I write with what may or may not be welcome news: Sylvia Plath’s fans are in a cult. They have taken possession of her and she needs rescuing.
I am late to this discovery, so the need to act quickly is pressing. I thought the long-held belief that Plath fans had built a cult around her a mere stereotype, a dated, nonsensical act of critical sexism constructed by dead white guys like Al Alvarez and Denis Donoghue who misunderstood Sylvia Plath’s ironic writing about selling her bones and her hair because they were blinded by misogyny and several truckloads worth of artistic envy, but, no—according to a document as recent as October 10, 2020, by a person no less credible than the internationally renowned biographer Lyndall Gordon, it’s true. The Cult of Sylvia Plath is real.
Given my very public love for Sylvia Plath, it may surprise some people that I was unaware of the cult. But I’ve never met another member. I have visited Plath’s grave, but I removed neither dirt nor any of her remains from the site, and I did not mix these remains with the ground-up beak of a pheasant I ritually sacrificed during a blood moon to re-animate Sylvia Plath. I’ve been to Plath’s archives, but I have never stolen her hair and set it aflame to summon her spirit at sunset on the winter solstice, and I’ve never joined a cult. I mean, no cults at all, but specifically not The Cult of Sylvia Plath. In this, I’m like my literary heroine, a modern woman who also never joined a cult, and definitely not her own.
Gordon appears to be in contact with Cult members, or has at least had a vague conversation with them about the kinds of Plath poems they love: “The Plath cult stress her poems about the doomed Medea and Electra.” If Gordon is reading this, and can speak to the Cult, may I suggest that she suggest that they back off, because Medea and Electra are under enough stress, and may also need rescuing. This could be a critical window. Further, can she ask The Cult of Sylvia Plath which poems about M and E they stress, as she never names them, and our Sylvia really liked to make with the scribbles so there are a lot of options: a veritable menu of Medea, an Electra buffet. There are so many possible ways to murder one’s mythical children to take revenge on your rat bastard husband and Sylvia loved them all. But I guess I don’t have to tell this to Lyndall Gorgon—ahem, Gordon– since she has obviously breached the confines of The Cult.
Which brings me to my point: If you are a member of The Cult of Sylvia Plath, I would love to meet you. I have questions regarding your history and practices, and your hostage of Sylvia Plath, a woman I long to meet. You can tweet at me @emilyvanduyne, if you’re allowed to do social media– I don’t know how cults work, because I have a university job where people pay me to teach about Sylvia Plath. I’m happy to share these questions in an organized fashion, either typed or handwritten depending again on how you are best able to communicate via the rules of your systematic group devotional veneration of Sylvia Plath, American poet. I’ll list just a few below.
As members of the Cult of Sylvia Plath, have you honed the psychic powers her husband Ted Hughes claimed she possessed?
(But I imagine his name is anathema at the COSP. On the other hand, based on my knowledge of cults which I have gathered in small part from avidly watching network news coverage of the Branch Davidians at the age of 13, and largely from the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, most cults have a charismatic polygamous male leader, no? But it’s unlikely you’d take on Ted Huge and his legendary fidelity as your charismatic polygamous male leader, or, given the same, that he’d take on the role. Let’s move on.)
Do you have A Sacred Book?
(If not, I have a first edition of Plath’s Winter Trees I spent too much money on one night, slightly drunk and perusing a British antique bookseller’s website. I could lend it out? It’s got some faint markings on the cloth binding, but other than that, it’s in great condition, a real steal. But I have to insist I get it back, and NO BLOODLETTING while you use it. NO exceptions. Full stop.)
Is there a uniform?
(Or like… ritual garb? I can’t help but think of handmaids, but that’s not very Plath-y, also an anachronism, but when has that ever stopped a poet? Under his… red eye/The cauldron of morning? Perhaps?)
Do you celebrate a Feast Day?
(I wouldn’t want to stereotype you and assume it’s February 11, the day Plath killed herself, so I’ll leave the question open. Maybe you celebrate her birthday (now that would be crazy). Maybe you celebrate her wedding day. Maybe you don conical bras, red bandeau headbands, get sloshed on whiskey on a bad date with a dude you’re not really into and then go looking for a hottie to yell poetry at before you bite them on the face and marry them four months later. Look, I don’t know, ok? This is why I’m reaching out.)
I should close by saying, I’m glad to know you’re out there. Someone needs to do the hard work of keeping Sylvia Plath a creepy mythological figure falsely enshrined in the critical canon as a suicidal man-hating maniac. Since the men won’t do it, I’m glad the task has fallen to you. Scholars and biographers, I know, have questions like, Why did Plath suddenly turn to racist and anti-Semitic tropes in her famous late poems, or, did post-partum depression lead partly to her death? But those can obviously wait. After all: why read Plath when you can rescue her?