The rape of Sylvia Plath was the third traumatic event in her short life. Her father had died in November 1940 when she was eight years old. In August 1953, when an undergraduate at Smith College, she had attempted suicide at her home in Wellesley. In July 1954, after completing her junior year, she rented a flat on Mass. Ave. near Harvard Square with her friend Nancy Hunter, attended Harvard summer school and continued to see her psychiatrist. But she did not get into Frank O’Connor’s writing class: a rare failure for that academic high flyer.
According to Nancy Hunter Steiner’s vivid, first-hand account in A Closer Look at Ariel (1973), both women met ‘Irwin’ on the steps of Widener Library in the Harvard Yard. Steiner caustically describes him as ‘a balding, myopic-looking young man … wearing a woebegone expression. He was thin, with bones like broomstraws that poked out here and there along his frame. And he was tall; the splintery frame stretched up above our heads like a flagpole, ending at a small round head. His face was pinched and solemn, and in its center, behind the thickest glasses I had ever seen, two tiny, watery blue circles masqueraded as eyes.’ In a coffee shop he dazzled them both with his intellectual brilliance, but his sinister aura made Nancy Hunter feel uneasy. She didn’t know why he was wasting time on them – though he was clearly out for sex. He called her for a date and chased her around his flat while grabbing at her convulsively, and she later felt she’d ‘narrowly escaped being raped.’
‘Irwin’ then turned to Plath. Most women would have been repelled by his freaky appearance, sinister aura and sexual aggressiveness with Hunter, but Plath found all this exciting rather than frightening. Incautious and out of her depth, she agreed to spend the night with him, but did not expect to be cruelly treated and physically hurt. Sexual intercourse set off a vaginal hemorrhage while she was still in his flat and she continued to bleed when she returned home. Hunter records that she then exclaimed, ‘Nancy, I think I’m bleeding to death. You have to help me. . . . He raped me.’ Plath was passive and stoical as the blood poured out of her. Hunter, terrified but effective, helped to save her. Hunter called ‘Irwin,’ who drove them to the hospital, and she never saw him again. During this crisis Plath was careful to give a false name at the hospital to keep the incident out of the newspapers (her suicide attempt had been big news in her home town).
Plath made a rapid recovery. Instead of fearing her assailant and calling the police, she rather surprisingly went out with him the next day on a picnic to Crane’s Beach on the North Shore, and continued to see and correspond with him. In one letter she lightheartedly prophesied her future fame: ‘I am sending you a few of my latest lyric splurges. So rip them up, so it’s your privilege. Only one day I assure you, editors will be offering you fabulous sums for letters and notes with my signature.’
Both Plath and ‘Irwin’ are dead and it’s now impossible to know exactly what happened to her. But the evidence suggests that she was telling the truth. Neither Hunter nor Plath’s boyfriend Gordon Lameyer, in whom she also confided, doubted her story. She’d lost her virginity the previous year during her unhappy affair with Richard Sassoon, so her haemorrhage was not caused by having sex for the first time. Rape is the most convincing explanation.
The entries for the summer of 1954 are missing from Plath’s Letters Home (1975) and Unabridged Journals (2000). But she wrote a different, fictionalized version of this event in her autobiographical The Bell Jar, published pseudonymously in January 1963, the month before her suicide. In the novel Esther Greenwood (no competitive friend is involved) also meets ‘Irwin’ on the steps of Widener and decides to seduce him in order to free herself from the burden of virginity. He twice refers to women as ‘ladies.’ She feels pain, not pleasure, when deflowered by him and bleeds copiously. Her roommate, not ‘Irwin,’ drives her to the hospital and Esther does not continue to see him.
All Plath’s biographers inevitably follow Hunter’s plausible account. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989), Ronald Hayman’s The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991) and Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic (1991) add nothing new. Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song (2013) mentions ‘Irwin’s’ real name, but doesn’t say anything about him. Edward Butscher’s Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976) notes that Edwin (no surname given) was married at the time. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath (1987) adds some grim, sadistic details: ‘Sylvia suffered a vaginal tear and lost a substantial amount of blood before the tear was stitched in a hospital emergency room. Sylvia’s story, when she retold it to Gordon [Lameyer] and others, was that she had been attacked and that the bleeding was not the result of her being deflowered but of the professor’s manually raping her without provocation.’ Carl Rollyson’s American Isis (2013) quotes parts of letters from the poet Donald Hall and from Edwin Akutowicz, and identifies the latter as ‘Irwin,’ but says nothing more about him. It is worth exploring the life and character of this weird man.
Edwin James Akutowicz (1922-2007) – code name: ‘Irwin’ – was a physically unattractive and intellectually brilliant sexual predator. Ten years older than Plath, he grew up in Windsor, Connecticut, between Hartford and Springfield, Massachusetts. He attended Loomis prep school in his hometown, and in 1943 graduated from the all-male Trinity College in Hartford, where he majored in mathematics and was named ‘Most Conscientious’ and ‘Best Student’ in Ivy, the college yearbook. He was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honour society for undergraduates with high academic distinction. His photo in Ivy, a decade before he met Plath, shows thick peasant features and a low Slavic forehead, with no glasses and a full head of dark hair.
Akutowicz earned an M.A. in maths from Harvard in 1946 and a doctorate the following year. His dissertation in applied maths, ‘The Third Iterate of the Laplace Transform,’ was published in the Duke Mathematics Journal in 1948. In a letter to me of May 28, 2013, Marc Rieffel, professor of mathematics at Berkeley, wrote: ‘The Laplace transform, the subject of mathematical investigations for about three centuries, involves decomposing signals into exponential functions. It is used fairly widely in electrical engineering and other areas, for example, to deal with transient signals as opposed to periodic ones. . . . He published thirty-three articles between 1948 and 1972, and several of his papers [i.e., Sur la moyenne-périodicité, 1967] are written in French. His papers appear to me to make a solid contribution to his topic of research. Thus I would guess that he was viewed as a productive research mathematician, but not an outstanding one. Several of his papers are co-authored with outstanding mathematicians like Norbert Wiener.’
During World War II Akutowicz was a conscientious objector and chose to do Civilian Public Service. In the late forties or early fifties he taught maths at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a professor of maths at the University of Montpellier, France, in 1960-61; taught at universities in Pennsylvania and Texas in 1962-64; and returned to Montpellier at the Institute of Mathematics of the University of Science and Technology of Languedoc from 1965 to l988. He lived in a former mill, Le Moulin bleu, which had once been a rural bordel. In 1988 he sued the U.S. government in the District Court of Connecticut for $270,000. He claimed that after he’d been required to become a French citizen in order to keep his teaching job, he was not allowed to renew his American passport and was wrongfully deprived of his citizenship. But he lost both his case and his appeal.
The poet Donald Hall, who knew Akutowicz at Harvard, analyzed his strange character in a letter of January 11, 1975 (in the University of Maryland Library) to Frances McCullough, Plath’s editor at Harper & Row: ‘He is a mathematician, who was working at MIT. He is totally unworldly. He went around making love with women, at an extraordinary rate, without any affect at all, as far as anybody could tell. (At one point, he was making love to a [woman whose friend] counselled her to get him to marry her. This was way back in the old days! So he did. So he no longer noticed that she was there. So she started to cheat on him. So he didn’t notice that either. Finally, she just divorced him. He seemed vaguely surprised.) Sylvia, with her masochism in the choice of men, picked another beauty.’
On March 25, 1975, Akutowicz (who habitually referred to women as ‘ladies’) replied to McCullough’s queries about Plath:
I can remember Sylvia’s gently malicious laughter. . . . She was really quite attractive, quite tall, with slightly hairy legs; a gentleman might well have thought, at first sight, ‘beautiful and dumb.’ But dumb she certainly was not. I recall the subjects of some of our conversations: the poetry of Edmund Spenser, what causes outbursts of hearty laughter, the nature of probability (of this there is a whimsical trace in the letter of hers that I have preserved). She was very curious about all sorts of ideas, but apparently had the sense and discipline to stick to her writing. When I knew her, what she cared for most was the art of poetry, but she could put that aside and would laugh merrily over the absurd or preposterous, such as the Chico Vejar fight in the old Madison Sq. Garden [when in 1951 the welterweight boxer lost his first match, after thirty wins, in a ten-round split decision to Eddie Campo].
I do not recall that she ever giggled. She spoke quite freely and abundantly about herself and described how she had crawled under the porch to die. She spoke of her father; in fact, she tried to make me listen to something important about her father. I vaguely felt here something somber and even today I clearly recall trying at the time to avoid those things. But there was no reluctance on her part to probe into dark corners, still neither was there any obsession to do so.
Sylvia Plath seemed to me (were it not for her subsequent history, I wd say was) an energetic, intelligent, cheerful young woman, relatively un-neurotic. (According to my information, most American ladies are much more neurotic.) There were two aspects of her that, in retrospect, I would describe as abnormal, 1. her creative power as a poet, 2. the fact that she had somehow caught onto the idea of suicide as a reality.
The letter that I mentioned has nothing neurotic nor even bizarre in it; it reflects her personality in a completely coherent and comradely way, describes her impatience about her immediate future (it is dated 11 February 1955) and, oddly enough, mentions her editors and publishers of the future. The poems seem to be very good, pure.
Plath’s account of her father’s death and her suicide attempt, her probing into dark corners, and her insistence that Akutowicz drive her to her psychiatrist, should have alerted him, if he’d not been so remarkably insensitive, to her precarious emotional condition. And the early poems she sent him, which were published in her ‘Juvenilia’ and strain for morbid effects, clearly reveal that Plath was certainly not a ‘cheerful young woman, relatively un-neurotic.’ We can now see that her sonnet ‘Dirge for a Joker’ describes Akutowicz and their discussion of what causes inappropriate ‘outbursts of hearty laughter’ – a cough in the middle of a kiss or an outburst of hilarity during a religious service:
Behind mock-ceremony of your grief
Lurked the burlesque instinct of the ham;
You never altered your amused belief
That life was a mere monumental sham.
From the comic accident of birth
To the final grotesque joke of death
Your malady of sacrilegious mirth
Spread gay contagion with each clever breath.
Now you must play the straight man for a term
And tolerate the humor of the worm.
The other two poems she sent him are much darker. The ghoulish imagery in ‘Danse macabre’ – ‘skeleton,’ ‘fever,’ ‘skull,’ ‘shroud,’ ‘blood,’ ‘ghosts’ and ‘underground’ – recalls Plath’s recent suicide attempt in the crawl space of her mother’s house. The opening lines describe her coffin buried in the earth: ‘Down among strict roots and rocks, / eclipsed beneath blind lid of land / goes the grass-embroidered box.’ The same excessively grim imagery of a deeply depressed young woman – ‘ill wind,’ ‘evil stars,’ ‘black birds of omen,’ ‘hiss of disaster,’ ‘skeletons,’ ‘nightshade,’ ‘sickle-shaped shadow’ – lead to the disastrous conclusion in ‘Temper of Time’: ‘His wife and his children / Hang riddled with shot, / There’s a hex on the cradle / And death in the pot.’
Plath’s perverse bond with Akutowicz illuminates not only a mysterious aspect of her life, but also her character and work. She was impressed by Akutowicz’s weird appearance, brilliant mind and unusual character. He was a gifted Harvard and MIT mathematician (though she could not understand his work) and had been a principled conscientious objector during the war. Psychologically disturbed and emotionally vulnerable, she was drawn to him for complex reasons. Explaining Plath’s bizarre attraction, Hunter wrote, ‘She enjoyed stalking danger and was not as adept at last-minute escapes as she imagined.’ As Oscar Wilde remarked of illicit sex in De Profundis (1905), ‘It was like feasting with panthers, the danger was half the excitement.’
Plath wanted to defy the strict sexual conventions of the 1950s, be dominated by a powerful man and live through the grim experience in order to write about it. She needed some kind of punishment to assuage her guilt for hating her parents and wanted to be treated harshly. Her desire to suffer and her self-destructive streak provoked her masochistic submission to Akutowicz’s violent and sadistic brand of sex. Plath’s reckless accidents in skiing, diving and horseback riding on ‘Ariel’ proved that she ‘enjoyed’ (to use one of her favourite words) dangerous situations, but could rarely escape their consequences. After achieving her sexual freedom, she proudly declared that she had finally overcome her puritanical inhibitions, and never felt guilty for sleeping with a man, losing her virginity and going to the emergency room in a spurt of blood.
Our age is obsessed with its own capacity for self-destruction. Enriching our lives as she ruined her own, Plath was a brilliant example of this destructive impulse. She specialized in ruthless self-revelation and invited her readers to witness the lurid drama of her life. She revealed, early on, a violent and morbid taste for the extremes of experience: betrayal, cruelty, mutilation, madness, rape, attempted suicide and the ever-present threat of death. Agonizing poems like ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Cut’ and ‘Daddy’ sparked her astonishing reputation. Passionately committed to her art, she showed considerable courage in the face of overwhelming catastrophe.