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By October 24, 2018No Comments

Source : Literary Hub



With the imminent publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2, there will be considerable discussion about 14 letters written by Plath to Ruth Barnhouse, her psychiatrist, mostly because they contain examples of physical and mental abuse in Plath’s marriage to the poet Ted Hughes.

And just how did these 14 letters come to be included in the new volume? Those who follow Plath scholarship first learned of the Plath-Barnhouse letters in March 2017 when Ken Lopez, a bookseller in western Massachusetts, announced he was offering for sale The Harriet Rosenstein Sylvia Plath Archive. In a statement on his website, Lopez noted that Rosenstein had started a biography of Plath in 1970, only seven years after Plath committed suicide in London at the age of 30. At that point, at least in the United States, Plath was known for her poetry, thanks to her collection Ariel, but when her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, first published in England under a pseudonym a month before she died, finally appeared in America in 1971 it became a runaway bestseller and transformed Plath into, to quote Lopez, “a proto-feminist icon.” As Plath’s stature grew, Rosenstein interviewed Plath family members, friends, teachers, fellow writers, 64 people in total. Of them all, the one who loomed at the heart of the archive—at least as far as Lopez was concerned—was a woman who played a seminal role in Plath’s life.

The Reverend Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, M.D., as she liked to be referred to later in her career, met Plath in August 1953. A resident at McLean Hospital, the renowned mental institution outside Boston, Barnhouse (whose surname was then Beuscher) was assigned to care for Plath, who had attempted suicide in July after a breakdown and a series of botched electroshock treatments administered at another facility. Barnhouse’s successful treatment of Plath would be documented, broadly but accurately, in The Bell Jar; Barnhouse was the basis of the novel’s benevolent, life-affirming Doctor Nolan—a figure summed up with these lines offered by Plath-stand-in Esther Greenwood: “I liked her, I loved her, I had given her my trust on a platter and told her everything.”

Later, Barnhouse saw Plath for weekly therapy sessions during 1959 when Plath, now married to Hughes, lived in Boston. After Plath and Hughes moved to London in early 1960, Plath and Barnhouse set out on a correspondence that in many ways proved to be a lifeline for Plath. Of the letters Plath wrote Barnhouse, 14 survived, and for research purposes Barnhouse entrusted the letters to Rosenstein in 1970. Ultimately, Rosenstein abandoned her biography, but she maintained her archive, including the Plath letters.

“[T]otalling 45 pages [and] dating from February 18, 1960 to February 4, 1963, one week to the day before [Plath] committed suicide,” Lopez noted on his website, the 14 letters “comprise about 18,000 words. Of these, nine letters totaling 28 pages date from July 11, 1962 to February 4, 1963—the last seven months of Plath’s life, and the point at which she realized her marriage had failed and the life she had envisioned for herself and her family would never come to be.” Because Hughes later destroyed the journal Plath kept in her final years, these letters “are the only surviving documents from Plath’s time in England in which she discusses candidly her own life from her own point of view.” To be sure, the revelations Plath made to Barnhouse were unsettling: Hughes beat her two days before she suffered a miscarriage in 1961; Hughes would have nothing to do with their second child, Nicholas, because he was a boy, “an usurper” to Hughes’s male dominance; Hughes taunted Plath, after their separation, to kill herself.

Barnhouse was the basis of the novel’s benevolent, life-affirming Doctor Nolan—a figure summed up with these lines offered by Plath-stand-in Esther Greenwood: “I liked her, I loved her, I had given her my trust on a platter and told her everything.”

There was a backstory to Lopez’s announcement on his website. Initially, Lopez offered the archive to Smith College, Plath’s alma matter, which houses in its research libraries the largest collection of original Plath-related material in the world. Because of Plath’s close association with the college (she also taught there), Barnhouse had donated her own literary estate to Smith not long before she died in 1999, setting up the Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse Papers. On March 2, 2016, Lopez wrote to Elizabeth Myers, the director of Special Collections for Smith College, to propose Smith purchase Rosenstein’s archive in a “partial sale/partial gift” transaction, which would allow the college to acquire it for less than market value. Myers responded that she would be “happy to work with [Lopez] on Smith’s potential acquisition of the materials.” Over the next six weeks, Lopez determined that the fair market value of the archive—all of the interviews, notes, and, notably, the 14 Plath letters—was $400,000 (a figure he would later increase). However, he would sell it to Smith in a “sweetheart deal” at a discounted price of $275,000.

For Smith officials, there was a question of ownership surrounding the letters. After all, why did Rosenstein own 14 letters Plath had written to Barnhouse? Rosenstein had an interesting explanation. During the time Rosenstein interviewed Barnhouse, they became “friends.” In one interview session, Barnhouse began reading Rosenstein the 14 letters but became so emotional that, as Rosenstein later stated, she “apparently could not bear to continue.” Weeping, Barnhouse asked Rosenstein what she should do with the letters. “Observing the pain that reading these letters had apparently caused Dr. Barnhouse,” Rosenstein would say, “I suggested she consider releasing them”—to her.

That evening, Barnhouse left the letters with Rosenstein, who later claimed she considered them a “gift.” But as Lopez and Myers conducted their negotiations for the archive a search was made at Smith of the as-yet-unprocessed Barnhouse papers. A letter was discovered that seemed to call into question the ownership of the 14 letters. On May 22, 1990, Barnhouse wrote to Rosenstein concerning “the last few letters Sylvia sent me, the tape into which I had clandestinely read all of the significant parts of [Plath’s] McLean Hospital record, [and the] taped. . . conversations you and I had about [Plath].” Specifically, Barnhouse made a request: “I would really appreciate your letting me have this material.” Rosenstein could keep copies of the taped interviews she had conducted with Barnhouse, but Barnhouse wanted all of the other material, including the 14 letters, returned to her. Barnhouse did not have to state the obvious: Since Rosenstein was not going to publish a biography of Plath, why would she need to keep Barnhouse’s material for research?

When made aware of the May 1990 letter, which Rosenstein says she never received, Lopez maintained that it was actually confirmation Barnhouse had given the letters to Rosenstein as a gift. Smith disagreed, arguing that Barnhouse owned the letters, which made them part of the literary estate she bequeathed to Smith. As such, Smith saw no reason to pay Rosenstein for property it already owned.

A contentious debate over ownership dragged on for months. Finally, Smith made a low-ball offer of $100,000, which Lopez rejected. It was then, in March 2017, that Lopez made the announcement on his website that he posted in conjunction with an appearance he made at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair where he displayed samples of the 14 letters. By now, based on comparable sale figures previously unavailable to him, Lopez had increased the archive’s fair market value from $400,000 to $875,000.

Smith learned of the announcement on Thursday, March 9. On Monday, March 13, attorneys for the college appeared in Superior Court in Boston asking for a temporary restraining order to block the sale of the Plath letters. That day, a judge issued the order, setting up what became another period of conjecture over who owned the 14 letters.


I first interviewed Ruth Barnhouse in October 1984 when I was conducting research for Rough Magic, my biography of Sylvia Plath. By then, Barnhouse had undergone a career change and entered a field closely associated with her father—religion. After studying at Weston College of Theology in Cambridge, a Jesuit Roman Catholic institution, she was ordained as a priest in the Episcopalian Church at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in 1980. That same year, she was made a “Texas offer I couldn’t refuse” by Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, to join its teaching faculty. Barnhouse was, at the time, something of an anomaly. One of just 500 women priests nationwide—the only one in Dallas—she was certainly the only priest who had served as a psychiatrist on the staff at McLean Hospital.

It was at SMU where I first met Barnhouse. On the morning of our interview, she was teaching a class when I arrived so her assistant ushered me into her office to wait. I will never forget when she appeared in the office doorway, wearing a long flowing black vestment robe, with a massive gold crucifix hanging from a gold chain around her neck.

“I’m Ruth Barnhouse,” she said as she joined me on the sofa and we began to talk.

As it happened, she started by discussing letters Plath had written her over the years. “I had a lot of letters from her which I burned well before she died. I’ve deeply regretted it ever since. I burned a whole lot of stuff which I now wish I hadn’t, of which hers was only a part. They were marvelous letters she wrote while she was in Cambridge and Paris. She was full of life and felt the men she met, particularly those at Cambridge, were bloodless, pale, two-dimensional. She told me about an affair she had in France that was important to her.”

Later in the interview, as she felt more comfortable with me, Barnhouse brought up the surviving Plath letters. Years ago, she loaned them to a writer for a biography she never wrote. Barnhouse would ask for the return of the letters, as well as other research material, so I could use them for my book. I understood that once Barnhouse received the material she would loan—not give—it to me. Over time, Barnhouse tried to reach Rosenstein by telephone to no avail. Years passed. I was nearing the end of my research when I nudged Barnhouse one last time. That was when she wrote the May 1990 letter to Rosenstein asking, to her mind formally, for the return of her material. Barnhouse never received an answer; the letters were not returned.

It was not until March 2017, when Ken Lopez posted his announcement, that I learned the fate of the 14 letters. Only recently was I able to see a note Barnhouse had written by hand to her assistant on the May 1990 letter: “We should have a file for Paul Alexander. Put the copy of this letter in that, and send him a copy of it also.” She did, of course. The letter has been in my files ever since.


To appreciate the value of the 14 letters one has to understand who Ruth Barnhouse was and the singular role Plath gave her in her life. She was born in Grenoble, France, her parents having settled in the picturesque city at the foot of the Alps after meeting in Belgium following World War I. French was her first language, but when she was two her father, Donald Grey Barnhouse, a fundamentalist minister, relocated the family to Philadelphia where he took on a small church and taught history at the University of Pennsylvania. Eventually, Barnhouse moved to the Tenth Presbyterian Church and, starting in 1927 on the NBC Blue Network, began broadcasting the first nationwide religious radio show. Homeschooled by her Grandmother Tiffany, one of the Tiffanys (the jewelry store founder was a distant cousin), Ruth proved to be a prodigy, completing secondary school at 14 and entering Vassar College at 16. She ultimately graduated from Barnard College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.

“I had a lot of letters from her which I burned well before she died. I’ve deeply regretted it ever since. I burned a whole lot of stuff which I now wish I hadn’t, of which hers was only a part.”

In July 1953, at age 29, Barnhouse began her psychiatric residency at McLean. Plath was admitted in August. The month before, she had taken sleeping pills, hidden in the crawl space under the front porch of her family home in Wellesley, and waited to die. Missing for two days, Plath was the subject of intense media coverage before she was discovered by her brother and, unconscious but alive, rushed to the hospital. A stay in a public psychiatric hospital preceded her admission to McLean. “Sylvia was about the second or third patient I ever had,” Barnhouse told me that morning in Dallas. (Her comments in this article have never been published.) “Dr. Erich Lindemann [chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital of which McLean is an affiliate] decided she needed to talk to a woman. I saw her while I was being supervised by Paul Howard. McLean was a small cozy hospital in those days, a very good hospital.”

Daily therapy sessions and regular insulin injections stabilized Plath, but she was still suicidal when, in December, Barnhouse convinced her to undergo electroshock therapy again. This time administered properly, the shock treatments were so effective Plath only required two sessions. By January, she was functioning well enough that McLean officials released her. “After McLean,” Barnhouse said, “Sylvia went back to Smith, and I saw her every time she came to Boston. I kept in touch with her all the time.”

As Plath approached graduation, Barnhouse was instrumental in lobbying for Plath to receive a Fulbright Scholarship to attend Cambridge University. “Getting a Fulbright in the middle of the McCarthy Era for someone who had been in a mental hospital wasn’t easy,” Barnhouse said. Despite the odds, in part because of a letter written by Barnhouse, Plath received a scholarship and during her two years at Cambridge—she married Hughes in the summer after her first year—she wrote to Barnhouse regularly.

“When she lived in Boston in 1959, she saw me once a week,” Barnhouse said. “The difference between the first and second times: She was better. She was fine.” So Barnhouse was able to delve deeper into Plath’s psychological issues, among them the premature death of her father. A doctor of biology, Otto Plath misdiagnosed himself with cancer, refused treatment, and died from what turned out to be a treatable form of diabetes which, left untreated, led to his death in 1940 at age 55. Plath was eight years old. “It came out during our sessions that she had never accepted the fact that her father was dead. She had unconscious fantasies of him being alive. I made her go visit his grave, which she had never done before.”

Barnhouse also came to understand better Plath’s personality type. “She had an archaic attitude. I can only talk about it metaphorically. If you were thinking in reincarnation terms, you would say she used to be a priestess in one of the goddess religions, a sort of Shamanistic, feminine quality, which is pre-what-we-think-of-now-as-civilization. Really powerful. She was like that when she was healthy.”

As the therapy progressed, Barnhouse drew conclusions about Plath’s larger psychiatric profile. “She did not feel that men were the oppressors. Her fight was always between her and other women. She hated Olwyn [Ted’s sister]. From what she told me, she had excellent reason to hate Olwyn. She felt that Ted and Olwyn’s relationship growing up [they slept in the same bed until Olwyn was nine, Ted seven] had been such to preclude Ted having any normal relationships with women subsequent to that. To be sure, Sylvia’s problem was with women. That’s part of the archaic qualities because, for her, men were pawns on the female chessboard. But superimposed on what I just said was her neurosis, which had very much to do with the father dying at the age he died. The death of her father was crucial.”

“She had an archaic attitude. I can only talk about it metaphorically. If you were thinking in reincarnation terms, you would say she used to be a priestess in one of the goddess religions, a sort of Shamanistic, feminine quality, which is pre-what-we-think-of-now-as-civilization.”

Barnhouse was not altogether pleased when Plath and Hughes moved to London in early 1960, although she realized Plath had to get on with her life. Nor was she surprised when, during the summer and fall of 1962, Plath wrote to her about trouble in her marriage. “From everything she said to me, her marriage was ideal,” Barnhouse said. “That was how she experienced it—like the Garden of Eden. I don’t think she had an inkling that the marriage was unraveling until Ted pulled the rug out from under her.” (Plath discovered Hughes was having an affair with their friend Assia Wevill.) “When Ted left her that led to a depression that culminated in her suicide. She had put Ted in the father role. So now he had gone and left her again. The desertion reactivated whatever Sylvia felt when the father deserted her.”

Plath wrote her last letter to Barnhouse on February 4, 1963. For some reason, it was not mailed until February 8. Plath committed suicide on the morning of February 11. Barnhouse did not receive the letter until after Plath died. In it, Plath confessed that, for the first time in years, “the madness” had returned.


As for the conflict between Rosenstein and Smith College, after attorneys for both parties wrangled for months, an out-of-court settlement was reached late last year that precluded a trial. For an undisclosed sum of money, Rosenstein turned over the 14 letters to Smith where they will become a part of the special collection holdings. The copyright of the letters was always held by Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter, who, upon receiving copies of the letters from Smith, decided to include them in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2, edited by Karen Kukil and Peter K. Steinberg. Rosenstein also surrendered to Hughes the tape Barnhouse made of Plath’s McLean Hospital record.

I have always been moved by the untimely nature of Plath’s death, which, as more than one of her friends told me, could have been prevented had the details of her life been different. When I consider that possibility, I remember a comment Barnhouse made as we were ending our conversation in Dallas. “I am perfectly sure,” she said, “that it would have been absolutely possible for Sylvia to ‘get well’—whatever we mean by that—but because of geographical circumstances she never had two or three years of twice-a-week therapy which is what she should have had. If I had had her for two to three solid years twice a week, I’m sure she had it in her to get over this.” For Barnhouse, the 14 letters stood as a bitter reminder of that tragic truth.

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