Sexton, Anne


A number of creatively eminent individuals have taken their own lives, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and many other writers. The large number of such cases suggests that there may be a functional relationship between creativity and psychological health. This relationship seems to vary across domains, with the rate of suicide especially high in certain groups of artists, suggesting that there may be something unique to those domains that either draws suicide-prone persons into the domain or has an impact on the individual such that suicide is considered and often attempted.

The American Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Anne Sexton took her own life in 1974 via carbon monoxide poisoning before reaching the age of fifty. Her life and work are especially interesting because her poetry was clearly tied to her own psychiatric treatment. She began writing with only moderate formal education (a high school diploma), but after being published she was given honorary degrees from several universities, including Tufts, Radcliffe, and Harvard. While she is probably best known for Live or Die (1966), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Sexton also received acclaim for The Awful Rowing towards God (1975), The Death Notebooks (1974), The Book of Folly (1972), Mercy Street (1969), Love Poems (1969), All My Pretty Ones (1962), To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960), Transformations (1971), and several volumes of selected and collected poems.

Sexton was born in Massachusetts on November 9, 1928, to Mary Gray Staples and Ralph Churchill Harvey, who were known to drink regularly and sometimes heavily. They were somewhat prominent and quite socially active. Scholars suggest that they may have valued their social engagements over their family responsibilities. There is some evidence that Sexton's mother was jealous about her very early writing. Sexton did not have obvious creative aspirations, but instead seemed to think more about a family of her own. At one point her mother accused her of plagiarism and had that particular writing examined. It was deemed to be original, but many scholars suggest this incident affected Sexton's relationship with her mother. When Sexton reported feelings of guilt about her childhood, she focused on the relationship she had with her grandmother. She admitted to feeling responsible for the failure of this relationship.

Sexton had two older sisters. Biographers have noted that Sexton and her sisters were not especially close to one another, and her position as the youngest child in the family has been underscored. Research on family structure, including birth order, often suggests that an individual's expectations and worldview are associated with ordinal positioning within the family; interestingly, it is frequently the middle-born child who grows up to be the creative rebel. Sexton was socially active as a teenager, but also showed signs of a preoccupation with death. She was active in extracurricular activities, including athletic teams and cheerleading.

Sexton's aunt on her father's side attempted suicide in early childhood, lived several decades in an apparently stable marriage, and eventually committed suicide just before she turned seventy. The family believes that if her aunt's suicide had any sort of influence on Sexton, it was probably informational (e.g., the aunt modeling suicide) rather than genetic.

Sexton eloped with Alfred Mueler Sexton II when she was twenty years old, maintaining the view that she would become a traditional housewife. She apparently got along no better with her mother-in-law than she did her own mother. There were instances of various kinds of misbehavior, ranging from cigarette smoking to angry outbursts in the home of her in-laws. There were also instances of depression, especially after the birth of her two children: Linda in 1953 and Joyce in 1955. Sexton's first attempted suicide was not long after the birth of her second child. Although Sexton had planned to be a housewife and mother, she had difficulties coping with life, especially when her husband was away on business, falling into bouts of depression during the times he was gone.

Sexton was a bit of a rebel and nonconformist, or at least had difficulty with certain social norms. There is, for example, some indication that she was promiscuous, and she eloped with Alfred after knowing him for a very brief period of time—and while engaged to a different man. Scholars note that this type of behavior was not unusual given Sexton's creative temperament.

Other researchers suggest that the social and historical milieu of Boston in the 1950s was a factor in Sexton's troubled life. Sexton's expectation of being a housewife could easily have reflected social norms and pressures rather than a true inclination and intrinsic interest. Perhaps Sexton had a creative drive that she could not reconcile with the pressures placed on her to move in a more conventional direction. Depression could have easily resulted from the incompatibility between her creative temperament and social expectations.

Sexton was apparently addicted to sleeping pills and perhaps also to alcohol, further evidencing serious psychiatric disorders. At one point she had an affair with one of her therapists, further supporting the idea that she was not bound by most social norms.

Another explanation for Sexton's suicide involves the domain of poetry. Poets often invest a great deal of themselves into their work. Even if the poetry is eventually critically acclaimed, the writing of poetry can be quite stressful because on one hand the individual exposes a great deal of herself, and on the other hand the individual is working alone in an area where feedback is often quite delayed. The delayed gratification may have been particularly difficult for Sexton because she manifested many strong social needs.

Biographers place great emphasis on Sexton's psychiatric treatment, which was significant as evidenced by the content of her poetry. And, it is possible, given her nonconformism, that Sexton suffered from a borderline personality disorder. There are reports of her schizophrenic language, for instance, as well as her tendency to enter some sort of trance at the end of her psychiatric treatment sessions. She apparently did not want to end the sessions, perhaps because of emotional and social needs.

Sexton's increased reputation as a poet seemed to cause a new kind of marital difficulty. There were reports that her husband did not appreciate her work, and additional suggestions that her schedule, required by her publishing and the promotion of her work, caused friction at home.

See also: Suicide Influences and Factors: Gender

Bibliography

Ludwig, Arnold. The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Anne. The Awful Rowing towards God. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Sexton, Anne. The Death Notebooks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

MARK A. RUNCO

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