A Tortured Inheritance

New York Times, 4.2.2010

I have been crying for Nicholas Hughes.

I never met Nicholas, yet I believe I know a great deal about him. He was the second child of the poet Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in her oven when he was toddler. I am the elder daughter of the poet Anne Sexton, who gassed herself in her car when I was 21.

Nicholas hanged himself two weeks ago at the age of 47. And despite my insistence that I would never turn out like my mother, I tried to kill myself, too — three times — and would have succeeded had it not been for the efforts of a determined police officer, who forced open the window of my car.

Did it surprise me to read about Nicholas’s suicide? Not in the least. As my mother wrote in one of her most famous poems: “I have gone out, a possessed witch, lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind.” All of us who follow that depressing family path — from suffering to suicide — have known what it is like to be her kind.

Nicholas’s mother, and mine, succumbed to the exhaustion of unrelenting depression. They self-destructed. And we grew up in the wreckage of their catastrophe. Their deaths took away from him and his sister Frieda, and from me and my sister Joyce, the solace of a mother’s love. And worse, all four of us, I imagine, had to live with the fact that our mothers had quite willfully abandoned us. Understanding and accepting this is heart wrenching, but it is a necessary part of healing. I have wanted to kill myself, but I survived, and so can attest to what Nicholas, like my mother and his, must have felt — that there was no other alternative.

Studies show that some kinds of depression are hereditary, and suicides tend to run in families. But even if there isn’t an absolute genetic component, there certainly is an emotional one. When I turned 45, the age at which my mother killed herself, I too began to be drawn to suicide to escape my pain. This was my inheritance. My guess is that I wasn’t alone: hundreds of thousands die by suicide each year. And hundreds of thousands of families are damaged by their loss.

Of course, not everyone reacts in the same way. My sister doesn’t like to speak publicly about our mother, and she doesn’t believe that she is “her kind.” Perhaps Frieda Hughes is more like Joyce, perhaps Nicholas once was as well. Or maybe they are more like me, trying to recover by talking about what has happened. My mother always said, “tell it true,” and I believe she thought, like I do, that it is important to share the experience of depression with others, who may be suffering in the same way.

This is why we need to speak about these things, to help families deal with their depressed children, siblings and parents, and hopefully, to intervene and alter the dark world of suicidal legacies. I continue to worry about myself — but I worry about my children more. Despite the dangerous inheritance my oldest son faces, and the depression he too fights, he urges me to keep writing about it, just as his grandmother did.

Sadly, I’ll never get to know Nicholas Hughes. I know he was a fisheries biologist living in the forests of Alaska. I know he was more than a suicide. In a memorial, a friend wrote that he was the kind of man who sought out “a larch tree in a forest of spruce.” I hope he has succeeded in reaching it.

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