A generation of cynics is being born who refuse to eat the reality sandwiches being served them

— Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri

Sylvia Plath

Even if you’ve read the most meagre bit of psychology, you’ve run across the “true self” -“false self” distinction in personality.

The discussion is always accompanied by a list of what each self causes in the lives of others, as well as the bearer. I don’t want to give away the ending but the false self never fares well in the ratings.  

In his bold 1951 essay, “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is,” the much-acclaimed innovative psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) says people begin to live only after they’ve found their true selves. All else is façadic foreplay.

I thought about the true-self - false-self distinction yesterday when I re-read the “Foreword” to the “Journals of Sylvia Plath” first published in 1982. It deals with false-self - true-self “stuff” in a puzzling way.

Bio-wise, Plath was a poet who seemed unable to escape the throes of despair. She solved the problem — after insulin and shock treatments — by taking her life. She was 30. To describe the details of where her two kids were when she stuck her head in an oven, is prurient. You can find out on your own.

The Foreword to the journals was written by poet Ted Hughes, who happened to be Plath’s husband for six years. What Hughes says about his wife’s search for who she was is mind-bending.

He says Sylvia struggled with who she presented to herself and to the world but the mind-bending part is when he says: “I never saw her show her real self to anybody.”

Astounding. If someone said that about me I’d be devastated.

Did Hughes mean his wife wore masks in her dealings with others? How could he tell? He starts to clarify but winds up bending the mind again.

He says Plath relied on her false-self, “Except in the last three months of her life” (December 1962, January and February 1963). I presume he means she finally became SYLVIA PLATH.

It had to be a source of relief for the poet, the true-self-self finally winning the war. But logic forces us to conclude that her true self, however well greeted at first, proved to be too much to bear.

I’m still looking for a description of the metamorphosis Hughes alludes to, the ways it showed toward him, toward the kids, and of course in her work. Had a door opened for Plath? Is that the appropriate metaphor?

Hughes says once Plath crossed her Rubicon “her real self, being the real poet, would now speak for itself, and would throw off all those lesser and artificial selves that had monopolized the words up to that point.”

In terms of work, and this is not ironic, Plath’s new “real poet self” produced a collection of poems, “Ariel,” that put her on the map of Foreverdom. Women especially continue to rate her very high.

When I first read Hughes’s assessment of his wife I wondered: If she found out, finally, who she was (the schisms being over) why did she see death as her only option? She should have been on the moon dancing with Fred Astaire.

Another thing about the journals is that Ted Hughes destroyed a batch of those toward the end. He said, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

While admitting to controlling the narrative of Sylvia Plath, Hughes says he was justified; he said he provided a palliative for the kids. But why would anyone who had achieved nirvana, shall we say, care if it all “hung out?”

And would not a true-self-self want the world to see what a true-self looks and behaves like? A self-sans-spin, despite traits of oddity. Was that not what William Burroughs in “Naked Lunch” and Allen Ginsberg with “Reality Sandwiches” were trying to accomplish?

When biographers began looking into Plath’s life, Hughes and his surrogate, sister Olwyn Hughes, used artifice to deflect people from getting at Plath’s true story.

Poet/writer Anne Stevenson in “Bitter Fame,” (1989) — which some say is the truest view of Plath — said Olwyn interposed herself so much in the project that the book was “almost a work of dual authorship.”

For any writer to make such a statement is extraordinary. It’s like an artist handing over her brushes and canvas to a passer-by and saying: paint on, Macduff.

Janet Malcolm in her brilliant “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes” (Knopf, 1994) takes on the true-self - false-self issues related to Plath but quickly takes aim at those controlling Plath’s narrative.

The book reads like a mystery, a who-done-it (like all Malcolm’s do) as she tracks down those intent on photoshopping Plath and, to mix metaphors, muddy the waters of veritas.

There are other pieces to the puzzle that need attention. First, the younger of Plath’s kids, Nicholas — who was left with his sister in the other room on Fitzroy Road — hanged himself in 2009. He was 47 and had been a successful academic. Some have commented on the trans-generation thing.

Nick’s sister, Frieda (now 58) — a poet, writer, painter — the other child in the room at Fitzroy — remains alive and fighting: she will not shy away from digging into all of her mother, especially at the end — and is always curious as to what her father was doing each step of the way.

Frieda (Hughes) wrote the Foreword to the newly-released (November 6, 2018) “The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963” (Harper) where Plath is there for all to see. For those interested in the life travails of a literary personage, it’s rich.

Frieda says her real concern was the 14 letters her mother wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, the last three years of her life, the last dated Feb. 4, 1963, a week before Sylvia died.

In this final letter, the poet says her grim-psych-pall-over-existence-self had returned, “What appals me is the return of my madness, my paralysis,” she says, “my fear & vision of the worst — cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.”

In an earlier letter she avers that when she was pregnant, Hughes knocked her around and she miscarried shortly after — though medical evidence shows she had a serious appendix problem and had gone out of her mind in a fit of jealousy.

She thought Ted was out with another woman and tore into tiny (non-stickable-back) pieces his recent work — a play, batches of poems — when there were no computers to back things up). She had destroyed a piece of his heart and he was never the same after that.

Ted found solace in Ms. Assia Wevill who, after Plath’s death, helped raise the kids — and even had a daughter, Shura, with Ted.

But Weevil ran into trouble too. She too stuck her head in an oven, taking Ted’s 4-year old daughter with her.

Though Hughes appears to have been upright in many ways, as husband and father, a lot of people say he brought Plath down. Some showed up at his readings and guerilla-warrior-like shouted: “murderer!” “murderer!” Poet Robin Morgan begins her poem ''The Arraignment” with, “I accuse/Ted Hughes.'”

And on the cemetery stone where “Hughes” appears after Sylvia’s name, marauders have come in the night to chisel the “Hughes” off.

Emily Gould in an enlightening essay “The Bell Jar at 40” — the “Bell Jar” being Plath’s only novel — says everything we know about Sylvia Plath requires “closer reading.”

She says then we see, “another, more nuanced story about Plath as a woman and as a writer, one that shows the writer’s sense of terror about the consequences of becoming herself.” That is, the consequences of becoming “That Self Which One Truly Is.” It is an issue folks don’t like to grapple with.

I mention this because America is going through a true-self - false-self conflict right now. And, looking from the outside in, I see not only a nation being torn apart but also a generation of cynics being born who refuse to eat the reality sandwiches being served them.