Yesterday I read obituaries and tributes for Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who killed himself a few days ago, aged 47. He suffered from severe depression and had spent much of his adult life as a fisheries biologist in Alaska. I don’t know if the depression was inherited from his mother, who killed herself in 1963, leaving behind the brilliant and controversial collection of poems published as Ariel. I think that the suicide of a parent, even unremembered, is a difficult legacy to live with — for Nicholas, it was echoed by the suicide of his step-mother Assia Wevill and when he was five years old. Assia, in despair at Ted Hughes’ refusal to commit himself to her, killed both herself and her small child Shura. We understand so little about suicidal ideation, or the forces and trajectories leading to that choice of death over life, that it is not worth speculating about. I am highly reactive to reports of suicide because of my mother and try to give this obssessive notion some reflective space while not encouraging the prurient interest. So sad –
For years I thought of Ted Hughes as deeply misogynist and sadistic, chronically unfaithful and somebody who blocked readers’ access to the unpublished work of Plath, her letters and diaries, while profiting from her posthumous success. Something of a vampire.
Then some years ago, I opened the Guardian Review and read Hughes’ poems for Sylvia in the very tender and regretful anthology entitled Birthday Letters. I had misjudged him, in part as women of my generation were prone to misjudge men, and I reread Hughes with a new openness and admiration.
Honesty. Openmindedness. Willingness. So hard to maintain these attitudes, to reshape ways of habituated and calcified thinking, a closedness that once seemed final and restful. Now in early sobriety, I struggle with receptivity, to listen and stay with the discomfort of new ideas and experiences and ways of interpreting experience. To allow the aging self to become more flexible, fluid, unruly, to be moulded anew, to begin again. All very invigorating in some respects –
And my dear unsober friend Karin called me early this morning to say she is utterly depressed and at a loss. She feels she is coming to the end of her tether. She does not know how to go on.
‘Is it hurting badly enough for you to want to stop drinking?’ I asked a little awkwardly, hearing the slurred and unhappy little voice at 6am.
Good God, no! ‘ she shot back at me. ‘Anything but that.’
So there we go. She is thinking of buying herself a secondhand DIY electrolysis machine on the blackmarket so that she can remove stubborn hairs from her chin and upper lip that make her feel old before her time. I wince at the thought of merry drunken escapades with electrified needles and unsteady hands. And the Fool’s lines from King Lear come back to me as I tweezer out my own stubborn and unwanted hairs in front of the bathroom mirror: ‘You should not have grown old before you had grown wise.’ Ouch.