Anne Sexton was born in 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, America. She was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet and playwright, known as one of the confessional poets like her contemporary and compatriot, Sylvia Plath. And like Plath, Sexton suffered from breakdowns and suicidal tendencies, killing herself in 1974 at the age of forty-five.
Her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton was twenty-one. Although her mother’s death brought an end to their traumatic relationship, it remained ‘unresolved’. Writing was the means by which Linda come to terms with her past, first through fiction and then in the memoir, Searching for Mercy Street, My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton.
Mercy Street is as much about memory as it is the memoir of a mother.
“Perhaps I am not truly surprised that I have so few memories of [the] time when my mother began to pour herself into her poetry. Maybe the numbness, the blankness, kept me safe. Or is the reason even simpler…less dramatic? Perhaps that time of my life did not feel so bad to me then as it appears to me now.”[iii] (My emphasis)
Then and now confuse. When Anne Sexton was first hospitalised for mental illness, Linda who was three was sent to stay with relatives. Until she was a teenager, Linda believed this had been for two years. Her mother corrected her, it was only two months. “To me,” says Linda, “our time apart felt longer than it had actually been-forever; to Mother, it had seemed shorter than it actually was not long enough.”[iv]
The longer we wait to remember, the more difficult it can be to bring forth memories, especially of difficult episodes. The writer Bell Hooks, struggling to write her autobiography of the childhood she “wanted to be rid of,” found her memories varied considerably from those of her siblings.” Often we remembered together a general outline of an incident but the details were different for us. This fact was a constant reminder…of the extent to which autobiography is a personal storytelling- a unique recounting of events not so much as they happened but as we remember and invent them.” [v] (My emphasis).
Then and now are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.
Linda Gray Sexton’s mother was the poet Anne Sexton. “Mother defined her truths, interior and exterior, through her poetry…. “[She believed] that what actually happened is not nearly so important as how you feel about what happened…. [and] …that through the process of writing about a memory the poet can make it more real, more significant, than the actual event would have been….”[vi]
This is a poet’s definition of truth, of emotional truth. The bare details of memory are inadequate; fleeting, mercurial, quixotic. Emotion was the warp, language the weft of the poems, the reality that Anne Sexton created. Writing her memoir, Linda follows in her mother’s footsteps.
“The past is a deep drawer in my mind…. I open… [it]… to see in one corner, half-hidden, a snapshot. I pull it out, unsure if it is memory or fantasy, dream or metaphor. Such distinctions no longer matter, when what I seek is only the truth of how I felt, a truth far more revelatory about me than any exact history.”[vii]
And here is the footfall of another writer attempting to get hold of autobiographical truth. “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves attached to it, to that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”[viii]
Virginia Woolf struggled with the past and the present, the then and the now. Sketch of the Past is autobiography before she gets too old and memory fades. She finds that only through interweaving the past and the present can she create her autobiographical world.
“…I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present-at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon….And further [the] past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.”[ix]
It is a process of fits and starts, a string of little scenes. Scene-making was Woolf’s “natural way of marking the past” and confirmed to her that “…we are sealed vessels afloat upon what it is convenient to call reality; at some moments, without a reason, without an effort, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality; that is a scene-….”[x]
The experience was similar for Bell Hooks. “Each day I sat at the typewriter and different memories were written about in short vignettes. They came in a rush, as though they were a sudden thunderstorm. They came in a surreal dreamlike style which made me cease to think of them as strictly biographical because it seemed that myth, dream and reality had merged.”[xi]
So why write autobiography if it will not render a clear account, a linear narrative of the past? It is says Bell about longing; for reunion and release. The desire for freedom from the past compels us to write but the process of writing reunites us with ourselves. We see “… that the act of writing one’s autobiography is a way to find again that aspect of self and experience that may no longer be an actual part of one’s life but is a living memory shaping and informing the present”[xii]
This living memory shapes the I who writes the ‘autobiographical self.’[xiii] In the act of writing we are conjurers, creating and merging old and new selves, writing ourselves both in and out of the story, righting ourselves. Linda sits, waiting, for that ‘autobiographical moment,’[xiv] the meeting of writing and selfhood.
“Once again I attempt to seize hold of our relationship-if just for a moment, if only here on this page, to capture it with words….As I sit here today at my word processor, I can see both what was and what is yet before me. I become my own character: my life, this book.”[xv]
[i] With acknowledgement to A. S. Byatt’s book title, The Biographer’s Tale, Vintage, (London, 2001).
[ii] Linda Gray Sexton, Searching for Mercy Street. My Journey back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, Little, Brown and Company, (New York, 1994), p.208.
[iii] Ibid., p.85.
[iv] Ibid., p.25.
[v] Bell Hooks, “Writing autobiography” in Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), p.430.
[vi] Sexton, pp. 38-39.
[vii] Sexton, pp. 38-39.
[viii] Virginia Woolf, “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being, Pimlico, (London, 2002), p.81.
[ix] Woolf, p.87.
[x] Woolf, p.145.
[xi] Hooks, p.430.
[xii] Hooks, p.431.
[xiii] The concept of the ‘autobiographical self’ is discussed by Susan Stanford Friedman in “Women’s Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice” in Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), p.72.
[xiv] Terms used by Shari Benstock in her essay, “Authorizing the Autobiographical” in Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson, p.146.
[xv] Sexton, p.10.
(This is edited from The Autobiographer’s Journey written for a University of East Anglia MA in Life Writing ).