June 18, 2013
Blood and Suicide
Posted on Feb 4, 2011
Her doctor diagnoses Bipolar II, connected at least partly to family history. But despite medications, despite her awareness, despite her spouse’s love, despite her love for her children—despite all the things that are supposed to protect us—over the next couple of years she spirals downward. Her new novel manuscript is rejected; the next one is, too. She begins to hoard her migraine medicine.
Why doesn’t she reach out for more help? She describes how the stigma of her mental illness and the family history of suicide keep her from confiding how she was really feeling: “I did not want to admit that I was depressed because I did not want to seem like Mother.”
She does approach her father and sister, but they “didn’t want to hear about depression or some crazy idea about a legacy of suicide. Just as my father and my grandparents on either side had urged my mother to ‘straight and up and fly right,’ both he and my sister now urged me to be strong, and ‘get with the program’”—to pull herself up by her own bootstraps.
The problem is that like many people born into situations of poverty—whether emotional, economic, social or political deprivation—she doesn’t have good bootstraps to pull.
As for professional help, she finds that most doctors don’t want to deal with suicidal patients because it’s so time-consuming. “A suicidal patient needs help more than any other, but because she needs it so much, she was very likely not going to receive it.”
Part 3 of the book opens with Linda waking in the hospital to find that she had slit her wrists in the bathtub, and her stomach is being pumped to combat an overdose. She can remember choosing the knife and pills, but “that morning I was compelled to wonder, however stupefied, how I came to be in the hospital. … The anxiety stopped my breath in my throat and I began to gasp for air….” Earlier in the book, in a flash-forward of this suicide attempt, she describes it like this: “The urgency pressed in upon me and flushed every family face, every family voice, from my mind.” In the poem “Wanting to Die,” Anne Sexton had used similar words, calling the suicidal impulse “the almost unnameable lust.” [In “Wanting to Die.” ]
Linda knows she had “crossed an invisible line. … Would I ever trust myself again? Would my family ever trust me again?” She sees that Jim “was a little afraid” of her now—and indeed she has destroyed her marriage. Her children visit her in the locked psychiatric ward just as she visited her own mother. “I had to admit it to myself—I had become a mother like my own.”
The next part of the memoir is the most difficult to read. She starts cutting herself regularly, trying to replace her emotional suffering with physical sensation. She plots and fails at another suicide attempt.
Eventually salvation comes in the person of a wise, empathetic psychiatrist. Sexton explores her mother’s legacy, especially the guilt she felt at not being able to keep her mother alive. In an echo of the reason she wrote “Mercy Street”—to help exorcise her demons—she follows the psychiatrist’s suggestion to write the rest of her story, which becomes “Half in Love,” as a way of helping “thousands of the mentally ill and their families, who often have no voice of their own.” One can only hope that this altruistic exorcism is more enduring for her than the earlier one.
She meets a new man. Her two sons, now teenagers, genuinely seem all right. She secures a contract for the new memoir. She reconnects with her father, but her sister, Joy, cannot forgive her suicide attempts; Joy sees them as manipulative, an indulgence. Sexton reports, “If I succumbed to a disease like breast cancer, one that was ‘life threatening,’ then she would be out to help me ‘in a heartbeat.’ Silently, I wondered why she didn’t perceive suicide as a life-threatening disease.”
Through this memoir we come to see that blame doesn’t belong in an arsenal for preventing suicide. Blaming the victim only worsens the situation; the victim already is mired in shame. When family members blame themselves because they didn’t save the deceased, they drink the poison too. As a child, Sexton describes how as a child she was completely and desperately focused on stabilizing her mother’s moods. “With my love, I would keep her safe.” But she couldn’t, of course, and her guilt at this supposed failure is a big part of perpetuating the legacy. Eventually she recognizes the error in having seen suicide as “an issue of love, when really it should have been seen as a barometer of pain.”
In making these good points, “Half in Love” unfortunately repeats itself quite a bit. The quotations that illustrate this review could have been swapped out for a number of others that said pretty much the same thing. The repetition makes the book feel more polemical than it needs to be.
Sexton also spends a lot of time summarizing the story in “Mercy Street,” which is necessary background but becomes a rehash. If you read “Mercy Street” first—it will be re-released by Counterpoint in April—the first hundred pages of “Half in Love” will feel especially repetitive. You might read the second memoir first, then “Mercy Street” for a deeper look into the relationship with her brilliant, tormented mother. For me, the first book was the more compelling story.
Both memoirs are weakest when Sexton strays into analysis, often expressed in stilted psychobabble. One example: “For love to have been big enough and strong enough, I would have had to have spent a lifetime learning to harness my suffering, to become adept at how to funnel difficulties of the soul into peaceful and productive channels so that its energy flowed out in ways that did not ravage.”
It’s clunky stuff compared with the lightning of her mother’s poetry:
—Anne Sexton, “Oh”
The poetry is unforgettable, but the poet, sadly, is gone. Linda Gray Sexton, fortunately, is still writing, still alive.
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