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

Chris Green
Tuesday 24 March 2009 01:00

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.

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Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

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