Freed From 'Bell Jar': Psychiatrist Says Settlement Brings The Truth To Light

from: The Boston Globe - February 3, 1987

by Patricia Wen

When Dr. Jane V. Anderson went to a Back Bay theater in 1979 to see the movie version of Sylvia Plath's novel, "The Bell Jar," she was plunged into one of the darkest days of her life.

Anderson had known she was the basis of the character called Joan Gilling, and was prepared to see herself depicted on the screen as a former mental patient. But she wasn't ready to see Gilling portrayed as a lesbian who kills herself.

For years, Anderson was haunted by the final image of the movie -- Gilling hanging herself from a tree on the grounds of a mental hospital after having made unsuccessful homosexual advances to Esther Greenwood, the character modeled on Plath.

Anderson, 55, of Newton, a psychiatrist and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said the movie prompted her to have flashbacks about her experience at a psychiatric hospital in Belmont. Plagued by the movie and the constant anxiety about what others might think of her, she sought help from a psychiatrist.

Eventually, she sued the filmmakers for $6 million, charging that she was falsely portrayed as a lesbian who is suicidal.

Last Thursday, she settled the lawsuit for $150,000 and won an admission from the filmmakers that the movie "unintentionally defamed" her. Anderson said she sees the settlement as her victory over the nightmarish day in the movie theater.

"It's absolutely one of the high points of my life," she said in an interview Sunday at the home of her attorney, Harry L. Manion 3d. In her despair about the Gilling character, she worried that colleagues, clients and students might have a distorted picture of her. Even though she told almost no one that she was the basis for the Gilling character, even when patients happened to talk about "The Bell Jar" during therapy, she wondered how many people made the connection anyway. The novel describes the real-life relationship between Plath and Anderson.

The two grew up together in Wellesley, attended the same Unitarian Church, went to the same junior high school, attended Smith College, dated the same man at different times, and were patients at McLean Hospital in Belmont. Anderson thought childhood and college friends could identify her as the Gilling character, as could students researching the life of Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.

And she worried about false rumors about her in medical and psychiatric circles.

"I was beginning to feel more oppressed by the situation," Anderson said, adding that she had no way of knowing exactly how many people identified her as the Gilling character.

A large woman who doesn't quibble with the novel's depiction of her as "horsey," Anderson said she recognized that the publicity from the lawsuit could do more damage than good to her reputation.

Anderson said it crossed her mind that while suing to set the record straight about her sexuality, she would be revealing her past as a mental patient and have to deal with the stigma of it. Said Anderson: "That was always the dilemma -- what would be worse?"

She decided to press the lawsuit rather than live with the constant anxiety of possible rumors about her past. She also said that she did not set out to profit from the lawsuit and that the bulk of the $150,000 settlement will go for legal fees.

Anderson insists the lawsuit was not intended to condemn homosexuality, but to correct a misrepresentation about her. "This isn't coming from a homophobia," she said. She said she simply wanted it to be known that she is not a homosexual and, while married to a Boston physician from 1961 to 1973, she had "a very loving relationship."

Wearing a white blouse, muted brown vest, tan wool skirt and pearl earrings, Anderson spoke in soft, measured tones during most of the two-hour interview.

When it came to talking about Plath, Anderson showed flashes of anger. Anderson said she read "The Bell Jar" in June 1971, the year it first was published in the United States, and quickly recognized her connection with Plath was represented in the characters of Gilling and Greenwood. Anderson said she felt betrayed when her stay at a psychiatric hospital was revealed in the book. "I was in a state of shock then," she said. "I thought I had put it all behind me."

Anderson and Plath were never close friends while growing up in Wellesley, but felt a common bond as two young women who felt "alone in our giftedness" at a time when women were discouraged from having professional aspirations, Anderson said.

Anderson said she felt some jealousy toward Plath during their junior high school years, largely because Plath knew at an early age she wanted to be a poet and was receiving recognition for her talents. Before graduating from high school, Plath had won some newspaper poetry competitions and sold her first poem to Seventeen magazine.

"I knew I had a good mind," Anderson said of herself in those junior high and high school years. "But I didn't have as clear a sense of where I was going in life than she did."

The jealousy went both ways, she said. Anderson said she was more of a leader in school than Plath, serving as editor of her junior high school newspaper and president of her sophomore class at Smith College. Anderson said she believes Plath had a purpose, conscious or not, in writing a book that would hurt her. As Anderson sees it, Plath envied Anderson's ability to surmount her inner obstacles and face up to the isolation a high-achieving woman felt in the 1950s.

"I think she perceived me as someone who found the strength and could tolerate the isolation," Anderson said.

In the book, Gilling is described as committing suicide. Anderson views that as a metaphor for Plath's desire to kill what Anderson represented. "She wanted to get rid of me and what I represented," Anderson said, adding that Plath's writing of the book was a form of "self-therapy."

Even before the lawsuit, Anderson had spent years trying to make others see her the way she sees herself.

As a junior at Smith College in 1952, she imagined herself as a future psychiatrist or art historian who might "push forward the horizons of knowledge."

Anderson said she became severely depressed at the lack of family support for her ambitions -- her father threatened to cut off funding for graduate school and her mother remained silent. Her father, an investment banker, once told her, "Get all D's and date 100 boys." She became a patient at McLean Hospital in 1953, diagnosed with a "depressive reaction."

But through the help of therapy, she left McLean Hospital after a year and a half, graduated with highest honors from Smith, then enrolled in Boston University School of Medicine where she met her former husband. She began her private practice in 1968, conducting what she describes as a sort of "talking therapy" or psychotherapy. She is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and holds an appointment at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. She also has privileges to practice psychiatry at McLean Hospital.

Bringing the lawsuit wasn't easy, Anderson said, but it was the result of a lifelong commitment to confront, not escape, life's obstacles. Said Anderson: "I have tried to face up to a lot of painful things."

Copyright Globe Newspaper Company 1987

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