Transcript for Linda Gray Sexton on the Legacy of Suicide

Jim Fleming: Jeanette Walls struggled for years to hide her past and escape her mother's way of life. For Linda Gray Sexton, the struggle was to avoid repeating her mother's tragic mistakes. Sexton is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton. Anne Sexton killed herself at the age of 45, after many previous attempts. In her memoir, Half in Love, Linda Gray Sexton describes in vivid detail her own life-long battle against depression and suicide. Sexton says her suicidal impulse arose in no small part from her complex relationship with her mother.

Linda Gray Sexton: I had a very turbulent relationship with her, which went between intense love to intense hate, from intense like to intense dislike through the course of my life. She was a very difficult person and I, I loved her a great deal but there were times where I couldn't support her or be there for her the way she needed.

Fleming: I can only imagine. Your mother is the poet Anne Sexton, and, as is fairly well-known, she did finally succeed in killing herself and you were, you were what? 21?

Sexton: I was 21 and a college senior.

Fleming: Even though you had reason to anticipate it, it still must have been just devastating.

Sexton: It's devastating, it is a relief in some ways, when you have someone who's tried so many times, you know, there's the guilt involved, there's the anger involved. There are so many conflicting emotions, and it's one of the things I think I say in this book, that it is normal for families to feel all those things. You know, we live today in a society where suicide is still a taboo subject, something that we don't talk about or we talk about in whispers, so when I was writing the book I was very conscious of what families needed to hear.

Fleming: She was, what? 45, when you were 21, when she finally succeeded...

Sexton: That's correct.

Fleming: ... in killing herself?

Sexton: Yes. One of the things I learned in my life was how much depression hurts and how difficult it is to shake it off, get up, "fly right" as my family used to say. My mother went through that and then I went through that when I became depressed at exactly the same age that she killed herself, I tried to kill myself three times, and I write about that in Half in Love and about the bond I felt with her as I tried to commit suicide in that I felt I would, I would be joining her in some way.

Fleming: You wrote that at that point in your life you suddenly saw her act as courageous.

Sexton: I did feel at that time that she was courageous, I still feel that she was courageous. I believe, you know, that people who commit suicide, it's not just a single, simple act. It is complicated, and it's complicated by the person's need to escape the pain. I think a lot of people do find other ways to escape the pain, but I don't condemn people who commit suicide. I no longer can.

Fleming: In that year, that, when you were 45, when you were the age your mother was when she killed herself, you had children, who were a little younger, I think, than you were at the time of her death, but it wasn't quite clear how you broke through to break all the promises you'd made to yourself.

Sexton: As I look back now on my own experience, I say how could I have broken those promises, and the only answer I have is that, you know, the pain was so great that it made me forget temporarily about the promises, it made me crazed, all I wanted to do was get away from it, and I suddenly just couldn't keep the promises. I couldn't keep them.

Fleming: What kind of a mother was Anne Sexton?

Sexton: She really was a difficult mother. On the one hand, she could be lots of fun and a friend, and that was the good part, but the bad part was that she could also, you know, be trying to kill herself multiple times starting from when I was very very young, starting from when I was 2. That made it very impossible, really, to live with her. On the other hand, you know, there were these wonderful moments where she shared writing with me and, you know, we really had girl times together. So, as I say, it was a complicated relationship.

Fleming: It's hard to read about how she told you about the voices she heard and essentially introduced you to the idea of hearing them yourself.

Sexton: When she initially described those voices to me, I was very young, and I never really anticipated hearing the voices myself, so when that began, it was very frightening, and when it intensified around the time that I turned 45, that was one of the things that really pushed me over the edge, was just feeling totally identified with her, I was even hearing the voice in my head continually castigating me for not being able to cope with life.

Fleming: It sounds as though her mothering was such that, that you couldn't find a distance between you, any, any distinction between herself and yourself.

Sexton: Well there weren't very good boundaries set up, you know, there was too much talking about things that I didn't need to know. As a parent, one of the things I strive to do now is to set up really good boundaries for my children, because I think it's important for them to feel safe within those boundaries, and I talk a lot in Half in Love about trying to really establish some kind of set of rules for my kids about what we would and would not talk about, because I didn't want to repeat that mistake that she had made.

Fleming: You described it as motherhood in freefall, a treacherous jungle-gym. It, it has to be hard, looking back at your childhood this way, isn't it?

Sexton: It's very hard. When you write a memoir, you take a great big risk. You don't know, you know, if people will condemn you for what you say, and what you remember. I think of my mother's life, I remember my mother's life. Some people castigate me for telling the truth, for saying "motherhood in freefall," and then other people castigate me for having told of my own suicide attempts, and yet at the same time I'm getting enormous amounts of mail from people who say "You are telling my story, you're telling the story of my family. Thank you so much."

Fleming: You must have also as a young mother looked back with some fear. What did motherhood mean to you when you were first starting out?

Sexton: I didn't have a map, I didn't have a role model, because my own mother had been such an uneven mother, and motherhood was precarious for her, so was it precarious for me. I helped out in my children's classrooms, I drove them from one activity to another, I listened to their fears and troubles, I, you know, that was something I learned from her, even though driving them, doing carpools, those things I didn't learn from her, I learned them from my grandmother. But some of the important things I did learn from her, it's just that some of the other important things I didn't, and without those things it made motherhood a slippery slope.

Fleming: You've been given a chance, in a way, that she didn't get, because she succeeded, of course, in killing herself. After your own suicide attempt you got a chance to become a mother again, to learn and act on lessons before and after.

Sexton: That's true, and one of the wonderful things is that my children seem to have forgiven me. It amazes me that they would do that, and yet they have. I suppose I've forgiven my mother, that's one of the things I talk about in the book, that my earlier book, Searching for Mercy Street, was about forgiving her for her life, and Half in Love is about forgiving her for her death.

Fleming: Linda Gray Sexton is a writer, and the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton. Her first memoir was called Searching for Mercy Street. We spoke about her memoir Half in Love: Surviving a Legacy of Suicide.

 

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