In suburban Massachusetts, on 240 acres of peaceful grounds, is a literary legend—of sorts. McLean Hospital, with its long history of treating the blue bloods of Boston, has become an unlikely poetry landmark after providing both recuperation and inspiration to Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
Plath was the first of the three to stay at McLean. In 1953, during a summer at home before her senior year in college, Plath swallowed a bottle of pills and crawled beneath her house. Her failed suicide attempt led to months of treatment at McLean and began her long relationship with the psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse. While there, Plath received insulin-shock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, and ultimately electroshock therapy. The experience surfaced years later in her poem, “The Hanging Man,” which begins, “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.”
Lowell was admitted to McLean in 1958, though his infamous manic outbursts had already resulted in numerous stays at other mental institutions. Over eight years, he stayed there four times, correspondeding frequently from his hospital address, and sending letters to Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and even Jackie Kennedy. Written about his first stay at McLean, his poem “Waking in the Blue” mentions Bowditch Hall and was pasted on the wall of the nurse’s station there for years.
Highly competitive with Plath, Sexton tried for years to be admitted to McLean, but her therapist, aware of the high cost, refused to admit her. Sexton first entered McLean as a teacher. In 1968, she was invited to lead a weekly poetry seminar in the hospital, providing Sexton with her first teaching experience, after which she became a professor at Boston University. In 1973, a year before her death by suicide, Sexton achieved her wish and was admitted to McLean for a five-day examination.
Plath and Sexton both attended a poetry seminar taught by Lowell at Boston University in 1959. They were each inspired by his confessional poetry and the appreciation for madness that he cultivated. In “Elegy in the Classroom,” Sexton wrote about Lowell: “I must admire your skill. / You are so gracefully insane.” Through his encouragement, they began to turn their personal experiences into verse—a quality that would mark their later work.
Plath discovered she could mine her McLean experiences for literary inspiration. She wrote in her journal, “There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don’t relive, recreate it.” Thus she began her famous novel, The Bell Jar. Years later, in his introduction to Plath’s posthumous poetry collection Ariel, Lowell said, “Everything in these poems is personal, confessional, felt, but the manner of feeling is controlled hallucination, the autobiography of fever.”