Book Club: Talking About Sad Girl Nation

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By Monica Busch

I didn’t mean to write this on the 57th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. I was just looking up a couple of lines of hers that Alana Massey quoted in her book All the Lives I Want, which led me to the Amazon listing for her unabridged diaries, which led me to find, somewhat eerily, the facts of the date: February 11. 

The quote I was looking up, by the way, was:

I am a victim of introspection. If I have not the power to put myself in the place of other people, but must be continually burrowing inward, I shall never be the magnanimous creative person I wish to be. Yet I am hypnotized by the workings of the individual, alone, and am continually using myself as a specimen.

Plath wrote this in her diaries between July 1950 and July 1953, according to a preview of the volume on Google Books. She was roughly 18 years old.

But enough of the throat clearing.

This month, for That’s On My List, the Manque book club, we read Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. I talked a bit about my key takeaways on this week’s episode of The Manqué, including, especially, a rather meaty quote right toward the end of the book, where Wurtzel, after documenting years of chronic and intermittently treated depression, muses about the conflation of mental illness and art. She writes, of course, of Plath:

Forget about the scant hours in her brief life when Sylvia Plath was able to produce the works in Ariel. Forget about that tiny bit of time and just remember the days that spanned into years when she could not move, couldn’t think straight, could only lie in wait in a hospital bed, hoping for the relief that electroconvulsive therapy would bring… Think, instead of the girl herself, of the way she must have felt right then, of the way no amount of great poetry and fascination and fame could make the pain she felt at that moment worth suffering… Think about living in depression from moment to moment, and know it is not worth any of the great art that comes as its by-product. 

Wurtzel is talking about not just the romanticism of the sad girl here, but the romanticization of what she calls “madness.” She contends that we have all placed the idea of madness on a pedestal and argues that we should “stop pretending that the feeling itself is interesting.” Instead, she writes: “Let’s call it depression and admit that it is very bleak.”

Allow me to take a page out of Plath’s book and make this about myself. 

If you’ve followed along here for any length of time, you’ve learned that there is a common, recurring theme across our writing, podcasting and general social media posting: mental health. From depression to BPD to body dysmorphia to seasonal affective disorder, we talk about it all, almost always from experience. Mary and I have even coined a name for what we cover at Manqué: the sad girl agenda, a tongue-in-cheek nod to our perpetual fascination with our own discontent. 

It’s an homage to the easily detestable manic pixie dream girl trope, to be sure, but also an admission that, more often than not, when we get together, our conversations often seamlessly revert back to how fucking miserable we are and the situations that led us here, both internally and externally. Just listen to our podcast, for crying out loud.

In her piece on Plath, Massey writes about finding a Tumblr subculture wrought with young girls idolizing sad literary women, the obsession those online girls have with documenting their own moroseness.

“These young women awaken a maternal impulse in me, and at some points, I get close to reaching out to encourage them to get care,” Massey writes. “I realize this is both invasive and unproductive at first, but I later realize that this is an underestimation of their capabilities. The very act of sharing the images is a way of seeking care, not as cries for help or as declarations of their suffering.”

What I am trying to get at here is that two things can be true at once. You should, as Wurtzel said, resist the temptation to dress depression up in pretty flowers in a foolish attempt to make it aspirational. But at the same time, you can recognize that talking about it and normalizing it may well be one of the best ways to accomplish the former. We are not having photoshoots in graveyards, we are compulsively buying scented candles as ways to deflect the side effects of larger problems. 

In a 2017 afterword added to later editions of Prozac Nation, Wurtzel wrote: “I was described as Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna. I was called the Courtney Love of letters… People wrote these things as if they were bad.”

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