Middlebrook delivers the thrill of Anne Sexton

September 15, 1991|By Stephen Margulies

ANNE SEXTON: A BIOGRAPHY. Diane Wood Middlebrook. Houghton Mifflin. 488 pages. $24.95. Anne Sexton belonged to a generation of middle-class American poets who knew the way around their favorite mental hospital blindfolded. Born before World War II, they were torn between two eras. Neither hippies nor beatniks -- strongly influenced by traditional American values -- they ruthlessly punished themselves for their ecstatic raids into freedoms we now take for granted. Suicide was this generation's drug of preference (though, in the lethal innocence of the '50s, their doctors prescribed many other drugs involving slower death). Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman and Robert Lowell perished on the Normandy Beach of personal liberation -- or, at least, of self-discovery.

Of all these "mad, glad" poets, Anne Sexton was the maddest and the gladdest; and her fingerprints still may be found on contemporary culture. In 1974, at the age of 45, she killed herself by inhaling exhaust fumes from her own automobile. Like her friend Sylvia Plath -- whom she had met in Robert Lowell's Boston poetry class -- she was a suicide addict, having experimented with it many times before. But Sexton also extended the sparking empire of art and ennobled the lives of women by celebrating the most intimate facts of female existence.

Using the clear music of her language like a battering ram, Sexton broke down the Berlin Wall that divided art and life, public and private, sanity and insanity, man and woman. Though finally defeated by psychosis, for a while she cannily made it her chief subject matter and the instigator of a literary career.

One can, therefore, only admire Diane Wood Middlebrook for "Anne Sexton: a Biography." Despite the anguished controversy surrounding this first life of Sexton, the book turns out to be, for the most part, fair-minded, lucid and judiciously compassionate.

It is not surprising that it took Ms. Middlebrook 10 years to find "the reason in the storm" of Sexton's life. It is also sad but not

surprising that while some survivors in the family gave the biographer almost unprecedented cooperation (paralleling Anne's own ferocious candor), other members have been zTC heartbroken and angry over what they consider a libel upon the character of Anne Sexton's parents and great-aunt.

The possibilities of incest, child abuse and old reliable rejection are indeed discussed in the book, but they are not insisted upon. Unlike many recent biographers, Ms. Middlebrook hefts a great weight of data with consistent grace.

Aside from the readable and apparently decent scholarship of Diane Middlebrook, this biography is informed by the complex contribution of Anne Sexton's daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, also a writer. It is Linda Gray Sexton who insisted that the biographer use tape recordings of her mother's psychiatric sessions with Dr. Martin Orne. This is, of course, an outrageous breach of medical ethics, family pride and what little remains of a biographer's self-restraint. (However, it is not as bad as the fact that one of Sexton's psychiatrists slept with her -- and charged for it!)

What is really significant about this "scandal" is that the explosive need of Anne Sexton to redeem herself by jubilantly confessing everything seems to survive in her courageous daughter. Anne Sexton believed that her devils could be turned into angels if acknowledged thoroughly in poetry. "Evil" could be turned inside out into "Live!"

Anne Sexton felt herself invaded and overcome by what she saw as the tyranny and neglect of her rather merry parents, who were members of the Roaring Twenties generation. The love she got from her great-aunt was tainted by her sense of unworthiness and by her fear that she would become the mental incompetent her great-aunt became.

At the same time, love demanded that she join her great-aunt in shared illness. A prep school drop-out, a beautiful but failed fashion model, a glamorous but ignorant product of the slick sexist 1950s, Sexton experienced only panicked despair at the birth of her daughters. Dr. Orne's suggestion that she could become a poet instead of a prostitute (her own suggestion!) literally extended her life for decades.

Poetry allowed Sexton to re-create herself. All would be well if she could persuade her readers and her audiences to love her regardless of the sordid facts, or even because of them. The real tragedy is that the sexual abuse she may have received from her father and/or her great-aunt was repeated when Sexton abused her own daughter.

At the same time, Anne Sexton's need to be mothered was as insatiable as a saint's need for prayer. Every poem she wrote had to be validated by fellow poets, every practical move she made had to be aided by her family. Eventually, her hard-earned love for poetry could be expressed only through popular public performances and best-seller status.

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