sylvia plath & anne sexton | the art & the artists of self destruction no. 1

6 05 2009


Poetry Dispatch No. 280 | May 5, 2009

The Art & The Artists of Self Destruction, #1

SYLVIA PLATH…ANNE SEXTON

This is the first in a projected series of Dispatches (pieces/writings) dealing with The End of the story…the way too many writers and artists through history have chosen to say goodbye. It’s not a recommendation, an approval, a judgment of any sort. It’s all about the creative act…the words, the thoughts, the feelings, the work…what it all leads to, so sadly for some. Its many manifestations. –Norbert Blei

Old Ladies’ Home

by Sylvia Plath

Sharded in black, like beetles,
Frail as antique earthenware
One breath might shiver to bits,
The old women creep out here
To sun on the rocks or prop
Themselves up against the wall
Whose stones keep a little heat.

Needles knit in a bird-beaked
Counterpoint to their voices:

Sons, daughters, daughters and sons,
Distant and cold as photos,
Grandchildren nobody knows.
Age wears the best black fabric
Rust-red or green as lichens.

At owl-call the old ghosts flock
To hustle them off the lawn.
From beds boxed-in like coffins
The bonneted ladies grin.
And Death, that bald-head buzzard,
Stalls in halls where the lamp wick
Shortens with each breath drawn.

[from SYLVIA PLATH, Collected Poems]

A TORTURED INHERITANCE

by Linda Gray Sexton
PALOMAR PARK, Calif. from: The New York Times, April 3, 2009

I HAVE been crying for Nicholas Hughes. I never met Dr. Hughes, yet I believe I know a great deal about him. He was the second child of the poet Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in her oven when he was a toddler. I am the elder daughter of the poet Anne Sexton, who gassed herself in her car when I was 21.

Nicholas Hughes hanged himself two weeks ago at the age of 47. And despite my insistence that I would never turn out like my mother, I tried to kill myself, too — three times — and would have succeeded once had it not been for the efforts of a determined police officer, who forced open the window of my car.

Did it surprise me to read about his suicide? Not in the least. As my mother wrote in one of her most famous poems: “I have gone out,…a possessed witch … lonely thing, twelve- fingered, out of mind./A woman like that is not a woman, quite./ I have been her kind.” All of us who follow that depressing family path — from suffering to suicide — have known what it is like to be her kind.

Nicholas Hughes’s mother, and mine, succumbed to the exhaustion of unrelenting depression. They self-destructed. And we grew up in the wreckage of their catastrophe. Their deaths took away from him and his sister, Frieda, and from me and my sister, Joyce, the solace of a mother’s love. And worse, all four of us, I imagine, had to live with the knowledge that our mothers had quite willfully abandoned us.

Understanding and accepting this is heart-wrenching, but it is a necessary part of healing. I have wanted to kill myself, but I survived, and so can attest to what Dr. Hughes, like my mother, probably must have felt — that there was no other alternative.

Studies show that some kinds of depression are hereditary, and suicides tend to run in families. But even if there isn’t an absolute genetic component, there certainly is an emotional one. When I turned 45, the age at which my mother killed herself, I too began to be drawn to suicide as a way to escape pain. This was my inheritance. My guess is that I wasn’t alone: hundreds of thousands die by suicide each year. And hundreds of thou- sands of families are damaged by that loss.

Of course, not everyone reacts in the same way. My sister doesn’t like to speak publicly about our mother, and she doesn’t think she is “her kind.” Perhaps Frieda Hughes is more like Joyce, perhaps her brother once was as well. Or maybe they were more like me, trying to recover by talking about what happened. My mother always said, “Tell it true,” and I believe she thought, as I do, that it is important to share the experience of depression with others, who may be suffering in the same way. Which is why we need to speak about these things, to help families deal with their depressed children, siblings and parents, and to intervene and alter the dark world of suicidal legacies. I continue to worry about myself — but I worry about my children more. Despite the dangerous inheritance my oldest son faces, and the depression he also fights, he urges me to keep writing about it, just as his grandmother did.

Sadly, I’ll never get to know Nicholas Hughes. I know he was a fisheries biologist living in the forests of Alaska. I know he was more than a suicide. In a memorial, a friend wrote that he was the kind of man who “would seek out a larch tree in a forest of spruce.” I hope he’s succeeded in reaching it.

[Linda Gray Sexton is the author of "Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton."]

Her Kind

by Anne Sexton

have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

SYLVIA’S DEATH

by Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

0 Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,

with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in the tiny playroom,

with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,

(Sylvia, Sylvia,
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)

what did you stand by,
)’ust how did you lie down into?

Thief!—
how did you crawl into,

crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,

the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,

the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,

the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,

the death we drank to,
the motives and then the quiet deed?

(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

0 Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,

how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy

to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,

and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,

and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides

and I know at the news of your death,
a terrible taste for it, like salt.

(And me,
me too.
And now, Sylvia,
you again
with death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)

And I say only
with my arms stretched out into that stone place,

what is your death
but an old belonging,

a mole that fell out
of one of your poems?

(0 friend,
while the moon’s bad,
and the king’s gone,
and the queen’s at her wit’s end
the bar fly ought to sing!)

0 tiny mother,
you too!
0 funny duchess!
0 blonde thing!

[from LIVE OR DIE]

I Am Vertical

by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them—
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

[from SYLVIA PLATH, The Collected Poems]

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was an American poet, novelist, children’s author, and short story author. Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt. Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass.

Plath was born during the Great Depression on October 27, 1932 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to Aurelia Schober Plath, a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabow, Germany. Plath’s father was a professor of apiology and German at Boston University and author of a book about bumblebees. Plath’s mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband. She met him while earning her masters degree in teaching. Otto was alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents wanted him to be. They went as far as taking his name out of the family Bible.

In April 1935, Plath’s brother Warren was born. The family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts in 1936, where Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Avenue. Plath was raised a Unitarian Christian and had mixed feelings toward religion throughout her life. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath’s poetry. Plath published her first poem in Winthrop, in the Boston Herald’s children’s section, when she was eight years old.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a foot due to diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend’s symptoms and his own, Otto became convinced that he too was ill with lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath is buried in Winthrop Cemetery, where his gravestone continues to attract readers of Plath’s poem “Daddy.” Aurelia Plath then moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1942. Visiting her father’s grave prompted Plath to write the poem “Electra on Azalea path”.

Plath attended Smith College, where she dated Yale senior Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatorium near Saranac Lake; while visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident described in the novel as suicidal, but in her journals she describes it as a legitimate accident (the suicidal aspect was likely fictionalized for the novel, which is not her autobiography).

During the summer after her third year of college, Plath was awarded a coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York City. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Following this experience, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Details of her attempts at suicide are chronicled in her book. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy. Her stay at McLean Hospital was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had also funded the scholarship awarded to Plath to attend Smith. Prouty had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honors in June 1955.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge where she continued actively writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at a party given in Cambridge that she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) at St George the Martyr Holborn after a short courtship.

Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to October 1959 living and working in the United States, where Plath taught at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The couple then moved to Boston where Plath audited seminars by Robert Lowell that were also attended by Anne Sexton. At this time, Plath and Hughes also met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.

Upon learning that Plath was pregnant, the couple moved back to the United Kingdom. Plath and Hughes lived in London for a while on Chalcot Square near the Primrose Hill area of Regent’s Park, and then settled in the small market town of North Tawton in Devon. While there, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage, and a number of her poems address this event.

Plath’s marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962. She returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat) in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.

Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day, an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.

It has been suggested that Plath’s suicide attempt was too precise and coincidental, and that she had not intended to succeed in killing herself. Apparently, she had previously asked Mr. Thomas, her downstairs neighbour, what time he would be leaving; and a note had been placed that read “Call Dr. Horder” and listed his phone number. Therefore, it is argued that Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr. Thomas should have been waking and beginning his day. This theory maintains that the gas, for several hours, seeped through the floor and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below. Also, an au pair was to arrive at nine o’clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, the au pair could not get into the flat, but was eventually let in by painters, who had a key to the front door.

However, in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, her best friend, Jillian Becker says that, “according to Mr. Goodchild—a police officer attached to the coroner’s office . . . she had thrust her head far into the gas oven. ‘She had really meant to die.'”

Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall churchyard bears the inscription “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath’s supporters who have chiseled the name “Hughes” off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes had left Plath, which led to claims that Hughes had been abusive toward Plath. “Hughes” is now written in bronze in order to prevent future vandalism. On March 16, 2009, Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, also committed suicide at the age of 47.

Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath’s remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Plath’s death.

During the last years of his life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath’s journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material. The American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a “genuine literary event”.

Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath’s last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets. While the few critics who responded to Plath’s first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work. The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility that Lowell’s poetry—which is often labeled “confessional”—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell’s Life Studies as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as, “Tulips”, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”.

In 1982, Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems. In 2006, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled “Ennui”. The poem, composed during Plath’s early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.

As Plath’s widower, Hughes became the executor of Plath’s personal and literary estates. This proved to be controversial, as it is uncertain whether Plath had begun divorce proceedings before her death: if she had, Hughes’ inheritance of the Plath estate would have been in dispute. In letters to Aurelia Plath and Richard Murphy, Plath writes that she was applying for a divorce. However, Hughes said in a letter to The Guardian that Plath did not seriously consider divorce, and claims they were discussing reconciliation mere days before her death. He consequently oversaw the publication of her manuscripts, including Ariel (1965). He claimed to have destroyed the final volume of Plath’s journal, detailing their last few months together.

Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, although the money earned from Plath’s poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children Frieda and Nicholas. Examples cited include his censoring of parts of her journals that portrayed him unfavorably, and his editing of Ariel, changing the order of the poems in the book from the sequence she had intended and left at her death, as well as removing several poems. However, the poems were removed and the order changed for several reasons, including the request of the American publishers. Critics argue this prevented what was intended to be a more uplifting beginning and ending of Ariel, and that the poems removed were the ones most readily identified as being about Hughes.

Hughes hired an accountant to keep track of the estate, but the accountant did a poor job. A large and looming tax bill caused Hughes to convince Plath’s mother, Aurelia, to publish The Bell Jar in the United States. Because of this, she later asked Hughes’ permission to publish a volume of Plath’s letters, to which he agreed with strong reservations.

Ironically, Hughes’ sister, Olwyn — who was never close to and often openly hostile toward Plath during her life — eventually took over much of the duties of executor of the Plath estate. Like her brother, Olwyn Hughes was seen as being overly aggressive in limiting permissions if the works cast Hughes in an unfavorable light. In the realms of literary criticism and biographies published after her death, the debate about Plath’s work very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.

Poetry

  • * The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
  • * Ariel (1965), includes the poems “Tulips”, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”
  • * Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
  • * Crossing the Water (1971)
  • * Winter Trees (1972)
  • * The Collected Poems (1981)
  • * Selected Poems (1985)
  • * Plath: Poems (1998)

Prose

  • * The Bell Jar (1963), under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas”
  • * Letters Home (1975)
  • * Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)
  • * The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982)
  • * The Magic Mirror (1989), Plath’s Smith College senior thesis
  • * The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (2000)

Audio poetry readings

  • * Sylvia Plath Reads, Harper Audio 2000

Children’s books

  • * The Bed Book (1976)
  • * The It-Doesn’t-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • * Collected Children’s Stories (UK, 2001)
  • * Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen (2001)

source

Anne Sexton (born Anne Gray Harvey) (November 9, 1928, Newton, Massachusetts—October 4, 1974, Weston, Massachusetts) was an American poet and writer.

Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and spent most of her life near Boston, Massachusetts. She was born to Ralph Gray Harvey and Mary Gray Staples. In 1945, she began attending a boarding school, Rogers Hall, in Lowell, Massachusetts and later spent a year at Garland School, a finishing school in Boston. For a time as a young woman, she modeled for Boston’s Hart Agency. On August 16, 1948, she eloped with Alfred “Kayo” Sexton. They remained married until 1973.

Sexton suffered from complex mental illness. Her first manic episode took place in 1954. After a second breakdown in 1955, she met Dr. Martin Orne, who was to become her longtime therapist, at Glenside Hospital. Sexton believed she was not valuable except in her ability to please men and told Orne in her first interview that her only talent might be for prostitution. He later told her that his evaluation showed that she had a creative side and encouraged her to take up poetry. Though she was very nervous about it and needed a friend to make the phone call and accompany her to the first workshop, she enrolled in her first poetry workshop with John Holmes as instructor. After the workshop, Sexton experienced remarkably quick success with her poetry, with her poems accepted by The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the Saturday Review. Sexton also studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University alongside distinguished poets Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck.

Sexton’s poetic life was further encouraged by her mentor, W.D. Snodgrass, whom she met at the Antioch Writer’s Conference in 1957. His poem, “Heart’s Needle”, about his separation from his three year old daughter, encouraged her to write “The Double Image,” a poem significant in expressing the multi-generational relationships existing between mother and daughter. “Heart’s Needle” was particularly inspirational to Sexton because at the time she first read it her own young daughter was living with her mother-in-law. Sexton began writing letters to Snodgrass and they soon became friends. While working with Holmes, Sexton encountered Maxine Kumin, with whom she became good friends throughout the rest of her life. Kumin and Sexton rigorously critiqued each other’s work, and wrote four children’s books together. In the late 1960s, the manic elements of Sexton’s illness began to affect her career. She still wrote and published work and gave readings of her poetry. She also collaborated with musicians, forming a jazz-rock group called “Her Kind” that added music to her poetry. She also wrote “Mercy Street”, a play produced off-Broadway after several years of revisions in 1969.

On October 4, 1974, Sexton had lunch with Kumin to review Sexton’s most recent book, The Awful Rowing Toward God. Upon returning home, she put on her mother’s old fur coat, locked herself in her garage, started the engine of her car and committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

In an interview over a year before her death she explained she had written the first drafts of The Awful Rowing Toward God in twenty days with “two days out for despair and three days out in a mental hospital.” She went on to say that she would not allow the poems to be published before her death. She is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery & Crematory in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts.

Sexton is seen as the modern model of the confessional poet. She was inspired by the publication of Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle, and her work encompasses issues specific to women such as menstruation, abortion, and more broadly masturbation and adultery, before such subjects were commonly addressed in poetic discourse.

Sexton’s work has been criticized as being non-intellectual and non-rigorous by her writing peers.  For some people, her work began to deteriorate as her career progressed from her early successes. Her work towards the end of the sixties has been criticized as “preening, lazy and flip” by otherwise respectful critics. Some people see her dependence on alcohol as compromising her last work. However other critics see Sexton’s later work favorably in terms of comparing it with her early formal work. “Starting as a relatively conventional writer, she learned to roughen up her line [...] to use as an instrument against the politesse of language, politics, religion [and] sex [...].”

The title for her eighth collection of poetry and one of her last writings, The Awful Rowing Toward God, came from her meeting with a Roman Catholic priest who, although unwilling to administer the last rites, did tell her: “God is in your typewriter,” which gave the poet the desire and willpower to continue living and writing. Her last writings expressed her strange hunger for death: The Death Notebooks and The Awful Rowing Toward God. Her work started out as being about herself. As her career progressed she made periodic attempts to reach outside of her own life. Poet and critic Alicia Ostriker says, “[S]he was the least reticent personally [out of the confessional poets] to have her poems ‘mean something to someone else.'” Later she reached out of her own life story for themes in her poems. Transformations is one such book that attempts to use Grimm’s fairy tales as the source for her poetry. Later she used Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno and the Bible as the basis for some of her work.

Sexton’s work is extremely difficult to separate from her life. When Sexton died in 1974, many people saw suicide and despair as the inevitable outcome of being a writer. At the time of Sexton’s death, in the context of Sexton, Sylvia Plath who took her life in 1963, and to a certain extent John Berryman and Robert Lowell, poets Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov protested in separate obituaries the confusion between creativity and death that Sexton’s own demise represented. Denise Levertov says, “we who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-destruction.”  Adrienne Rich wrote about how women’s anger is considered socially acceptable as long as it is turned inward, as Sexton’s addictions to pills, alcohol and finally dying by her own hand, illustrate.

But it also is praised as being honest, with many people admiring the self taught aspects of her life. By the end of her life the woman who had never graduated college had accumulated a Pulitzer Prize, several fellowships and several honorary doctorates. She worked and succeeded in a male dominated field that valued tradition and traditional educations in English literature. In the celebrity obsessed world of the 1960s that continues today, Sexton’s life reverberates with meaning about the implications of celebrity and its effects on the artist’s life.

Dr. Orne diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, but his competence to do so is called into question by his early use of unsound psychotherapeutic techniques. During sessions with Sexton he used hypnosis and sodium pentothal to recover supposedly repressed memories, while actually using suggestion to implant false memories of childhood sexual abuse, stated to be untrue from interviews with her mother and other relatives. However this is contradicted by Martin Orne’s obituary in The New York Times. The article states that as early as a Harvard undergraduate, Dr. Orne wrote that hypnosis in an adult frequently does not present accurate memories of childhood, instead “adults under hypnosis are not literally reliving their early childhoods but presenting them through the prisms of adulthood”. According to Dr. Orne, Anne Sexton was extremely suggestible and would mimic the symptoms of the patients around her in the mental hospitals she was committed. Dr. Orne eventually concluded that Anne Sexton was suffering from hysteria.

The Middlebrook biography also states that Anne Sexton had another personality emerge, named “Elizabeth”, while under hypnosis. Dr. Orne refused to encourage this development. Subsequently this “alternate personality” disappeared. Anne Sexton’s life is rich in implications in the study of the construction of mental illness and what it implies and directly says for women and for humanity.

When Diane Middlebrook published her biography of Anne Sexton with the approval of Sexton’s daughter and literary executor, Linda, it attracted extreme amounts of controversy. Dr. Orne gave Diane Wood Middlebrook the bulk of the tapes made in the therapy sessions between Orne and Sexton for her to use in Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton. These tapes were released to Middlebrook, her biographer, after she had written a substantial amount of the first draft of Sexton’s biography. The addition of the tapes forced her to start the biography over. Controversy from the posthumous public release of tapes recorded during Sexton’s psychotherapy (and thus subject to doctor-patient confidentiality), revealed Sexton’s inappropriate behavior with her daughter Linda, her physically violent behavior towards her daughters and her physical altercations with her husband.  While writing the biography Linda Gray Sexton confirmed to the book’s author, Diane Wood Middlebrook, that she had been sexually assaulted by her mother.

However, for many people the real scandal was not the release of the therapy tapes but the fact that Sexton had an affair with the therapist that replaced Dr. Orne in the sixties. No action was taken to censure or discipline the second therapist. “What if one of the many doctors — Dr. Orne included — who knew about the relationship had blown the whistle on [the second doctor] instead of putting his career ahead of Sexton’s sanity.”  Dr. Orne considered the affair with the second therapist (given the pseudonym “Ollie Zweizung” by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Linda Sexton), to be the catalyst that eventually resulted in her suicide. These occurrences attracted considerable attention. Sexton’s family expressed strong opinions, both for and against the biography in several editorials and op-ed pieces, mainly in The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review.

Awards

  • * Audience magazine’s annual poetry prize (1959)
  • * Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize (1962)
  • * National Book Award nomination for All My Pretty Ones (1963)
  • * American Academy of Arts and Letters’ traveling fellowship (1963)
  • * Ford Foundation grant (1963)
  • * Shelley Memorial Prize for Live or Die (1967)
  • * Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Live or Die (1967)
  • * Guggenheim Foundation grant (1969)
  • * Tufts University’s Doctor of Letters (1970)
  • * Crashaw Chair in Literature from Colgate University (1972)

Poetry and Prose

  • * Uncompleted Novel-started in the 1960s
  • * To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960)
  • * All My Pretty Ones (1962)
  • * Live or Die (1966) – Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1967
  • * Love Poems (1969)
  • * Mercy Street, a 2-act play performed at the American Place Theatre (1969)
  • * Transformations (1971) ISBN 0-618-08343-X
  • * The Book of Folly (1972)
  • * The Death Notebooks (1974)
  • * The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975; posthumous)
  • * 45 Mercy Street (1976; posthumous)
  • * Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters, edited by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (1977; posthumous)
  • * Words for Dr. Y. (1978; posthumous)
  • * No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose, edited by Steven E. Colburn (1985; posthumous)

Children’s books

  • all co-written with Maxine Kumin
  • * 1963 Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • * 1964 More Eggs of Things (illustrated by Leonard Shortall)
  • * 1974 Joey and the Birthday Present (illustrated by Evaline Ness)
  • * 1975 The Wizard’s Tears (illustrated by Evaline Ness)

source

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2 responses

6 05 2009
Judith Wiker

Confessional poets at their very best! Caressing the pulse of each moment while they walk us through their rhythmic incantation gutting themselves clean…..yum..hats off to you for delivering the sweet morsels of the “femelle mortelle.”

2 01 2011
poetry dispatch and other notes from the underground | 2010 in review « poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground

[...] sylvia plath & anne sexton | the art & the artists of self destruction no. 1 May 2009 1 comment [...]

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