Anne Sexton was a 1950’s housewife with no clear direction to her life, struggling with what today is known as bipolar disorder. Unable to care well for her children or herself, she was hospitalized. Afterwards she wrote a couple of poems about her struggles and showed them to her therapist. He told her to pursue poetry. Within just a few years, she became one of the most talked about poets of her generation, on her way to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is a brief story of her foreshortened life.
Childhood: Becoming Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton was born November 9, 1928, as Anne Gray Harvey in Massachusetts. She was the youngest child of a wealthy couple who lived an F. Scott Fitzgerald lifestyle: an endless round of parties, heavy drinking, and conversation with the three daughters presented as ornaments to the guests. Her father, Ralph Churchill Harvey (1900-1959), was a wool merchant, and her mother, Mary Gray Staples (1901-1959) was an intelligent, glamorous socialite.
The family spent summers on Squirrel Island in Maine with their maternal grandparents and a great-aunt. For the children, there was a miniature theater where the children gave performances for the adults. Although monetary troubles were few, the family struggled emotionally. Sexton said the three girls craved the attention of their parents which was sparsely doled out. Consequently, she felt close to her great-aunt, Anna Ladd Dingley. When Anne was thirteen, her aunt began to behave erratically and was eventually institutionalized with mental illness. The poem, “Some Foreign Letters” stands as testimony to their attachment.
As a teenager, the future Pulitzer Prize winner began to write poetry, but the effort was short-circuited when her mother accused her of plagiarizing. An indifferent student, Anne Harvey attended Garland Junior College but eloped at the end of the year.
Marriage to Alfred Mueller Sexton
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She married Alfred Mueller Sexton II, “Kayo” (1928-197) at 19. Their marriage was turbulent but seemed to provide a framework for writing. They were married for twenty-five years, and her final successful suicide attempt in 1974 was a year and a half after she divorced him.
Initially studying to be a doctor, he left school soon after their marriage and worked in a wool company while Anne worked in a bookstore and as a model. They usually lived with either Kayo’s or Anne’s parents during their first two years together.
With little interest in housekeeping, Sexton bucked the expected norm of the day. Her mother-in-law hired help to pick up the slack. Early in her marriage, she began to have affairs. When her mother berated her for it, Sexton took an overdose of pills which led to therapy on which she relied for the rest of her life. At the advent of the Korean War, Kayo joined the Navy and was sent overseas. When he returned, Kayo went to work for Anne’s father and the young couple continued their emotionally rocky life together. He was often away on business trips. They raised two daughters, Linda Gray Sexton and Joyce Ladd Sexton.
Throughout their marriage, the couple fought verbally and physically. Drinking was a daily ritual which sometimes ended in Kayo erupting into violence. The daughters witnessed it all and sometimes had to intervene. Anne insisted that Kayo get therapy, which worked, and the violence eventually abated.
And yet it was not all acrimonious, when Anne began to write poetry at age 28 or had one of her many manic episodes, support came from Kayo and his mother, Billie Sexton. Billie often looked after the children throughout their lives and Kayo did the grocery shopping and cooked. Their daughter Linda remembered that he resented the poetry but still did everything he could to help her write. He was there for her as Anne drifted in and out of depression which sometimes ended in suicide attempts and/or hospitalization. In February of 1973, Anne divorced him, but made efforts afterwards to draw him back. He was distraught at her funeral. Kayo remarried twice and continued a successful career in the wool business. In 2012, he died at the age of 83.
Anne Sexton: Motherhood & Mental Illness
The environment of mental illness and violence had other victims. Linda Gray Sexton was born in 1953 and Joyce Ladd Sexton was born in 1955. Linda has written several books, two of which, Searching for Mercy Street and Half in Love, recounts the experiences of her childhood and the harrowing legacy that suicide leaves for the family. After her second child was born, Sexton experienced severe postpartum depression leading to hospitalization and a suicide attempt in November 1956. The family from both sides rallied to care for the children and they lived with other family members for a time as it became clear that their safety was at stake.
The girls’ childhood was fraught with trauma, physical violence, and serious sexual improprieties. It seems that Sexton identified with both her daughters for different reasons at different times but was sometimes incapable of not acting destructively to either them, her husband or herself. Sometimes the girls took on the role of caregiver and lived in fear that one of her many suicide attempts would eventually succeed.
When the children were small and usually cared for by other family members, Anne wrote her first poem in late 1957. During 1958, she attended several poetry seminars. She met W.D. Snodgrass at the Antioch’s Writer’s Conference that same summer, and, in the fall, she attended a seminar at Boston University given by Robert Lowell. Both those poets were beginning to write in the confessional mode and infected Sexton with a similar poetic impulse but one which was uniquely hers. Sylvia Plath was also in the Robert Lowell Seminar, and the two women, along with George Starbucks, would meet for drinks and potato chips at the Ritz after the class. Somewhat guardedly due to professional rivalry, the two women became friends. Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther explores the relationship between the two women.
Sexton’s first poem was published in July 1958, just before the Lowell Seminar, and by 1960, her first collection of poetry in book form, To Bedlam and Back Again, was in print. Her next book, All My Pretty Ones, about her childhood, was shortlisted for The National Book Award in 1962.
Pulitzer Prize & Poetry Performance
Anne Sexton’s third book, To Live or Die, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967. Although the next few years were productive, she was battling her illness, physical injuries, and exhaustion. The American Academy of Poets has a letter in their archives in which one can almost hear her sigh.
She had an intensive poetry reading schedule, but in typical bursts of energy between the malaise, she continued to write prodigiously. She created a “chamber rock” group which performed her poetry to music in 1968 and she wrote a play. In 1969, Mercy Street was performed off Broadway and received pleasing reviews. Love Poems also came out in 1969. Transformations, a collection of narrative poems based on the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales, was published in 1971. She began to teach at Boston University in 1970 and became a full professor in 1972. Yet she was also hospitalized several times between 1969 and 1971 and continued to drink, sometimes beginning at breakfast, mixing the alcohol with the daily medications she took for her illness.
According to some critics, the strain began to tell in her work; the usual meticulous self-scrutiny of her poems fell away, and her next couple of books received less glowing reviews. Nevertheless, her fame was still riding high. She gave an in-depth interview on September 11, 1973.
Anne Sexton’s Final Year
In 1974, she was living alone in the family home. Having divorced her husband, she found it harder than she had imagined to cope with the single life. Her daughters had begun their own lives although they were still available to help her as they had done even as children. She continued to work on her poems up until the day of her death. On October 4, 1974, when she was forty-five years old, she had lunch with her long-time friend and fellow poet Maxine Kumin, where they worked on The Awful Rowing Towards God, which was published posthumously. Afterwards, she went home, made a martini, draped herself in her mother’s fur coat, sat in her red Mercury Cougar, and let the engine run in a closed garage.
Despite being an artist who helped forge a new genre of intensely personal poetry, it is crucial to separate her work from her life. Her mental illness led to behavior that was the antithesis of the glamor she exuded. She herself explained that she lied in her poetry. She used moments of her life as a foundation and built a piece of art around it. Although the building materials may have been from land she owned, the result was still a construction. Despite the power and promise of poetry, the pain and tragedy she and her family experienced throughout her life can not be adequately described in any medium.
It is equally difficult to separate the woman from the illness; perhaps even for Sexton herself, as it controlled so much of her life. Even so, it is difficult to be empathetic to the worst in her life. Perhaps seeing her as she was, raw and blemished, can provide a deeper awareness of the complexities of what it means to be human, as we try to understand how a woman could abuse her children on one day, on another day try to kill herself and, on yet another day, another hour, be loving, funny, full of life and write such luminous material.
Crowther, G.. (2022). Three-Martini afternoons at the Ritz: The rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton. Gallery Books.
Middlebrook, D. W. (2001). Anne Sexton: A Biography. Random House, Inc..
Sexton, A., & Kumin, M. (1999). Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems. Mariner Books.
Sexton, L. G. (2011). Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. Counterpoint Press.
Sexton, L. G. (1994). Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother Anne Sexton. Counterpoint.