SEXTON ON SEXTON
Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton by Linda Gray Sexton '75
This past October 4 marked the 20th anniversary of poet Anne Sexton's suicide. Two decades later, her extraordinary life and death still loom large, haunting those who knew her personally and intriguing those who only know her through her work. In a courageous attempt to confront the burden of her mother's legacy and appease her own demons, author Linda Gray Sexton '75 has released her own memoirs, Searching for Mercy Street. Though Gray Sexton does not hesitate to point the proverbial finger at her mother, blaming her for a life out of a control, her cathartic opus is far from a "Mommie Dearest" for the literary set. Beneath the pile of dirty laundry lies a tale of unbounded resilience, a lesson in true independence.
Memoirs written by a relative or a friend of a celebrity are inherently flawed in that they are written on the pretense that the author's life history is as compelling as the celebrity's. This is usually never the case. An inevitable tension arises in which the author struggles to assert his own identity while at the same time acknowledging the celebrity relation that made his story noteworthy in the first place. Because a memoir writer is more than a celebrity biographer, she has the onerous task of assigning relevance to her own life. If the author is not successful, the memoirs become, at best, a boring book and, at worst, a sleazy attempt to capitalize on someone else's celebrity.
Gray Sexton's memoirs narrowly escape these fates. The relationship between the author and her mother is not presented solely as a sensational aberration in family dynamics. Their story takes on a larger role than pure titillation. In a world full of codependence and dysfunction, the Sexton saga is proof that demons will rest and that people can move on.
Writing in a loose chronology beginning with the birth of the author and ending in the present, Gray Sexton uses memory, dreams and her mother's poetry to broadly reconstruct a history of milestones and events in the two women's lives. Presented in tandem, their histories illustrate a destructive cycle of abandonment and dependence, a pattern which plagued the Sexton family and, perhaps to a lesser extent, plagues the American family today.
Sent off to relatives as a baby, Gray Sexton's recalls being "abandoned" by her mother at an early age. In probably the longest case of post-partum depression, the poet-to-be insisted for years that she was unable to take care of her daughters (the author has a sister, Joy, two years her junior), claiming at times that she hated them and even desired to kill them. This feeling of dismissal was only punctuated by the indifference and/or actual abuse Gray Sexton met in her different foster homes.
This period of their relationship lapsed into an even more destructive one in which "Mother", as Gray Sexton refers to her, insisted on becoming intimate and close with her daughter. Their relationship wore many masks during this period. At times there was complete role-reversal in which Anne looked to Linda for mothering and nurturing. At age 10, Linda was ordered to come home from summer camp prematurely in order to take care of mommy. At other instances, Anne acted as if the two were both adult girlfriends as she would discuss her adulterous affairs with her daughter even encouraging her daughter to become sexually active. At its most obscene state, their relationship found Anne treating Linda as a lover when, at times, she would masturbate in front of or in bed with her daughter.
With Gray Sexton's late adolescence came a certain awakening and a desire to "abandon" her mother. Fortunately, she was able to escape to Harvard and distance herself from the chaotic hold of her mother's constant need for attention and care. As a busy student, Gray Sexton found herself ignoring her mother's phone calls and obvious cries for help. Chronic depression, loneliness and alcoholism were taking their toll on her mother, but Gray Sexton, exhausted from care-giving, was compelled to remain distant. She writes, "in the last months of my mother's life I chose to ignore her cry of loneliness. I refused to make her last days less painful. In the end, I let her die alone."
Gray Sexton was finally gaining her independence and the cycle seemed to have been broken, when in an ironic turn of events, Anne asked/insisted that Linda be her literary executor. This position would interminably link Gray Sexton with her mother's life even after her imminent death by suicide. The cycle had been set into perpetual motion. It could not be broken.
Though she could not change her fate, Gray Sexton learned to control the ramifications of that fate. The later part of the memoirs, the post-suicide years, details the ways in which Gray Sexton fought the ghosts of her family history. All the problems that swirled around her mother's depression (suicidal tendencies, alcoholism, writer's block) seemed liable to reappear in the author's life at any time, and indeed they did. As hard as she tried to fight them (or perhaps because she tried so hard), Gray Sexton was forced to confront all of her mother's anxieties in her own adult life. The author discusses her overwhelming fear of failing her babies and consequently smothering them with attention. She talks about not being able to write and the intense depression that resulted from her dry spells. There is mention of potential drug and alcohol abuse, even thoughts of suicide.
How was Gray Sexton successful in overcoming all of these obstacles when her mother seemed so ill-equipped to cope? The author allowed herself to confront, accept and forgive the sins of her past. The abuse. The violent household. The instability. The codependence. Through therapy, through semi-autobiographical novels (Gray Sexton has authored four) and through dealing with her mother's work as her executor, she has been able to move forward. These memoirs are the final leg in Gray Sexton's long emotional journey. Street is an indulgence she must allow herself. Anne Sexton had her poetry and her therapy, but she never quite made it on the road to wellness. Gray Sexton suggests that though she had these outlets, her mother never fully came to terms with the familial history of abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and possibly even incest.
This is not to say, however, that the author paints her mother as a victim of circumstance. Gray Sexton is careful to demonstrate the agency with which her mother seemed to bring things upon herself. Anne Sexton was every bit the performer as well as a writer. It is Mother who twirls her hair for hours putting herself in a trance. It is Mother who goads her ill-tempered husband into beating her screaming, "Kill me! Kill me!" It is Mother who goes ballistic at a dinner table thrusting herself head first into a plate of mashed potatoes. And, it is ultimately Mother who ends her own life. Gray Sexton writes that her mother's suicide attempts were conscious acts and were not solely the results of severe mental illness. When peer confessional poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, Anne Sexton told her psychiatrist that Plath "took something that was mine--that death was mine!"
This is not to say that Gray Sexton does not acknowledge the mental illness component (she even suggests that Anne was a misdiagnosed manic depressive), however she does insist on portraying her mother as active and not passive. Perhaps she does this in order to maintain her mother's artistic integrity. If Gray Sexton were to insist that her mother was a certifiable lunatic then what would she be saying about her poetry? Instead the author is quick to illustrate how gifted her mother was and how deliberate her work had become. The author tells the reader that ever since Anne Sexton's psychiatrist had suggested she write poetry in addition to her therapy, she took to her task completely, making writing her number one priority. Gray Sexton details the workshops, classes and rewrites in which her mother engaged. To her credit, the author is as concerned with presenting the sane and gifted side of her mother as she is in presenting her darker side. The reader is told of her mother's meteoric rise on the poetry scene, her numerous honorary doctorates, her nine volumes of work, her rock band and, of course, her 1967 Pulitzer Prize for her book Live or Die.
Whereas Gray Sexton admits to inheriting her mother's demons, she seems comfortable to state that she inherited her talent (to a certain extent) as well. She and her mother shared a love and understanding of "Language." Unfortunately, the discrepency between the two's works is large, and Gray Sexton's assertion is just plain embarassing. Apparently hell-bent on proving her talents, Gray Sexton weighs down her prose with forced and self-conscious metaphors. When discussing an episode concerning her mother's housemates, Gray Sexton writes, "As if they were bad meat, I wanted to be rid of them." Her straightforward narrative tone is compromised by her somewhat inappropriate style. Gray Sexton is writing her memories, yet sometimes her life reads like a bad novel.
In addition to her lofty, sometimes ridiculous prose, Gray Sexton has a tendency to deflate a dramatic episode or telling moment with a trite or obvious tagline. Stressing the importance of holidays and the stability they bring, Gray Sexton writes, "...and still every year my [Halloween] candy lasts until Easter. I eat one piece a day. Who says you can't control your life?" Explaining how her mother sometimes liked to bake, Gray Sexton states, "If you can bake cookies, you can't be too crazy." The author frustrates her reader, interrupting the flow of emotion with these absurd statements which seem to make light of the situations at hand. When Gray Sexton writes that her mother, in workshops, "never embarassed me [Linda], even when I had written something truly terrible. Never once did she laugh at my nalvete, my cliches, the melodrama...," the reader may wish that her mother had been more critical.
However, Gray Sexton's story speaks for itself. On the whole, the uneven tone does little to diminish the book's message of forgiveness and survival. The memoirs competently address so many of the relevant issues of family relationships and the horrors of mental illness and abuse. What could have easily been dismissed as yet another tell-all expose by a spiteful relative is instead an