A rabbit hole and a lighthouse

January 25, 2011

Over a lunch hour last week, I drove to the radio station to pick up a book left in my mailbox – Linda Gray Sexton’s new memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. When I returned to my car in the parking lot, I decided to take a moment to read the first page. An hour later, I was still reading in the parking lot, blowing off my workout at the gym. By the time I finally drove away, I knew I had to continuously read this powerful memoir about Sexton’s bipolar disorder, vicious depressions and suicide attempts. I couldn’t casually return to it off and on during the week.  Her story is too intense. I needed to stick with it until I reached the last page, so I could close the book and get out of its dark world.

There is metaphor in that reaction. Sexton’s family and friends didn’t stick with her during her depressions and two suicide attempts. They distanced themselves because they didn’t or couldn’t understand what was happening to her. She also pushed them away, but that’s part of the bipolar disease, despite an overwhelming fear of abandonment. Sexton got mentally trapped in an isolating nightmare of anxiety and tormenting inner voices.

She knew what was happening to her – Linda Gray Sexton is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, whose drunken rages, breakdowns, depressions and many suicide attempts (and success in 1974) are the stuff of well-known literary history. That story is the legacy of suicide referred to in the subtitle of Half in Love, what Linda fell prey to despite making a pact with her younger sister, Joy, that she’d never, ever become like their mother. She also promised her husband and two sons that she’d never do to them what Anne Sexton did to her.

Linda is brutally candid as she writes about struggling against an undertow of depression as a wife and mother, and then crossing the line to suicide as she approached her 45th birthday. Her happy suburban life shatters with the sudden onslaught of psychiatric wards, divorce, excruciating migraines, debilitating depressions, self-mutilation and ineffective therapy. As she relentlessly describes what she endures, Sexton teeters close to the line of being excessively self-focused and insistent, but these cloying moments are exactly as they need to be.  Otherwise, how can we possibly comprehend her interior world that sees death as a viable option? How can we know what it feels like to fall down the rabbit hole of mental illness witnessed in her mother?

A light shines in the final chapters of the book, a happy, hopeful ending with Sexton in a positive place. There’s also another light, and it shines throughout the memoir, a lighthouse beam beckoning us to a place of understanding about the uncontrollable nature of depression and suicidal desires. The police chief whose officers rescued Linda Gray Sexton from her second attempted suicide saw that beam after she wrote him a thank-you letter. Before that letter, he’d regarded suicide as a selfish act. 

Half in Love is Linda Gray Sexton’s second memoir. Her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton will be reissued in April.

Update 1/26/11: You can hear Linda Gray Sexton talk about her mother, herself, her writing and her suicide attempts with WOSU’s Christopher Purdy and myself in an interview posted on the WOSU Classical 101 blog.

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