Lonely life and premature death of Nicholas Hughes

The son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath moved to Alaska to pursue his passion for the oceans. But he could not escape the depression that made him take his life at the age of 47

The widow of Ted Hughes has broken her decades-long silence over the turbulent life she shared with the former poet laureate to express her deep sadness over the suicide of her stepson, Nicholas Hughes.

In a handwritten note, Carol Hughes, described the death of Nicholas, 47, who hanged himself at home in Alaska 46 years after his mother Sylvia Plath took her own life, as "tragic" and "devastating". Mrs Hughes raised Nicholas and his sister Frieda after marrying their father in 1970, seven years after their mother gassed herself while her two children slept in the next room.

She said: "Nicholas's tragic death is devastating. He was a passionate and intense man who exuded great warmth and affection. He will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved him."

The body of Mr Hughes, a professor of fisheries and ocean sciences, was found by his girlfriend at his home in Fairbanks last Monday. A statement issued by Frieda said: "It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16 March 2009 at his home in Alaska. He had been battling depression for some time. His lifelong fascination with fish and fishing was a strong and shared bond with our father (many of whose poems were about the natural world). He was a loving brother, a loyal friend to those who knew him and, despite the vagaries that life threw at him, he maintained an almost childlike innocence and enthusiasm for the next project or plan."

One of Mr Hughes's former colleagues at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Mark Wipfli, said: "We are still in shock. Nicholas had a lot of passions and a lot of interests and a lot of hobbies. He was very artistic and very creative. He had a passion for pottery and creating things. But he was a pretty private person. He didn't share a lot of stuff that somebody else might. He generally handled his depression pretty well. It was an illness he had to deal with."

Dermot Cole, a journalist from Fairbanks who knew Mr Hughes, wrote in a column: "A few times, I called him to let him know I would like to write about his life and his family connections, whenever a news story about his parents appeared, but he did not think it was a good idea, so it never happened. He deserved his privacy. In Alaska, he had the freedom and the opportunity to live on his own terms and be recognised for his own accomplishments. Here he was not a literary figure forever defined by the lives of his parents."

Mr Hughes's decision to take his own life is a grim echo of two similar tragedies to have hit the family of Ted Hughes, who died of cancer in October 1998, aged 68.

In 1963, when Nicholas was only a year old, his mother gassed herself, ensuring the fumes did not reach her children in the next room by jamming towels in the door. She left biscuits and milk out for them and pinned a suicide note to their pram. In "Nick and the Candlestick", a poem written in the months before her death, Plath wrote of her infant son: "You are the one/Solid the spaces lean on, envious/You are the baby in the barn."

Plath, who wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, had separated from Hughes and was living with their two children when she committed suicide. Many blamed her death on Hughes, who had prompted the couple's separation by beginning an affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of fellow poet David Wevill. Tragedy struck again in March 1969 when Assia murdered the couple's four-year-old daughter Shura before killing herself.

Nicholas Hughes, who was not married and had no children, had shunned his literary heritage to become an evolutionary ecologist. He returned briefly to the UK for his father's funeral in 1998, but guests at the service said he gave no address. Although he is thought to have written a few poems during his younger years, the only apparent love he shared with his father was that of fishing. He had specialised in the study of stream fish, and frequently travelled thousands of miles across Alaska on research trips.

Ted Hughes did not tell his two children about their mother's suicide until they were teenagers, but in 1998, shortly before he died, he wrote a letter to his son in which he recognised the horrific mental scars her death had left on the family. He wrote: "I tell you all this, with a hope that it will let you understand a lot of things ... Don't laugh it off. In 1963 you were hit even harder than me. But you will have to deal with it, just as I have had to. And as Frieda has had to."

Suicide: In the genes?

*The death of Nicholas Hughes is profoundly shocking because of the inevitable questions it raises. Are some families doomed to exhibit self-destructive urges down the generations? Can an inclination to suicide be passed on? No gene has been identified to account for the urge to kill oneself and, while it is tempting to think of a progression from depression to mental illness to suicide, there is nothing inevitable about it. Some people cope with terrible suffering while others succumb. There is a risk of being overly deterministic about an act that can be driven by deadly impulse or carefully prepared over months or years. Suicide is a response to intolerable pressure, whether internally or externally generated. Where the pressure is external – an abusive or bullying relationship, for example – other family members who are similarly exposed may be at risk. People learn coping behaviour from their families and from those around them. If someone close to them chooses suicide then it may seem like option for them, too. It raises the idea that, when the pressure grows, this is what people do. This is thought to be one factor behind suicide clusters, such as that in Bridgend, south Wales, last year. If suicide has a lineage, it is socially, not genetically, determined. Hughes, who was a baby when his mother took her life, did not learn of her suicide until he was a teenager. But it may then have hung over him. The loss of a parent is devastating. When it is by suicide, it can become a threat to the children left behind. It raises the fear that there is something inherently wrong that cannot be escaped. Suicide then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Samaritans: 08457 90 90 90

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture