The Protagonist: Was Sexton’s Suicide Preventable?

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


anneA talk on poet ’s therapy tapes at the New York & Institute gets to the heart of why boundaries exist and what it means to cross them.

As though to set the stage for a discussion on the ethical quagmire surrounding the posthumous release of a renowned poet’s tapes, it was all but impossible for me to get in the door of Dawn ’s talk on her book An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton, having neither the suggested donation fee nor my press credentials handy.

I’m glad I persisted though because the talk was captivating from start to finish, in no small part thanks to Skorczewski’s palpable passion for her subject, and gift for animating a room of slightly-beyond-middle-aged enthusiasts. Skorczewski is an associate professor of English at who has written at length about the connections between and . She is also a veritable expert on the work of Sexton.

Skorczewski’s talk—and exhaustive knowledge of Sexton’s life from the personal to the public and everything in between—breathed a cogent humanity into a woman who’s known decades after her death for her confessional verse and contentious lifestyle, leading up to her suicide at the age of 45. Later her older sister would also commit suicide. Following Sexton’s death, much came to light about the eccentric woman, including vague accusations of incestuous behavior toward her own daughter. Eventually her therapy tapes would be selectively released as well.

Skorczewski admirably and candidly dissected the enigmatic Sexton’s individual complexities for the audience.

She also drew a comparison in her talk between the private act of writing and the equally private psychotherapy process, both of with which Sexton has come to be associated. What is private and what is public and how does creativity breach or work between these domains?

Skorczewski’s talk presupposed not only did Sexton’s early foray into psychotherapy initially save her life, it also breathed new life into her by then defunct writing career on a number of levels.

Dr. Fred Sander, the event moderator and a psychoanalyst himself, explained Sexton’s approach to poetry was to seek out those brief flashes in which the inexpressible could be expressed, by no means a groundbreaking understanding of the poetic process but one which paves the way for helping us understand other facets of Sexton’s life.

Fittingly, psychoanalysis deals in making the inexpressible more clear, and while Sexton was never a patient of the psychoanalytic process herself, she has been no stranger to it since her death. Psychotherapy—as distinct from psychoanalysis but encompassing it—is more of an art than a science, Sander noted.

* * *

While therapy may have played a role in Sexton’s early recovery, it also became, in part, her downfall.

As long as psychotherapy has existed and continues to persist in practice, there have been and will inevitably be ethical conundrums pertaining to confidentiality, doctor-patient relationships and more. Nowhere are these issues better highlighted than in the life of Sexton who not only endured nearly every breach of doctor-patient ethics imaginable, but continues to undergo significant victim-blaming across disciplines, including allegations that she was responsible for seducing her doctors. (I think we’d like to believe mental health practices and laws have since come a long way.)

Sander speculated about what responsibilities the community must take on so as to not become complacent about these betrayals of the system, noting we must understand why ethical breaches happen in the first place.

Sander also posited Sexton’s 1974 suicide was preventable.annesexton

Her first therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, with whom Sexton taped all her therapy sessions, producing the infamous Sexton therapy tapes, encouraged her to begin writing poetry again as a cathartic process after a ten year hiatus. While the purpose behind the tapings is ultimately unclear, Sexton did note she hoped they might someday help others who were suffering. Poetry often fulfills a similar role. Skorczewski noted it was only at the end of the taped sessions—the final sixth months—that she, Skorczewski, could start to listen with a mind toward writing about them for her book, as Sexton’s most crushing depression seemed to have lifted.

Both Sander and Skorczewski place great weight on the power and sway of therapy in Sexton’s life.

Her second therapist, Dr. Frederick Duhl, would begin a sexual relationship with Sexton, which, coupled with other events, would spur a downward spiral, though Sander actually blames, in part, Sexton’s more platonic relationship with Dr. Orne for her ultimate downfall.

Sander said the more she grew to love and depend on her therapists, particularly Dr. Orne, the more she struggled at home and felt like a prisoner in an unfulfilling marriage.

According to Skorczewski, Sexton approached suicide differently from how we might think of it: “Her idea of suicide was going back into the womb,” offered Skorczewski. “It was a warm, cozy space—intimate, like home.”

Interestingly, Skorczewski said Sexton perceived Dr. Duhl (with whom she had the sexual relationship) as a sort of mother figure, one who could channel the comforts of home.

Sander and Skorczewski agreed had the therapeutic process been different for her, it may have helped Sexton stay alive rather than allowing her to succumb to mental illness. If the experts blame Sexton for seducing her doctor, they seem equally to hold the doctors accountable for her death. Both strike me as potentially damaging oversimplifications.

Ultimately, Skorczewski noted, Sexton became “unraveled” when Dr. Orne got married unbeknownst to her. Furthering the commonly held notion that mental illness is often romanticized in artists, she added, however: “She wrote beautiful poems when unraveling.”

 

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