The Mad Poets Society

McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, was for years America's most literary mental institution, a place that Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton knew well

--> cLean Hospital, in suburban Boston, is not the nation's oldest mental hospital; that distinction belongs to the Pennsylvania Hospital, in Philadelphia. Nor is it generally considered the country's best; most professionals would probably rank the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, Kansas, above McLean. But before the advent of diagnose-dose-and-discharge mental-health care, McLean, which sits on a gorgeous 240-acre campus in the town of Belmont, was probably the country's most aristocratic mental institution and definitely its most literary. Ralph Waldo Emerson complained in a letter about the high costs of treatment for his brothers. In the late nineteenth century Henry Adams's sharp-tongued wife, Clover, remarked to her father that McLean "seems to be the goal of every good and conscientious Bostonian." Her brother, the treasurer of Harvard University, ended his life there. Reputable historians and even a former chief administrator of McLean insist that the father of American psychology, William James, was a patient there, although there is little evidence that this is true. Frederick Law Olmsted, who also died at McLean, chose the land for the campus.

In the modern era McLean became, if anything, more literary and even fashionable. The curious "McLean chic," which culminated in the unexpected success of the movie version of Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted, can be traced to the fall of 1953, when McLean's director, Franklin Wood, admitted a Smith College senior named Sylvia Plath, who was suffering from suicidal depression. Just six years after her treatment, when she was twenty-seven, Plath realized that she could capitalize on her stay at McLean. After spotting two articles on mental health in Cosmopolitan magazine, she wrote in her journal, "I must write one about a college girl suicide ... And a story, a novel even ... There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it." When Plath's novel, The Bell Jar (1971), finally appeared, it became must reading for girls, in the same way that J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was devoured by moody adolescent boys. Wandering the fictional corridors of "Belsize" (Belknap) and "Wymark" (Wyman) Halls, thousands of American teenagers were getting a first-hand look inside McLean.

Plath was one of three major American poets who exploited their McLean experiences in their work. And although she was the first of the trio to check into McLean, she wasn't the first to write about it. That distinction fell to Robert Lowell, who wrote an exquisite poem about a 1958 stay in McLean's Bowditch Hall, "Waking in the Blue." A copy of it was still pasted on the wall at the Bowditch nurses' station in the late 1980s. Plath and her friend and rival Anne Sexton attended Lowell's poetry seminars at Boston University in 1959, and both quickly cottoned on to what Lowell was up to. Although well versed in classical poetry, Lowell was writing in a beautiful American vernacular, and he wrote about life as he found it, whether in an uncompromising portrait of his ineffectual father ("Father's death was abrupt and unprotesting") or in a heartrending description of returning to his wife and daughter after a few months in the "bin" ("I keep no rank nor station/Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small"). Plath had checked into McLean five years before Lowell, but it was Lowell who helped her to understand what madness had taught her. Sexton, too, experienced suicidal depression, and learned to write about it.

For all three poets sojourns at McLean provided not only needed respites but also creative material. Madness came out of the closet in their writings, and even acquired a certain cachet. Sexton's biographer, Diane Middlebrook, caught the favor when she wrote that McLean "had always held an odd glamour ... as the hospital of choice for the occasionally mad artists of Boston."

The story of Plath's stay at McLean has entered the literary canon not only by way of The Bell Jar but also from the writings of numerous biographers and memoirists. The consensus tale runs like this: A sensitive, erudite, and hardworking young woman from a conventional but not particularly happy family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Plath experienced mild depressions while studying at Smith. As well versed in Freud as any budding intellectual of her generation, she thought she had "penis envy" and suffered from "schizophrenia." After winning a prestigious national contest and while working at Mademoiselle magazine, in New York, during June of 1953, she suffered a rare career setback: she was denied admission to a Harvard summer writing seminar. Trapped at home in August, drained of energy, she began to contemplate suicide. After a half-serious attempt to drown herself, Plath hid in a crawl space underneath her family's house and swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. She very nearly died. ("BEAUTIFUL SMITH GIRL MISSING AT WELLESLEY" and "TOP RANKING STUDENT AT SMITH MISSING FROM WELLESLEY HOME" were two of the front-page headlines in the Boston papers.) Her family and doctors concluded that her attempt went beyond the classic suicide "gesture" and packed her off to McLean.

Talented and ambitious, Plath had a knack for aligning herself with the best brains available. As at Smith, she was a "scholarship girl" at McLean, supported by the well-to-do novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a forceful and intelligent woman who had suffered her own nervous breakdown a quarter century before. The psychiatrist with whom Plath met every day was Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, a real New York Tiffany and rare at McLean, where most of the doctors were men. Freudians would call it "transference"; whatever the case, Plath fell in love with her doctor. In The Bell Jar she drew on her Mademoiselle training to describe "Dr. Nolan," as she called Barnhouse in the book: "She wore a white blouse and a full skirt gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt, and stylish, crescent-shaped spectacles. This woman was a cross between Myrna Loy and my mother." Years after her release from McLean, Plath continued to consult with Barnhouse, and in 1959 she confessed in her journal, "RB has become my mother." When I interviewed Barnhouse, more than thirty years later (she has since died), it was easy to appreciate the spirit that had animated Plath. Taking a break from puffing on her Nat Sherman cigarettes during an outdoor interview on the cobbled Main Street in Nantucket, Barnhouse joined me for lunch at a restaurant called Arno's that featured a "Healthy Beginnings" menu. "I just refuse on principle to order any food that has the word 'health' in its description," she said. "The world began to go to hell in a basket when they substituted margarine for butter."

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