Palo Alto Weekly

- March 11, 2011

A haunting memoir of suicide — and life

Linda Sexton offers a wrenching story of overcoming a deadly legacy

"Half in Love {surviving the legacy of suicide}: a memoir," by Linda Gray Sexton; Counterpoint, Berkeley; 336 pp.; $25

Every 17 minutes, someone in the United States attempts suicide. Happily, they don't all succeed.

Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, is intimately aware of the fallout on family and friends from both the attempts and the success: Her mother committed suicide in 1974 when Linda was 21 and a senior at Harvard University.

Sexton, who was her mother's literary executor, spent the next few years editing books of her mother's poetry as well as "Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters."

She also followed her own literary muse, producing four novels in 10 years, including "Points of Light," which became a CBS television Hallmark Hall of Fame Special.

In 1994, she published her first memoir, "Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton." That book was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and was even optioned for a film.

But everything came crashing down in the late-1990s. On the surface, Sexton led a near-perfect life: She married her college sweetheart, was an involved mother to her two sons, had a lovely home in Atherton, was an active member of her synagogue leading a Meals on Wheels program. And she adored her two Dalmations.

But, Sexton writes, she inherited far more than her mother's way with words.

Looking back, she acknowledges that her depression far preceded her suicide attempts — perhaps going back as far as her childhood when she was shuffled back and forth between relatives while her mother dealt with her own yo-yo emotions. She was both her mother's best friend and muse and the child who was rejected and ignored. Early on she learned to clamp down on her emotions, to ignore the suppressed violence in her home.

Reading "Half in Love" is a bit like plowing through a murder mystery. From the beginning, we know the heroine survives because she wrote the book. But the journey to survival is compelling, mysterious, puzzling, confusing — until suddenly, there's an aha! moment.

Sexton achieves something similar to Kay Redfield Jamison, who wrote "An Unquiet Mind," a memoir of a bipolar psychologist. "Half in Love" is Sexton's personal journal to hell and back.

In her own words, Sexton writes:

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.

But well beyond the post-partum depression was major mental illness. At age 45, the same age her mother was when she killed herself, she found herself "drawn into my own vortex of depression, desperate for relief from the intense interior pain that obliterated nearly every waking moment. I tried, once, twice, three times, to kill myself — even though I was a daughter, a sister, a wife and, most importantly, a mother."

She was ultimately diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder with rapid mood swings, from prolonged depression to painful agitation. This led her to attempt suicide multiple times and to take up cutting (self-mutilation) as a way to suppress the constant pain:

Was this simply a desire to escape pain, or a biological imperative, or a role model I could not resist, or simply the voice in my head goading me on? Perhaps every one of them.

I picked up the knife.

I did not ask why.

I wondered only at what angle to draw the blade.

Interspersed with descriptions of her stays in psychiatric wards, Sexton shares intimate details of her marriage and its disintegration, as well as her relationship with her sons, her father and her sister.

The greatest loss for her throughout these periods of deep depression were these core relationships.

Toward the end of the book, she writes of years of seeking the right combination of therapy and drugs to stabilize her moods, lessen her anxiety — and still allow her to function as a writer. For years, she barely crawled out of bed, or remembered to eat. Even her body betrayed her, with the weight gain associated with psychoactive drugs.

When she finally recovered enough to return to life — which meant writing, mothering, meeting and marrying a new love — she attempted to repair old relationships.

The most important to her are with her children, who she fears will never trust her again.

She also approached her sister Joy, who grew up in the same dysfunctional family but was never prone to depression. During the years of depression, especially following the suicide attempts, Joy had completely withdrawn from contact.

When Linda attempted a rapprochement, she could not get a commitment of support from Joy.

"She couldn't separate my drop into mental illness from our mother's: the way that our mother had held the whole family dancing on marionette wires. My breakdown did not seem to her to be involuntary or ignited by severe emotional pain.

"If I succumbed to a disease like breast cancer, one that was 'life threatening,' then she would be out to help me 'in a heartbeat.' Silently, I wondered why she didn't perceive suicide as a life threatening disease."

Linda Sexton wrote this memoir partly as a way to complete her healing. While still in the hospital, she wrote a letter to the police who had helped save her from a suicide attempt, trying to explain the "tunnel of depression and the drive toward suicide at the end of the tunnel."

The police chief wrote back, saying she had helped him "see that terrible aspect of the act. He would never again look upon it as he had before."

Sexton isn't excusing herself for her desperate acts. Rather, she is educating her readers about the depths that depression can take a person — and offering hope that like herself, others can recover and live again.

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be e-mailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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