The Ghost of Perfect Babies Past: Sylvia Plath
Thursday, March 19th, 2009
First, a warning for regular readers, including the anonymous Germans who are already fixating on The Perfect Baby Blog: This post kicks off a new “Ghosts of Perfect Babies Past” series that may unnerve you. It takes a strong constitution, after all, to read about history’s most overwhelmingly splendid infants without comparing them to your own less acclaimed offspring.
Sylvia Plath, doomed poet and ashamed author of The Bell Jar, was such a child, thanks in no small part to her alarmingly zealous parents. Early advocates of what Canadian cultural analyst Carl Honoré has termed “hyper-parenting,” Otto and Aurelia Plath were obsessed with treating Sylvia (b. 1932) as a “unique personality.” They read “all the books available on parenting,” immersed themselves in Maria Montesorri’s work, and cuddled Sylvia every few minutes (which just wasn’t done in the 1930s.) According to one Plath biographer, Aurelia devoted hours daily to reciting stories by Kenneth Graham and A.A. Milne, plus poems, limericks, and, presumably, the more challenging knock-knock jokes. Meanwhile, the gentle Mr. Plath (an entomology scholar and author of Bumblebees and Their Ways) demanded that his toddler learn to pronounce the polysyllabic Latin names of insects so she could utter them casually when he later “tested” her in public.
Sylvia responded avidly. Though she once attempted to crawl straight into the ocean (an early cry for help?), “Sivvy” walked at 10 months, promptly spoke in complete and colorful sentences, read at three, and spontaneously replicated famous structures like the Taj Mahal with wooden blocks ill-suited to classical Indian architecture. Unfortunately, she also became sadly eager to please and obsessed with itemizing her achievements. At 10, she proudly wrote home from camp: “I have washed: 2 pairs of socks, 1 faceloth, 1 jersey, and 1 pair of pants.” A summer to remember!
The mania for tallying only grew. In her high school diaries, under the heading, “Boys Gone Out With,” she noted:
• Boys asked by me: 4
• Dates requested: 19 (7 turned down)
• Dates gone on in all: 4 + 12 = 16.
It is a good thing Sylvia’s mother, a stickler for grammar, did not see this. Her daughter’s failure to title the list, “Boys With Whom I Have Gone Out,” might have pushed Aurelia over the edge.