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

Although Plath provided vivid descriptions of life at McLean in her letters, she rarely discussed her therapy. There wasn't really a great deal to discuss. When Plath first arrived, Barnhouse decided to supplement psychotherapy with insulin-shock treatment, which not only failed to address the patient's apathy but caused her face to bloat up and bruise, spoiling her natural beauty and compounding her crisis of self-doubt. Like most McLean patients, Plath was dosed with the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, which contributed to her affectless behavior. Months after her arrival her therapy was still blocked. "I got her to draw things first, and then I had gotten her to talk, which was already something," Barnhouse told me. "But she had been in there for months, and Mrs. Prouty was paying the bills. This was going on and on. She was totally depressed, and she wasn't getting any better."

Olive Prouty visited Plath regularly, and was becoming quite impatient with McLean. In November she wrote a letter to Franklin Wood, threatening to stop paying for treatment (Prouty thought it was nontreatment) that seemed to be leading nowhere. Prouty had spent time at Silver Hill, in Connecticut, a mental hospital with a more structured approach to mobilizing depressed patients, and she couldn't abide the laissez-faire attitude at McLean. "I usually find Sylvia wandering listlessly up and down the corridor," she complained to Wood, "and when I leave she says she will do the same, as there is nothing else for her to do."

Plath's stay was approaching its climax. Barnhouse decided to gamble, and proposed electroshock therapy. The idea was frightening—especially so to Plath, because she had suffered through several painful and impersonally administered shock treatments before coming to McLean. She had received no anesthesia before the treatments, and afterward she was wheeled into an empty recovery room to cope alone with her trauma. "She was not properly protected against the results of the treatments," Prouty wrote to one of Plath's doctors, "which were so poorly given that the patient remembers the details with horror." Prouty was a meddler, but an informed meddler, and she voiced her opinion that the botched electroshock had driven Sylvia to attempt suicide. Barnhouse promised to stay with Plath during the therapy, and convinced her that this time the results would be different.

They were. In December, Plath received the first of three shock treatments. She regained her personality and composure so rapidly that she was able to spend Christmas at home. The hospital officially discharged her in late January, and by February she was back at Smith. Five years later Plath wrote of the treatments in her journal, "Why, after the 'amazingly short' three or so shock treatments did I rocket uphill? Why did I feel I needed to be punished, to punish myself." Neither she nor Barnhouse could explain the miraculous turnabout. "I can't tell you what happened," Barnhouse said in Nantucket. "The human mind is very complex. That sounds obvious, but people keep forgetting it. They think you just throw a little Prozac in here, and a little of something else in here, it'll do this, this, and this. It's ridiculous."

Many psychiatric hospitals, including McLean, still administer a less traumatic form of shock treatment, more palatably christened "electroconvulsive therapy," to blocked patients. [See "Shock and Disbelief," by Daniel Smith, February Atlantic.] When it works, doctors are still at a loss to explain how.

By the time he first checked into McLean, in 1958, Robert Lowell was, as they say in the consumer-products field, a repeat user. Forty-one years old, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the country's most respected poets, Lowell experienced uncontrollable manic surges, and had been institutionalized before. To the astonishment of those around him, he would swell up with power, anger, and delusion. He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.

Just on the strength of his magnificent "Waking in the Blue," with its haunting description of life among the "Mayflower screwballs," Lowell was the uncrowned poet laureate of McLean.

... (This is the house for the "mentally ill.")

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale—
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
Porcellian '29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig—
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

"Waking" was included in the book Life Studies (1959), which many Lowell admirers believe to be his best book. Life Studies is intensely autobiographical, and unsparing of Lowell's immediate and extended family. Sarah Payne Stuart, one of the poet's cousins, has recently suggested that the family's hostility to the poems may have precipitated a breakdown that sent Lowell back to McLean. After reading a pre-publication copy of the book, Lowell's formidable aunt Sarah Cotting announced, "I've just read what Bobby wrote about [his parents] Charlotte and Bob, and it's just awful." From her Beacon Hill town house she marched down to Lowell's home, on nearby Marlborough Street, and gave her nephew a piece of her mind. (This was the same aunt who once mused, while sitting on her yacht, "Why doesn't Bobby write about the sea? It's so pretty.") "I'm sorry you didn't like it," Lowell answered softly. "I thought it was rather good." A few weeks later Life Studies was formally published, and Lowell was back at McLean.

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