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- August 26, 1991
- Vol. 36
- No. 7
Anne Sexton Told Her Therapist Her Secrets, and Now Her Biographer Is Telling Them to Everybody
It was wonderful to see you and be with you on your 16th b-day...You are closest to my heart, closer than any other human being. You are my extension. You are my prayer. You are my belief in God. For better or worse you inherit me...XOXOXOXOXOX Mom
AND WHAT AN INHERITANCE IT HAS been. In the years since Pulitzer prize-winning poet Anne Sexton sent those words to her elder daughter at Highlawn Farm Camp in New Hampshire, Linda Gray Sexton, 38, has struggled mightily to honor her mother's legacy and to overcome it. As Sexton's literary executor, she has edited two collections of her mother's poems and a volume of her letters. She has undergone hours of psychoanalysis to heal the wounds inflicted by Sexton's emotional instability and suicide. With five respectfully reviewed novels (the latest, Private Acts, published in March), she has forged her own identity as a writer. "To be both executor and daughter," says Linda, who lives in northern California with her husband and two sons, "has been very difficult."
Never more difficult, perhaps, than now. Anne Sexton: A Biography is due out on Sept. 1, and already Linda—along with biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook and Dr. Martin Orne, her mother's psychiatrist—is embroiled in controversy. For what appears to be the first time ever, a biographer was given access to tapes of her subject's psychotherapy sessions (300 hours from Sexton's 1960—64 work with Dr. Orne), and many in the psychiatric community have cried foul. "The American Psychiatric Association has ethics principles that hold confidentiality to be a very high priority," says Dr. Kathleen Mogul, a consultant to the APA's ethics committee. "It's important for every patient to know that regardless of how famous they get, we're not going to give away their confidences when they die."
Orne, who began treating Sexton after the first of many breakdowns and was the first to urge her to write, has let it be known that "Anne asked that I keep [the tapes] to use as I saw fit to help others." Middlebrook—who used the tapes with permission from both Orne and Linda—says they provided her with broad insights rather than with facts. She also points out that Sexton, like her friends Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, was a "confessional poet": Her sexuality, her fascination with death and her madness (Orne's diagnosis was hysteria) all made their way into her work before, divorced and lonely at 45, she took her life by carbon-monoxide poisoning. "Anne Sexton," says Middlebrook, "made her life's work out of self-disclosure."
The poet's daughter concurs. "It never occurred to me that Mother wouldn't want a no-holds-barred biography," Linda says. "She was a flamboyant woman, and she was never ashamed of her mental illness. I remember once, when there was a gasoline shortage and she still had the name band on her wrist from a suicide attempt, she went to the head of an hour-long line at a gas station, held out her arm and said: 'I'm Anne Sexton and I have to go to the hospital because I just swallowed pills, so you'd better give me some gas!' I'm sure releasing the tapes was the right decision."
Delving into them, however, was not easy. Linda had been unaware of the tapes' existence until 1985, when Orne suggested that Middlebrook might find them helpful. "I thought, 'What great luck! They'll be an incredible resource,' " says Linda, who was providing detailed feedback on every chapter of the biography. "Little did I know what I was getting myself into."
The transcripts brought back the tumult of her childhood in Newton, Mass., and Weston, Mass., with astonishing force. Anne Sexton, who gained critical and popular acclaim with her very first poetry collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, was a severely troubled wife and mother. She drank heavily, had affairs with both men and women, battled with husband Kayo, a salesman often provoked to violent outbursts, and was so overwhelmed by the needs of Linda and her sister, Joy (now 35 and a nurse), that she sometimes beat them.
"She was afraid she would kill us, particularly me, so relatives took me away from her and sent me to live with my grandmother for a while," says Linda. "Reading in the transcripts about how much she hated me was devastating. I sat and sobbed."
Sexton's love could be as damaging as her anger. After seeing the transcripts and talking with Middlebrook for hours, Linda began to recall long-repressed memories: Her mother, she told Middlebrook, had a habit of cuddling with her in bed; on one such occasion, when Linda was 15, the cuddling became sexual abuse.
Says Linda: "When I began to come to terms with the abuse, Diane was on a chapter in which Mother was writing a play, Mercy Street, about a daughter's struggle with incest. I became aware that if I didn't tell her about this, I would be doing her a disservice."
For that move, too, Linda faced criticism. "I've alienated a large majority of my family," she says. "Dad doesn't scream at me, but he does wish all this hadn't been made public."
Despite the controversy, Linda says that helping the biography take shape—a process that took 10 years—was therapeutic. She relived the good times as well as the bad and gained perspective. ("If I said to Linda or Joy, 'Your mother was so awful to you,' " remembers Middlebrook, "They'd say, 'You don't understand, she was wonderful too.' ") Says Linda: "Mother wanted so badly to be a good parent, but she had no concept of where the boundaries of love are." According to Linda, she and husband John, an executive at a medical supply company, won't repeat the pattern with Alexander, 8, and Nicholas, 6. "We're quite proud of the kind of parents we've become," she says.
Linda feels certain that her mother would be proud too. "More than anything, Mother wanted her work to be read," she says. "I can't make the poetry live, but I can do everything possible to ensure it has the best shot. That's what all this has been about. That's my job."
DIRK MATHISON in northern California, LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in London, ANDREA FINE in Philadelphia
- Dirk Mathison,
- Laura Sanderson Healy,
- Andrea Fine.
March 30, 2015
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