With a spate of celebrity suicides and overdoses in the news, most recently those of L’Wren Scott and Philip Seymour Hoffman, we can find ourselves sidetracked with sordid details of their deaths, and stories of the fame and fortunes they won or lost. Idle speculation is made about possible motivations; e.g. most annoyingly in the case of Scott, did she fear aging, was it her business debts or did Mick dump her? With such distractions, we can easily forget that a mountain of research now tells us that most people who take their own lives (87% in a McGill Metastudy) spent many years before this final act battling a serious psychiatric illness. It is this disorder that undermines their ability to handle any new pressures of the sort L’Wren Scott or anyone else trying to make a living, find love and raise children encounters today, while most people just slog through life’s ups and downs. Most often the particular disorder that precedes a suicide is unipolar or bipolar depression, or schizophrenia. And far too often one of these disorders is camouflaged by a substance addiction, also known as “self medication.”
Thinking about all this with a high degree of frustration in recent weeks, I came across this book review I wrote about the memoir “Half in Love” by Linda Gray Sexton — someone who, it occurred to me, knows far more than most of us about celebrity and suicide. The daughter of the iconic Ann Sexton, a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet who famously took her own life in 1974, taking many an English major in her thrall (myself included), Linda inherited her mother’s bipolar disorder and her identity as a writer. In her book, Linda Sexton gives us valuable insights into the magnetic pull suicide can have on someone battling depression — particularly when both the disorder and the act of suicide run in a family. I republish it here in hopes we’ll all be reminded of the all too frequent suffering behind these headlines.
Linda Sexton’s Memoir Reveals the Dark Truth Behind Her Mother’s BrillianceA book review by Victoria Costello (originally published on Psychology Today.com, Aug 2011)
As someone who’s battled life-long major depression, I thought I knew enough about the depths of despair to which this illness can send you. And then I read Linda Sexton’s painfully explicit, at times claustrophobic, yet surefooted and ultimately redemptive memoir Half in Love, Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. When I put down Sexton’s book, I had a profound new understanding of the extent to which unipolar depression, my diagnosis, is the milder second cousin to the bipolar variety. This memoir leaves no doubt of the extreme danger conferred by the massive mood swings of bipolar disorder, particularly the high risk of suicide. It’s one thing to know it, it’s quite another to see it through Linda Sexton’s eyes as the child of a bipolar mother for whom death was both a demanding creative muse and Linda’s main rival for her mother’s attention.
Interestingly, Anne Sexton managed to include young Linda in her creative writing process, going so far as to arrange poetry writing lessons for her daughter. But the pull of death was something else entirely, first for the mother, and then, in a near repeat of the same tragedy, for the daughter who emulated everything about her. Linda Sexton begins her story on the evening of her first suicide attempt, when she takes narcotic pills and slits her wrists in the bath tub of her family home while her husband is away on business and her teenage sons sleep in their rooms down the hall. As she sinks into unconsciousness, Linda remembers the promise she made to her boys that she would never do to them what her mother had done to her, and then proceeds to nearly do it. The author describes her loss of resolve with heartbreaking honesty. “I was ready, at last, to cheat on love. Ready to renege on assurances that now felt as if they had been too easily given to everyone-children, husband, sister, father, friends. Immersed in communing with my mother, I became a small child that night, a vulnerable daughter. She seemed right then to hover in the room, guiding me. I knew that when I finished, she would be waiting to fold me into her arms, and I would go home with her one more time.”
The next scene, appropriately, brings us back to the morning in 1974, when, as a 21 year old college senior, Linda learns that her mother, by then a Pulitzer Prize winning cultural darling, has finally, after innumerable attempts, succeeded in killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the family garage. Over the next several chapters, Linda recounts her later childhood and teen years at the hands of this often loving, but wildly inconsistent mother. By the time the author returns to the night of her own suicide attempt, she is forty-five years old, and we are not a bit surprised to learn that she has reached the same age as Anne Sexton when she took her life…so strongly has Linda brought us into her visceral experience of being the adoring, insecure daughter who identifies completely with a beautiful, vivacious, but helplessly narcissistic parent.
The fact that it is Anne Sexton’s bipolar disorder–never properly diagnosed or treated–producing this deranged parenting is never far from the reader’s consciousness. The daughter well understands her mother’s feelings of hopelessness; within months Linda receives the same diagnosis. Linda Sexton’s journey to recovery is well worth reading for itself. But because of her mother’s cultural significance, Linda’s story offers us other insights. After reading Half in Love, I re-read some of Anne Sexton’s poetry, and watched some videos of her readings from the 1960s, performances that are now easily accessible on You-Tube.
I also read with dismay the review given Half in Love in the New York Times in February of this year. While it is mostly positive, the reviewer ends bizarrely by lamenting that Linda Gray Sexton is not a carbon copy of her mother, writing: “There is, however, no getting around the fact that Sexton never becomes as compelling a character as her mother was… Even when she was sickest, Anne Sexton managed to create a vibrant world around herself, never losing her status as a figure to be reckoned with.” About Linda Sexton’s book this critic writes, “There is a surprising blandness to her sensibility, and her cause isn’t helped by overwrought language and hackneyed therapy-speak.” Well, gee, I thought, should we really be surprised that the story of someone in recovery isn’t nearly as “compelling” as that of someone who never leaves the path of self destruction; abandoning her children while self-medicating and, driven by her mania, giving riveting performances of suicidal poetry all over the world?
The poetry of Anne Sexton is startling and beautiful; just as she was. But what Linda’s story finally makes clear is that her mother could barely get to her desk, let alone write something beautiful when she was in one of her long stretches of depression, which would frequently go on for months. I couldn’t help but wonder…aren’t we beyond the idiocy that says mental illness and great art somehow need each other? There are numerous studies showing that although the mood swings of bipolar and the cliff-edged near psychotic thinking of schizophrenia can bring extra-ordinary creative insights, everything else about these diseases can extinguish the same insights There’s still the odor of romanticization here.
I highly recommend Half in Love, Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. The good news Linda Gray Sexton offers in her final chapter is the arrival of her own hard won stability. And then, in a touching and beautifully rendered scene, she shares the conversation she has with her two now grown sons, in which she asks their forgiveness and speaks openly about the illness for which they too are at high risk. The fact that this conversation happens at all offers real hope that the legacy of suicide will, at least in this family, finally be halted.