Monday, January 24, 2011
Half in Love
One day a couple of weeks ago, I opened my front door to find a package from Anne Sexton's daughter stuck inside the screen. It was a copy of her memoir, Half in Love: surviving the legacy of suicide (by Linda Gray Sexton). I got the book because I agreed to be part of the TLC book tour, and I agreed because I was intrigued; Linda Gray Sexton is the editor of my edition of Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems and, as her mother's literary executor, the author of Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.
Since Anne wrote "confessional" poems, the whole poetry-reading world knows about Linda's "brown mole/under your left eye, inherited/from my right cheek" and that her mother ended the poem about taking a nap with her by saying "I promise you love. Time will not take away that."
It's hard for me to imagine what it's like to grow up with parts of your childhood so publicly on display, and also to understand why someone, especially a mother, would want to kill herself. Linda Gray Sexton is most successful at conveying the pain that can drive a person to consider suicide by giving the accumulation of detail that can lead to such a choice. The first paragraph of Half in Love is a description that I certainly identify with at this time of year:
"...I fell into a pit of loneliness and sorrow and couldn't climb out. I couldn't talk with those I loved about my grief or my despair, so afraid that by speaking about such things, I would make them even more real. I worried, unconsciously, that even if I described the pain wrapped around my heart, I would not be heard. I worried, consciously, that others--no matter how close--would perceive me to be preoccupied with myself in unattractive ways."
But it seems incredible that a beautiful woman whose professional life consisted of one literary triumph after another could ever experience depression; Anne "experienced success nearly immediately; prestigious literary magazines like the New Yorker and the Hudson Review quickly accepted her efforts, as well as other, smaller publications. Houghton Mifflin Company published her first collection of poetry....She went on to write nine volumes and established an enormous following of dedicated fans." And yet she attempted suicide multiple times, eventually succeeding.
Linda says that after her mother's suicide, "her oldest sister and her father's sister both killed themselves, handing the legacy down and on to another generation in their own families. I wondered about my cousins. Did they feel this same push, this intense desire to look out over the edge? And, if so, was that impulse simply a response to the way suicide expressed itself genetically, a bad balance of chemicals in the body? Or was it the influence of living with someone who was mentally ill? Or was it both?"
Anne's parents and siblings, Linda says, "did not understand why she couldn't simply 'keep a stiff upper lip.'" So Anne's daughters and husband also kept quiet about what it was like to live with her: "we didn't talk about the violence any more than we talked about her mental illness." This seems to be the major difference between Linda's experience and her mother's: Linda is not reticent about discussing what she at one point calls the "slide down into the rabbit hole inside my mind," even when one psychiatrist yells at her that her kid isn't difficult, but she is "a difficult mother!"
Linda chronicles the years she spent swinging back and forth from depression to strength, and lists all the drugs she was prescribed, starting with Prozac, the initial effect of which, she says, was "like driving with the parking brake off, for the first time in my life."
She becomes a cutter, which is the part of the memoir I am least able to understand, despite her characteristically bald description: "it's a way of letting the poison out. Taking control again." Reading about the cutting, at least, makes me aware of how fortunate I am to have never felt the kind of despair that can be temporarily relieved in this particular way.
This is Linda's gift, to explain what a state of mind most people have never experienced is really like. I doubt that many of her readers will be as clueless as the police chief who says "it had never occurred to him that a suicide could be driven by intense pain," but a few of them might be brought to understand a little more about the inescapability of depression. I particularly like her use of metaphor:
"I was still a novice at dealing constructively with my depression...and, despite my desperate attempts to combat it, I lay at its feet, day by day, feeling unbearable guilt that my love wasn't strong enough to help me to rise."
Even though Linda's own sister still evidently feels that her suicide attempts were "manipulative...an indulgence," the level of detail in the story Linda tells about her struggle will make it harder for readers to dismiss the idea that there can be a legacy of suicide, and easier to see where help might be available and maybe how it can be most effective.