Letters

"What prolonged Plath's life wasn't psychoanalysis. It was poetry." Readers weigh in on Sylvia Plath and her psychiatrist. Plus: The archivist of Don DeLillo's papers shames us for our blue-state jokes.


Salon Staff
December 3, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "Sylvia and Ruth," by Karen Maroda.]

I thought that Barnhouse's "ethical dilemma" about sending the money to get Sylvia Plath out of the diabolical situation she was in, and thus possibly extending Plath's life by some more years, was/is one of those nonsensical pointlessnesses that psychiatry thrives on. It's also one of the reasons psychiatry doesn't work: The whole concept of "transference" is one of those non-provable pseudoscientific razzgoos of the "profession." I don't doubt Maroda's sincerity in judging Barnhouse for being "too involved" -- but her sincerity is a product of too much faith in something that statistics show over and over again has a very limited success rate (if any).

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What Barnhouse should have done was step up to the plate and save another human being. Barnhouse's mean husband would have exploded? 1) How dare he? and 2) so what? What the hell kind of an independent woman was she, then? She worked; she didn't have her own money? Her business was her business; were his fingers on the purse strings of her practice as well? Don't talk to me about the times -- we're talking about the 1950s, not the 1850s or the 1450s.

On the strength of those two bits of information -- that this "independent," practicing "scientist" can be excused, because of her "profession," for not helping someone whom she cared about, whom she knew to be in distress, and that part of her reason for not helping was the wrath of her own nasty husband (and she hung around him for another four years after her marriage was "over"? A psychiatrist? In that co-dependent/abusive a relationship? What is that? Not a mental health poster.) -- makes me quake for all those who are in therapy and/or who believe in this "profession/science" as a source of help for the human spirit or soul. It's so sad that Sylvia didn't have one good friend to whom she'd have been willing to listen, rather than having had her life in the hands of pseudo-Freuds and pseudo-friends, making up their nonsense as they went along.

-- Ardis Wade

I just wanted to say that this is one of the best articles I have ever read on Salon. There is a lack of the characteristic self-righteousness, replaced with the author's compassion and perseverance with her subject. She doesn't judge Ruth despite her knowledge of her, but lays out all the evidence for the readers to decide. I appreciate this greatly, and were this longer, or a book, I predict that I would be moved to tears.

-- Sara

Like Karen Maroda, I've had a longtime interest in the work of Sylvia Plath and my own doctoral work has been in psychoanalytically oriented psychology. However, I find her piece on Plath and her psychiatrist -- basically a tale of transference -- a good example of the simplifications that have come to characterize psychology.

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Maroda writes about Barnhouse and Plath in somewhat the same way Freud wrote his own case histories, which he called "healing fictions" in 1939. By intertwining details of the two women's lives from the perspective of the psychoanalyst, she gets to "prove" her own theories on transference and countertransference.

In other words, she brings her own transference to bear on the material. Does Maroda feel that, by elevating the "Lesbos" incident to such importance in the story, she needs to disclose, transferentially, that she's on the board of a publication about gay and lesbian psychotherapy, that she's written about erotic transference between therapists and clients of the same sex before? Is that what really motivates her story more than the professed motive? Does she need to disclose her own feelings about Freud's habit of lending money to clients and feeding them occasionally when she questions boundaries in the Plath analysis?

The point is that every relationship is colored by transference and its revelations are often no more than self-serving narratives -- whether Maroda's, Barnhouse's or Plath's (especially in Plath's sad purchase of the maternal-abandonment narrative that Maroda presents like a smoking gun instead of a possible symptom of being "therapized," a condition Barnhouse was obviously anxious for her to avoid).

Most disturbing to me: Nowhere in the piece, despite its preoccupation with the transference, does Maroda question what Barnhouse learned from Plath about the psyche. (Freud called poets like Goethe his mentors.) This effectively reinforces the doctor-patient hierarchy and discounts what seems obvious to me. What prolonged Plath's life wasn't psychoanalysis. It was poetry. Her poems are "healing fictions" full of images capable of both destabilizing and stabilizing the psyche. One reads them and feels how every imagination contains the worlds of Bosch and Monet. What hubris to think that therapy, which so often reduces images to diagnostic and prescriptive clichís, can save a poet, or any person, from her own elected fate!

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I found Barnhouse to be quite realistic in her talk about Plath. I am guessing that Barnhouse intuited that the exercise of her imagination was Plath's likely salvation and that is why she supported her return to school and her later move. What Maroda calls Barnhouse's blind spots may not be a failure of analysis. Are they not possibly the retrospective projections of her own ideology?

By the way, I do appreciate Salon's ongoing critique of the psychology field.

-- Cliff Bostock

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[Read "Writing in the Margins," by Scott Thill.]

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC), home of Don DeLillo's papers, was begun as a "center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation," by Harry Huntt Ransom in 1957. Since then, the University of Texas and a plethora of private donors have worked to ensure that a highly trained staff of archivists, preservationists and librarians are able to preserve and exhibit some of the nation's greatest art and literary treasures.

As the archivist who processed and arranged DeLillo's papers it saddens me to see that you have used your column to obliterate the difference between those who treasure the lessons of history through art and literature and those who may wreak havoc on our culture. I spent several months of my working life engrossed in DeLillo's writings and personal correspondence. It was my job, duty and pleasure to ensure that the body of work he entrusted to the University of Texas was processed and arranged in such a way that its provenance was preserved. Thus, scholars for generations forth will be able to learn from the primary sources of a great man who has spent his life crafting stories to illuminate his vision of our world and her people.

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It is true that DeLillo is a New Yorker, but a New York institution did not come forward to house his papers. A Texas institution recognized his influence on American culture and cared enough to step up, purchase his papers, and provide a permanent and safe home for this important collection. I understand (and share) your disgust regarding Bush's reelection, but to use that as a catalyst to degrade the fact that a Texas institution received Don DeLillo's archive is a sophomoric jab. To conflate the whole of the state of Texas with George W. Bush demonstrates, at best, intellectual dishonesty and basic ignorance. At worst, it shows exactly the kind of closed-mindedness that you believe makes Austin a city less worthy to house DeLillo's collection than New York, Yonkers, or Newark. Beware that provincialism comes with more faces than those shown in the South or in supposed "red states." Not everyone in Texas is benighted and toothless, and the stereotypical resident of Crawford is not representative of the state. In fact, even Crawford has a few residents who see beyond the media shine of their pseudo-hometown boy.

Here are the Web sites to the HRC and the Web page outlining its history.

If you have not seen it, the finding aid for DeLillo's collection may also be found here.

The finding aid is an interesting document to read, at least for those of us who find literary archives, regardless of location, to be fascinating capsules of history. Other notable collection finding aids that are available online include those for Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.

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If you ever make it to Austin I would be happy to show you around and perhaps open your mind to the idea that there can be goodness, beauty and culture (sometimes even in the variety of hipper-than-hip cool) in Texas.

-- Katherine Pelletier


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