Inside a mental breakdown: Re-reading ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

the-bell-jarThe Bell Jar is the only novel written by the late, great American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide aged 30 in 1963, a month after it was published.

I had read the book, which chronicles a young woman’s mental breakdown,  a long time ago, whilst living in London. Battling my own mental health issues at the time, I found it a balm against my own inner torments.

Then, recently, whilst browsing a pile of books offered for free at the local library, I came across a copy of The Bell Jar. Curious to see what kind of effect it had on me 15 years later, in a much better frame of mind, I snapped it up and re-read it – twice.

Set in the summer of 1953, it tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an attractive young writer and aspiring poet (the fictional version of Sylvia Plath) from the quiet suburbs of Boston who finds herself – for the first time – in the Big Apple. Esther is there because she, along with a host of other bright, young girls, has won a writing competition to spend a month working for New York fashion magazine,  Ladies Day.

Written in the first person, in the confessional style of a diarist, Esther begins:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York

Esther knows something is wrong, because instead of having the “time of her life’ amid the glamorous lifestyle of lavish lunches, movie premiers and photo shoots with her new, excitable friends, she’s thinking about  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple accused of spying for the Soviet Union and who were executed for treason in June 1953.

Esther’s already fragile state of mind grows increasingly more cynical and gloomier during her stay in Manhattan as she encounters situations and people that frighten, disappoint and disorientate her: a wild night out with her rebellious friend Doreen ends up with Esther feeling like the “only extra person in the room”, a lunch where she deliberately over indulges on caviar ends with Esther suffering an awful bout of food poisoning while her plan to seduce the kindly United Nations simultaneous interpreter Constantin, ends in failure.  Then, on her last night in the city, she is viciously attacked at a country club by her date and narrowly avoids being raped.

Staring out the window of her hotel room at the “weird, green, Martian Honeycomb” shaped United Nations building on her last night, Esther muses:

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

She goes on to say…

The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not been there at all, for all the good it did me.

Esther’s poetic narration reminded me of Holden Caufield, the rebellious anti-hero of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who wandered around Manhattan calling out all the ‘phoneys’ in the world. Esther, like Holden Caufield, can spot a phoney a mile away and she finds nothing inspiring in the glitz and glamour of Manhattan life.

The day after Esther is nearly raped at the country club, she takes the train home, her face covered in claw marks. This marks the start of second part of the book: Esther’s return to the outer suburbs of Boston and her mother’s house.

Here the ‘Bell Jar’ starts to descend over her after she hears she has not been accepted into a summer creative writing program.

I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded around me and I couldn’t stir.

The Bell Jar – a vessel used in scientific laboratories to form and contain a vacuum – is the way Esther visualizes her suffocating depression as a physical barrier that traps and holds her swirling, darkening cloud of suicidal thought, with no means of escape.

The shape of the Bell Jar is also mirrored in Esther’s aborted suicide attempt, when she tries to sink under the ocean whilst swimming to a rock far out to sea ,and then later  when she hides herself in an alcove underneath her mother’s house and takes an overdose of slipping pills.

Miraculously Esther survives, but ends up in successive psychiatric hospitals,where she undergoes electroshock therapy, a treatment she describes in all its clinical detail, evoking through her poetic imagery, the horror of the experience:

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whe-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

While this may seem like a demoralising book to wade through from start to finish, it has the strange, reverse effect of being life- affirming.

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Sylvia Plath

This I put down to the brilliance of Plath’s writing, which is full of the powerful imagery that made her poetry so magnetic and Plath’s ability to draw deeply from the well of her own personal experiences of dealing with severe depression to bring Esther’s mental state so vividly to life.

Few writers have given us such access to the inner workings of the young, intellectual mind, brilliant and yet so vulnerable to collapse as through the character of Esther Greenwood.

The truth is that just about everyone is susceptible to losing their mental footing, to slipping into despair, to doubting their own cognitive faculties.

It is of course a profound tragedy though that writing the book did not provide enough of a cathartic experience for Sylvia Plath to sustain her own will to live.

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Suburban secrets: why men should read Liane Moriarty too

big-lies-little-liesI suppose I consider myself something of a pioneer for reading two novels – Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret – by the best-selling Australian writer Liane Moriarty.

Expecting chic-lit drivel, I found them surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking as they delved into dark secrets and lies in modern-day Australian suburbia.

The nearest book I could think by way of comparison was Chris Tsiolkas’s celebrated novel The Slap, with a central plot revolving around a suburban Sydney barbecue where someone slaps another person’s misbehaving child and the ramifications and ripples that flow out as a result.

Moriarty delves into similar territory, but is in my mind the better of the two writers. She’s a more expert crafter of believable characters and more revealing of the psychological landscape of  life in the suburbs.

Both of Liane Moriarty’s books were passed on to me by my wife with recommendations from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. All three raved about them and encouraged me to broaden my reading habits beyond the  serious-minded Booker Prize winning stuff I tend to get lost in.

Also spurring me on was Liane Moriarty’s inclusion in the Australian Financial Review‘s (the newspaper I write for) Cultural Power List alongside the more well-known provocateurs like broadcaster and journalist Waleed Aly and football great and aboriginal activist Adam Goodes.

The Power List judges noted that Moriarty has sold a staggering six million books and has become a Hollywood player with HBO turning Big Little Lies into a mini-series starring Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Big Little Lies begins with a murder at a High School parents social night at Pirriwee Primary, a fictional coastal town near Sydney.

We don’t know who has died or who the killer is. We only know the suspects  – a motley crew of kindergarten parents – which Moriarty introduces us to as she traces the events over the proceeding months that led up to the fateful night.

Here we meet inspiring women like Jane, a battling  24-year-old single mother, who must defend her son Ziggy from accusations he is a kindergarten bully. There’s also the gorgeous trophy wife Celeste, sickenly abused by her ultra-wealthy husband and Madeline, the do-good mother on her second marriage, struggling to maintain a relationship with her strong-willed, idealistic daughter.

husbands-secretThe Husband’s Secret  is a modern-day take on the fable of Pandora and her box. A much darker book, it explores how the lives of three young woman are impacted by the murder a young girl that happened 30 years ago and a letter – found by accident – that reveals a terrible truth.

Here we find Cecilia, the Tupperware selling super-mom whose idyllic suburban life (a bevy of bright and healthy kids, nice house and loving husband) is about to crumble; Rachel Crowley, the still-grieving mother of the murder victim, her daughter Janie, who becomes convinced she has identified her daughter’s killer; and advertising exec Tess, whose husband has just confessed to being in love with her cousin and best friend.

Moriarty creates these intricate little suburban universes set against the familiar backdrop of school playgrounds, teacher-parent meetings and breakfasts in sunlit kitchens populated by characters straight out of our own everyday lives, who must, with great bravery, deal with unexpected events that threaten to destroy their domestic idyll.

As Nicola Wakefield Evans, one of the Power List judges put it: “[Liane Moriarty] talks about everyday life and marries it to a theme that we’re all grappling with – same-sex marriage, multiple-parented children, domestic violence. And she’s a beautiful writer.”

As a man, I think reading these books can only add to the often blinkered macho Australian male view of the world, which still casts women in the role of submissive or victim or emotional weakling. It’s also offers great insights into how women see men.

For women dealing with similar difficult situations as characters in the book, be they single parents, abused partners or just someone who does not understand their husband or their kids, I imagine these books provide a great deal of comfort and validation, perhaps even ways to cope and move forward.

In an interview she gave the Guardian in 2014, Moriarty (who recently turned 50 and has two kids) explained how she drew inspiration from real life stories told to her from other writers and friends. She also revealed herself as someone who has thought deeply about the issues in her books:

“Often I think bullying –especially in its adult, verbal forms – is the sort of thing you don’t realize till the end of the day, and it’s a horrible feeling to realize something wasn’t just a bland statement, but was actually cruel. But then we’re all capable of things that are breathtakingly cruel,” she told the website.

In her fiction, Moriarty has tapped right into the psychology of suburban life: how men and women view each other, how we bury big and small secrets from each other, how we think about our children and other people’s children, how we cling to the past or try to shake it off and how we can sometimes find ways to make peace and move on.

A messy world: inside the zany comic mind of Tom Ballard (@TomCBallard)

tom-ballard-1-copy-e1403330225340The joke that sticks doggedly in my mind from stand-up comic Tom Ballard’s Saturday Night gig, ‘The World Keeps Happening’ is the one he made about 9/11.

Ballard, young, blonde, dressed in a t-shirt and black jeans asks: “Would 9/11 have been so bad… if they’d flown into the Trump Towers instead?”

(Queue: a low rumble of shock across the packed old theatre).

He qualifies this by saying the planes would be empty and so would be the Manhattan tower, except for Donald Trump, now president-elect Trump “alone, on the toilet, masturbating over a picture of his daughter.”

(Queue even more shock. But Ballard loves it). “Ooh a few Trump fans in tonight,” he muses.

Later, as his high-octane 90 minute set, which left no taboo unturned, drew to its close, he asked cheekily of his audience: ‘Have I managed to lose you all of you tonight?’

He hadn’t of course: almost everyone cheered loudly at the end including me. Perhaps they would have lynched him in Queensland or Ohio.

A night with Tom Ballard, as I found out, is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. Certainly his stand-up material would set the right-wing old fogges in Western Sydney into a frenzy were he to perform it on the ABC, where he first cut his teeth as a Radio host on Triple J.

Ballard’s act swerves from embarrasing personal experiences mostly of a sexual nature (like the time an ex-lover texted him to say he had “gonorrhoea of the mouth and anus” and he replied to say he was all fine now after getting treatment, instead he replied to a youth worker with the same name, instead) to discussing how technology is ruining our lives (“I’m addicted to my iPhone, I even auto-correct myself when I speak”) to ticking off on racism, sexism and homophobia. (Ballard has hosted two episodes of popular ABC political talk show Q&A).

“No one assassinates politicians in Australia,” he says. “I’m not saying we should be doing that, but a bit of passion would be nice.”

He goes on to relate the disappearance of Harold Holt, the only Australian leader to die in office who disappeared while out for an ocean swim.

“We looked for him a bit and then said, uh, he’s gone. And that was that,” Ballard says with a playful shrug.

Back to the cringeworthy, Ballard related the story of a friend, who for some unknown, unfathomable reason thought it a good idea to eat two 24-slice packets of cheese in one sitting. The result: “He felt a bit unwell and had to go to the doctor”.

Here his friend was told that all the cheese had congealed into a solid mass – “He had a cheese baby” Ballard declares with unbridled joy at the audience’s revulsion,  “and he would have it removed by caesarian.”

I confess I knew very little about Tom Ballard before the show though I recognised the face and name. (We – my wife and I – were lucky to pick up two complimentary tickets).

I quick read of his Wikipedia profile reveals that he grew up in Warnambool in country Victoria, is extremely smart (named Dux of the South West Region) and is passionate about a number of issues: vegetarianism, homophobia and cyber-bulling. He also once dated another of the country’s top comics, Josh Thomas the star of sitcom Please Like Me.

As with all really good stand-up comics he both mines his own personal experiences for comic material and uses comedy to make a point about the issues he cares about. (Not just that, he organised for volunteers from Refugee Legal to stand outside after the show with buckets to collect donations to support the work the centre does for refugees).

On inequality, he tells the story about a visit to Grill’d, the burger joint which allows customers to donate money to local charities through tokens they receive after ordering meals.

In this instance, he was in Warringah, on Sydney’s upper crust Northern Beaches where onion eating ex-PM Tony Abbott is the local federal member.

One of the ridiculous charity choices was to donate to the local school’s rowing club so that they could buy new kit.

“Sorry starving people of Africa…” Ballard bursts out with indignation, “the rowing club needs a hand” followed by an impersonation of spoilt, rich parents and their “desperate” kids.

“People rowing boats, these are the boats we should be turning back!” Ballard retorts with maniacal glee, delivering a scathing rebuke of the government’s tough approach to asylum seekers who come by boat.

His other suggestion, which I really liked was that we should ban all drugs, except for one day every four years – preferably on election day – when it should be a free-for-all.

“When I am on ecstacy, I just want to hug everyone,” he says.

His point being of course that we’re making some pretty bad choices sober, so why not try the other way.

Not a bad idea.

(A quick note: the show was recorded and will appear on streaming video service Stan at some point as part of its “One Stan Series”. So look out for it.)