A DAUGHTER’S STORY: I KNEW HER BEST

New York Times Book Review, 8.18.91
In August of 1974, at a candlelit dinner in a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., shortly after my 21st birthday — on which my mother, Anne Sexton, had appointed me as her literary executor — I once again brought up my reluctance to take on the task. This “birthday gift” seemed a burden I was not certain I wanted to bear. I suggested that her friend the poet Maxine Kumin would be a better choice, but Mother pointed out that families and literary executors are sometimes at odds, and that it would be better to appoint someone within the family to avoid conflict. Finally, she convinced me.

That night she emphasized how serious she was about the “job” I had agreed to do. Using paper and a pen obtained from the waiter and sipping sangria, she drafted a codicil to her will providing for a fee to be paid to me so that I could take time out of my own career to give this work the attention it deserved. Shortly after that August night, I was called on to honor my commitment; she killed herself on Oct. 4.

My duties as Anne Sexton’s literary executor, which began with creating an inventory of her papers and finding them a permanent home in a worthy university library, culminated with painful decisions about how much of her private life, including several instances of incest, was to be revealed. In 1980 I decided I would seek out a biographer. Concealing negative aspects of her life would be contrary to the standard of relentless self-inquiry my mother had held herself to in her work; moreover, these aspects would be critical to understanding her poetry, so clearly inspired by the events of her life.

By the time Diane Middlebrook had her biography well under way, my task was suddenly complicated by the discovery of new information. Although tapes of four psychotherapy sessions had been among her papers, Dr. Martin Orne, my mother’s primary psychiatrist, disclosed that he still had all the other tapes he had made.

Last month, following an article on page 1 of The New York Times and many other articles that subsequently appeared elsewhere, I found myself besieged by the press, whose criticism regarding my handling of the tapes was severe: “betrayal,” said The Times’s editorial page, and “settling the score,” said Newsweek.

If public condemnation is difficult, the family reaction was more painful. My sister and I are in blessed accord over the necessity of certain revelations, and her support has been vital. But though my father spoke on the record with courage and honesty to Diane Middlebrook, he believes some parts of the story ought to have been withheld in the name of the family’s privacy.

My mother’s older sister initially granted the biographer an interview; she elaborated in fascinating detail about her belief that my mother had a fortunate childhood. Yet later, even though her view of the family had been represented in the manuscript, my aunt, outraged at the portrayal of her parents, demanded that all quotations from her be dropped. Recently my cousin called to insist angrily that my mother had simply invented all the negative stories about our grandparents.

My mother would have been delighted by this furor: she was a dramatic woman, an actress, a publicity hound and wise in the ways of business. She would have pointed to the biography’s first printing, already sold out, gleefully nagging Houghton Mifflin to increase the figures for the second printing, all the while dancing and shouting, “Live to the hilt!”

Anne Sexton never spared her family — not in her art, not in her life. This made being part of her family provoking and painful. From early adolescence, I had to be more a friend to my mother than a daughter; while that required sacrifice, it also bestowed on me a great privilege. The afternoons we had spent discussing her poetry and my fledgling attempts to write, or just reading aloud to each other from whatever sparked us at the moment, gave me a foundation for listening and making literary judgments.

She trusted my judgment. During the summer after my junior year in college, I worked at Houghton Mifflin, which was preparing at that time to publish “The Awful Rowing Toward God,” my mother’s eighth book of poetry. Mother and her editor disagreed over whether to delete a few awkward passages. Mother instructed him to solicit my opinion, saying she would abide by whatever advice I offered. Undoubtedly this galled the editor, but Mother was the more galled when, duly consulted, I agreed with her editor and she had to make the deletions.

I knew how my mother worked, her concerns, her passions, her vulnerabilities. I lost some of my childhood in exchange for being at an artist’s elbow as she created. But as she said to me in a letter written just before she died: “I know you know the value, the potential of what I’ve tried in my small way to write . . . maybe the spirit of the poems will go on past both of us, and one or two will be remembered in a hundred years.”

A literary executor is the future eyes and ears of the artist, and her most important duty is to keep the work both visible and alive after the author dies. Sometimes I was able to obey the instructions left me, other times I had to override them.

There was, for example, a file among her papers that contained poems written before she began to publish. They were raw and unfinished but in them were her beginnings as a poet. Across the folder she had written: “Never to be published or seen by anybody.” I originally withheld these, with frustration, from the archive when I placed it at the University of Texas: why hadn’t she disposed of them if she really wanted no one to see them? After discussion with the editors at Houghton Mifflin, I eventually sent this early material to Texas. It will never be published because it is not of worthy quality, but it will always be available for scholars interested in her beginnings as a poet.

Similarly, the four tapes and the notebooks of her early 1960’s therapy sessions that I originally found among her papers would have been mere objects of prurience had they not revealed the roots of her poetic style — the unconscious associative process employed in analysis, which was to become the trademark of her poetry. And, perhaps unlike therapy tapes from any other author, these were almost uniquely relevant to any searching analysis of her poetry: her work examines her mental illness and psychiatric treatment, masturbation, elimination, copulation, adultery and incest — and she wrote about these aspects of her life in the first person. After considerable introspection I placed the four tapes and notebooks in the restricted part of the archive.

When Diane Middlebrook began working on her book, we agreed that I would make all material accessible to her, and that I would provide her with introductions to the people in my mother’s life, but that I would have no control over what she wrote, or the viewpoint of the final text.

At first, I saw the therapy notebooks and four tapes as “deep background” for Diane. We agreed that she would copy for me all the notes she took while working with the four tapes, and that when she began drafting the biography I would have the right to veto the use of any or all quotes or information derived from them. Before 1986, it never occurred to me that Dr. Orne still had the other tapes. I had never met him or spoken with him on the phone, but I had written a letter of introduction for Diane. Despite my letter, Dr. Orne did not grant her an interview until 1985. And only with time did he reveal the existence of the additional 300 hours of therapy tapes and offer them as source material.

Dr. Orne did not stand alone when he made the records from his therapy available: all but one of the many psychiatric institutions that held my mother’s medical records — including the prestigious McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., closely affiliated with Harvard Medical School — released those records at my request, complete with detailed notes taken from psychiatric sessions during her hospitalizations, for the express purpose of providing information to the biographer.

The only institution that did not release records to us was Massachusetts General Hospital, which maintained that Anne Sexton’s records could not be found. McLean requested a court ruling before turning over the record; I applied for such a ruling and the court awarded it. Had Dr. Orne revealed he had tapes but refused to make them available, I would have gone to court for them. It is germane to point out that Dr. Orne receives no royalties from the book, nor did he receive any remuneration for writing his introduction.

Last summer, years after deciding that the biographer could have access to the tapes, I found myself confronting yet another difficult issue. To speak publicly of my mother’s sexual abuse of me was agonizing. Yet as I read through the nearly completed manuscript, I began to recognize that — as with everything in my mother’s life — her daily life was inextricably bound to her work. During the period when she was sexually abusing me, she was writing a play about a daughter’s sexual abuse — by both a father and a loving aunt. (“Mercy Street” was produced off Broadway in 1969.) There were also poems from the period that wrestled with similar themes (“Little Girl My Stringbean,” “Rapunzel”). And I decided that I must tell this aspect of our story because it enriched understanding of her poetry, the play and other relationships of that period. I recalled my mother’s answer to her teacher, the poet John Holmes, about the personal invasion her poetry required: “At first it was private, then it was more than myself.”

“You have already written a great deal that is painful,” I wrote Diane Middlebrook in July 1990. “This has been very difficult for me to read, more so than at any other time. No family member will ever like this book. You must not care about that any longer: it is an impossible task. We are all hurt by it. We were all hurt by having lived through her life beside her, behind her, in her shadow, holding her hand: that is reality. Of the joy we have also spoken. The only way to transcend the hurt is to tell it all, and to tell it honestly.”

Images: Photo: Anne Sexton with her daughter Linda in 1972. (Houghton Mifflin/From “Anne Sexton”)

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company

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