joe Benotti headed the chemistry laboratory. Aurelia hemorrhaged again in July, and from summer camp Sylvia, age ten, wrote Aurelia c/o Aurelia’s sister, Dorothy Benotti, “Are you well? I worry when I don’t receive letters from you” (July 18).


Aurelia had unrelated surgery in September 1947. This is noted in Sylvia’s diary and commemorated in Sylvia’s poem “Missing Mother,” mailed to Aurelia at Carney Hospital. Brief and scattered mentions in Sylvia’s letters, and a few notes, then become our only clues to Aurelia’s health. The ulcer stirs in February 1951; its stressor is not clear. Aurelia’s mother, Sylvia’s “Grammy,” the Plath family housekeeper, falls ill in early 1953 and Aurelia is distraught. On May 13 Sylvia writes her brother that their mother is eating baby food “again.” Aurelia takes that summer off from teaching, but Sylvia’s suicide attempt in August and months of hospitalization vex the ulcer. It begins bleeding, Aurelia noted, in April 1954, but she might have kept this from Sylvia because it is July before Sylvia mentions her mother’s “nasty ulcer pains.” That September Sylvia chides her mother, “You know that any problem makes you sick.” On October 1, 1954, Sylvia writes Aurelia c/o The New England Medical Center, and the ulcer is an issue at least until November.


On January 29, 1955, Sylvia comforts Aurelia after another ulcer attack. There is yet another in April. Now Aurelia has been sick for a year. Admitted to Newton-Wellesley Hospital in May, Aurelia is intravenously fed to build her up for her gastrectomy. Then, the death-defying-mother moment: With doctors’ permission, Aurelia on June 6, 1955 travels in a station wagon, flat on a mattress, to Sylvia’s graduation from Smith College. One witness says Aurelia was carried on a litter to the ceremony grounds. The gastrectomy is June 10. On June 24, Sylvia writes Aurelia, “Welcome Home!,” and on July 6 writes her brother that Aurelia is convalescing and friends are lining up to see her.


Aurelia, and Napoleon, and that character on Mad Men—if their chronic ulcers came not from responsibilities but from H. pylori, are they still to be admired? Stress aggravates whatever ill one has, but it turns out that “executive stress” is a myth from a misbegotten study of rhesus monkeys, its result pushed by antacid manufacturers. The fact is that ulcers afflict low-status workers much more often than bosses. (5) Today a popular meme blames “working too hard, being strong for too long” for another life-threatening, invisible illness—depression; Sylvia’s cross.


(1) Box 9, folder 11, “Letters Home – Notes.” Sylvia Plath Papers, Smith College.

(2) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324990#symptoms. Sylvia Plath in summer 1951 overheard her employer, a physician, discussing a patient’s duodenal ulcer, and quoted his description of its symptoms in her journal, wondering how she might work it into a story. (Journals, entry 109, p. 87)

(3) Journals, December 12, 1958.

(4) The anti-parasitic drug Flagyl was not available in the U.S. until 1962.

(5) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-myth-of-executive-str/.

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