Interview with Diane Wood Middlebrook
This interview with biographer and poet Diane Wood Middlebrook was conducted on December 3, 1992 in Saint Louis ,Missouri.During the dialogue she detailed her commitment to compiling her national bestseller and widely acclaimed biography of poet Anne Sexton,which had recently been released in the paperback edition by Vintage Books. This interview was published in #45 of River Styx magazine.
Gounis: In thinking about this book and talking to people about it,I thought of a line that you used in the preface when a fan of Anne Sexton said,”I don’t read poetry,but I read Anne Sexton.”And I would say about your book,that even if you don’t read biographies read this book;because it covers so many different topics in covering Anne Sexton.You’re talking about motherhood in the ’50’s in the United States, you’re talking about poetry,you’re talking about the relationship of psychotherapy and mental illness to art,and because of that I just think that it is a fascinating and intriguing book.
Middlebrook: Well, thank you very much.You are talking about bad motherhood,so called;you’re talking about a woman who violated all the taboos of women of her day and class. She was a New England Yankee housewife with the expectations of being the wife and mother and the assistant to a successful business career for her husband. And when she broke down it was really, in many ways a turning away from that life.She broke down because she couldn’t be mother to the children that she had.This was something that never left her as a guilt.But the way that she coped with it and the sort of struggle she had with it and the way that it entered her poetry after she became a poet,was one of the things that interested me.
Gounis: And it ties in so forcefully, I think, with all the themes of feminism that women are struggling with in the 90’s.this same idea of what is my role and how attached am I to my role in the home and my role outside the home.
Middlebrook: Yes,but Anne Sexton belonged to,I think, the first generation of American poets who tried to be mothers as well,and that struck me as very interesting.When I started to think about the difference between Plath and Sexton for example,and their precursors among women poets;usually the woman poet is an unmarried woman and vocation takes place in a way as an alternative,and some would say a meager compensation for not having children.The idea that a woman’s creativity is brought forward by bearing children.Whereas men have to have books,women have babies.That was a prevailing ethos,really,in which Sexton and Plath both struggled and which their responses through art really enlarged the scope of subject matter in American poetry,I think.
I see them as women who wrote motherhood into poetry and wrote the woman’s body and the woman’s life into poetry in a completely new way,because it was an undisplayed account of what it was like to experience these creative urges in the midst of other kinds of responsibilities,not associated with art at all.
Gounis: Exactly.This is what I was trying to get at.This is what makes Anne Sexton in the middle of the twentieth century such an important figure,both socially and poetically.You mentioned Sylvia Plath,who of course,is always mentioned,or often mentioned in the same…
Middlebrook: Most people think that they are the same (laughs)
Gounis: When Anne Sexton first turned to poetry at the suggestion of her therapist,did she have any poetic influences? Or was there anybody whom she had read a lot that she could use as a model?
Middlebrook: Sexton claimed that she hadn’t read or written any poetry.Or she would say dismissively that in high school she had read a lot of Sarah Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay.Actually Anne Sexton had written poetry, I discovered.When she was in high school she had written some quite good formal poetry.She also copied out by hand a lot of Sarah Teasdale’s poetry and those were found in her manuscripts after her death.And one of Sarah Teasdale’s poems was published as an Anne Sexton poem in the book of letters that her daughter brought out.Because Sexton was actually,I think,trying to get the feel of Teasdale’s work and so in her own sort of collection of papers from high school,she had some poems that nobody recognized.By the way Anne Sexton never threw anything away.She was a biographer’s dream,because she was this magpie,you know.Her old rotting corsages,swizzle sticks from night clubs,matchbook covers,things like that were part of her equipment as well.But you asked me a question that I got distracted from…
Gounis: Well, I knew from reading the book that she had written in high school and had kind of dabbled in poetry,but it wasn’t really important to her until it was suggested by her therapist.
Middlebrook: Well, the thing is,that when she was an adolescent Sexton used poetry as a form of self expression,as many people do.A lot of people write poetry when they are sixteen,seventeen,eighteen,but they aren’t poets really.It’s a way of tapping into feelings that are deeply intense and full of longing and full of desire and disappointment and separation.All kinds of very adolescent sorts of emotions make their way into poetry,and in fact important emotions too.But for Sexton there was a cutting off of that impulse by her mother accusing her of plagiarism,and taking some manuscripts that Anne had showed her, Anne Harvey, at that time.And sending them to a real poet for analysis and asking him if they were original.This broke Anne Sexton’s heart.It was like and act of distrust on her mother’s part from which she never really recovered.
Anne did stop writing poetry at that time.But when she took it up again with the advice of her doctor,it was with the background of having had that kind of interest in formal poetry.Association of poetry as a way of expressing feelings.But when she began writing at age twenty eight in therapy what she wrote was real poetry.It wasn’t just an outpouring.It wasn’t just some lines squiggled in a notebook.
Gounis: Right,she began to approach it with some craft.
Middlebrook: She did.And she attributed that impulse to having seen on public television,a lecture by the poet L.A. Richards who taught at Harvard on poetic form.She said that she watched a lecture on the sonnet and she scribbled down the formula.Then after the program was over she went to her desk and wrote a sonnet.And she said,”The next day I wrote another one”,and so forth.It was as if her poetic career began by thinking,”Gee,maybe I could do that.”And finding that she indeed could do that.
Gounis: Well,that’s encouraging.That’s encouraging to any of us who have ever picked up a pen.
Middlebrook: Isn’t it? It’s a wonderful story.For me the most inspirational aspect of the work on Anne Sexton was looking at the extraordinary spectacle of of a woman that had been driven by depressive illness to suicidal despair,but was given a kind of…almost an oracle by her doctor who said,”You have a lot of underdeveloped creative potential.”Which was a therapeutic kind of thing to say anyway.
Middlebrook: He said,”Why don’t you try writing?” And the fact that she sat down and took notes while she was watching a poet speak on television and then thought,”Maybe I could do that”and then did and then started writing everyday-lots of sonnets-taking them to treatment,and her doctor kept telling her to write more.He didn’t use as the basis of treatment.He wasn’t analyzing her from her poetry.He was saying,”You should do more of this.You are good at this.This is something that you can really do.” So she kept writing.And as she tells the story,one day it occurred to her.”Hey,he’s a doctor .he doesn’t know anything about poetry.”So she decided that she would have to study with poets and had the very good luck to have a couple of teachers who were deeply encouraging and craftsmen themselves.They recognized her gift,encouraged her to write and to also try to publish.One of these was Robert Lowell of course.And it was in Robert Lowell’s seminar at Boston University,which Sexton took in 1959 that she and Plath got acquainted.Plath sat in on the seminar too.
The two of them would go out after class and drink at the Ritz Bar.Sexton would leave her car at the loading dock and tell the doorman that she was going to get loaded.then she and Plath would would go drink martinis and talk about suicide.Later she said,”But both of us agreed that we would give it up.”They had both been suicidal in earlier years,but both were now concerned with trying to be poets.
So Sexton nurtured that fond memory of Plath and was quite devastated,as well as sort of envious,when Sylvia Plath actually did commit suicide in 1963.Sexton said about that,”She stole my death!”She was very upset.She saw it as…Sexton was always trying to commit suicide,that was one of the options that she gave herself in the midst of illness…that she could always end her life.But she she also saw suicide as a real career move in American art.Hemingway was the Exhibit “A” for her.She thought that he had done the right thing by killing himself,instead of writing anymore “bad books” as she put it.
Gounis: From the investigative angle how would you.when you mentioned about Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton having drinks and so forth…How would you come up with that type of tidbit?
Middlebrook: Well, Sexton wrote a memoir of her time with Sylvia Plath in Robert Lowell’s class and like most of Sexton’s memoirs this one was very likely to have been a tall tale.Whenever Sexton was interviewed she would say to the interviewer,”Well you can ask me anything,but I have to tell you right away that I tend to lie a lot.”
Gounis: So how would you deal with that fact in being a biographer?
Middlebrook:Well…Sexton said that one of the people that accompanied them on these forays to the Ritz Bar to get loaded was George Starbuck.He was the editor at Houghton Miffin in 1959,who accepted Sexton’s manuscript,To Bedlam and Partway Back, for publication.He was a young editor who was incidentally ,Sexton’s lover at the time.She didn’t say that he was her lover in the memoirs about Plath,but she had mentioned that he had accompanied them.When I was able to interview George Starbuck I said,”What about this story?” He said,”Yes they really did go and drink together.”Not martinis however,Anne Sexton was drinking stingers at the time.”Awful stuff!”,he said,”I remember that because I couldn’t understand how anyone could drink stingers.She didn’t drink gin.She drank this other brandy and mint,I think -some ghastly combination.”
Gounis: Yeah,I think that when I read the book I went and looked it up,but I don’t recall what it is.
Middlebrook: But it may be that Sexton just made up the thing about getting loaded later.I wouldn’t have put it passed her.She was witty and funny and really had a good time in her life.When she wasn’t despairing,when she wasn’t in a blue despondency,she was very often in a manic high.It probably was the case that she was manic depressive,although this was not diagnosed.That was not the diagnosis that she was treated for.but she had an ebullience and a kind of outrageous and transgressive joy in breaking rules;so leaving her car in the loading zone is definitely within the realm of possibilities for Sexton,and it is a wonderful story.
Gounis: It sure is. To back up a little bit;you first began this work because Anne Sexton’s daughter approached you with certain materials and ask you to be her biographer?
Middlebrook:Yes.Linda Sexton decided that she would find a biographer after selling the papers to the University of Texas Library as a scholarly collection.Rather than just letting people come up to her with proposals or in fact just coming up with manuscripts asking for permission.She decided to be proactive-to select someone who had credentials,but who had not known Anne Sexton.
Gounis: That was one of your pluses in Linda Sexton’s view.Did you ever see any Anne Sexton readings?
Middlebrook: No. I never saw her readings and I actually only had a slight familiarity with her poetry.I wasn’t a big fan of hers;although I had written an article that was about women poets and Sexton was one of the poets about whom I wrote.So when Linda Sexton gave the problem of finding a biographer to the editor at Houghton Miffin,who had worked with Sexton last,he approached me and a number of other people who had written about Anne Sexton and said,:Would you like to discuss the possibility of doing this book?”
Linda interviewed us.And in fact the day that I met her I went to Boston and met her at the Ritz Hotel myself and we had breakfast together.We didn’t get loaded,but I was wearing a California garment that Linda reminded me of since the book came out.She said,”You were wearing a leather suit.”I had bought this wonderful leather suit.It was my best clothes by the way.I wasn’t trying to be outrageous myself,but this suit was just skin tight.It was laced up.She remembered it as being fringe.It wasn’t,but it was made by the North Beach Leather Company which suits the rock stars.And she on her part under thirty years old,was this young woman encrusted with diamonds and wearing a big fur coat.She greeted me and said,”I must tell you that I really don’t like academic writing very much.”I said,”I have to tell you that I’m not your mother’s greatest fan.So it maybe that we will find that we can’t work together.”
Gounis: That’s very interesting.
Middlebrook: But we sat down and had breakfast and something happened between us.Possibly something had been gotten out of the way.I said,”Well as I said I’m not your mother’s biggest fan,but I don’t know her poetry as as well as I probably will.And I will tell you that I am terribly interested in her career.How she did this.How she transformed herself from a despairing ill housewife into a really major figure in American poetry”. And Linda said,”Well,I know that I need somebody that has scholarly credentials, because my mother aspired to be studied as a serious poet and I want to make sure that these papers are used by somebody who will do a good job in understanding them in assessing her value as a poet.”So by the end of that breakfast,I think that we both knew that I was going to do the book.
Gounis: It almost sounds like perhaps the spirit of Anne Sexton was mediating a little bit in there.There is some of that bluntness and forthrightness definitely.
Middlebrook:(laughs)You know I’m not a person that believes in afterlife;but I do find the long finger of Anne Sexton sort of prodding things now and then.She was definitely…she was really an interesting person for a poet.You know most poets on the whole spend their time writing poems.They don’t have these kind of amazing sort of almost rock star lives that Sexton had.
Gounis: Right.It really is a solitary practice.If one is to be a writer,you start to find that there isn’t much glamour in it.It’s really a nuts and bolts type of endevour.
Middlebrook: And it’s just you and the machine right?Yeah,she wrote on a typewriter..always.And that was lucky for me.She was a fantastic saver of her manuscripts.So you can see her working out these very complicated sorts of problems to solving poetry.But that doesn’t make for a very dramatic narrative.”And the next thing that she did was try a villanelle.”No,this would not keep readers on the edge of their seats.No,but she had plenty of action in her life too.
Gounis: It’s interesting also that she was inspired at least craft wise by a program on public television,and they later did a documentary on her.
Middlebrook: Yes they did.That’s right!
Gounis: How available is that documentary?
Middlebrook: That documentary which forms my favorite chapter in my book,chapter thirteen which is called ” A Seducing Kind of Woman” was…the documentary was made in 1966,just before the publication of the book that was to win the Pulitzer Prize – Live or Die. And Sexton was was very ambitious about that book,so she was pleased that N.E.T. decided to invite her to be one of the poets of whom they did a half hour program.She was also very camera friendly.The film that was made and shown on television is still circulated through education rental services.You can rent the film,and I’ve done that for my classes.But the chapter that I wrote is really based on a description of the outtake film that was made from the footage that they spliced out.That’s at the San Francisco Poetry Center.
Gounis: That’s not in circulation?
Middlebrook: It is in circulation.You can buy it or you can rent it from them.It’s a ninety minute film.It shows Anne Sexton at home.It shows the things that didn’t get into the film that was shown on television.And you have to feel,looking at that outtake film,that there was a spirit of censorship operating.Because Anne Sexton is outrageous in the outtake film.She fakes an orgasm,which I write about,because she is showing something about the way art feels.And her analogy is real sex.It’s orgasmic to be overtaken by this wonderful piece of music.So she acts it out on camera.And she is completely composed throughout.That is she says,”Here’s the piece of music that I wrote poetry to.It’s not yet that it turns me on,you’ll just have to wait for a minute.”So the camera waits until she gets turned on and she does.”Isn’t this just like sex? Just listen to this music.It’s the most beautiful thing that I ever heard.”And she goes all the way through it.Then at the end of it,what she is saying is,really with her gesture…”Art carries feeling,but the feeling is in the person.But when your feeling is tuned by a work of art,the work of art can bring it back to you.”And I think that she meant us not only to think about the way music brings back our romantic experiences with people,but also how her own poetry works,when you feel that your inner world is being expressed in those words,but it really is your feeling. And that the poetry evokes that or it doesn’t.But when it does,this incredible magic of art is that it carries,in this coded system,access to our deepest feeling.And she used an epigraph in one of her books that captures that spirit.It’s from Kafka,the statement,”Art should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”And I think that’s a brilliant metaphor.There’s a kind of violent opening up of something inside us that normally is frozen over that we don’t have access to.
Gounis: Yes,so this touches very directly on this idea of a term that is used so often these days…”dysfunction”.And a woman not in control of her feelings.In fact,with the type of mental illness that she suffered through,sometimes she would go into a trance?
Middlebrook: Yes, very frequently.
Gounis: And what was that like? What was happening? Are we talking about a complete comatose state?
Middlebrook: Something like a deep hypnotic state really.In which it was very evident to her doctor and then to me as I listened to the tapes in which long silences would occur,that she was struggling with very deep feelings,for which there wasn’t really a verbal equivalent .There was no speech for them.They were periods of real dissociation from the present moment and some kind of retreat inward to a place where occasionally she would say a few things.She would clearly be having memories that were also very hard to articulate.But that she was really somewhere else.And that’s why the doctor taped these sessions as an address to this symptom that she had that was thoroughly disruptive of the treatment because she wouldn’t be able to remember later what had happened.So he began taping her after about four years of therapy with her.After the deaths of her parents,which were very traumatic events for her,she developed this symptom.And it was interfering a lot with the treatment,so the tapes were made for her to listen to and to make notes about.So that she herself could have a grasp of,as her doctor put it to me,”So that she would become the custodian of her own memory.”He said,”She wanted me to be the one who remembered instead of herself to be the one who remembered.”And, in the course of the trances,she would very often have very painful evocations of her childhood or family life and wasn’t able to bear to be conscious of it.
Gounis: In trying to portray Anne Sexton’s struggle with her particular trauma and in trying to decipher it,how important was it to you to go to the people around Anne Sexton,like her daughter Linda and to her husband,and talk to these people and say to them,”What do you think was happening?”
Middlebrook: That is the bio0grapher’s work really.If you’re fortunate enough to have living witnesses,they are one of your greatest resources.The thing that you quickly learn,though,is that everyone has a version of things.And everybody has a special situation too,and a lot of motivation toward their own memories.And memory is as tricky in anybody as what it was in her.So what you want to do is collect as many versions as you can.To get as complex a picture as you can and then the biographer finally has to select among those which are the ones that seem to fall together in a pattern of comprehensibility.I must say as a biographer I was very influenced by the good storytelling among my witnesses too.People who give you language for things that it’s just irresistible to use it.And you want the voices to be interesting in your biography too.So I tried to get as close to the truth as I possibly could,but I realized that there are real competing versions of things.
Gounis: As Diane Wakowski says,”Truth is just a point of view.”
Middlebrook:Well, I think that’s right,yes.(laughs)
Gounis: And you’re a poet yourself,so again you were very involved with the language,as you just said,of how the different accounts and the different interpretations were given to you.
Middlebrook:Yes.But I would hate to have you think that what is meant by truth is just a point of view…to think that there isn’t a historical grounding to things.You can get to the information about a person with great difficulty sometimes,that becomes your principal reality.You know at a certain time and place these things occurred.Who was there?Who can remember for you?Who can help you understand what happened? And it’s that return always to the basis in whatever reality you can get a grasp on.I think that’s your obligation as a biographer,not to make anything up.To resist the temptation to write a thought for your subject.One that she didn’t write down for you.At which point it becomes speculative fiction.
Gounis: But the real beauty of your book is that there is a very exquisite blend of what could be very dry biographical facts and and a very lyrical flow to the whole book.
Middlebrook: Well, I’m pleased to have your admiration that comes from one poet to another.That’s lovely and that’s what I tried for.As a writer, I thought that the challenge was selection,first of all,because there’s oceanic material on Anne Sexton.I used a teaspoonful of that archive,literally.I cut down this book,which is pretty long anyway,from a 1100 page manuscript which I thought was just the bare bones of this story.My editor said,”You’re the author,you have to do the cutting;but what I need from you is a 750 page manuscript.So we can sell this book for under twenty five dollars.”That was the hardbound book.So that seemed to be a reasonable sort of problem.What to leave out.In leaving things out what I hoped for was to be able to weave together all the threads.And that is…there’s the writer.I was really interested in her.I wanted to be able to represent how Anne Sexton did her work,because I found her to be a fascinating craftswoman.She really was a good writer.And she wrote for the ear.That was another discovery that I made.She was a sonically tuned person.She did her workshopping as I say in the book,with Maxine Kumin over the telephone for one thing.And I think that she would also hear the processes of association.And that was inspiring to her too.I mean she was sonically interesting,so I wanted to get at that.
Gounis: This is years before Laurie Anderson.
Middlebrook: Years before Laurie Anderson,but I see…in fact the Vintage edition of my book contains an extra chapter in which I answer a question that I was asked a lot when I was on my book tour with the hardback edition.They said,”You haven’t said what you think Sexton’s lasting contribution to American literature is”.Thinking about it I would say that Anne Sexton was a proto-performance artist,that she wrote for performance.Many of the pieces that I think don’t come off on the page very well in her books,really sound wonderful as dramatic monologues.She made a living actually out of giving readings.And she wrote scripts for herself and published them in the New Yorker if she could,for four dollars a line.She was interested in making money at her work,but they were really performance pieces and they work best if you think of them that way.
Gounis: And she has a least three audio tapes available through RCA Caedmon?
Middlebrook: That’s right.The one that Caedmon did was made in 1973,when she was deeply alcoholic,and I hear that in her voice.I don’t like that voice on the tape;although I think that if it’s your first encounter with the Sexton voice it’s very arresting.But I like the earlier Sexton better.I like that there’s a tape made in 1964 when she was on a program with Anthony Hecht and there is an earlier one then that ,too,with George Starbuck and that’s the young vivacious voice.It’s not a druggy sort of slow,sluggish voice but a lively, humorous,witty and rich actressy voice in the tapes that I heard.
Gounis: If someone would listen to those tapes and then see the documentaries would they see several different sides of Anne Sexton?
Middlebrook: Very much so.The documentary,fortunately was made at a good time in Sexton’s life.She was very present in that film and the outtake film as well.You see,first of all,how beautiful she is and what an actress she is.There is one scene that told me much more than any text could do.She reads one of her poems on camera,and it’s a very affecting poem.It’s called “Self in 1958″,and it ends with the line,”Or if I had the tears.”You feel that sadness and tears of course-and then she looks up and doesn’t exactly wink,but gives a look at the cameraman as if to say,”How am I doing?” And you see it.She has been acting a role.And this is a tremendous discovery! -that she is the living personification of the poem! But it isn’t just Anne Sexton;it’s a role,it’s a voice,it’s an emotion and she’s an artist! so that’s when you don’t think of her as a confessional poet,what you think of is some sort of outpouring.That’s falsification.the deep emotion in the poems is,of course,her emotion,but it’s also our emotion.And what she does is perform it for us so that we can join the emotion.It’s that sophistication about her as a performer that was a revelation for me.And one that I found fascinating as a discovery.
Gounis: How influenced was she by the performers of that era? I know that you mentioned that when she was teaching a high school class that someone had played a recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory.”
Gounis: How influenced was she by people like Paul Simon,Bob Dylan and so forth? Did she ever interact with those people?? Did those artists ever come to her readings in Boston around the late ’60’s?
Middlebrook: I don’t believe that they did.I don’t believe that she ever knew any of them She was actually influenced by her students who were interested in rock music.This young man in her class had set one of her poems to music after he had her play that rendition of “Richard Cory”.He said,”I think that some of your poems would work that way.”And he played it for her.She was so delighted to hear how her words sounded with this kind of rhythmic accompaniment.Eventually she formed a little band with this student after he graduated.He played guitar and they had a professional drummer and a professional bass player.They called the band “Her Kind”.They went on the road together and Sexton read her poems to music.She didn’t sing them because,as her daughters said hooting at their mother’s singing voice;she was tone deaf.She couldn’t sing,but she had a wonderful sense of rhythm and her voice itself was very flexible and low and sexy and good as a reading voice.And she rehearsed with that group very professionally and they did a number of concerts.Unfortunately there were no professional recordings ,but there were some rehearsal tapes that have sort of leaked out.I think that they have sort of been pirated and they are now available in audio cassette catalogs as Anne Sexton and Her Kind playing their music.It’s really interesting to hear how those poems sound.
Gounis: And again,this would be a precursor to work like that of Anne Waldman,for instance.
Middlebrook: Yes,exactly.Sexton was very interested in that kind of thing.Particularly because she really did feel that her poetry was very dramatic and performance was a good place for it.But also that it reached much larger audiences that way.That students or young people would be interested in hearing poetry and that they might be led to read it then.That mode of delivering was a social,communal,ritualistic,orgiastic kind of fun.
Gounis: Did she continue with that kind of enthusiasm for the musical group up until the time of her death or was that just a particular phase of her performances?
Middlebrook: Well, we’ve been talking about the poet of course,and one of the threads I had to weave in all the time was the fact that she was always sick.She was ill. She had an incurable,depressive illness and had a lot of symptoms too that were very inhibiting.For example she was not able to travel alone.She always had to have somebody with her.Crossing the street,as people would joke,she had to have somebody with her.That was actually true.She was very agoraphobic.She was phobic about flying,She had many phobias and this was very hard to manage.I mean just her normal,neurotic patterns were very difficult to cope with.But she was also prey to these terrible,terrible modes or as she called it,”Going down the spiral hole toward a suicidal depressiveness.”And she would often attempt suicide in the midst of those sieges of this illness.It did recur.She didn’t think it was ever going to go away and it was one of those things that she just had to live around and live with.So traveling with this band was not easy for her and eventually she gave it up because it was just too much of a struggle.
Gounis: It’s just so intriguing that the woman that you’re talking about was also often described as the life of the party.
Middlebrook: That’s true.
Gounis: That is the paradox.
Middlebrook: That’s the manic.That’s the manic side of the depression.That she was really fun.She was a very sociable woman in a certain way.Although she had to be drinking a lot in order to be sociable.It was sort of a boundary crossing for her to drink far too much all of the time.In fact by the end of her life she was deeply alcoholic.After she went off her psychoactive medication Thorazine,she began medicating herself with alcohol.I see that and in my book the interpretation I make of her death is that it was actually linked to her alcoholism;that the drinking alienated her friends.She was alone.She had divorced her husband and her children had grown up.It all impaired her ability to revise her work.She was able to write but she couldn’t revise.And although she published,it really wasn’t up to the standards that she had worked out at in earlier phases.But then alcoholism itself is a despairing condition.And eventually, I think that it got her.
Gounis: Was she treated with shock treatments also?
Middlebrook: No,she never had shock.She had a number of kinds of types of psychoactive medication,major tranquilizers and so on.
Gounis: Was shock treatment ever suggested,but she just wouldn’t go for it?
Middlebrook: I don’t believe so.That I wasn’t able to find out.Her doctor…the doctor that I interviewed Dr. Orne,the one that gave me access to the tapes said that she did not believe in shock nor did the person that treated Sexton before,who was Orne’s mother.Even though it was a fairly common treatment for the kind of depression she had.And if she had had other doctors,then she probably would have had shock,as Sylvia Plath did.It was a very kind of routine address to the depressions.Nor did she have insulin shock which is another kind of shock induced manipulation of the blood sugar levels.So she was spared those treatments,but she did have the classic treatments of women of her class and race and location.That is,they tried her out on Thorazine because she had auditory hallucinations.Now, Thorazine was a treatment for schizophrenia but it actually helped Sexton in the view of her doctor.And in the view of her friends,although Sexton hated it.She said that it was like…it made her woolie.So she had those treatments and a lot of the talking cure,a lot of regular psycho-dynamic psychotherapy.And those things really helped her as much as she could be helped,but they certainly didn’t cure her.
Gounis: Well,we’ve covered a lot of topics and as I’ve said if one is to read your book,Anne Sexton:A Biography,one is going to come at the book from a lot of different angles,because there are a lot of topics to be discussed and examined when you’re looking at the life of Anne Sexton.I wanted to end on an up note and mention that Anne Sexton’s work is still available on cassette.
Gounis: And her books are all in print?
Middlebrook: There’s a selected poems and there is a complete poems;and the Vintage edition of my biography of Anne Sexton has,as does the Houghton Mifflin edition,beautiful photographs of her.And one of the pleasures of Anne Sexton was what a wonderful looking person she was,too.So she is somebody that if you can get her by the eyes and the ears as well as off the page through the poetry,it’s a feast!