When The Sexually Abusive Artist Is A Woman
Anne Sexton’s legacy as feminist poet and guiding light for the mentally ill must include the destruction of her own daughter.
Every day this fall, as push alert after push alert described another powerful man’s history of sexual abuse, I turned to the women.
To the stories of victims, yes, but also to the stories and work of women whose voices, over the years, had managed to transcend the forces determined to ensure their silence. Reading Maggie Nelson’s lyrical meditations on motherhood or Michelle Alexander’s unparalleled text on mass incarceration allowed me to live in a world where women could be the final voices dictating our culture’s conscience.
I was able to carve out a small world—a refuge, rather — away from the news’ daily re-traumatization. It gave me the strength to read these harrowing stories of abuse and focus on the power of bringing these experiences out of darkness, rather than succumbing to despair.
Among the women I chose was Anne Sexton, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and guiding light for the mentally ill. Her poetry pulses with confession and feminine rage, a welcome change from the disingenuous apologies and intellectualized discussions of pain that were permeating public discourse around sexual assault.
She won the Pulitzer in 1967 for her book Live or Die, which was released in 1966. At the time, she was only the tenth female poetry winner in the Prize’s 50-year history. Her poetry illuminated the powerful complexes within relationships and psyches during a time when Western culture was beginning to acknowledge the darkest parts of its own structure. Between the Civil Rights movements and the Cold War, with the horrors of the Holocaust still reverberating through contemporary life, the West was confronting myriad monsters of its own making.
Sexton’s poetry was marked by this same energy, but turned that gaze inward.
As a result, she also had the rare luxury of receiving cultural praise and support as she produced her work; Sexton’s power was not lost on her contemporaries. She was a true poetry star. Her poems themselves spoke of marriage, suicide, love, Sylvia Plath, and, perhaps most potently, about her daughter Linda Gray Sexton.
By speaking to Linda directly, her roles as parent and artist intertwine and we can read the powerful bond between mother and daughter. The mother as protector and shepherd; the daughter as an individual and psychic extension.
In one example, the poem “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman,” Sexton writes:
“What I want to say, Linda,
is that women are born twice.
If I could have watched you grow as a magical mother might, if I could have seen through my magical transparent belly, there would have been such ripening within…”
Her poems to Linda depicted a mother cherishing her daughter and seeing her as a woman in a world that has a tendency to abuse them.
In another poem—”Pain for a Daughter”—she writes of an unspecified daughter. It is perhaps Linda or her other daughter, Joyce, or even just the idea of a child — and that daughter’s existential burden.
“Oh my God, help me! Where a child would have cried Mama!
Where a child would have believed Mama!
She bit the towel and called on God
and I saw her life stretch out…
I saw her torn in childbirth,
and I saw her, at that moment, in her own death and I knew that she
Sexton is able to trace her daughter’s transition into the chaos of life as well as articulate her premonitions of what was to become a lifelong grief. The personal and intimate demonstrations of love in her work touched and invigorated me. Even when Sexton wrote about isolation and terror, her words served as a potent and tangible reminder that a depth of spirit and a courting of resilience could counter that fear.
But as I read more poems, I sought out Sexton’s story, and discovered she sexually abused Linda. The tender, passionate, and illuminating words I had carried so tightly in my heart was radiating from someone who committed one of the darkest acts of humankind. I reeled from the new information. My affection towards her poetry began rotting under my skin.
The story of abuse first became public in the early ‘90s. Sexton had spent a significant amount of time in intensive therapy and all her sessions were recorded. Dr. Michael Orne—the psychiatrist who made the tapes—eventually released them to Diane Wood Middlebrook, who included the information on the abuse in her 1991 National Book Award-nominated biography of Sexton.
The inclusion of the tapes elicited concern and outcry from the psychiatric community at the time. In a New York Times article leading up to the book’s release, a Columbia professor and expert on medical ethics described Dr. Orne’s actions as a “betrayal of his patient and his profession.”
In the Los Angeles Times, Dr. William Webb, an ethics consultant for the American Psychiatric Association at the time, said, “Unless you have the explicit approval of the patient, then you are essentially operating on supposition, and supposition puts at risk all future patients of psychiatry.”
Publicizing the contents of Sexton’s therapy sessions was both unethical and illuminating. It contextualized her poems on depression, mania, and suicide and told stories of extramarital affairs. It also, crucially, revealed the abuse she committed against her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, the very same Linda to whom she wrote that women are born twice.
It was also abuse that Sexton, at the time, didn’t believe was abuse. In Middlebrook’s biography, Linda explains a time when she attempted to establish boundaries between herself and her mother. Middlebrook wrote that Sexton “resisted the changes,” and “reported to Linda that her psychiatrist said there could never be too much love between parent and child.”
Linda lived as an avatar to Sexton’s desires.
The tender words I had carried so tightly in my heart was radiating from someone who committed one of the darkest acts of humankind.
And yet, Linda is one of the people who believed it was appropriate to release the therapy tapes. At the time, she had already become her mother’s literary executor. She consented to revealing the truth of her mother’s past — including stories of abuse directed at her — to the world. She took to the New York Times Book Review to add context to why she chose to allow the tapes to become public. She spoke about the events not to shed light on her history of pain but, instead, because “these aspects would be critical to understanding her poetry, so clearly inspired by the events of her life.”
“Anne Sexton never spared her family — not in her art, not in her life,” Linda went on to say.
It’s her art — the confessional, depressive, feminine poetry — that also allowed American culture to keep Anne Sexton in the pantheon of poetic greatness despite the realities that unfolded during her life.
With every topple of an artistic great, with every revelation that a creative genius has used their power to abuse another, we lose something. But it is not just the joy of enjoying their art—which is where many people focus their grief—but the loss of the victim’s potential to create. And because the statistics of rape and sexual assault demonstrate how the danger predominantly affects women and trans and nonbinary people, the victims’ whose potential we lose are the very groups who remain profoundly underrepresented in art.
How many people have lost the opportunity to change the world—to shape it with their creativity—because an abuser had traumatized them and forced their dreams to give way to suffocation?
And how many people rationalized their own suffering because an abuser’s art served as justification to give up their own body, story, soul?
Linda speaks of her own abuse as cursory information to the real story, the genius of her mother’s words. She gives her own self away for the sake of a poet who writes at the altar of personal confession. The story of her life remains caged by the trauma she experienced.
In the aforementioned Times Book Review essay, Linda said:
“To speak publicly of my mother’s sexual abuse of me was agonizing. Yet as I read through the nearly completed manuscript, I began to recognize that — as with everything in my mother’s life — her daily life was inextricably bound to her work…The only way to transcend the hurt is to tell it all, and to tell it honestly.”
And yet, when she writes her own memoir in 1994, the story is of how she survived, thrived, hurt, and loved as Anne Sexton’s daughter. As much as Linda works and writes to rid herself of the pain, she is not free of its existential weight on her narrative. Sexton’s poetry may offer its readers freedom from isolation—and it may have offered Sexton herself freedom from some of her darkest impulses—but her work and her life controlled Linda’s long after she died.
Facing the realities of Sexton’s actions, I felt my heart selfishly and hypocritically grip even tighter onto the poetry I had read. It is far easier to reject the art of a man who so clearly takes up more space than needed. Rejecting one of a few women who managed to dominate a world intent on shutting women out felt like an act of self-inflicted pain.
How many people have lost the opportunity to change the world because an abuser had traumatized them?
When there is little room for the art of women or people of color, the exceptional artist who manages to climb to the top takes on an air of untouchability. We don’t want to examine our heroes.
Toppling a woman, however abusive she is, feels final. Like a death. Believing Sexton to be a voice I couldn’t sacrifice, though, and therefore ignoring her real-life actions, is a more vicious act than forsaking her. It reflects the scarcity mentality of a culture that props up abusers, and, more broadly, a culture that props up oppression.
Rather than looking to the countless other poets who have written work that could speak to me, I found myself wanting to justify her specific words in my life, as if they held some special power no one else could provide. I was operating in the zero-sum game oppression fools us into believing is the only way to live.
One of art’s greatest powers stems from making the invisible visible; the intangible tangible. But when an artist renders another person invisible, and their feelings intangible, the virtue of the art ceases to exist.
To pride an artist’s art over their human interactions is the pinnacle of self-absorption — it privileges that in which we see ourselves, rather than the empathy to see another human being. Before letting go of Sexton’s work, I was claiming my feelings of reflection and connection took primacy over the suffering of another human being. But the accolades for and popularity of Sexton’s poetry means she wasn’t alone in her feelings, and in turn, neither are we; as such, we do not need to identify with an abuser in order to legitimize our psychic realities.
Looking to an abuser’s art denies any other work the opportunity to move us, affect us, and change our lives. It is communing around something with hatred at the center of its core — hatred for others, hatred for ourselves — and keeps culture trapped in a horror of its own making.
Sexton’s story is ultimately one of destruction; she died by suicide at age 45.
Her abuse towards others was inextricably linked in her own irreconcilable pain, and it’s possible her art really was enough of an emotional outlet to prevent an earlier suicide or further abuse towards others. But to elevate it outside the realm of humanity and separate it from the hands that created it implies that the art itself is worth both Sexton’s mortal anguish and the anguish she embedded into the life of her daughter.
It implies that art in general is worth the pain, suffering, and abuse that may exist in its orbit. In reality, the exchange is the opposite; life is what makes art worthwhile, not the other way around. Art exists for humanity to propel itself into power. Keeping abusers in power pushes humanity further into the shadows.