The late poet Anne Sexton became a household name after she won the Pulitzer Prize for her dark and unabashedly honest verses. Many know the artist, but the woman and her family behind this art are less familiar. In this interview, we get to delve deeper into the fascinating mind of Linda Gray Sexton, a talented memoirist and novelist who struggled her whole life to claim her own identity as a writer while still carrying on her duties as the literary executor of her mother’s legacy.
Nicole Melchionda: Reading Searching for Mercy Street is emotionally exhausting in the best and most heartbreaking ways. After enduring such a tumultuous life, what is normal for you now and how can one find normalcy?
Linda Gray Sexton: Normal is a difficult word and concept. What is “normal” after all? I suppose for me it consists of being able to work and love in this world we have before us. My work gives me fulfillment and strength, and love fills me with gratitude and warmth. What more could I want? I look back on the tumultuous time Searching for Mercy Street details and am happy that I am not experiencing it anymore, but am filled with wonder that I survived and went on to thrive. Writing it was a tribute to my mother’s and my own endurance.
NM: As a younger woman, you described the act of writing as a type of exorcism. Do words bubble from a different mental space now and can you create without the anxiety of external approval?
LGS: I’m not sure I ever suffered from the anxiety of not receiving external approval. There was simply a tremendous push within me to tell this particular story (Searching), to tell it well, to tell it all—with the truth required. It was an exorcism in some ways, though I knew the story entirely before I began and only had to get it down on paper. I suppose that was the exorcism: to write it at all. Of course, external approval did matter tremendously, but not in terms of reviews, per se, but rather in terms of my readers. Every letter and email of appreciation that I received made me light up inside. There is nothing better than knowing you have touched someone with what you have to say. When I wrote Half In Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, this came to in a multitude of ways. People often said, “this book saved my life.” What better sort of appreciation and approval than that can come your way?
NM: Writing poetry stirred uneasy emotions in you, yet you’ve never soothed that itch. While you thrived transitioning to fiction, you realized your early stories felt deeply autobiographical, which motivated you to take a more direct approach with nonfiction. When inspiration strikes, how do you decide which form it will take? Could we ever expect a poetry collection from you since the dream sequence you teased readers with in SFMS was so mystifying?
LGS: Writing poetry was difficult for me from college onward, though I adored writing it with my mother when she was alive during my high school years. At some crucial point I knew I would never live up to what she had created and that I would always be compared to her—probably in a negative manner. She once said to me: “don’t be a poet, Linda. I’ll follow you around like an old gray ghost.”
It is true that my fiction was largely autobiographical, and how could it not be, considering how I was raised and educated by a poet who wrote so intimately of her life. At some point, however, just before Mercy Street, I found within me a desire to tell a different sort of story—in a genre my mother had never tackled (prose) and at which she had never succeeded. It could be, I realized, all my own. I still get compared to her as a writer, very often in a negative way, though sometimes the critique is positive. When it knocks me as a writer, it nearly always hurts. I’d just like to be judged for my own efforts. That obviously isn’t to be so, and thus, indeed, she does follow me around like an old gray ghost—but I’ve learned to deal with it.
In terms of writing poetry of my own, I supposed the preceding answers that question. I don’t believe I have any real talent for it, though I didn’t think the poem in Searching was a terrible one, but rather a good if inexperienced effort.
NM: You wrote about how you had found mother figures like Maxine Kumin and your therapist, Dr. Adele Shambaugh. What is the most valuable advice you ever learned? As a woman who went on to experience the fragility, frustration, and fears of motherhood firsthand (often through the lens of comparing yourself to your mother), what advice would you give if you could become a mother to all?
LGS: Wow! What a question! I did find many mother figures over the years (at least six if you could count them all, at different times,) and each of them helped me with whatever I was experiencing at the time. And so, every one of them had different advice to offer me: Maxine helped me in my youth with the process of becoming a woman; Lois Ames, my alleged collaborator on the book of my mother’s letters, tried to support me as I dealt with my mother’s death, but eventually betrayed me by deserting me, which taught me to be wary about whose advice and presence you seek; Louise Conant taught me about friendship; Doris Weiss taught me about how to be a good mother; Honey Raider taught me about how to work as an older writer; Diane Middlebrook taught me how to help someone with a book that was tremendously personal while at the same time not getting in her way. I could go on, but that’s probably enough. In my life at this time (sixty-seven), I don’t really depend on anyone for advice, as I feel I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t need any more stand-in mothers.
I learned boundaries from all these women, something my mother was unable to give me. If I could be a mother to all, it would be to advise but nevertheless hold back, to love within the emotional boundaries that allow a child and a mother to be close but to be separate individuals as well. And finally, to like your children for their strengths and forgive them for their weaknesses.
NM: You loved Gone with the Wind so much that you read it until the cover fell off. Do you have any other favorites that you read with such ferocity?
LGS: Herman Hess’s Siddhartha, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, nearly all of Edgar Allen Poe’s work—those are a few of the novels and short stories. There was much poetry I adored as well: Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Maxine Kumin, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Dee Snodgrass, Tony Hecht—I could go on and on.
NM: Poetry served as a type of love language between you and your mother, perhaps between you and Maxine Kumin as well. Later in your life when you connected with your father, you went to dinners, watched movies, cooked together, and read by the pool. Did you share any other love languages with your parents or sister? Do you share similar love languages with your husband and children now or have you discovered new ones?
LGS: I think you’ve covered the topic of early “love language”—an idea I love! I think I share this love language quite a bit with my older son, to whom I can talk to frankly and without reservation, and to share it as I relate to my younger son, whose interests I share and who is the father to two little boys I adore. So, I suppose those are the new people with whom I use “love language” because I am the parent this time around, talking to my children.
NM: You wrote about a touching moment when your mother did a poetry reading at Harvard where you were a student at the time and she discreetly dedicated the evening to you. In her emotional dedication, she said, “Love makes us at times the watchman.” Not only did you identify as her personal watchman since you were a little girl, but you’ve also grown into the role as her professional watchman. This work oftentimes led you to discover facts about her that you wished you hadn’t known as her daughter, yet you’ve still selflessly and gracefully persisted for many years to help bring more of her work to light. You did this knowing it would make you feel more trapped beneath her shadow and subject you to harsh criticism. Currently you’re working on a new memoir about how being your mother’s literary executor has actually helped you grow as a writer. Can you talk about how you deal with these ambivalent emotions of wanting to build your own name while still honoring your mother’s? Do you think your mother would be surprised that you not only contradicted her advice to avoid being a writer but that you’re also diving so deeply into your personal life, especially because you were such a shy girl?
LGS: I never had any reservations about making her personal life public, even if it affected me adversely, and I considered it my “work” to do so as her literary executor. I knew it was what she would have wanted: after all, she spent her entire life as a poet doing exactly that.
I discovered that the “strip tease” of memoir did exactly the same thing. It enabled me to get at truths that otherwise would have gone unspoken and unexamined. As far as building my own life as a writer at the same time I made my mother’s writing live on? Well, that was my purpose because it was my assigned task: she appointed me her literary executor and expected me to carry on in the tradition she had forged, as I write about in my new book. And then, in many ways, her example enabled me to pursue personal revelation as the basis of truth as I saw it. I don’t think Mom would have been surprised that I turned out to be a writer—after all, it was what she had “trained” me, in some ways, to be. She might feel that it was an impossible job to free myself from her shadow, but I believe that ultimately she would have been proud.
Linda Gray Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1953. She is the daughter of the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton. Linda graduated from Harvard in 1975 with a degree in literature. She has published four novels: Rituals; Mirror Images; Points of Light; and Private Acts. Her three memoirs include: Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton; Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide; and Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians. Points of Light was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, and Searching for Mercy Street was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and optioned by Miramax Films.
Linda is now at work on a fourth memoir, tentatively titled A Literary Executor’s Odyssey: Managing the Estate of My Mother, Anne Sexton, as well as writing a monthly blog called “Linda’s Letters,” for which you can sign up at lindagraysexton.com. Open her website and read more about her, enjoy excerpts from all her books, or buy them. She lives in Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and their three Dalmatians
Nicole Melchionda is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in various journals, such as Abyss & Apex, Helios Quarterly Magazine, and Brindle & Glass. Her work has been nominated for the WSFA Small Press Award and twice for the Best of the Net Anthology. Visit her website here.