Counterpoint Press, 2011; originally published by Little, Brown, 1994
Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton began as a letter to my mother, a personal message of mourning and celebration that meditated on our complicated life together. She had died in 1975, during my twenty-first year, by committing suicide. I was only a college senior then, and I had held conflicted emotions about her life for many years when I finally sat down to write this book late in 1992.
In 1994, as the book appeared on the shelves of stores throughout the country, I began to receive moving letters from both women and men telling me that my story encouraged them to look once again at their own relationships with their parents—and with their children. Though I had initially written the memoir to better understand the complexities of my life, in the months following publication I began to realize that as other people read Searching for Mercy Street they started to better understand themselves. It seems as if it is a universal story: how do we learn to accept and forgive those who have both succeeded and failed in helping us become who we are? The “journey back” of which the sub-title speaks is one all of us have to make as we face the death of our parents and our contemplation of their lives.
As I wrote the book, I found myself reliving times that were both painful and joyous, accompanied by intense emotion. Many readers asked me if the process of writing it had been cathartic, and the first time the question was posed, I hesitated, looking for the right way to explain how writing a memoir impacts one’s life. It had not been cathartic, exactly. The catharsis had happened before I wrote the book, in my analyst’s office.
Writing it had been more like testifying, to myself as well as others, that such things had happened to me and that they acquired increased importance when re-examined. As I told my own story, I validated my life’s experiences and toughened myself; it was a part of my self-education, one that helped me gain control over what had once seemed unmanageable. Silence compels us to look at what lies behind it, and revelation brings with it knowledge—which is why some feel as if they must write about the private aspects of their lives, in search of solace and clarity. To speak candidly, with neither justification nor humiliation, relieves the haunting of memory and mind and becomes one way to regain our dignity and our strength.
I grew up in a home where writing about one’s self and family was like daily bread. To live in the shadow of one of the first “confessional” poets of the 1960’s—though my mother grew to hate that label—set the stage for my own interest in the genre of memoir. What she did with poetry I would later attempt to do with prose: first, with the four novels I published between 1981 and 1990; and then, with this memoir. Tell it true, she counseled me, from the time I started writing in my early teens. For my mother, truth trumped all. Taking that plunge in her poetry, she dared to tell story after story about herself, crafting what could well have been a simple journal into an art form that won her an extremely loyal readership. Today her work continues to be carried in bookstores and also appears in numerous anthologies; it is taught in university classrooms throughout the world, as she always dreamed it would be, and all of her books have been translated into many different languages. Her obsession with telling what she perceived to be the truth was a legacy she would pass on to me, though there would be other birthrights I could not anticipate as I set out to write Searching for Mercy Street. Before conceiving of this book, I did not see that just as she had sought the elusive “Mercy Street” by naming both a play and a book with that address, so did I, entitling my own book and christening a sailboat with the same.
The publication of my mother’s biography, written by Diane Middlebrook, brought extreme reaction from many sources, and Searching for Mercy Street also roused both admirers and critics alike. The subjective nature of truth became a topic that infused many reviews, and I received a particular sort of criticism from the press: how can you remember so many details from so long ago?
There were those who protested that I had absconded with my mother’s life to use it for my own purposes, and there were those who applauded the honesty with which the book had been written. There were those who questioned my veracity, and raised the specter of “false memories,” a concept that was increasingly being acknowledged in the psychiatric arena at that time. With articles appearing in the press in which people confessed to having lied about childhood abuses, either intentionally or under the aegis of persuasive therapists, Searching for Mercy Street was held up to the light and rigorously examined—even though I had never once framed what had transpired between my mother and me as “sexual abuse.”
All doubts about the overall truth of the book stung, but I remained steadfast to my story, and generally, I was believed. From my family, too, came more—but different—questions. In the main, they wondered how I could remember our life together so differently than they did. I explained it this way: writing a memoir about yourself and your family is like coming into a room in which everyone is present, but entering through a different door than they have; it is always the same room, but the angle at which you view it is different than what the others perceive, even though the room itself contains all the same objects, artwork, curtains and chairs. Same lives, different perspectives.
But some of the family was not to be placated. My cousins and my mother’s middle sister made furious phone calls to my home, excoriating me for revealing so much about private family matters. They had already written an angry letter to the daily edition of The New York Times following the publication of the biography. Though there was much I had withheld regarding that branch of the family because it wasn’t germane to the main thrust of Searching for Mercy Street, this wasn’t consolation enough; instead they continued with a stream of continuous invective that I tried to ignore, no matter how difficult. Even today we do not speak.
For the most part, the book was reviewed well, and over time, accepted by my immediate family. Martin Scorsese optioned the book for Miramax Films, and one of the high points of my career was the day we sat in the living room of his townhouse, discussing his life and work and the reasons why the memoir intrigued him. He served me cookies baked by a family member, and in response to my fears of over-exposure in film, told me a story about the creation of the script for “Raging Bull”—how he had withheld and reframed explosive material because it wasn’t necessary to include every exact detail to achieve the effect he wanted. Sometimes less truth was more revealing. His point of view was one of a certain kind of restraint, which I found surprising coming from a director of such gritty realism. Ultimately, Scorsese was willing to give me a remarkable amount of input over the direction the story might take, but the studio would not permit me to retain any control over the material, so I withdrew the deal. While I might subject my family to considered exposure at my own hand, I could not do this in concert with a movie industry that seemed to thrive on excess. There was too much in the book that could be exploited.
While on a publicity tour for the book, I was greeted by enthusiastic readers, many of whom were my mother’s “fans” or mine, and all of whom seemed to identify with the emotions and ideas expressed in the book. I went from bookstore to bookstore for signings, to colleges for speeches, and to television and radio studios for interviews.
After all the sizzle about the revelations of family secrets died to a whisper, I was left with readers who continued to write to me about how important the book had become to them on an emotional level. It remained available for many years and now finds new life as it is brought back into print in concert with my new memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.
What I couldn’t foresee, or anticipate, at that time, was the different way I would eventually feel about what I had written. The book only told the story of my relationship with my mother up to what I could understand about it when I was forty years old. It couldn’t deal with, or predict, what was to come.
In Searching for Mercy Street I had written of forgiving my mother for her life and the sort of parent she had been to me, but I had not yet come to the point of confronting and forgiving her brutal and sudden death. I did not understand then that there was more acceptance and forgiveness required in order for me to continue with life—that though this book dealt with much, it did not, ultimately, tell the entire story of my mother and me.
In 1993, still writing this book, I was forty years old and at a crossroads in my life. In 1998, I arrived at another. I shouldn’t have been surprised. A television interviewer had anticipated this turning point when he asked me how I was preparing myself for the day when I became forty-five, the same year my mother had killed herself. Flushed with all the revelations and insights Searching for Mercy Street had brought me, I did not want to think so far into the future about a time that might well be difficult. He recommended that I give a large party, preferably at her graveside. I dismissed the notion as nonsensical.
But when I reached the time in my life that matched the anniversary of my mother’s death, I found myself as depressed and suicidal as she had been. I very nearly did not survive, despite my previous brave assertions about how I had my own depression under control. In 2001, four years after my third attempt to kill myself, I started to write about my experiences with this terrible new legacy. In my psychiatric sessions—and on my computer, as I began a new book—I relentlessly examined my mother’s death and my death wish, just as I had examined her life and my relationship to it, in this memoir.
What did her suicide at forty-five really mean to me as a forty-five year old woman?
Searching for Mercy Street is a prelude to Half in Love and sets the stage for all that would transpire in my life between my forty-fifth and fifty-fifth years. If I had had a crystal ball when I wrote Searching for Mercy Street, I would have been overwhelmed by what was to follow. Writing this book did not tie up all the loose ends in my life as I had thought it would; it simply opened the door to another journey, one with loose ends of its own. Like a novel, even a memoir wants a unified ending—but life usually allows such harmonious resolutions only for a moment. As does any memoirist, I offer these books up in the hope that whatever I have experienced over the past fifteen years is of some interest or enlightenment to even one reader, at any time, anywhere. Both memoirs constitute a cycle of exploration, of the changes that start at one place and then arrive where they began; and, as T.S. Eliot said in “Little Gidding,” I know that place for the first time.