May 19, 2013
Blood and Suicide
Posted on Feb 4, 2011
At first it was private.
—Anne Sexton, More Than Myself
Private but more than yourself: that describes a good memoir. Linda Gray Sexton, who was blessed and cursed to be the daughter of the mercurial poet Anne Sexton, has written another one. “Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide” picks up where Linda’s 1994 memoir, “Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton,” left off. Both are intimate portrayals of this particular, enmeshed mother/daughter relationship, including the effects of Anne’s suicide at 45, when Linda was 21. While the new memoir isn’t as compellingly written as the earlier one, “Half in Love” is more important. It directly poses some weighty questions.
Such as these: How do we understand suicide, that most unnatural of deeds? Is it the ultimate selfish, cowardly act? Murder? A sin? Can it can be prevented through willpower or moral fortitude, or through the love of family and friends? Or is it the outcome of a medical condition, as morally neutral as, say, cancer?
Some readers might want to leave this review right now; suicide is hard to discuss. But avoiding the subject is part of the problem.. There are more suicides in this country than homicides, twice as many, though you would never know it from the scant attention paid. It’s more deadly than Parkinson’s or AIDS. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 11.3 people in every 100,000 kill themselves, one every 17 seconds. For perspective, consider that the website you’re reading has more than 1 million unique visitors per month, and that you’ve probably spent about 17 seconds reading this far. [Also see PDFs on the CDC site.]
Linda grew up in chronic terror of her mother’s next suicide attempt (she counted more than 15). As an adult she becomes “one of the standard-bearers of anger” against this terrible act. Though she herself struggled with depression and felt the tug of suicide once, she resisted. When she had two sons, she vowed never to subject them to what she herself endured. She promised that she wouldn’t succumb to extreme depression as her mother had. She vowed never to try to kill herself.
Then she did all these things. Why?
“Half in Love” is a cry from the heart to recognize the suicidal drive for what it really is: mental illness, not failure. Ninety percent of suicide victims suffer from illnesses such as major depression or bipolar disorder, both with hereditary components. A recognized risk factor of suicide is a family history of it.
In “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” Susan Sontag described how AIDS, an illness “that elicits so much guilt and shame,” can’t be liberated from such judgments “just by abstaining from them. They have to be exposed, criticized, elaborated, used up.” That’s what “Half in Love” attempts to do for suicide.
Sexton was shocked that she ended up following in her mother’s dark footsteps. She had ended her first memoir (“Mercy Street”), published when she was 40, on an upbeat note. Though she still feared the legacy of disabling depression and suicide, she believed she could beat it. In the book she recounted her traumatic childhood and enmeshment with her mother in riveting detail, but by the end she seemed to have surmounted it. Writing the book, she says, had helped her “take control of the demons inside.”
But the demons, it appears, had merely gone into remission. The earlier memoir turned out to be only a “prelude,” as she writes in the introduction to “Half in Love” (the title is taken from John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale”: “… for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death”).
As she approached 45, the age her mother had been when she died, Linda starts to flounder. Her two sons are growing from babyhood into toddlers, and she discovers that as a mother she “didn’t have that most important thing of all: a good role model.” She longs to be a good mother, but the boys trigger her own memories and her sense of having failed to save her own. Soon she dreads seeing her children each morning, even though she loves them. She hates hurting them but seems unable not to. The more difficulties she has, the more she condemns herself. Even her therapist berates her for her “lack of nurturing instincts.”
Her husband, Jim, supported her through her mother’s death many years earlier, but now he starts traveling more for work—exactly as Linda’s own father had done (though oddly, the memoir doesn’t point this out, despite its constant psychological analyzing). Feeling isolated, Linda begins to wake before dawn in a sweat, her heart “pounding with extreme anxiety, unable to breathe.” She has been a successful novelist but can’t work. She and Jim argue. She drinks too much. She struggles with “quick swings from despondence to sudden agitation.” She keeps her “face averted so no one would know the shame of what was happening to me and how I was giving in. I was trying so hard—but, little by little, I was starting to fail.”
She is frightened for her children: Not only did her own mother kill herself, but so had her mother’s sister and a cousin, and also Jim’s grandmother and his mother’s cousin. Suicide had diseased the family tree. Is she the next carrier?
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