(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 32)

Anne Sexton’s life and death tend to overshadow her poetry. A flamboyant performer of her own works, a woman whose life was characterized by frequent suicide attempts and love affairs, a poet whose words about taking her own life were prophetically realized in her suicide—these are some of the sensational details that suggest Anne Sexton was the principal character in a soap opera. Diane Wood Middlebrook does not view Sexton as a melodramatic victim, however; instead, she offers a biography that probes the complex relationship between Sexton’s art and her illness.

Invited to write this first full-length biography of Sexton by the poet’s daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, Middlebrook spent ten years researching and writing Anne Sexton: A Biography. During this decade, she spoke with ninety of Sexton’s colleagues, examined Sexton’s personal papers and unpublished poetry, and was given access to taped psychiatric sessions between Sexton and her first psychiatrist, Dr. Martin T. Orne, who has written the foreword to the biography. The controversial release and use of these tapes will likely continue to be a point of discussion regarding this book. What is not controversial, however, is the engaging style, attention to detail, and narrative strength of this portrait. Dividing the book into four parts, Middlebrook carefully sketches Sexton’s life and, with equal care, analyzes her art and the relationship between the two.

The first section, “Becoming Anne Sexton,” centers on Sexton’s unhappy childhood with an alcoholic father who perhaps sexually abused her (Middlebrook is careful not to conclude that this actually occurred, but she strongly suggests its possibility) and a mother who was weak and abusive in her own right. Marrying businessman Alfred “Kayo” Muller Sexton II was an extension of these abusive relationships, for Kayo’s frustrations with Anne resulted in his physically attacking her on numerous occasions. After the birth of her two daughters, Sexton became increasingly disturbed. During this period, she received help from Orne, a psychiatrist barely a year older than Sexton who was completing his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard while working as a resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center. During the course of his treatment of Sexton, Orne encouraged her to write poetry as a part of her therapy. These early attempts to use poetry in a therapeutic fashion were the beginnings of both her personal and poetic life, as Sexton once noted in an interview about an attempted suicide during this period: “The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.… It was a kind of rebirth at twenty-nine.” She announced this rebirth in 1957 by signing her poetry, for the first time, “Anne Sexton,” no longer “Mrs. A. M. Sexton.”

This new signature was indicative of Sexton’s transformation from “Housewife Into Poet,” the title of the second section of the biography. Sexton immersed herself in both the production and the world of poetry. That world included some of the most significant American poets: Maxine Kumin—a woman whose friendship would sustain Sexton until the day of her death—Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, John Holmes, James Wright, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and many others. Collectively, these poets became mentors and family for Sexton, helping her find her own voice and develop a craft that was unique for its blunt, often offensive, language and ideas. Challenged by emerging questions about feminism as it related to female writers and increasingly experimental in her reliance upon the unconscious in producing her poetry, Sexton published her first two books in the opening years of the decade now associated with unbridled...

(The entire section is 1529 words.)