The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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4/5 stars.
ebook, 272 pages.
Read from May 27 to 30, 2015.

This book has been on my to-read list since the beginning of my university days. I recall reading some of Plath’s poetry during this time but having known so little about her at the time and not having the maturity in regards to her situation, I never found the poems as potent as they were intended to be. Without getting into too much into literary theory, I will state that I do believe that with some pieces of literature it is important to know the history of the author and how their history can intentionally be placed into their work. I believe that Plath’s work fits for this circumstance.

For those that don’t know, Sylvia Plath was an American writer who was born in 1932. Her father died when she was just a girl, an event that would change Plath and affect her writing substantially in the future. Plath attended college and was a promising student with top marks. She was offered a guest editing position at a top women’s magazine but it was not what Plath hoped it would be and this is when her mental health issues started to show. She survived her first suicide attempt after overdosing on her mother’s sleeping pills and crawling into a hole outside. She was hospitalized and given psychiatric treatment which, at the time, included insulin shots and electric shock treatment. Plath seemed to make a decent recovery after 6 months in treatment and returned to college. It was here where she meets her future husband, Ted Hughes, who ends up becoming a famous and notable English writer.  During their marriage she gave birth to two children and had one miscarriage, an event that also presents itself in her writing. Plath was also in a car accident, which was likely another suicide attempt. Shortly after, Plath and Hughes separated after Plath discovered that Hughes was having an affair. After the separation is when Plath wrote some of her most important pieces, but sadly she committed her final act of suicide and died on February 11, 1963, just days after being prescribed anti-depressants. Plath died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She barricaded herself in the kitchen and placed her head inside the oven with the gas turned on.

Plath’s life was tumultuous and tragic and The Bell Jar is a semi-biographical story that reflects the beginning of Plath’s life and illness before she meets Hughes.

Esther Greenwood is a young, smart and ambitious woman who has just started the beginning, of what she is hoping to be a prominent and promising career in writing. She has been awarded the opportunity to intern at a popular women’s fashion magazine in New York, which is a dream come true for Esther. However, Esther slowly watches her ambitions drain away as an unstoppable depression begins to take over. As her ambition fades and the depression takes its toll, so does her once in a lifetime chance of making it in New York, in which, at this point Esther is so numb with depression she nearly doesn’t care. She almost marries, she is hospitalized and nearly dies. The ending does give some hope that perhaps there is still a chance for her.

The events Esther lives through are nearly identical to the ones Plath went through herself. Esther is pragmatic and brave. Esther wanted something more for herself so she is brutally honest about aspects of relationships and her refusal of a what would have appeared to be a perfect match for marriage. She is also honest with her depression, while not naming her condition, Esther describes perfectly what it feels like consumed by depression:

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

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

“…because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

“I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.”

Even though it was written long before I was born, this book will always be timeless for its honesty with depression and mental health and particularly because it comes from the perspective of a woman. Even some of the social issues in this book are still relevant for women. Esther’s thinking on marriage was very forward for its day and age:

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

I wonder if these were Plath’s own views and what changed her mind later in life to marry Hughes? There are many aspects in the book where Esther, despite protesting that she will never marry, still indicates that she wants it all: love, a family, but also her freedom. However she knows that she cannot have it all. Perhaps these are the same thoughts that brought Plath to succumb to her own marriage?

Plath’s short life feels like a story unfinished, which also contributes to her still present popularity. Feminists have taken her under their wing and are devoted to her prose and the continuation of her legacy. It makes me curious to what kind of woman Plath would be now and what she would have become. This book has made a lasting impression on me and is a hugely important book for the continuation and understanding of mental health issues.

Stupid Children by Lenore Zion

4/5 stars.
ebook, 176 pages.
Read from March 09 to 12, 2014.

This book, if you’re looking for something different, is it. Stupid Children is a dark-humoured book that focuses on the psychological traumas of a girl named Jane. After her mother died, her father was never quite the same. At a very young age her father was placed in a mental institution and she into the foster care system. Her tragedy continues as the home that she is placed into is a part of a cult called the “Second Day Believers”. The cult focuses on cleansing out the “mental impurities” of children and then it throws in some farm animal organs, drugs, sex and a weird ranking system of its members.

The book is written from the perspective of Jane as an adult, accounting her experiences and relationships to a psychologist and as well to the reader. This unique psychologist-narrative provides a potent perspective and, based on the mixed reviews this book has received, didn’t work for every reader. I felt however, that the style was pulled off very well.

Fast paced and quirky, the story focus on how non-nonchalantly Jane discusses her not-so-normal upbringing, the experiences she gets into with her friends and father-daughter relationships.  The characters are immensely likeable. There are some scenes that are so well described in the book that at first glance may not be directly related to the story but they allow the reader to gain entry into the emotional state of the characters. There are some amazing scenes that really give the reader a full extent of some of the psychological damage Jane endures and how she handles it. The scenes aren’t funny and they’re not tragic but they’re very raw.

I really couldn’t put this book down and I can say that it’s been the best read of 2014 for me so far. I actually had the privilege of participating in an author/reader discussion with Lenore Zion on this book. What I was able to learn is that Lenore herself is a psychologist and her influences for the book came from her dreams and a desire to let readers know what it’s like to be a therapist in a way.

The influence came from my dreams. I have a very rich dream world (and fantasy world) and I’ve been keeping a dream journal for years. It’s a bit egomaniacal, but my unconscious is fascinating to me – as is the unconscious of all human beings. We are brilliant and bizarre creatures. I wanted to write a book that allowed the reader to feel what it is sometimes like to be a therapist. Questioning things like “why is my client smiling while telling me this horrible, traumatic memory?” and “why does my client keep coming up with rationalizations to defend her abusers?” I work with a lot of trauma in my field, so these are things I have dissected psychologically for quite some time.” –  Lenore Zion, in a TNBBC Author/Reader Discussion

Lenore’s work as a psychologist is blatant in this novel and it adds such a fantastic and unique perspective that I don’t think readers will find anywhere elsewhere.  A highly recommended read for those who are looking for a something a little off-beat and awesome!

Skin Picking: The Freedom to Finally Stop by Annette Pasternak

5/5 stars.
ebook, 148 pages.
Read from January 17 to March 07, 2014.

This book is by far the most comprehensive, supportive and positive guide out there right now for Dermatillomania. I can’t say enough good things about this book!

For those that don’t know, Dermatillomania, or Excoriation disorder, can be defined as:

…an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one’s own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused. Research has suggested that the urge to pick is similar to an obsessive compulsive disorder but others have argued that for some the condition is more akin to substance abuse disorder. The two main strategies for treating this condition are pharmacological and behavioral intervention.” – Wikipedia

This is a condition that I have personally struggled with deeply. I can safely say that through my own methods I was able to battle this condition for the most part and I am now an advocate for awareness and support. I wish that this book existed during my most troublesome times as I definitely would have battled the worst of the condition a lot sooner with this kind of help. This book has truly provided me with the final resources that I needed in order to say goodbye to this habit forever.

***Just some quick shameless self-promotion here: I’ve actually recently published my story in a collaborative book called Project Dermatillomania that’s available for purchase now. ***

I took a long time reading this book in order to go through all of the motions, guides, suggestions and exercises so that I could give it a good comprehensive review. I can honestly say that if you follow Annette’s methods, you WILL get results!

So many people find themselves completely controlled and at a loss with this disorder. It’s a helpless feeling. This book shows you how to get back that power, and more importantly, that you cannot define yourself as this disorder and cannot submit to its definition. It shows positive strategies to curb your urges and shows you that in order to fully tackle the habit you must determine the emotional reasons and routines for carrying out the vicious cycle of picking.

It is imperative to go beyond these labels and reveal how chronic skin picking plays a part in each individual’s life” p. 18

You may be genetically predisposed to a condition but that does not mean you are powerless over it.” p. 27

People start picking for so many reasons but it’s always to find relief. Often times it’s a matter of dealing with stress because we haven’t found other methods of doing so. One thing that Annette stresses is the readiness for a person to stop picking. It’s hard thing to admit and even harder to give up something that feels good and that you’ve relied on for so long. Her book not only provide methods with how to start this process but how to keep a long standing positive replacement to the picking.

Stopping skin picking is hard. Is that any reason to feel badly about yourself? NO.” p. 16

In summary, her programs focuses and takes the reader through these steps:

  1. How to stop victimizing and beating yourself out. Forgiveness and acceptance is crucial.
  2. You are not powerless to this condition and you can stop. In order to stop you need to accept this.
  3. Track your picking in a habit log. This is the one part that she stress the most. If you aren’t able to recognize the feelings associated with picking as well as when and where they occur you’re not going to able to stop it before it begins.
  4. Recognizing your negative thoughts and behaviours.  Retraining how you think is necessary for overcoming this as most of the time urges come from an unnecessary uncertainty or beliefs.
  5. Actual techniques to block and prevent urges. Gloves, toys, exercise, meditation etc, and just why they work.
  6. Long standing methods to deal with your stress and emotions in a healthy positive way. Annette takes a very holistic approach.
  7. Other things that could contribute and make your urges worse (sugar and alcohol etc).

Compassion oozes from this book. Annette herself used to struggle and live with this disorder herself so she completely understands what every sufferer goes through. Her writing is so gentle and soothing. She knows that we’re all going to mess up but that there is still progress and success in each mess up and mistake.

Practice makes better… Practice makes permanent” p. 137

What I believe makes this book the best resource out there is that it’s the first to really go into the emotional sides as to why people pick and tackles those issues directly as a step for overcoming this disorder. In my own struggles, that was the only thing that worked for me after countless other resources. Overcoming this disorder is truly a process of steps and Annette can take you through them. She provides so many additional resources in terms of supplements and other reading material as well. What makes it even better is that Annette is a life coach and personally deals with helping her clients combat this particular disorder. You can find more information about her services on her website.

For those that are affected by this disorder, please, PLEASE, read this book!