I finished reading Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook. It was insightful, and the second Sexton-related biography I read this year. The first was written by Anne Sexton's eldest daughter, Linda: Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother.
I enjoyed the Middlebrook biography more, but both played off each other well. Some thoughts:
1.) A Biography caused a stir
when it was released, for outing a sexual relationship between Anne
Sexton and one of her later psychiatrists. Among the immediate problems
that come to mind: conducting an affair during the scheduled therapy
hour as part of therapy and charging for it. Caused concern among her
friends at the time, and remains an eyebrow-raiser now.
2.) More controversially, A Biography relies on many hours of recorded sessions between Anne Sexton and the main psychiatrist of her life, Dr. Martin Orne. The material was used with the permission of Linda Sexton, her mother's literary executor, and the book has a foreword by Dr. Orne to put things in context. No big deal. Auxiliary family members had a problem with it, Linda sanctioned it. Good insights resulted. Middlebrook did a good job using fragments to shed light on Sexton's life and work.
Sexton's poetry started in her 20s, at the suggestion of Dr. Orne as a
way to deal with her mental and emotional issues. It helped.
4.) It is a romantic notion to regard the artist as shaman, one who has a
schizophrenic break and becomes shifted from the rest of our humdrum
reality. That has a bit of bearing on Sexton's creativity and
productivity. Primarily, though, that romantic notion gets set aside as
true blue mental illness seems an outright pain in the ass with
devastating consequences for the sufferer, family, and friends. It's not
that the person is ahead of his/her time so much as the wiring is off, leading
to sparks of brilliance than extended short circuiting and shutdowns.
The upcycle of mania may be fun. The downcycle is hellish.
5.) Middlebrook was trustworthy in both the conveyance of Sexton's life and interpretation of her art.
6.) I admire Dr. Orne's willingness to endorse use of the confidential material, and especially admire Linda Sexton's willingness to share a variety of personally embarrassing and harrowing details in her own book and allowing Middlebrook to probe and bring things to light the rest of the family would likely object to. It mattered to understand the art.