They Stood By And Watched: Sylvia's Life Part 1

A discussion on victim-blaming and remaining a bystander in dangerous situations based on Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals.

A red barn that is falling apart.

Photo byMick Haupt onUnsplash

Sylvia Plath was an amazing poet and author. Plath is known for dark commentaries on mental health and society. Plath’s journals are no exception to the traumatic tale of Sylvia’s life. We began reading the text and within the 20 pages, there are lessons to learn about people's reactions to traumatic situations.

Trigger warning! We will be discussing the topic of sexual harassment and assault. Also, death, suicidal ideation, and mention of Plath’s suicide.

If you need help or know someone that does:


Complacent bystanders

To start, there was an incident at a farm with one of the farmhands. He was an artist and shared his work with Sylvia when she was on the grounds. It was a normal day and he approached her to show her a new drawing. The situation quickly turned innocent. The first red flag was the man inviting Plath, who was a child, to the top room of the barn. The room served as his home since he lived on the grounds. Plath has no reason to think he was a dangerous man and went with him.

While they were walking to the barn, the other people standing on the porch and working nearby, stared at the two walking side by side. Plath recounts seeing their faces, noticing a tinge of worry and for some judgment. She went up to the barn and the man forcibly kissed Sylvia. She ran away from the barn traumatized. The people only stared. She knew that they knew what had happened and were judging her, thinking she did something inappropriate. She was confused and worried about how her mother would respond. The first thought in her mind was she would have to lie that nothing happened because no one would support her story (Plath, pg. 8-10).

At the end of the story, Plath says “What am I against so many” (pg. 10) The people that watched a predator take Sylvia up to his room did nothing to stop it. From Plath's perspective after the incident, it was known that he would make sexual advancements against girls. The bystanders knew the man's pattern of assault. People do nothing in situations like these is fear, apathy, and victim-blaming. They see a young girl voluntarily going to be alone with him. They are passing judgment on the girl that doesn't realize the danger. Judgment should fall on the perpetrator. The predator grooms and stalks its prey to get them in a compromised position. Sylvia was not to blame for the pain inflicted on her that day.

Succumbing to manipulation is not a measure of intelligence

Often, third-party observers will measure intelligence if you are easily manipulated. However, this is a fallacy of thinking. For example, an autistic person may be more vulnerable to predators because their brain works differently. If you have not lived traumatic live experiences, you may not be as aware of predators’ grooming. Child, neurodivergent, and people that have not experienced trauma are all targets of predators. The perception of being weak draws the toxic and dangerous people too vulnerable populations. In the case of Sylvia, the farmworkers knew what was going to happen.

Plath was outnumbered and felt alone. This incident attributed to her decline in mental health as she grew. Living in a world unprotected can make even the strongest people succumb to suicidal ideations and hopelessness.

Are bystanders at fault

The bystanders did not protect Sylvia. The bystanders are partially to blame for her assault. The blame falls on the predator and the people that did nothing. Sylvia was a child and is blameless in this situation. If one person spoke up and redirected Sylvia away from the barn, she may have been safe. There is no way to know if someone intervening would have changed the trajectory of her life.

An assault is never the victims' fault. It is not your place as a bystander to make any judgment. If you see someone in danger you must choose to do something or do nothing. If it is dangerous by intervening, take steps to keep yourself safe. Sylvia never felt a feeling of safety. Could they have saved her from death? In general, if there is someone in danger and it is within your power to help them, do something. It may be as simple as making a phone call to the police to save a life.


Disclaimer: This is our opinion based on reading the book. We are in no way suggesting that people put themselves in danger. Always use precautions to keep yourself safe and contact your local authorities in the event of an emergency.

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