Writing beneath the bell jar: lessons from Plath

by Laura Dennison


“Not the mental illness one,” my professor told me. “Mental illness is not . . . hip. And literary magazines want hip.” I was finishing my undergrad degree, and we met to review which of my essays to send out to The Sun.

He spoke the truth: mental illness isn’t hip. It shouldn’t be. But my professor’s honesty got me worried that my non-trendy topic would translate directly into unreadable material. I wondered if I should ditch my in-progress memoir entirely, and instead buy a pack of American Spirits and book the next flight to Iceland for some backpacking. Those things, surely, were hip.

My second, more troublesome fear: how could I—just one person—accurately tell a story about mental illness? Would I misrepresent, romanticize, or sensationalize my experiences? How would I adequately acknowledge the role that privilege played in the quality of my care? Where was the line between helping others feel less alone and just adding something dark to their already stormy headspace?

I thought back to 16, when I was assigned Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my high school psychology class. I don’t believe Plath glamorized mental illness, and while her book spared no grimness, I found reading it somehow freeing, most memorably for its central metaphor: the bell jar, trapping her within her thoughts. It may randomly lift, granting her the freedom of fresh air, but it always stays suspended over her, threating to come crashing down once more at any time. I still remember the night I set The Bell Jar down on my bedroom rug after finishing it, feeling at once comforted and deeply unsettled. The comfort came from the fact that no, I was not the only person in the world who felt the way I did. The discomfort came from how accurately Plath was able to use metaphor to make her specific experiences disturbingly familiar.

Remembering Plath helped me solve both my concern with hipness and my fears surrounding how to discuss mental illness. First, fuck being hip. Second, I let metaphor do much of the heavy lifting. After all, real-life mental illness on paper would either look like 300 blank pages or 300 pages of illegible scrawl. Rather than restrict my memoir’s topic, I strove for authenticity, hoping this would be enough to avoid glamorizing or sensationalizing. I realized that I did not need to write my “mental illness story,” but the memoir of a 12-year-old girl inundated with psychiatric diagnoses and medications and the six years of tumultuous aftermath. By rejecting pathology in favor of character and quest as the central focus of my book, I rejected the limiting classifications that makes illness un-hip, and found the freedom to tell the story I needed.

Laura Dennison is a graduate of Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. and is a content editor at Southern New Hampshire University.