New letters have evidently come to light which give even more insight upon the marriage of Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath. They reportedly cast Hughes in a somewhat darker shade, at the very least a verbal abuser of his mentally-ill wife. At one point, the letters record that Hughes “wished his wife was dead.”
Although the new letters, nine in all, do fill in the gaps of our knowledge of the relationship a little, they do not alter it substantially. The feminists who hold Hughes responsible for his wife’s suicide in 1963 will continue to do so. The defenders of Hughes, including his wife, Carol, will continue to defend his behavior.
It is difficult for us who did not know Plath or Hughes or who have not even studied their lives to know what to think. My limited experience with mental issues among a few of my students in the 1980s and 1990s tells me that the sources of their distress are not necessarily related to anyone they know, but rather come about through their interactions with the world at large. Hughes’s behavior was, on many occasions, I am sure, deeply to be regretted; but in the care of the mentally ill and the infirm, I have had some experience, and of this I am sure: even the most patient, loving, considerate caretaker cannot approach perfection in the administration of that care, and we should extend to those caregivers the same degree of toleration and understanding we would extend to those under their care. To be married to someone who has a mental illness or to give care to a person who has such an illness is an enormously stressful experience, whose wear-and-tear builds up over time upon all involved. In addition, those who give such care are aware–always–of this stark possibility: the best of care, the gentlest of treatment, may not prevent the decline of the person being cared for. Among the elderly, the most generous of spirits, the most thoughtful of gifts, may not restore to them the awareness and vitality they once had, and those efforts will certainly not stave off death itself.
To witness the onset of mental illness, to see and to live with every day the decline of the body’s physical strength and will to live is a fearful thing, a humbling thing; so humbling that all of us would do well to rein in our self-absorbed and self-righteous criticisms of the actions of people we do not know. Those criticisms may make us feel better about ourselves and the values we defend, but they do not do justice to the persons who have actually had to wrestle with the circumstances in question. Even a documented act of cruelty may be shorn of the emotional and physical context in which it occurs.
In the end, the reality is harder and more cruel than we ourselves could devise: there often comes a point in the treatment of those with depression and mental illness at which all choices may run ill. It may not be possible to make anyone happy. Guilt and anger weave themselves as twin threads in the fabric of our thoughts, and it is a daily struggle to keep ourselves free of those threads so that we are not bound by them and can do the kind acts we wish to do. The best that any of us can do is to do what the moment requires of us, and hope that it will be enough. Whatever we do, it will almost certainly not be enough to assuage a sense of loss, the continual presence of grief, or feelings of regret at lost opportunities with those we care for.