05 October 2009


If the article on "Sylvia Plath" in Alix Strauss' Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, & the Notorious (Harper Collins, 2009) is typical of the others in the book, the general population that reads this work will, in the company of those who know something of the subject discussed, make fools of themselves.

There are some truly heinous mistakes in the Plath piece. I forced myself not to jump right to Plath and read with interest about Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson. I looked forward to Anne Sexton after Plath. I admit I don't know much about the suicides of the other people in the book, but after the Plath chapter I was so completely turned off to the point that the book in my hand was replaced by chocolate.

There are far too many errors for me to try to correct here, but I'll just list a few because I cannot help myself. Before I continue, however, I do have to say that the book I received, kindly from Strauss' publicist, is an advanced, uncorrected proof. Some of these errors may have been corrected before the book was published. The copy of the book I browsed briefly in a Borders book store seemed to be very similar, textually speaking, to my proof copy. In writing this, I am reminded of something my mother always said to me: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." I've always been a bit stubborn (comments to the blog on this point will be removed).

The format will follow my previous reviews that have warrented such scrutiny. I'll list the page number, the quote from the book, followed by the "correction" or some other snarky or potentially offensive comment.

Pg 57
"Born: October 27, 1932, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts." - Nope. Born in Boston, Massachusetts.

"Died: February 11, 1963, Court Green House, Devon England." - Nope. Plath died at 23 Fitzroy Road, London, England. Inconsistently, the location was correct later in the text.

"Discovered by: The nanny" - Nope. Myra Norris was a nurse not a nanny; and the construction person was a construction person. Inconsistently, Norris' occupation was correct later in the text.

"Funeral: Among the long list of eminent writers present at her funeral, close friend Anne Sexton gave a touching eulogy and talked openly about the two women's attraction to suicide." - Seriously? Is this fiction? This is grotesquely inaccurate and unintentionally laughable. The only eminent writer at her funeral was her husband.

At the risk of this review starting to look like Letters Home or The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982), ... ... (omission) ... ...

Pg 61
"It took only a few months [following their wedding] for Ted to have an affair, with Assia Wevill..." - Nope. Way wrong.

"By 1960 Sylvia and Ted each had dueling books of poetry published..." - Not really. Scales were heavily in Hughes' favor.

Pg 62
"[At the time of her death Plath left] Ariel and Other Poems... on the table near the front door, like a present waiting to be opened." - No. The manuscript was in her study.

Pg 63
"...a folded towel acted as a substitute for a blanket, which she used to support her head on the stove's open door." - No. A report at the time of her death indicates that her head was deep in the oven.

Pg 64
"On February 15, friends and family piled into St. Pancras County Court..." - Not quite accurate.

"Shortly after Sylvia's funeral, her friend Elizabeth was sent a letter by Assia, now Ted's wife." - Nope. Ted Hughes never married Assia Wevill. He did refer to her in a letter as his "true wife" at one point, but as far as I know astrological or cosmic marriage is not a recognized form of marriage.

There is more, the following comments on inaccuracies and errors in the book are from Gail Crowther. I'd quote at length from Strauss' text but likely won't obtain permission to reprint the WHOLE THING.

p. 61 The order of the writing of the poems is just all wrong, wrong, wrong.

p. 62 SP moved to London with the "naivete of a child" - What??? Has Strauss never read her letters?

p. 62 I believe from other sources that Horder sent SP the name of a female psychiatrist who he thought would be suitable but that the letter arrived after her death.

p. 62 SP 'wrote several notes' the night of her suicide - Sources/Evidence for this claim?

p. 63 'tea soaked clothes' - This detail is not mentioned in the inquest notes or the recording of the inquest. They were simply described as clothes and tape.

p. 63 'as if finishing the botched job she began twenty years before' - 20 years after her first attempt? ... So she was 10 then the first time she tried??? You're reading "Lady Lazarus" too literally.

p. 63 Plath was on the National Health Service, thus pills were free. Thus, gas was more expensive than pills.

p. 63 SP died at 6am? I thought Horder claimed she was still warm at 10.30 and therefore he thought she had died around 8am?

p. 63 Trevor Thomas was neither unconscious nor taken to hospital. According to his account he woke groggy in the afternoon, went to work to apologise and Horder looked him over and told him he had been affected by the gas.

p. 63 The quote on SP's grave is not from the Bhagavad Gita but from the Buddhist text 'Monkey' by Wu Ch'Eng-En.

p. 65 Assia Wevill was not "expecting TH home" they had just got back from a trip to Manchester and they didn't live together anyway.

p. 66 Assia Wevill didn't use water to wash down her pills - it was orange juice for Shura and whisky for herself.

And, there is still more! I'd include them but don't want to appear to be too nit-picky.

Each article in Death Becomes Them includes an "Unearthed" section as well as other bits of information such as career highlights. The Unearthed section, I thought, would reveal something new about the Plath's death, but for Plath is was just a summary of or brief history of British suicides by coal gas. Like Plath when she visited her father's grave in Winthrop, I felt cheated. Following the main text on Plath, there is a section called "Two Wives, Same Method" - which of course is wrong from the start as, we know, Ted Hughes's second wife - at this time of writing - is still living. Thus also, Hughes could not have been Assia's fourth husband, as is claimed on page 66.

The section on Nicholas Hughes' suicide earlier this year is painful to read. I suppose Strauss couldn't help herself? Lastly, the Career Highlights is equally flawed. According this this, The Journals of Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. No. That would be Plath's Collected Poems. The final sentence is off the mark, as well, "Today, two of her journals are on exhibition at Smith College, where they will remain until 2013, the year marking the fiftieth anniversary of her death." What I think she meant was that two journals were sealed until 2013; however, 11 years ago these were unsealed and were included in Karen V. Kukil's The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath published in 2000. The reliance on earlier Plath biographies is apparent.

Even a little carefully conducted research could have avoided 95% of these errors. It's really a shame that some bad facts just keep getting recycled by careless, clumsy, or otherwise lazy, presumably hasty writing. There is very little either new or interesting or unearthed about Plath or her suicide in this chapter - which is really, as a coworker of mine said, the only thing I care about. It is writing like this that pulls the focus clearly away from Plath's writing and wrongfully places it after her life. Perhaps I'm just over-deathed at the moment, having just finished a book about Jack the Ripper, but I found the work excessively and obsessively morbid. Alix Strauss' coverage of Sylvia Plath in Death Becomes Them is potentially one of the worst pieces of writing on Plath I've ever read. Big statement.

Stepping off the soapbox now.

I promise a positive review of something later this month.


Catty said...

That's amazing! A crappy book morphs into chocolate! I need to start shopping at your bookseller. But I will not start with this book.

P.Viktor said...

This excellent review has actually made me cancel my copy from Amazon. These sorts of glaring errors (the one about Sexton reading a eulogy at Plath's funeral actually made me laugh out loud) are really quite pitiful. It sounds to me that this is written by a tabloid hack who can't even be bothered to do basic research. I'm sure the whole book is floored by these errors, which is a shame, as I was rather looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the very detailed review - you have saved me £8.

panther said...

"Floored", P. Viktor ? That's quite a nice Freudian slip ;)

The trouble with "if you can't say anything nice. . ." is that nothing dodgy would ever get challenged. And this book sounds truly horrid. Having heard the gaping inaccuracies about Plath (whom I know about) I would never be able to trust the author's account of Hunter S. Thompson, for example, about whom I know little.

But am I the only one here who has reservations about the whole IDEA of this book ? I know that these people committed suicide, and I know that in some cases their preoccupation with suicide informs their work, but I can't help feeling that a book that focusses ENTIRELY on their suicides, in every little detail (even if inaccurate), is missing the point. Each and every one of these people is just so much more than the method and ghastly aftermath of their death.

Anna said...

Oooh no! I ordered the book immediately after I read about it on this blog! I was just trying to cancle my order, but somehow I can't. I really hope, they didn't ship it yet and I don't have to buy it!

I was really looking forward to reading it, since it seemed so interesting and I'm writing my thesis on Sylvia Plath and hoped for new insights and informations!

I really don't understand how someone writing a book does such a poor research! I mean, you just need to read ONE of the newer biographies and you won't do all these mistakes.

Of course, the book doesn't only cover Sylvia Plath, but if someone plans to write about people, they really should become familiar with the topic and rely on trustworthy sources. Besides, the author should also get familiar with primary sources!

It's a shame that such a promising book is so flawed.

I really hope, they will cancel my order somehow! Arg!

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comments! Anna, you should be able to return the book if it's already on the way.

Panther - I agree. I think I meant to include something similar in tone to what you said, but got sidetracked being an ass. It's a book trying to take advantage of sad endings of "the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, & the Notorious".

Like Mr. Viktor said, "It sounds to me that this is written by a tabloid hack who can't even be bothered to do basic research."

Anonymous said...


panther said...

I also find Adolf Hitler being described as "a cultural icon" a bit, well, odd. In a way he is of course (the very existence of Hitler says something, probably many things, about the culture from which he sprung) but I find it strange him being lumped in with creative people.

George Fitzgerald said...

Thanks Peter ... I initially thought oh boy this book is going to be a great pleasure for me to read ... now I will not waste so much as a moment on it.

Jinghua FAN 得一忘二 said...

It's appallingly and daringly difficult for a person who knows anything about AS and SP to make the error about SP's funeral, and it really demands a bit of divinity to forgive.

magiciansgirl said...

So, I guess even a lemur can write and publish a book these days - and to think I suffer from writer's block! I think I am cured now.

Peter, please never apologize for writing reviews like this - it does everyone a service.

This reminds me of the "History" channel. I watched a program about a period I know very well (15th c. Wars of the Roses) and it was so full of errors and inaccuracies that I have never been able to trust another program aired by that channel. These were simple, factual errors that any researcher with half a brain could have reported on accurately. Why is it so difficult for writers to get simple facts straight? Mind boggling.

That is some magical chocolate!

panther said...

magiciansgirl, I think I would actually read a book by a lemur-it could be very interesting !

But, like others who've posted here, I won't be reading this particular offering.

Anna said...

My copy was already shipped and if I want to give it back I need to pay one more shipping fee and won't get back the first one either. That will make almost the whole price of the book.

Well, I'm stuck with it now... I guess, I'm gonna read that Plath chapter and the one about Anne Sexton to search for more errors ;)

Anonymous said...

Anna - What a shame. Do you have a table that is uneven?

A Cynic

Anna said...

Buaaaahahahaa! I bet, I will, since I'm gonna smash something in after reading the SP chapter! ;)

BridgetAnna said...

Thanks for pointing out all the awful mistakes. I about pulled my eyeballs out when I read your brief mention of Anne Sexton supposedly being at SP's funeral. My GOD! That is absurd that an editor even let that get past the initial stage.

SO glad I never ordered this book (but only because I just never got around to it).

Also, are you positive that Aurelia was watching the Coronation at a friend's house? I thought she even wrote in Letters Home that she was at the theater. Didn't think that it was broadcast on televisions. Hm. Just a thought.

~VC said...

Hi Peter,

I didn't exactly have high expectations of the book: The front cover has an oven hovering above Plath's name which seemed to ensure that it would be a sensationalist account of things! Thanks for your amusing review & diligent identification of the inaccuracies. Hope the chocolate was a good consolation!


@ BridgetAnna

For what it's worth I've just looked it up in Letters Home and Aurelia Plath was indeed watching the Coronation on that day at the theater: "On August 24, a blisteringly hot day, a friend invited us to a film showing of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II [...] I wanted to get out of my seat and rush from the theater" (p.125 Harper ed.).

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you BridgetAnna and ~VC for the correction about Aurelia Plath being at the theatre. That error has been removed from the post.

Anonymous said...

Peter and BA--

About the coronation of Elizabeth II -- it was indeed broadcast on television around the world by the BBC. See the article at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/2/newsid_2654000/2654501.stm

In fact, I remember watching some of the coverage on TV in Chicago -- I was 5 yrs old at the time.
--Jim Long

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thanks for sending that link. It was interesting to read the article. The coronation was on 2 June - but Aurelia didn't see it until 24 August. They, or someone, must've have put together a nice edited version of the event for theatrical dissemination.

I was -21.


BridgetAnna said...

That's really interesting that it was broadcast on television - I had no idea. You learn something new every day, that's for sure. Thanks for posting about that.

Rehan Qayoom said...

I'm surprised this was even published.

Catty said...

That Time article is great: "Each story reads like its own mini–mystery novel. They're incredibly fact-filled."

Yeah. Filled with facts from Wikipedia. I was looking Assia Wevill up on Wiki right after I read this review and saw exactly how far the author read in that particular entry.

Don't publishers have researchers or fact-checkers anymore?

Anonymous said...

On the matter of Anne Sexton and Plath's funeral: Diane Middlebrook, in her book "Anne Sexton: a biography", discusses a connection between Sexton and the memorial service held for Plath in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

"When the minister of the Unitarian church in Wellesley called requesting her assistance in putting together a memorial ceremony for Plath, she was glad to help select the poetry."(pg.199)

In a subsequent letter to her psychiatrist, Dr. Orne, she states "I began to worry about what her funeral should consist of." If Sexton is unclear on the difference between a funeral and a memorial service, perhaps we can forgive Strauss for being likewise confused. But nowhere is there any mention of Sexton giving a eulogy or speaking at such a service, if she did attend, which is not specifically stated in the book. It does make clear, though, that Sexton had some disagreement with the minister over what should be included in the service. She apparently felt that the fact of Plath's suicide should not be left out: "I don't think that this should be left out of her funeral. I think this is an important way to die."(pg.199) This, of course, was at a time when Plath's two children (and others) were still being told that Sylvia died of pneumonia, but Sexton, who knew Sylvia well enough, guessed at the truth. But I doubt that this would have gone over very well at the memorial service, so I doubt that Sexton would have attended.
--Jim Long

Anonymous said...

By the way, Peter, several of the errors you mention can be traced to Paul Alexander's biography "Rough Magic":

1) the idea that Sylvia "wrote several notes" the night of her suicide: PA describes her going to Trevor Thomas' apartment with some letters --"her letters were "airmail for America"(pg.329); these may have been the "notes" Strauss refers to;

2) the idea that she rested her head on the oven door on a "folded towel": as PA describes the scene, she "opened the oven door, folded a cloth on which she could rest her cheek, turned on the gas full-tilt; and, kneeling down on the floor before the oven, rested her cheek on the folded cloth she had placed on the oven door."(pg.330);

3)the idea that Trevor Thomas was rendered unconscious: PA says that "gas from the upstairs flat had seeped down into his room and knocked him out as he slept"(pg.331);

4)the mis-attribution of the quotation on her headstone: in "Rough Magic" PA says "Along with her married name -- Sylvia Plath Hughes -- and the dates -- 1932-1963 -- Hughes would select as an inscription a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted"
--Jim Long

Peter K Steinberg said...


Thanks for looking into these errors. When factual mistakes are recycled I presume that Alexander or Hayman were the source. This is unfair of me. And, that's not to their books don't have some things right or interesting.

What I particularly enjoyed reading was your previous comment on Sexton and Wellesley. It's been a very long time since I've read Middlebrook's biography on Sexton and must admit I didn't recall a memorial service for Plath being held. Middlebrook's book was used in the Sexton chapter but it was not listed as a source for the Plath chapter. Regardless, errors were still made in the writing.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. The book sounds horrendous.
A tiny nitpick: Jamaica Plain is a neighborhood in Boston.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks Openadmission, I know that JP is a neighborhood of Boston. It is were Warren Plath was born. I can nitpick with the best of them. The more accurate neighborhood would be the South End.

Anonymous said...

have you ever considered publishing anything that advocates mental health awareness on your blog. sylvia plath is a touching example of the wrong attention being placed on mental health disorders.

Paul Donnelley said...

I think it is a little naive of you to expect a book like this to provide new insights. It was intended to be just a distillation of info about people who have committed suicide - not a psychological treatise about why they did it.

What I find remarkable is that Alix Strauss apparently employed five researchers on the book and she laughably credits their "eye for detail".

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.