When Breathing Feels Like Bleeding
Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" and other stab wounds we cherish.
“because you’re in the world no matter what,
even if you shut your windows”
YOUR FATHER will ruin your life. Once your father’s fist has opened your esophagus, no other man has to try so hard. You are a vessel. An open throat that does not scream. You love your father, despite the fist. If you could make a sound from your open throat you would tell him you love him first. Only after would you ask him: why did you do this to me? You do not have to ask him why he does not love you back. You could scream. Theoretically. But you are a woman. This is your fatal flaw. Bleeding is much more efficient.
“I felt like a piece of me was lost in every lie he forced down my throat.”
A note. When Sylvia Plath met her husband, Ted Hughes, she drew blood. She bit his cheek in an act of self-defense, or defiance, after Hughes kissed her with “such violence” that both her headband and earrings were ripped off. Later, they spent a night together that left her face “battered” with purple bruises, and her neck “raw and wounded, too.” Similar and worse instances of violence during their marriage are littered throughout her journals. She tells herself,
though: “Consider yourself lucky to have been stabbed by him.” And this may seem odd, if you have not read her poem, “Daddy.” But, once you have, it becomes much easier to understand why Plath mistakes a stab wound for a love letter.
“I thought it was normal. Every time my mother would leave the house she got a beating. I would stand in
my Hannah Montana pyjamas on the other side of the door listening, learning, watching.”
In her devastating poem “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath writes about her father. This is not an easy thing to do. I have tried to do this. And every time I have failed. But Plath succeeds. For those who have not experienced abuse, it may be hard to reckon with the words on the page. I can see, quite clearly, how Plath’s lines may come off as poetic nonsense. She describes wanting to kill her dad, then compares him to God, and then prays “to recover him,” all within the span of nine lines. Confusing, right? But victims of abuse read these words and cry. Relationships with abusers are funny (horrifying, sad, grotesque) in this way. They are contradictory. On one hand, you want him to die. On the other, you want to be the one that kills him. And, always, in the back of your head, you love him. So there is that detail. And it is important. Even when you hate him, you love him. You pray for his salvation. Because he is your father— “a bag full of God,” as Plath says. Because he never taught you the difference between love and abuse. You didn’t choose loving him but you are stuck with it like you are stuck with the bleeding.
“Even though I know he doesn’t treat me the way he should, he doesn’t support me or respect me, and has
threatened to disown me multiple times throughout my life, I still find myself wanting to hang out with him
and give him hugs and watch tv and go on car rides. Maybe that’s why I love people who don’t like me and maybe it’s why I don’t even like me very much!”
Plath succeeds. But not only in writing about her father. “Daddy” is also about her husband. This is because one could not have existed without the other. Our fathers—or, more generally, our parents— teach us how to be loved. I am thinking about Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. Pecola spends her life watching her father suffocate her family; he perpetuates violence through rape, his fists, the sour smell of alcohol on his tongue. Because she is her father’s daughter, she must ask: “How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?” When your father has not taught you the difference between love and abuse, you are left to figure it out for yourself. For many women, like Plath, this means falling into an abusive relationship later in life. To be sure, there are exceptions. Some women succeed in learning what love is, and the cycle of abuse bursts into a thousand brilliant shards. But for many of us, for me and Plath and (probably) Pecola, “Daddy” becomes about most, if not all, of the men in our lives. Plath’s father was a mold and her husband fit it perfectly. She says to her Daddy, “I made a model of you.”
“Because of the way I’d grown up and the way love and sex had been portrayed to me, I was only ever attracted to people who treated me negatively.”
And there is something that we, as readers— as humans— must remember. Ted Hughes drove Sylvia Plath to suicide. I think about this fact a lot. It is impossible not to think of it while reading “Daddy.” Plath wrote “Daddy” while still breathing, sure, but she also wrote it while bleeding out. When you have been a victim of abuse, these two things become so intertwined that they are almost impossible to distinguish. Maybe Plath didn’t know yet that she was going to die, but she surely felt the enormity of her wounds. Hughes had hit an artery. And she is begging us to look. Read this poem like a testament. Read it like a eulogy. Do not take a single word for granted. This is her life laid bare before you. These are our lives held at knifepoint.
“be skinnier, be whiter, be quieter, be smaller, be less and less and less so that men can pick you up and put you in their pocket like jangly coins and then you’ll have value, they said.”
At the end of “Daddy,” Plath tries to convince us, and her father— but mostly just herself— that she is through with him. But if we read this poem as a truth, and if we remember that Ted Hughes pushed Sylvia Plath off the edge she had been teetering on, we know that this is not true.
We are forced to face an ugly reality.
“It’s been a little over 2 years now, I thought I was over it. Yet, writing this to you now, it makes me want to cry. It fills me up with hot tears that I want to collect so I can pour it on him. So I can drench him in the fire that burns within me.”
Sylvia Plath dies. And it is not poetic or beautiful. It is only further evidence of some sad truths:
That trauma follows you like a ghost. That your father not only dealt you with a blow but
conditioned your body to be a punching bag. That men see a punching bag and get turned on.
That you cannot heal your wounds if you are still being punched and punched and punched.
That when you try to stitch the cut left by your father another blow opens the wound again. That
when a wound opens it bleeds, it festers, it gets infected. And that when you bleed too much you
“It was real. I am still here.”