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STANFORD -- English Prof. Diane Middlebrook thought her biography of poet Anne Sexton might be controversial. She just expected a different controversy.
Sexton was no stranger to controversy herself. One of the "confessional" school of poets that emerged in the early 1960s, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and was a popular figure on the poetry-reading circuit. But her personal life was marked by addictions and breakdowns, and after several suicide attempts, she killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974 at the age of 45.
Middlebrook spent the past summer reading up on medical ethics and related issues, expecting questions about the fact that Anne Sexton, A Biography would reveal that Sexton had had an affair with a psychiatrist who was treating her.
Although she had disguised the man's identity, Middlebrook said, "I was aware I was putting his livelihood at risk" in writing about the affair, since a doctor who has sex with a patient can lose his/her license in Massachusetts.
When controversy on the Sexton biography erupted on the front page of the New York Times, however, it centered on the fact that another doctor, Martin Orne, Sexton's psychiatrist for eight years, had allowed Middlebrook to use tapes of his therapy sessions with Sexton. That violated what Newsweek subsequently termed "the secrets of the couch."
Middlebrook was put in touch with Orne by a Stanford colleague, Prof. David Rosenhan, psychology and law, who had heard Middlebrook give a talk on the Sexton case at a psychiatry grand rounds at the Medical School.
When she met Orne for an interview, she brought with her a draft of the chapter she'd written using Sexton's notes on her therapy. Middlebrook had a lot of questions, she said, because Sexton's notes were brief summaries, not easily deciphered.
Orne said he couldn't remember the therapy in detail, but that Middlebrook might find what she needed by listening to tapes of the sessions.
Middlebrook had heard four tapes of sessions between Orne and Sexton that were with the Sexton collection at the University of Texas, but she had no idea that any other tapes still existed.
Orne talked to Linda Sexton, executor of her mother's estate, and carefully checked out Middlebrook's credentials before agreeing to let her hear the tapes.
Middlebrook also showed her chapters on Sexton's treatment to fellow members of a faculty seminar on writing and psychoanalysis, which includes several members of the clinical faculty in psychiatry. These colleagues made major contributions to her understanding, she said.
"They helped me to eliminate the jargon and preserve the insights," Middlebrook said.
However, none of her colleagues anticipated the media furor that erupted over the tapes, perhaps, said Middlebrook, because they knew how carefully Orne had considered his decision.
When she began work on the Sexton biography, Middlebrook said, she had no idea it would occupy a decade of her life. She had optimistically thought she would spend a year doing research and another year writing.
But although the Sexton papers were all at the University of Texas, the archive was "defeatingly large," Middlebrook found. Sexton, for example, kept carbon copies of the letters she wrote, a practice she started "partly because she had a very bad memory and couldn't recall what she'd said to people."
But also, Middlebrook said, "I think she had a sense of destiny. She was prepared for a biographer almost from the beginning. She never got over being amazed that she had survived her own self-destructive impulses and turned into a poet. To her, it was miraculous."
Middlebrook had nearly finished a draft of her book when she received the tapes from Orne. She listened to them before writing another word, a process that took two years, and then rewrote her book between 1988 and 1990.
She also did some rewriting after Sexton's daughters, Linda and Joy, convinced her that she had adopted Sexton's point of view so completely that she had been unfair in her portraits of other members of the family, particularly Sexton's mother-in-law, Billie Sexton, who had taken a large role in raising Linda and Joy.
Anne Sexton resented her mother-in-law, whom she saw as intrusive; Linda and Joy said that their grandmother Billie provided much of the maternal care that they had received as children.
Sexton's daughters, Middlebrook said, were "wonderful collaborators, full of memories and very generous about sharing." From the beginning, Middlebrook was allowed access to all material.
Linda Sexton has defended her decision, particularly with regard to the therapy tapes, by saying, "My mother had no sense of privacy and I don't see why I should construct one on her behalf."
"It is one of Linda's strengths that she knows who she is," Middlebrook said. "She has a strong sense of separateness from her mother and a strong sense of responsibility to serving as executor of this estate, which is so full of bombshells."
Although media attention has focused elsewhere, Middlebrook said that "for me, the most interesting thing is how Anne Sexton did it. How did she move from being a suicidal housewife at age 28 to a poet at age 30?"
Middlebrook was impressed with the degree to which Sexton used the tapes of her therapy sessions as inspirations for her work. She based a play on them and she founded a poetics based on the process of association she pursued in her treatment.
"She really changed the way she wrote after listening to her own tapes," Middlebrook said. "They were very much a part of her education as an artist."
She also was fascinated by both Sexton's sexuality and her spirituality. In her sexual adventurousness, Sexton was slightly ahead of her time, Middlebrook said, adding that the book that helped her best to understand the Sexton milieu was John Updike's Couples, about rampant adultery among respectable Massachusetts suburbanites in the early 1960s.
The poetry circuit encouraged amorous adventures, she said.
"Poetry is a sexy profession and Sexton was a sexy woman," Middlebrook said. "Her sexuality was interesting to her. She wrote about it all the time. She shared it widely and people who fell under its spell were rather willing to acknowledge it."
In contrast, Sexton's spirituality was something she didn't share with many people. The religious point of view that the poet developed "was very radical," Middlebrook said. "She had almost a pre-feminist criticism of patriarchal theology. The spiritual symbolism she developed had a lot to do with mothering and with the breast as a source of grace."
Sexton's religious poems "are rather difficult to get hold of, and are off-putting," Middlebrook said. "I didn't like them when I started, but I came to think they were extremely important."
Although she has not yet selected a subject, Middlebrook said she was so exhilarated by her experience with Sexton that "I can hardly wait to write another biography."
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