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The Problem of Being Alive

Ann Sexton’s daughter wrestles with a troubled legacy

In her memoir Half In Love (Counter Point, 25.00), Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of poet Anne Sexton, grapples with two of her mother’s legacies: a literary life and a death wish. In this insightful and moving memoir, Sexton explores and navigates the evolution of these legacies that translate into two primal forces: creativity and destruction.

Linda Sexton tells of how she wrote poetry when she was young, but as an adult turned to prose. In her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street, she explored her complex relationship with her mother. Sexton describes Half In Love as a sequel, an exploration of her mother’s death.

“As a child I had watched the way she [Anne Sexton] made her illness into a career…. Once depression became subject matter, she began to write about it more openly in her poetry…. Sadly, I also realized that I wanted to be able to rise up someday and spin the straw of my own misery into gold, just the way mother did. … I also realized that I wanted none of it.”

In the aftermath of Anne Sexton’s suicide, nurturing her mother’s literary legacy is what sustained her 21-yearold daughter. When Linda, who became her mother’s literary executor, graduated from Harvard with degrees in English and American Language and Literature cum laude, the publisher Houghton and Mifflin asked her to edit a volume of her mother’s correspondence.

Linda Sexton took several detours from her mother’s path. She married her college boyfriend and converted to Judaism for him, though her relationship to Judaism is not explored in her memoir. Sexton poignantly describes her own attempt to be more than a good enough mother to her two sons. Although she inherited a legacy of poor mothering, and was often filled with anxiety and doubt, she gave her children everything she had. Sadly, even this mother-love wasn’t enough to subsume the destructive force.

“Depression is a country with no borders. In my mid-thirties, just after my children were born, I found myself to be a citizen there.” While over the decade that followed she was able to leave that country for some of her happiest years of family life, when she turned 45, the age her mother was when she had taken her life, Linda returned to the country of depression, a prisoner.

Sexton never asks for sympathy from her readers but serves as a tour guide of a mysterious and sometimes uninhabitable country. This narrative allows us to look, again, at the tangled webs of our own legacies, to ask which ones let light in and which bring darkness. 

Dina Elenbogen is the author of the poetry collection Apples of the Earth. She has completed a memoir about her work with Ethiopian immigrants in Israel.