Friday, December 30, 2022

Too Busy To Drink Sylvia's Blood

"Sylvia" the movie, 2003

Aurelia Plath taught five days a week during the academic year and usually summer school at Boston University. When her children Sylvia and Warren were in college Aurelia also tutored on weekends so they could buy clothing as good as their peers'. [1] When we realize that from 1942 Aurelia worked full time with a twice-daily 40-minute commute, plus evenings at home with two dependent parents and student papers and class planning to do, plus seeing friends and paying bills, and having (please note!) a son she cared for as much as she did her daughter, and personally liking to read and needing to sleep, Aurelia didn't have much time to suffocate Sylvia and drink her metaphorical blood.

Sylvia only imagined Aurelia was preoccupied with Sylvia. Like a much younger child, Sylvia seemed unaware that her mother's life was already full.

From her girlhood summer camp days until her death Sylvia wrote her mother weekly, often more. What if instead of saying Sylvia wrote so many letters because her mother needed reassurance, try taking the view that Sylvia was the insecure one, wanting to occupy the center of her mother's world and consume her time and resources despite the miles between them. 

(No working woman of forty-five needs an eighteen-year-old's reassurance.)

Aurelia told a reporter in 1979, "They say [Sylvia] wrote the letters to keep me happy, to hide the darker side. Sylvia? Putting herself out day after day? The reason she wrote those letters was to get a reply, and she always did. I wrote them on my lunch hours, with my sandwich beside me." [2] We learn from Sylvia's volumes of letters about Sylvia's dependence on Aurelia not only for letters but for favors and support: typing and mailing manuscripts, banking, giving feedback about her new poems, shopping and sending money and packages.

Sylvia wrote from college so often that Aurelia sometimes had little to report except that Grammy had baked a cake last night. Sylvia read her mother's letters aloud to her roommate Marcia Brown to make fun of such trivia [3]. Although only ten mailings from Aurelia to Sylvia survive, from those and from Sylvia's replies we can see Aurelia's letters typically described family news, or books Aurelia was reading, and gave advice that Sylvia read as infantilizing or manipulative.

If genuinely bothered by her mother's letters Sylvia could have replied to them less often or not at all--or with honesty. But she did not. Casually we say "Sylvia wrote only what her mother wanted to hear," but read the letters and see how often she wrote her mother about distressing happenings and fearful moods; and no one knows what Aurelia wanted to hear. Maybe Aurelia wanted her lunch hour for her lunch. Sylvia's was the almost physical dependence, calling her mother's letters a "sustaining life force," and, when asking Aurelia for a quick reply, "Well do send me an infusion of energy, it will do me more good than thyroid."

[1] ASP to Leonard Sanazaro, Lilly.

[2] Robertson, Nan; NYT Book Review, October 9, 1979.

[3] Harriet Rosenstein's interview with Marcia Brown Stern, Emory.

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