This month’s cultural mystery is the strange and disquieting Sylvia Plath Effect. Sylvia is perhaps my favorite author of all time, and I myself deal with mental health issues, so this topic is very close to my heart. Let’s explore. Major TW for suicide ahead.
Who Was Sylvia?
In order to understand why this phenomena is named after Sylvia Plath, we need to go over the basics of Plath’s life – consider this a tl;dr. Sylvia Plath was an American poet and novelist born in 1932. She is best known for her confessional poetry and her novel the Bell Jar, which was a fictionalized account of her life. Throughout her life, Sylvia struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. She made several attempts to take her own life – the first being in 1953. She completed suicide ten years later in 1963, leaving behind her husband and two children. Her creative works had strong themes of mental health issues and grappling with the world.
What is the Sylvia Plath Effect?
The Sylvia Plath Effect is the name given to the phenomena of literary creatives being more prone to ending their lives via suicide. There are a countless number of creatives that have taken their own lives, dating back hundreds of years. Studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s had examined the relationship between the profession of creative writing and rates of mental illness – the relationship itself was posited but causes and other in-depth aspects of it have not been proven with peer-reviewed research. In addition to these elevated rates of mental illness in creative writers, female poets were far more likely to suffer from mental illness than women in other professions. This finding was posited by James C. Kaufman, who coined the term “Sylvia Plath Effect,” and specifically chose Plath due to the countless posthumus examinations of her mental health across both medical and literary fields.
The phenomena does seem to be genuine, though I have not seen any conclusive statistics regarding the suicide rates of writers versus rates within other professions.
There are countless examples of writers who were prone to mental illness and took their own lives. For brevity, let’s take a look at six examples. I’ve chosen these eight to try to strike a balance between race, gender, and nationality to demonstrate that there is a great diversity of cases of poets afflicted by severe mental illness, and it is not just limited to the classic (read: white) authors we’re used to hearing about.
Let’s take a look at some female writers. Alejandra Pizarnik was an Argentinian poet born in 1936. She completed suicide via overdose in 1972 at age 36. Virginia Woolf was an English novelist and essayist born in 1882. She completed suicide via drowning in 1941 at age 59. Sanmao was a Taiwanese writer born in 1943. She completed suicide via hanging in 1991 at age 47. Mae Virginia Cowdery was a Black poet born in 1909. She completed suicide in 1953, at age 44.
Now onto male writers. Humberto Fierro was an Ecuadorian poet born in 1890. He completed suicide in 1929 at age 39. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was a Japanese writer born in 1892. He completed suicide via overdose in 1927 at age 35. David Foster Wallace was an American novelist and essayist born in 1962. He completed suicide via hanging in 2008, at age 45. Shakeb Jalali was a Pakastani poet born in 1934. He completed suicide in 1966 at age 32.