Touching Sylvia Plath’s Hair
In 2005, I found myself working as a public services assistant at Indiana University's rare books library, The Lilly Library. The job title was a glorified term for a photocopier. I spent most sunny Saturday afternoons in the back room surrounded by photocopy orders from graduate students and mountains of dust. I was jealous of the grad students and their literary lives. As an undergraduate voice major in the school of music, the rigorous program allowed me little time for academic classes, let alone pleasure reading.
My boss, perhaps sensing my low spirits, placed a large box in front of me one afternoon while I was on my break. "You're a Plathie," he said. "Take a look at this." I looked down at the shoebox-sized container in front of me. It was smaller than the manuscript-shaped boxes at the Lilly. I had spent one afternoon a few weeks prior looking through some of the Plath materials—one poem draft, covered in spaghetti sauce, had charmed me particularly. It was a bright day, just the beginning of a beautiful Midwestern fall. I looked back at my boss, inquisitive. "Have fun," he said, and walked off with a smile.
On the side of the box was a label and the Dewey decimal. But there was only a brief description on the label: "Plath Materials . . . hair."
At first, I thought it must be a collection of her baby hair, maybe a lock or two her mother saved in her baby book. But why the big box? I flipped open the lid, and came face to face with a pile of dark brown hair. There was so much of it! I noticed the hair was over eight inches long, bound in braids. (There's a line in Al Alvarez's memoir of Sylvia Plath in his book about suicide, The Savage God, when he describes the "animal smell" of Sylvia Plath's unwashed hair in the last months of her life.) The hair in this box omitted a strong odor.
Glancing around the room to make sure no one was paying attention I reached into the box and pulled out a long, thick braid, still bound at each side with rubber bands, and held it in my hands. It was surreal. How old was Plath when this hair was shorn?
Overwhelmed, I placed the hair back into the box, put the lid back on, and stepped outside into the sunshine, giddy. I had just held Sylvia Plath's hair in my hands.
Later I learned that the hair in the box was Sylvia's childhood hair. As a youngster, she wore her hair into two long braids. For a summer cut her mother would lop off the braids, leaving her with a chic bob for the warmer months. These braids in the box are the accumulation of the few summers Sylvia spent at her grandparents' house in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
Sylvia’s hair may be the weirdest item in the Lilly collection, but it keeps good company. Hair is fairly common in collections—in the 19th century and earlier it was common practice to give a loved one locks of hair or to snip hair from the deceased to make a grieving token. The Lilly has locks of Edgar Allan Poe’s hair. Inexplicably, they also have a mold of Upton Sinclair’s teeth. One can imagine the kind of fetishistic charm those teeth hold for a Sinclair scholar.
There’s something mystical about coming face to face with the relics of an admired artist, dead long before you were born. In 2005, I was lucky to travel to Knole, the family seat of Vita Sackville West, where the original manuscript for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is on display. (Upon its completion Woolf had gifted it to its inspiration, Vita.) For several years I had been studying Woolf, reading biographies and letters, where I learned that she liked to write in purple ink. It was an eerie and sort of incredible feeling peering over the manuscript of Orlando at Knole when I realized it was indeed written in purple.
I've often told the Plath story at parties after a few drinks to other interested Plathies, mostly women like me, who obsess over her life and work. The story of the hair is one that I cherish. Its allure is directly related to the cult of Plath. I think many of us feel as if we own a part of her. There's a deep personal connection to her writing that dwarfs the affection we have for other writers we admire. It's more territorial, more competitive. There are many reasons we feel possessive about Plath—though her suicide plays a part, it’s mostly how we relate to her, how we feel our lives running in tandem with hers. There’s also plenty of material. In addition to the poetry and The Bell Jar, we have her letters, her beautiful journals, stories from those who knew her, and the astounding research and critical work that surrounds her legacy.
If you have read Plath’s work you know she was a woman caught between two selves, in constant limbo between her passion to create and her death wish. In the end, the Ariel poems mark the emergence of that final, fatal self. Needless to say, as I felt the pressure to identify as one thing or another in college, it was a struggle I related to, very strongly.
When I graduated from Indiana University in 2006, I left with a bachelor's degree in English. I often think back to those days at the Lilly, the long afternoons when the conflict between my love of literature and my passion for singing seemed like the end of the world. It’s been six years since I graduated and little has changed. The news is, I am singing again.