20 October 2016

Sylvia Plath and McLean Hospital

In August when I was in the final preparations for the tour of Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar sites, I found that I had long been mistaken about a couple of things. This is my coming clean. It was my intention in this blog post to discuss just McLean, but I found myself deeply immersed in other aspects of Plath's recovery. The other thing I was mistaken about will be discussed in a separate blog post. I suppose I need to state from the outset that I am drawing conclusions from Plath's actual experiences from what she wrote in The Bell Jar and vice versa, taking information from the novel that is presently unconfirmed or murky and applying it to Plath's biography. There is enough in The Bell Jar, I think, based on real life to make these decisions. At the same time, I like to think that I know enough to distinguish where things are authentic and where details were clearly made up, slightly fudged, or out of chronological order.

McLean Hospital was Plath's third and last stop on her road to recovery from her suicide attempt in August 1953. She initially recovered at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Paul Alexander writes that she was at Newton-Wellesley from 26 August until 3 September at which point in time she was moved to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He then states that Plath moved from MGH to McLean in Belmont eleven days later on 14 September. The fullest autobiographical account of Plath's summer and suicide attempt can be read in her 25 December 1953 to Eddie Cohen. She never sent letter. In this letter Plath claimed to have spent "two sweltering weeks" at Newton-Wellesley Hospital before spending two weeks in the psychiatric ward at Massachusetts General. This particular letter is fairly candid and glib, so she may have been being generic with regards to the duration of her her various hospital stays.

Little is known about this entire period. Some information I learned from an envelope in Plath mss II at the Lilly Library. The back of an envelope, that once contained a letter from Gordon Lameyer to Sylvia Plath and which was postmarked 1 September 1953, contains two full-lipped lipstick blots. I was enraptured by this before realizing it also held notes about visiting the MGH. The notes, transcribed below following the line breaks on the back of the envelope, read:
Go to M.G.H. {Charles to
Cambridge Street
Fruit Street is
1st of [sic.] 2nd left
to Main Desk.
Ward B7
ask for
Wedrow = resident Dr.
Before 4:30
Take Dr. Racioppi's instructions
Face & Chloro-hydrate
Visiting hours?
Chloro-hydrate at [shorthand symbol: night]
3 p.m Dr Cohn
[shorthand symbols: walk straight through "ment"]
Corridor sign B7 &
B8 [shorthand symbol: take] Elevator
Some notes on the notes:
  • Dr. Wedrow is Dr. Earl M. Wedrow, resident physician in psychiatry.
  • Dr. Racioppi is Dr. Francesca M. Racioppi Benotti, the Plaths' family doctor who practiced under her maiden name Francesca M. Racioppi, M.D. Her office, which opened in 1947, was located at 152 Washington Street, Wellesley.
  • Dr. Cohn might be either Dr. Z.A. Cohn, assistant resident physician in medicine, or Dr. M.E. Cohen, assistant resident physician in psychiatry.
  • In the first set of shorthand symbols four lines from the bottom, "ment" is a best guess. It might very well be "main", which contextually makes more sense. It also "looks" similar to the word "main" as defined in this shorthand dictionary (see page 130).
My deepest thank to Jeffrey Mifflin, archivist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and to Catherine Rankovic for her assistance with "translating" the shorthand. Visit Catherine's blog, Studying Aurelia Plath, to learn about Aurelia Plath, shorthand, and more.

Back to McLean… I knew Plath stayed at Belknap House in McLean Hosptial. It was listed as the return address in the letter to Eddie Cohen mentioned above and printed, though edited down, in Letters Home (pp. 129-132). However, there are two Belknap's: North Belknap and South Belknap. I arbitrarily decided (or read somewhere, maybe?) that it was North Belknap. Or, it is possible that I simply mis-remembered which house she was in if the name was printed in a book or article. My conclusion, however wrong, was also not only based on what I saw, but on Plath's description in The Bell Jar, Chapter 15:
My room was on the first floor, and the window, a short distance above the pine-needle-padded ground, overlooked a wooded yard ringed by a red brick wall. If I jumped I wouldn't even bruise my knees. The inner surface of the tall wall seemed smooth as glass. (1963: 197)
North Belknap has, in the front of the house, a red brick walled courtyard. It was the most visible and approachable house on my first, timid visits.

Walled-in courtyard of North Belknap
The quote from the novel above comes right when Esther Greenwood moves from the "City Hospital" (aka Massachusetts General in Boston) to the private hospital. Based on the chronology of the novel and the way things worked in the real world, Plath, like Esther Greenwood, was likely first admitted to Codman House, the model for Caplan in the novel. We know Esther herself was in Caplan for she says in Chapter 19: "I often thought if I had been assigned to Doctor Quinn I would be still in Caplan or, more probably, Wymark" (1963: 236).

However, in doing the final research preparations for the tour, I learned that back in the day there was Men's Belknap and Women's Belknap and that modern day McLean has different names for these houses. Men's Belknap is now North Belknap and Women's Belknap is now South Belknap. This is extremely useful to know as we have a clear idea of where Plath was during a time in which little information (no journals, sparse letters) is known. Therefore, the quote from Chapter 15 above most likely describe Codman/Caplan.

The hierarchy of houses and how they link to The Bell Jar is as follows: Women's/South Belknap (freest and the model for Belsize), Codman (medium security, for lack of a better way to put it, and the model for Caplan), and Wyman (lockdown, the model for Wymark; see Pressman, Last Resort, 247). In addition, Pressman states: "Within each building the floors were also rated, from I to III ('I' being lowest), further differentiating the levels of disturbance" (247). We can deduce that because Esther was on the ground floor that she was not deemed a serious threat. At McLean, Wyman and Codman were tucked further back into the woods from the main entrance and center of the grounds. As Esther Greenwood goes, in Chapter 17, to receive electroshock therapy, she describes the journey:
Then Doctor Nolan unlocked a door at the end of the hall and led me down a flight of stairs into the mysterious basement corridors that linked, in an elaborate network of tunnels and burrows, all the various buildings of the hospital. (1963: 225)
Many of these tunnels, constructed between 1893 and 1895, are visible. Some are burrowed into the ground, some have an above ground pathway that parallels its more secretive interior.

Tunnel near Codman House
Tunnel connecting South Belknap to Administration Building
Tunnel near Centre Building

Esther had two rooms in Caplan. The first room was at the back and was described above; the second room was in "the front of the house" and had "lots more sun" (1963: 204). Caplan's original, Codman House, is no longer in use. It is boarded up and abandoned and heavily overgrown with weeds and foliage. The front of the house faces south so in the late fall and winter, it would receive all the sunlight on any given day. I walked around the area and took some "safe" photographs.

Codman House, main entrance (south-facing)
Codman House, East side
Tunnel door by Codman House
Codman House, ivy-league psychiatric care
Someone bolder than I has taken a video of the exterior of the vacant building.

There are a few maps of the grounds available. This one from circa 1900 is really useful. As is the Belmont Assessor Plans from 1931, much closer to Plath's time. In this section map you can clearly see walled in areas behind both Women's Belknap as well as the front of Codman and in the rear at the back (just above "man" of "Codman").

Bing and Google Maps offer various current perspectives on the houses. I found the Bing maps better for the south facing side of Codman House as the leaves were off the trees and it was before it was so overgrown due to abandonment.
Bing Map showing main entrance and part of a tunnel.
Bing Map showing back side of Codman house, and woods.
Once I found out about the older/original name for South Belknap, I found the following images of Women's Belknap from 1903 via the Harvard Art Museums website. These provide truly enlightening glimpses at the decor of McLean in 1903 and supplies information about the geography of the house and its rooms.

Some larger images from the above:
Front View
Sitting Room
Patient's Room
Reception and music room
Dining Room

The Women's Gymnasium was located directly behind Women's Belknap. The building adjacent to the Women's Gym was Power House. See also some interior images of the Women's Gym can be seen here.

Plath would have checked into and likely out of the hospital at the Pierce Building (Administration).

Some larger images from the above:
Entrance Hall, Pierce Building
Reception room and library

For further reading:
Pressman, Jack. Last Resort: Psychosurgery and the Limits of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 (Amazon).

All links accessed 17 and 26 August and 7 September 2016.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

How exciting! In Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath, there is a section on "The Night Dances" which discusses the drug Chloryl-hydrate (Plath misspelled as there is no "chloro"). "Chloryl/chloral" is used as a sedative and was common then. Nietzsche also used it, and Marilyn Monroe had it in her system at the time of her death. Thanks for giving my work a bit more verification. :-)

I also enjoyed the picture tour very much.

BridgetAnna said...

Those terrifying long corridors of tunnels one treaded, presumably anxiously, towards ECT. Yikes. The stuff of nightmares.

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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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.