Nicholas Hughes was killed by Sylvia Plath, his envious mother

Mar 23, 2009
Coline Covington

Tortured by the ghost of his envious mother, Nicholas Hughes's suicide was inevitable says Coline Covington

Nicholas Hughes had a nightmare start in life. His mother, Sylvia Plath, had a history of fighting her own inner demons that must have made it especially difficult for her to be there in her mind for her two children, Frieda and Nicholas - born a year apart.

Ted Hughes separated from Sylvia before Nicholas's first birthday and only months later his mother, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide. As a small infant, Nicholas would have been extremely sensitive to his mother's depression and this would leave an indelible fault line in his own personality. Forty-six years after his mother committed suicide, Nicholas has followed suit by hanging himself at his home in Alaska. 

Children whose parents have committed suicide - at no matter what age - tend to feel not only responsible for their parent's depression and ultimate suicide but also profoundly rejected by them.

Nicholas may have felt his love was lethal and could only result in death and loss

In short, the parent who kills herself is perceived by the child as not loving him enough to want to live. Any close relationships that might arise subsequently are fraught with trauma, insecurity and dread.

The impotence experienced by the child in not being able to keep his parent alive is also unbearable. If the child is very young, as Nicholas was, it may leave him feeling that his love is lethal and can only result in death and loss. The experience of loving is tainted from the start. 

Nicholas Hughes did not marry and had no children. We might speculate that this felt too risky and dangerous an undertaking for him. Nevertheless, he is mourned by family and friends as "an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right."

What is most striking about the timing of his suicide is that it seems to have coincided with his resigning from his university post and setting up a pottery at home. A family friend explained that Nicholas wanted to devote time "to advance his not inconsiderable talent at making pots and creatures in clay". It is possible that this decision was the tipping point in his life.

Although Nicholas struggled with depression for much of his life, he does not seem to have inherited Plath's manic depression - instead suffering from his own psychological conflicts relating to the circumstances of his life.

However, there may be an important clue to the timing of his suicide in a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote about him shortly before her suicide. In Nick and the Candlestick, published in her collection, Ariel, Plath writes, "You are the one/ Solid the spaces lean on, envious./ You are the baby in the barn."

These are haunting lines that convey how precious this baby was to Plath but at the same time there is an envy of him, of the solidity that she sees in him, that she leans on and does not possess herself.

To Plath, this small child who may have seemed self-contained and intact, reinforced her own sense of damage and emptiness, along with her inevitable anxieties about being able to give enough to him when she was embroiled in what Hughes was later to describe as the "hidden workshop of herself".

The prospect for Nicholas of making his own babies ("clay creatures") in the barn may have been overwhelming for a number of reasons. On one level, he may have been aware, unconsciously, that he was embarking on something that he felt would have made his mother painfully envious of him - of the solidity in him that she felt she did not have - the solidity that would have made it possible for him to be creative despite his traumatic beginnings.

At the same time, his desire to express his emotional life creatively in his pottery may have triggered off a deeper awareness of the dreadful and frightening emptiness he most likely would have experienced as an infant with a depressed and self-occupied mother - a mother who would have struggled to hold him in her mind emotionally and who then deserted him in death.

The loneliness, vulnerability and rage that is left by such an experience can be intolerable when it resurfaces. To overcome this and to find a way of living and of being creative can feel like a monumental task, especially in the face of an envious ghost who had not been able to achieve this herself.

In the end, it seems that Nicholas's identification with his mother and the pain of losing her was too powerful to survive. Hughes's poem, following Plath's death, described how his son's eyes "Became wet jewels,/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair."

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what about a Father who at least two wives committed suicide.
This is ridiculous.