Sylvia Plath, Ruth Barnhouse & a ghost

Salon has published a nearly 6,000-word essay today on the complicated relationship between Sylvia Plath and her longtime therapist, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse. Writer Karen Maroda offers a sympathetic but critical portrait of Barnhouse, who died in 1999, and refers to an undercurrent of love between the therapist and her famous patient.

There’s a ghost in Maroda’s otherwise comprehensive report: Barnhouse also was an Episcopal priest who wrote two books relevant to this topic — Homosexuality: A Symbolic Confusion and Clergy and the Sexual Revolution.

Maroda is a psychoanalytic psychologist and the author of two books, The Power of Countertransference: Innovations in Analytic Technique and Seduction, Surrender, and Transformation: Emotional Engagement in the Analytic Process.

Maroda interviewed Barnhouse in 1990 and 1998. She recorded the interviews in 1998. In a twist worthy of a screenplay, Maroda tells of how the relationship led to a gift that created a collector’s item worth $15,000:

I asked what bothered her the most. This conversation took place when the tape recorder was off, so I do not have a verbatim account. But she referred vaguely to a specific poem. “Which poem?” I asked. She didn’t answer. Rather, she pointed to her bookshelves, saying she thought I would find the poem there. I looked, found a copy of “Colossus,” and took it down from the shelf. Ruth said something about people making too much of the title of one of Sylvia’s poems. I couldn’t find anything that seemed controversial in the book, so Ruth told me she was referring to the one called “Lesbos,” which turned out not to be in the “Colossus” collection at all, but in the “Collected Poems.”

“So it bothered you that some people thought she might be lesbian?” I asked. She said yes. I paged through the book while I listened to Ruth.

As I went to return “Colossus” to her bookshelf, I saw that Sylvia Plath had inscribed this first edition “With love” to Ruth. I couldn’t help mentioning to Ruth that this book was probably worth a great deal of money, probably enough for an Alaskan cruise for two. I asked her if she would like me to make some inquiries regarding the value of the book — or did it mean too much to her to sell? She said she didn’t need the book, that she kept Sylvia in her heart. But she scoffed at my idea, saying she thought it most unrealistic to imagine the book was valuable.

I’ll leave the rest to Maroda’s article. To give away any further twists would be unfair to her masterfully told story.

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  • AH

    Countertransference is often overlooked as a force in these things. I have had, officially and unofficially, personal advisor roles, and can testify that the vortex of caring and deep focus on another human is a very strong force field. Psychoanalytic training doesn’t lessen it, just makes the therapist conscious of it and, one hopes, sets up behavior and thought boundaries. Therapists, as individuals, don’t always stay conscious in the midst of it.

    OK, now I’ll go get a day pass and read the article.

  • tjic
  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I’m awfully sorry to have left off that link in my post, and I’ll add it now. Thanks!

  • Bob Koch

    I notice you mentioned Barnhouse’s book on homosexuality. When I wrote her around 22 years ago to say how much I enjoyed it, I mentioned it was quite a thing to have been published by Seabury Press. She agreed, saying they hadn’t the guts to publicize the book once it was printed. She hoped it would be reprinted by someone else, but I think it never happened. The Anglican Theological Review (so-called) printed a long essay she wrote on homosexuality that is maybe the closest one can get to the book. Imagine; a priestess of the Episcopal Church writing that homosexuality is an *abnormal* condition. One can see why, even in the 70′s the PECUSA hadn’t the stomach for it.