Interview With Author Linda Gray Sexton

Today, I’m honored to share with you an interview with author Linda Gray Sexton, whose latest memoir — Half in Love:  Surviving the Legacy of Suicide — I had the opportunity to review.  I don’t usually read memoirs, but this powerful and informative memoir examines the legacy of suicide and mental illness within the Sexton family, whose famous poet Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974.

I hope you’ll check out the review and interview.  Please give Linda a warm welcome:

Writing confessional fiction seems similar to writing confessional poetry, but all of your published work has been in memoir and fiction.  What prompted you to stray from poetic verse and do you miss it?

I decided that delving into poetry would be too “close” to my mother’s work and so I stopped working in the genre at the time I began writing my first non-fiction book.  I can’t say I miss it, because I feel very fulfilled with memoir and before that, fiction.

Half in Love is about family legacies and suicide.  It seems that both of these shaped who you are as a writer, mother, and wife.  Do you think of this as inevitable?  Why or why not?

For me, it was inevitable, given the lack of knowledge about suicide.  I am hoping, as a mother, that my children will not be so affected because I know so much more about “legacy” and have hopefully passed that on to them, and because we have so many more medications and ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. To some extent I have passed the legacy of suicide on to my children, but I don’t believe they have to handle it in the same way.  I didn’t die.  I am still here.  I am once again acting like their mother.

And do you have advice for other children dealing with similar circumstances?

I would tell anyone who grew up in the shadow of suicide to get themselves all the possible help they can.  If they feel depressed they have to guard against the possible consequences.  Therapy is one great way to do it.  Self examination through any means is crucial.  If you understand the process you have a much greater chance to defeat it.

The “rabbit hole” often brings to mind a trip into another world, like that of Alice in Wonderland, but your rabbit hole is very different.  Would you consider them the same in terms of the emotions they generate or in other ways?

I think my rabbit hole is very different.  It generates emotions of fear.  I only disappear down it when I am depressed and suicidal, which, thank God, I no longer am, thanks to great medication improvements in my life.  I wouldn’t wish this black, black rabbit hole on anyone.

Parental approval is often something children crave, but in your opinion, can children grow up healthy and survive without it?

If you have someone in your life who provides that support and approval, then I don’t think you necessarily need to get it from your parents.  You can grow up healthy as long as you get it from somewhere.  I found a woman who gave me that kind of support when I was in my twenties and a young mother.  She let me know how great a person she thought I was; she made me feel special, and that brought my self-confidence to the surface.  I couldn’t have done it without her.

Have you continued to read poetry, attend readings, or have you broken completely away from that world since your mother’s death?

I really have broken away from that world completely since my mother’s death.  It is too painful.  Also, my work now is in a different genre, so it is more likely that you will find me at a reading of memoir or fiction rather than at one of poetry.

How would you have introduced yourself to a crowded room as a child, a young adult, and now?  How would those introductions have been different or the same?

As a child, I would have been speechless.  I don’t think I knew much about who I was.  As a young adult, I would have introduced myself as my mother’s daughter and let her put her arm around me possessively.  As a woman now, I would introduce myself as Linda Gray Sexton, memoirist, mother, wife and friend.  I have grown up and am proud of who I now am.

When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

Sometimes I listen to music, but not any one playlist specifically.  Sometimes it is music with lyrics, but often the words interfere with what I am trying to write.  I find that classical music usually works better, so it can Beethoven or Mahler, depending.  As to habits: I get up early because I am an early riser writer; I work at the same desk at the same time everyday; I don’t answer email or the phone while I am working except under unusual circumstances.

How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer? (physically or mentally)

I go to the gym so that I get off my butt (too much sitting as a writer).  I read a lot to keep my mind active.

What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

Right now I am working on the very beginning of another memoir, this time on a more positive subject—but it is in a fledgling stage and I’m a little superstitious about talking about it so early on.  At the same time, I have been spending a lot of time putting up a terrific (if I do say so myself) website, which I invite all of your readers to visit.

For the website I have been posting blogs so that my readers can see what I am thinking, feeling and ruminating about.  I hope lots of people will join the website’s Blog and Message Board to let me know what they think about my work and the topics it raises.  I am also spending a lot of time doing guests posts and Q & A’s for my book blog tour!

Thanks, Linda, for answering these questions and for writing a captivating memoir.

Half in Love by Linda Gray Sexton

Linda Gray Sexton, an author of memoir and fiction, tackles the issues of depression, suicide, and family legacies in her latest memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.  In case you haven’t deduced on your own who her famous mother is, it is Anne Sexton one of the greatest American confessional poets, who successfully committed suicide in October 1974 after battling depression for years by locking herself in the garage and dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“The other families in our neighborhood looked nothing like my own family.  My father did not run the family, nor did my mother.  It was my mother’s illness that had seized control.  My adulation of her was not tempered by the fact that she was mentally ill.  We never used the word ‘crazy’ — though when the ambulance arrived in the driveway to take her away, the neighborhood children whispered that Mrs. Sexton was nuts again.”  (page 59)

Half in Love is far from an easy read as Linda details not only her mother’s struggles with depression and suicide, but also the violent and sometimes inappropriate relationships within the family.  The legacy of suicide is clear as Linda discusses her college years, her marriage, and the birth of her children.  The “rabbit hole” is often used to describe the downward spiral Linda and her mother descend into without necessarily being triggered by a specific event.  Some of the details about institutionalization, attempts at suicide are detailed and will make readers turn away from the page, but they are necessary to convey the depth at which these women fell away from the real world into the darkness that obscured their reasons for hope.

“Unconsciously, my mother had bequeathed to me two entirely unique legacies, and they were inextricably and mysteriously entwined:  the compulsion to create with words, as well as the compulsion to stare down into the abyss of suicide.  Both compulsions have been with me for as long as I can remember.”  (page 23)

Despite a carefully outlined plan to avoid her mother’s fate, Linda finds that she has unwittingly stepped on the same path to suicide and also has become a confessional fiction author rather than confessional poet.  When Linda becomes a mother herself and realizes just how much she inherited from her mother in terms of mental illness, she becomes concerned and wonders how much she should tell her sons about the family legacy, while her husband wishes to shield them from “prophecies” that may or may not come true.

Half in Love is about the struggle with depression and suicide, but it also is about falling “half in love” with the idea of a famous poet and her legacy in spite of the rational reasons to distance oneself from that dangerous family legacy and live a “normal” life.   Readers will be absorbed in the author’s struggles and the struggles of her mother, but in spite of these struggles there is something to “love” about these women.  In a way larger parallels between a young Linda and the greater society can be drawn about falling in love with the darker sides of life that enabled her mother, Anne Sexton, to become one of the most famous poets of her time.  But this is not just Anne’s story, but a story of a family continuously torn apart, repaired, and fragmented — possibly irreparably.

***Reading this memoir prompted me to highlight one of Anne Sexton’s poems during the Virtual Poetry Circle last week.  Please feel free to join the continued discussion.***

About the Author:

Linda Gray Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1953 and graduated from Harvard University in 1975. She is the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton, and has edited several books of her mother’s poetry and a book of her mother’s letters, as well as writing a memoir about her life with her mother, “Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back To My Mother, Anne Sexton.” “Rituals,” “Mirror Images,” “Points of Light,” and “Private Acts” are her four published and widely read novels. “Points of Light” was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Special for television.

Check out the other stops on The TLC Book Tour.

This is my 2nd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.