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 " 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.


edj3 said...

A couple of quick comments . . .

In my opinion, depression has nothing to do with triumphs or successes. In fact, I wonder if the successes may have made it worse for Anne, made her feel even more like a fraud.

Regarding the cutting—from everything you’ve written about what you feel during the wintertime, I think you have experienced the same sort of despair that Linda described. It’s just for whatever reason (and thankfully so), cutting isn’t something that occurs to you as a way to relieve the pain.

FreshHell said...

Cutting is something I can't wrap my head around either. Despite my own bouts of depression, I would be more likely to simply drink more (though not much more because then I'd feel even worse) or eat candy or something rather than cut myself. Self-inflicted I don't think I could ever commit suicide in any way (really, not ever but for the sake of argument) that could inflict pain, esp if it didn't actually kill me and I awoke worse off than before.

Care said...

I guess I could say that I don't 'get' cutting, but I acknowledge that it happens and it can be relatable to overindulging in drugs or alcohol; it's just that the time component might be different. Drink too much-feels like fun-feels like s%&t in the morning. With cutting, it is could be just a shorter time consequence: cut for a release-of-pain, and then receive a different distracting kind of the pain. That's how I get my head around it - it's a different pain sensation, a distraction, and one of control.
This book sound fascinating.

lemming said...

A good friend is a cutter - I don't understand it, but I do understand the feeling that there's a release needed and that this seems to help.

(Yes, said friend does have a therapist.)

LisaMM said...

Thank you for a thought provoking review. I really like the quotes you chose to use. How sad that Linda's own sister doesn't understand.. that must feel like a betrayal. Thanks so much for being on the tour!

Anonymous said...

I'm a lifelong (mostly mild) depressive who's never experienced suicidal impulses. Cutting actually makes more sense to me, though like you I'm glad I've never felt the pull!

It feels like a moral lapse, something I should correct, not to understand suicide. I feel I should sympathize with people who think exiting will make things better. So far none of the books I've read have made that happen. I grew up with a mentally ill mother in a family of depressives. The depression was just background noise, it barely counted, it was the other stuff *on top* of that that counted as crazy--and even that you didn't exactly talk about it (Depressive logic: hunker down and grit your teeth and wait it out.) I wonder if this book would be the one that helps me understand suicide, or just make me angry? (I typed "crazy" for "angry" the first time I wrote that sentence!)

Trapunto said...

I left that last comment. Finger slipped and I posted it before I could leave my handle.

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I'm wryly amused at what you say about success possibly making a depressed person feel like a fraud, because that sounds so plausible and yet I didn't see it, in my underemployed state.

FreshHell, I always like your overindulgence ideas! Probably the level of psychic pain is what dictates the need for physical pain.

Care, you could be right about the control aspect--here's a pain I can control.

Lemming, one thing this memoir is good for is showing how therapy, especially what she calls "talk therapy," can help.

Lisa, I didn't get the sense that Linda feels it as betrayal. She acknowledges her sister's (and father's) need for a defense while continuing to assert her own needs.

Trapunto, I guessed it was you before I got down to your signature. I have to say, I don't think this is a book that will make you understand suicide; I don't think that's its purpose. It's more about how to survive when hunkering down and gritting your teeth stops working.

bermudaonion said...

I've never thought of the legacy of suicide, but after reading your review, it makes total sense. This book sounds thought provoking.

Jeanne said...

Kathy, it is thought provoking, but the people who are farthest from understanding how suicide can be a legacy--like the clueless cop--are probably not going to read it. So I do think its best audience are people who want a guidebook on how to survive this kind of legacy.

Jenny said...

I have never had the urge to cut, but I can certainly understand it -- more so than some other non-constructive forms of coping. Cutting would feel more under my control, I guess, than drinking or using drugs -- because I wouldn't be able to control how my body would react then. Whereas cutting, you'd know how things were going to go down.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, that's a perspective I hadn't considered. I don't tend to think of drinking, in particular, as something that could make me act in ways that aren't in my control--but when I was younger (college-age) that was certainly more true.

Ana S. said...

My teenage self got cutting, and the psychological process behind it was more or less like what Jenny mentioned. As someone who loves Anne Sexton and has struggled with depression, I think I'd get a lot out of this book.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, one of the things I liked about it was seeing how many different kinds of therapists and drugs were able to help her along the way. I've always read you have to try more than one therapist, but I don't know many people who have chosen to afford that in terms of time and money; I guess it's like anything else--you do it when there's no other choice--and she gives a taste of how it can be done effectively, keeping her alive and without too many new scars.