Son of Sylvia Plath Commits Suicide

posted 2009-03-23 12:38:31 by DaveM

Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, killed himself at his home in Alaska, nearly a half-century after his mother and stepmother took their own lives, according to a statement from his sister.

Mr. Hughes, 47, was an evolutionary biologist who studied stream fish and spent much of his time trekking across Alaska on field studies. Shielded from stories about his mother’s suicide until he was a teenager, Mr. Hughes had lived an academic life largely outside the public eye. But friends and family said he had long struggled with depression.

Last Monday, he hanged himself at his home in Alaska, his sister, Frieda Hughes, said over the weekend.

“It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska,” she said in a statement to the Times of London. “He had been battling depression for some time.”

Mr. Hughes’s early life was darkened by shadows of depression and suicide. Ms. Plath explored the themes in her 1963 novel “The Bell Jar,” which follows an ambitious college student who tries to kill herself after suffering a nervous breakdown while interning at a New York City magazine. The novel reflected Ms. Plath’s own experiences, including her early struggles with depression and her attempt at suicide while working at Mademoiselle in New York as a college student.

After a stay at a mental institution, Ms. Plath went on to study poetry at Cambridge University, where she met Ted Hughes, who was on his way to world fame as a poet. The two were married in 1956, and had two children — Nicholas and Frieda — but separated in 1962 after Mr. Hughes began an affair with another woman, Assia Wevill. Ms. Plath killed herself at the age of 30 by sticking her head in an oven in her London home on Feb. 11, 1963, as Nicholas and Frieda slept nearby.

Six years later, Ms. Wevill, who had helped raise Nicholas and Frieda after Ms. Plath’s death, killed herself and her 4-year-old daughter, Shura. Ms. Wevill styled the murder-suicide in the same manner, using a gas stove.

Mr. Hughes, who became Poet Laureate in 1984 and was widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of his generation, resisted speaking openly about the deaths for many years. But in his last poetic work, “Birthday Letters,” published in 1998, he finally broke his silence and explored the theme. He died the same year, as the book — in some ways considered a quest for redemption — was climbing best-seller lists.

Mr. Hughes was said to have protected his children from details about their mother’s suicide for many years. But in at least one poem he seemed to indicate that Nicholas, who was only 1 at the time of her death, was pained even as a small child, recalling in one stanza how Nicholas’s eyes “Became wet jewels/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair.”

Nicholas had a passion for wildlife, particularly fish. As a young adult he studied at the University of Oxford, where he obtained a bachelor of science degree in 1984 and a master of arts degree in 1990. Afterward, he traveled to the United States, earning a doctoral degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he became an assistant professor at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science. According to the University, Mr. Hughes was an expert in “stream salmonid ecology” and carried out his research in Alaska and New Zealand. He resigned from the faculty in 2006 but continued his research, the school said.

One graduate student there, Lauren Tuori, recalled a peculiar habit of Mr. Hughes’s, saying he would often “seek out a larch tree in a forest of spruce.”

She added, “Alaska could use more biologists like Nick who still display wonder at the small things around them.”