Reading Response: Anne Sexton

As always, a big Thank You to Meredith for this Reading Response. If you are reading something interesting and would like to add it to our reading room, please contact ∃ at definefunctioning [at] gmail [dot] com. What follows is from our friend Meredith:

Anne Sexton: A Self-portrait in Letters edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames provides an interesting portrait of Anne Sexton, poet. It proposes to help explain why she killed herself in October 1974, one month before her 46th birthday. To me, who deals with mental illness of a personal nature, it does. I saw it early. But I’m not sure it explains her death to those who have not experienced the tremendous weight of living on the planet as well as the euphoria of doing so without explanation for such experiences.

She wasn’t diagnosed bipolar until her third therapist later in her life. However, anyone familiar with being bipolar will easily glean that diagnosis from her letters. By 1955, the year her second daughter was born, she had been admitted to the hospital. She was in and out of hospitals for most of her years and tried suicide numerous times. After some of her hospital stays, she did not have custody of her children. In the late 1950s, she was put on Thorazine and continued with alcohol, but the Thorazine kept suicide attempts at bay for only a little while. Although some historical background is inserted between letters, most of this information was written by her to someone else; she held very little back.

What ultimately happens with a portrait of a person through their letters is that we don’t get the full story because we lack the instigating letters or replies from the people to whom she was writing. I did want those letters sometimes. What was it he/she said to warrant this response? Anne wrote constantly, and most of her letters were long confessions. Her poetry often had that same sense to them. I had the complete volume of her work next to me as I read her letters. She refers to the poems in her letters so it was helpful. Anne seemed undaunted by 1950s and 1960s propriety as she delved into very personal issues with not only fellow poets, but with students who wrote her as well as a monk.

She shared her mental instability with almost everyone to whom she wrote. She often mentioned her trials with depression or her visits to the hospital. She even told some people about her continuous attempts at suicide. She seemed to have no fear of being “out” even though her long demanding letters lost her some friends.

Many in our community often discuss the stigma we feel as people with mental illness. I was amazed at Anne’s candor from the 1950s until she died in 1974. As I read her letters, I could feel her agony at continuing to live. She often wrote my own feelings down, the struggle with feeling bad, constantly. While I don’t feel that way as often now, I remember, especially when I’m having a hard day, how it was. There were some letters that didn’t mention suicide or her feeling awful; however, they were primarily before she had children and before she entered a hospital, and they were not the majority. Reading A Self-portrait in Letters gave me a sense that it was perfectly normal to talk about being depressed and taking medication.

How did we miss that road to freedom? How did we get to where we are now? I don’t suppose it does any good to answer those questions as mostly we need to appeal to the likes of Anne Sexton and ask “how do we get out of here?”

  1. Meredith, this was one of my favorite books of all-time. I bought about 15-18 years ago. I still have it. There is one letter where she is writing and says, “aye, that’s the rub” with a picture of a stone, she drew, trying to explain how she felt about something, what was eating away at her, her misery. I always think of that saying in my down times. “Aye, that’s the rub.”
    Anne Sexton was a genius of a poet, and I think it is very sad that the world lost her so soon. She was a feminist before her time, in many respects (“Her Kind”), and as you said, she was out about being mentally ill when that wasn’t really the fashionable thing to do. It still isn’t the fashionable thing to do. I wish that we could all get to that place where we could say, “Yeah I tried to kill myself and went to the hospital and today was a horrible day”, when those things are true for us, but, without losing our friends in the process or alienating the world (or the world alienating us).

  2. Jen,
    Thanks for sharing your enjoyment and experience of the book. I am not done being obsessed with her as those letters told only part of the story. While reading it, I often wondered, how did she manage the girls? What was her relationship with her husband like? I’ve got “The Last Summer” now regarding her last summer alive. Her daughter wrote a biography that apparently details those relationships and abuse. She was an amazing person in so many ways, or so it seems to me (not knowing her).

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