Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Anne Sexton's Therapy Tapes

After arguing in a recent post that poet Anne Sexton's therapist did the right thing in releasing tapes of her therapy to Diane Middlebrook, Sexton's biographer, I read Middlebrook's biography itself. (It's a "good read," especially for anyone interested in the 1960s poetry scene.) I'm surprised that the biography didn't persuade all those who lambasted Dr. Martin Orne back in 1991 that he'd acted in accord with the guidance Sexton, who died of suicide on October 4, 1974, would almost certainly have given him.

Middlebrook describes how often people with mental health problems wrote to Sexton about how much her poetry meant to them. Sexton responded to every letter in a concerned, supportive manner. When she met she met with the young poet C.K. Williams, he was "surprised by how much she would talk about her therapy when our relationship was not very intimate. But  then, it wasn't a very intimate subject to her."

Sexton was fascinated by Williams's experience teaching a poetry workshop for psychiatric patients in Philadelphia.  In 1968-1969, she picked up on his idea and offered a weekly poetry workshop for patients at McLean Hospital. She worked hard at it. When a member of the workshop complained that Sexton was not being critical enough, Sexton responded:
"You are right. I don't like to discourage anyone at McLean. I feel that everyone has something to say and will perhaps, in time, have more important things to say. Poetry led me by the hand out of madness. I am hoping I can show others that route."
The strongest reason I could see for not releasing the tapes to Middlebrook is the fact that Sexton's niece and mother-in-law opposed it, feeling that revelation of the details of her desperate moods and compulsive sexuality was disturbing. They're right. It was a very disturbing life. But neither was in the role of executor - that was Sexton's older daughter Linda. And there's no reason to think that Sexton's self disclosure was intended to cause pain to those who were close to her.

Anne Sexton died in 1974. Martin Orne, who released the tapes, died in 2000. But the question of whether he did the right thing lives on. Having read the biography, I continue to believe that Orne was doing what his former patient would have wanted him to do.

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