Houghton Mifflin, 1991
In 1987, I received with sadness the news that Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters was to go out of print. My regret stemmed not only from the fact that I had worked hard on Self-Portrait, my first book, during the tumultuous time immediately following my mother’s death, but also from my belief that the book gave the best of my mother to her reading public. The letters captured the spirit of her humor, her wit, her abundance; in revealing the heart’s flavor of her life through these letters, I had also begun to shape the course of my own life and writing career. Thus, Self-Portrait was important to us both. To know that the book would no longer be available felt as if my mother—and my connection to her—was dying once again.
Anne Sexton made me her literary executor on my twenty-first birthday; many uncomfortable decisions and tasks fell to me after she killed herself a few months later, in October of 1974. When I was first approached by Houghton Mifflin to edit a volume of her letters, shortly after her suicide, I jumped at the chance. I was in my senior year at Harvard as an English major and had no idea of how to proceed next. Before me I could see only the vast sea of Mother’s work and the job of taking care of it. Quickly I began to rely on several key people: Cindy Degener and Sterling Lord, Mother’s agents; Jonathan Galassi, Mother’s editor at Houghton Mifflin; and Lois Ames, one of Mother’s best friends, and the person who was to help guide me through the process of organizing the book. All of us conceived of Self-Portrait as a treasure map to Anne Sexton’s life for a period in which no biography, or biographical material would be publicly available for years to come.
Though initially excited by the project, I soon realized that I had had no concept of what it entailed. I spent months working from nine to five, five days a week, in the Boston University library, sorting and reading through all the correspondence Mother had placed there on temporary loan. The special collections library at B.U. was a glass cubicle where the staff could watch those who perused the collections. Under their scrutiny I opened box after box of staggeringly personal material—diaries, journals, notes to Mother’s psychiatrist, the correspondence of a lifetime from someone who kept literally everything, including high school scrapbooks and grammar school report cards. I struggled to conceal my reactions as I worked my way through my mother’s life, hiding my face in the file folders to seek privacy where there was no privacy to be had.
I spent more hours and many more months working with the files of correspondence and manuscript left in her house at the time of her death. The process was lonely and painful beyond description. . I had often been my mother’s confidante for secrets inappropriate for a daughter’s ears, but this was worse, an invasion of the darkest recesses of the soul.
I read of her childhood and the scorched emotions—her perception of having been unloved, unwanted, defective—that haunted her throughout her days. I read of my own childhood, of a mother—my mother—who was incapable of mothering and capable of abuse, crippled by her illness, her immaturity, her own emptiness. I read of her infidelities to my father, to our family. I read of her elation and desperation, her vibrant hates and loves, her burgeoning sense of self. I read of her poetry, slowly raising its voice to lift her beyond herself. I cried. Through her words she resurrected herself; she was all too real. There had been little innocence left for me. Now there was none.
Then came organizing the letters, making selections, editing them, and writing introductions to establish chronology and fill in detail. By the time Self-Portrait was in galleys, I no longer saw my mother as my mother; she belonged to the world, as unreal to me, as mythic, as an actress on the stage.
Perhaps putting Self-Portrait into galleys and then out into the world was what enabled and motivated me at last to pull the box that held my mother’s ashes from its resting place at the top of my father’s closet and take it to the cemetery to arrange for burial. I was more than ready to let her go—perhaps by now, even eager. The day we were scheduled to go to the family plot was sunny, a late summer morning in New England. The year was 1977, three years after Mother’s death. My sister and I, my father and his mother, all looked at one another with anxiety. We stood on that grassy knoll alone, except for the plain cardboard box, which, placed by some cemetery official on the ground in front of us and wrapped in brown paper, assumed the weight of the body. It had taken both time and grief to force us to this spot; once there, we did not know what to do. Mother waited in her box; the small hole in the earth waited to receive her. Who would take her there? There was no funeral director to lead us, no minister to fill up the silence with the comfort of words.
That day was a metaphor, a recapitulation, of all the simple steps we had been trying to take ever since her suicide. More than anything else, I longed for freedom, for release, for forward motion. I picked up all that physically remained of my mother. My sister moved to my side, and together we put the box down into the small dark hole in the earth. Joining hands, we began to cry. For my family, a measure of emotional closure on my mother’s tortured life had been achieved. It had taken us three years, but she had at last been buried—laid, as they say, to rest. I ought to have known better.
Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters was published that autumn to wide acclaim. I spent some time on a publicity tour, giving both interviews and readings from the book.
Over and over I read the letter most widely requested, the one written to “the forty-year-old Linda,” which closes this volume. All of this took an inevitable toll: my own identity began to falter under the pressure of maintaining my mother’s. Gradually I began to refuse requests to read from either the poetry or the letters, acknowledging at last that I had to create a distinction between my life and hers. To establish the necessary distance, I undertook two separate searches, both of which freed me from some of my responsibility to her life and work.
The first of these was to find an appropriate biographer—specifically, someone who had not known Anne Sexton and who could be as objective as possible. The second was to find an appropriate university library and settle her papers, letters, manuscripts, and worksheets into a permanent archive. These tasks proved to be just about as easy to accomplish as editing Self-Portrait had been.
Before her suicide at age forty-five, my mother had prepared carefully, making her wishes about nearly everything explicit. She instructed me that her papers, manuscripts, and correspondence were to be placed as a whole in a worthy university library, even though it might be more lucrative to sell off individual items. Once I had located a library interested in the collection, I faced the problem of creating an inventory of all the letters, manuscripts journals, and paraphernalia, as well as deciding which books from her personal library were to go. This not inconsiderable project took months more of my full attention. When finally assembled, all the material filled more than forty large storage cartons, each hand-packed, waterproofed, and sealed by my husband and me. In loads of five we carted them to the local post office, where they were weighed, measured, and summarily rejected. It appeared we had used the wrong sort of tape for boxes that were to be heavily insured. Eventually we tried three kinds of tape, all of which the post office rejected; only a desperate display of tears right before noon closing on a Saturday at last convinced the postmistress to accept my precious burden.
When I sent the Anne Sexton archives to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas—home to a bounty of important modern poetry collections—I included Mother’s typewriter, a pair of her reading glasses, many of the books in her library, a few used checkbook registers, her letter opener, some knickknacks from her desk. She had not instructed me to do this but I knew the library would most likely set up exhibits of her work, and these personal items would enrich the collection. Much of this was hard to part with.
No decision was quite as difficult as deciding the fate of certain items that were going to be painful for family members, or that could hurt others still living. I had excluded them from Self-Portrait, but there remained the question of what, ultimately, to do with them. This difficulty I reconciled by placing them at Texas under the proviso that they be “restricted”—accessible to no one except scholars I approved, until well after the year 2000. In this part of the archives I placed love letters to and from my mother, private papers regarding my parents’ divorce, and poetry she did not wish to be published, from the early stage of her career. Later I decided to allow Diane Middlebrook to use these materials as a source for a literary biography, which was quite different from making them available by publishing them verbatim.
The one part of the collection—and it was of major importance—that did not go into Self-Portrait or the archives at the University of Texas was the correspondence between my mother and the poet James Wright. My mother and Wright had engaged in a fair amount of passion via post for several years before they began an actual love affair, and these letters contained many long critiques of the poetry both were writing at the time. The letters would have been a cornerstone of both Self-Portrait and the archives, and in an addendum to her will, my mother had directed me to find them in the home of a close friend. Though the friend did have a suitcase full of erotic letters to and from another man, dating from the period following my parents’ divorce—and these did go into the restricted collection—the Wright letters were not among them. I could not understand how these letters, which my mother had entrusted so specifically to a close friend, could have disappeared. I searched for them for the next ten years, asking other friends and colleagues of my mother’s, tracking false leads, and exploring her house from top to bottom. I have never found them.
In 1980, in the midst of writing Rituals, my first novel, which dealt with a young woman’s attempt to repress her sorrow over her mother’s death, I asked Diane Middlebrook, a professor at Stanford University who had written about Anne Sexton’s poetry with impressive skill and insight, to be my mother’s biographer. And so it came to be that I no longer carried the weight of Mother’s life—her secrets, her passions, her history—alone. There was relief in this new companionship, and to my pleasure, Diane found herself relying heavily on Self-Portrait for both chronology and clarification; the book was a visual footprint of Anne Sexton’s life. As Diane wrote to me in 1987, “It’s a good thing (for me) that it was you who sorted the letters and journals and had already lifted a lot of rocks with some creepy things under them.”
During this time two separate evolutions began to take place. I continued my primary work as a novelist, writing Mirror Images (1985) to give vent to my feelings—in fictional disguise—about what it was like to be too closely intertwined with a strong, dependent mother; at the same time, my never-ending task as literary executor grew more complicated.
I answered fan letters from those grateful for both the poetry and especially Self-Portrait, I managed Anne Sexton’s estate and made decisions about when the poetry could be reprinted, which dramatic productions to support, when to publish a Collected Poems and a Selected Poems; I also aided Diane, behind the scenes. This aid included the decision that proved to be highly controversial years later: I allowed her to listen to and quote from tape recordings of my mother’s psychiatric sessions, even though, to be responsible, I too had to study the transcripts of those taped sessions—a job I would have been delighted to avoid. Meanwhile, I had two sons, learned how difficult it is to be a good parent, and forgave my mother a great deal. I wrote my third novel, Points of Light, from a mother’s, rather than a daughter’s, point of view.
When it became clear that Self-Portrait was to go out of print, Diane and I shared our distress and resolved that the biography must be finished and available as soon as possible, because without Self-Portrait, no chronology of the life would be available at all. We could not foresee that it would take another five years for the biography to be in the bookstores and that there would be repeated and frustrating requests from scholars and fans alike to reprint the letters.
One episode in my mother’s life especially perturbed me throughout the process of working on Self-Portrait and then later, as I watched Diane Middlebrook develop her material. My sense of agitation increased as the publication date for the biography approached: now I had to confront this ugly subject with the perspective of an additional ten years.
I had known about my mother’s affair with her second psychotherapist long before beginning the research for Self-Portrait. My outrage did not awaken, however, until I read the love letters and poetry between the two of them, and until I learned that she (and my father) had paid for each and every therapy session, despise the fact that the couch in this particular doctor’s office was not being used for analysis. Later, on reading the foreword to the biography, written by Martin Orne, my mother’s first major psychiatrist, I realized that this unethical breach of the analytic contract might have contributed to the downward spiral that led to my mother’s death.
I had gone out of my way to protect this doctor while editing Self-Portrait by creating a pseudonym for him. Diane also concealed his identity in Anne Sexton: A Biography. (I used the name Samuel Dietz, while Diane chose Ollie Zweizung: Ollie after an infamous Oliver of the eighties, and Zweizung meaning “two-tongued” in German.) At the time I protected him, I believed that this relationship with my mother was germane to any complete study of her life, but that his name was not.
As I read Martin Orne’s foreword, I wondered who had been served by such protection. I had been angry about this affair for years, about what it had done to the relationship between my parents, and about the pain it had caused my father. For the first time I realized that the primary disservice was to my mother, and that her suicide might be linked to it. Since then, I have been troubled by feeling that I should make a formal complaint about this therapist, so there can be no possibility that he will repeat this conduct with another patient. The masquerade continues in this version of Self-Portrait.
When Self-Portrait first went to press, there were other, more worthy people who requested protection. Anne Wilder, one of my mother’s good friends and confidantes, had insisted that her name be changed. When she read the galley proofs in 1977, she was furious that though she had been given a pseudonym, other factors that she felt might identify her had been left intact. Only a lengthy, soothing phone call late at night prevented her from threatening last-minute action against the estate. Ironically, by the time Diane described the Wilder-Sexton friendship in the biography, Anne Wilder had found the courage to allow her real name to be used and also to make clear the erotic as well as the platonic nature of their relationship. Despite this revelation, Anne Wilder remains Anne Clarke in this volume of Self-Portrait, since I felt the book should be reprinted as it was originally. I salute her fortitude, in memoriam.
I am too far away today to go back to that cemetery hillside in Massachusetts where my mother is buried. Yet I would like to return there now, maybe just for an hour, to put my hand on the face of the granite marker and remember the woman who happened to be my mother but who was first and foremost a poet. It comes as a shock to realize that I have nearly arrived at that point in my life of which my mother spoke when she addressed her letter to me as “the forty-year-old Linda.” That was in 1969; she herself had just turned forty, and as usual, she was thinking of her own death. “Talk to my poems,” she reminded me, “and talk to your heart—I’m in both: if you need me.”
In her poems, in my heart, in the heart of all those she touched with her life and work. And yes, with great joy, once again in her letters.
October 29, 1991