Connoisseur of madness, addict of suicide - On Anne Sexton

It is strange to contemplate the destinies of America’s three most prominent women poets of the post-Bogan-Bishop generation: Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton. Two of them committed suicide; the third, Adrienne Rich, had a husband who did. Rich eventually turned into the most militant of lesbian feminists, refusing even to talk to men, except on business matters.

I met Plath only once. She was with Peter Davison, the editor-poet, her then lover; we were waiting to get into the Brattle Theater, just off Harvard Square. During a brief conversation, Miss Plath impressed me as rather plain under her defiantly blondined hair, but lively enough for a Smith girl, a part she looked to a “T.” Adrienne Cecile Rich, a Radcliffe undergraduate, signed up for a poetry course given by Archibald Macleish, in which I was her section man, though not for long. She complained to me, and doubtless also to Macleish, that the course wasn’t stimulating enough, and that, as winner of that year’s Yale Younger Poet award, she was not shown sufficient consideration. Soon she dropped the course. Some time later, after a poetry reading by Rich, a Radcliffe dean asked me for my opinion. I allowed as how, to appreciate it fully, one would have needed the combined attributes of Homer and Beethoven, namely blindness and deafness.

Anne Sexton and I met twice. Once in a Harvard Square hangout, where I spent a couple of hours with three closely linked poets, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck, the latter two lovers at the time. My recollections are dim, but I remember enjoying Kumin most: she was warm and straightforward, as on all subsequent occasions we met. Starbuck was clever in a somewhat brittle way; Sexton was rather quiet. She was a handsome woman who seemed, even sitting down, quite tall; I now read with surprise that she was only 5'7{1/2}". Still, to seem tall is much the same as being tall, even as, psychiatry tells us, to believe you were raped in childhood by your father is emotionally tantamount to having been. Anne Sexton claimed only to have been molested by her dad, and even about this she kept changing her story, so that many doubt that anything happened. Diane Wood Middlebrook, the author of Anne Sexton: A Biography, believes it did take place, because it makes a compelling cause for Sexton’s lifelong hysteria.[1] True, but so could many another thing.

The second time I met Anne Sexton was when I introduced her at a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. I may not have presented her in sufficiently glowing terms, for she gave me a rather funny look as she stepped up to the lectern. But then, as she herself knew very well, one of her symptoms was a preternatural need to be loved by everyone all the time, and my introduction was not a declaration of love. She again struck me as conspicuously tall. Her biographer mentions high heels, but not extra-high ones. Mrs. Middlebrook does, however, recount an incident when Anne, age thirteen or fourteen, put on bright lipstick and high heels to vamp her visiting brother-in-law and his male friends. His name was Brad Jealous, which must have made elder sister Jane, Mrs. Jealous, a jealous Mrs.

Nomen est omen. Names in Anne Sexton’s life have a peculiar aptness, starting with her own. A sexton is a minor church official in charge of ringing the bell for services, and of digging graves. With a curious blend of self-promotion and self-destructiveness, Anne Sexton was given to publicizing herself in often outrageous ways while also plotting, practicing up for, and finally perfecting her death—an expert at summoning people to worship at her shrine and at digging her own grave. Her husband, the wool merchant Alfred Muller Sexton II, was nicknamed Kayo as a baby, after a character in the comic strip Moon Mullins. Still, the word means knockout, and during the twenty-four years of their marriage Kayo and Anne exchanged many a well-aimed blow, physical and psychological. Eventually, by divorcing him, Anne delivered the knockout punch; but by not being able to survive without his steadying influence, she proclaimed, in effect, his victory on a technical K.O.

Nothing much can be made of the name of her father, Ralph Churchill Harvey, who prospered in the wool business; but Anne’s mother was always called, by both name and middle name, Mary Gray. (Anne’s own full maiden name was Anne Gray Harvey.) Mary Gray, though in various ways a good mother, had something cold, distant, gray about her. And when it came to be Anne’s turn, with her daughters Linda and Joy, there was plenty of grayness to Anne Gray’s mothering, too. Most important to the growing Anne was her proximity to her maternal great-aunt, Anna Ladd Dingley, known as Nana. It is with the spinster Nana that she had, or believed she had, a quasi-sexual relationship—a Nana who, by the way, ended up hospitalized with mental illness. “Dingley” suggests ding-a-ling or dingbat to me, and when I read about Anne’s supposed un-innocent cuddling with Nana, I can’t help recalling the sheepdog Nana in Barrie’s Peter Pan, who acts as a nuzzling nursemaid to Wendy and her siblings.

Anne Sexton was, for almost all her adult life, in psychotherapy of some kind, indeed in and out of mental hospitals and sanatoriums. The stays were usually quite short and generally voluntary, but what makes them particularly disturbing is that they tended to follow on suicide attempts. Both the elder of Anne’s sisters, Jane, and an aunt, Frances, were suicides. Heavy drinking surrounded Anne: her father and father-in-law were borderline alcoholics—as, in his way, was Kayo. Mary Gray, though always steady on her feet, was a steady drinker as well. Anne herself became more and more of an alcoholic with the years, and some of the drunken fights between her and Kayo must have been grotesque and horrible.

Sexton’s history with her various doctors also exhibits bizarre features. Her first therapist, Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne, eventually passed her on to her son, Dr. Martin Orne, in whose care she remained for the next eight years, after which Orne moved to Philadelphia. But he would come back for monthly follow-up sessions with Anne and other Boston patients. If no one else was momentarily available, Dr. Brunner-Orne would get back into the act, notably when Anne needed hospitalization, for which she would usually go to Westbrook Lodge, run by Brunner-Orne. Sexton, a promiscuous woman, duly fell in love with Dr. Orne, who ornerily and properly resisted her, and got her to become a writer, which proved her salvation. Later she wrote him, “Of course, I love you; / You lean above the plastic sky, / god of our block, prince of all the foxes.” (What plastic sky, incidentally, and why above, not beneath? To rhyme with “love”?)

But Dr. Orne also made tapes of their sessions, and had Sexton listen to them and provide oral or written comments. These, with the approval of Anne’s family— specifically daughter Linda, Anne’s executor —the doctor later turned over to the biographer. This was to cause a major posthumous brouhaha in the Sexton story. Should a therapist, under any circumstances, make such material available? In view of how public Anne made her private life, and how hungry she was for every kind of publicity, no breach of etiquette suggests itself to me. The only problem to my mind is what dull reading excerpts from the tapes make in Middlebrook’s biography.

I do not accuse the poet herself of dullness; it is just that scrutiny and dissemination of pathological problems in great detail cannot help being boring, and have caused, as it were, a decline in the quality of madness. When poets (and others) of former ages became seriously deranged—say, Christopher Smart, John Clare, Hölderlin, Nerval—lack of drearily probed symptoms allowed them to preserve some dignity even in their most irrational behavior. When every last and least aspect of a Sexton’s malady and therapy becomes an open book, it becomes very tempting to slam that book shut.

With her next therapist, Sexton was both luckier and less lucky. Mrs. Middlebrook had to protect him with a pseudonym, and calls him Dr. Ollie Zweizung, the last name derived from the German for two-tongued, i.e., double-dealing. For the married Dr. Zweizung became Sexton’s lover, right there in the therapeutic sessions for which Anne—or, rather, her husband and family —had to pay. The supreme irony is that whereas Dr. Orne turned Sexton on to poetry, it was Sexton who turned Dr. Zweizung on to it, and forthwith the therapeutic lovers were toasting each other in verse. Middlebrook reports with a straight face: “She had felt very proud … when [Zweizung] suggested that she move to the couch, since she considered that a sign of progress.” Yes, but toward what? I am reminded of the famous schoolboy boner, “The Templar asked Rebecca to be his mistress. The brave girl reclined to do so.”

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