Born Anne Gray Harvey, Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was the youngest of three daughters
born to a well-off couple in Weston, Massachusetts. Sexton's father owned and
wool business and her mother, well educated and intelligent, maintained an active
social schedule of parties and charity events. The sisters were not close, each
vying for the attention of their busy parents and pursuing their own interests.
Anne's behavior as a child, seemingly always in motion, making noise, and looking
disheveled, excluded her from many of the family's social activities.
In junior high school, Sexton lost her awkwardness and became the center of a gang
girlfriends. Her first attempt at poetry resulted from a breakup with long-time
boyfriend Jack McCarthy. During her senior year in high school, Sexton wrote more
poetry, some of which was published in the school paper. When Sexton's mother
essentially accused her of plagiarizing the poems, Sexton stopped writing poetry
altogether for ten years.
After high school, in 1947, Sexton attended finishing school at the Garland School
Boston. While there, she became engaged and began planning a big wedding. However,
in 1948, Sexton met and fell in love with Alfred Muller Sexton II, nicknamed Kayo.
In August of the same year, afraid that she was pregnant, Sexton and Kayo, on
advice of her mother, eloped to North Carolina. Returning from their honeymoon,
young couple spent the next few years moving back and forth between their parents'
homes. Kayo dropped his pre-med studies after a few months and found work with
wool firm. In 1951, Kayo was shipped overseas with the naval reserves, and in
fall of 1952, Sexton joined him in San Francisco, where his ship was being
overhauled, and almost immediately became pregnant. They returned to Massachusetts
for the Christmas holidays and Sexton remained at her parents' home for the
remainder of her pregnancy. Linda Gray Sexton was born on July 21, 1953, and shortly
thereafter the Sextons bought a house in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, and
accepted a position with his father-in-law's wool company. Two years later, Joyce
Ladd Sexton was born on August 4, 1955.
Shortly after Joyce's birth, Sexton began a year-long slide into the depression that
would plague her for the rest of her life. Feeling disoriented and agitated, she
sought help from Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne who diagnosed post-partum depression
prescribed medication. After five months of treatment Sexton developed a paralyzing
fear of being alone with her children. She became increasingly prone to attacks
blinding rage which often led to abusive behavior towards Linda. Afraid that she
would actually kill the child, Sexton finally confided some of her problems to
family and they rallied to support her. During Kayo's business trips, his sister
would stay with her, and Kayo's father offered to help cover some of the expenses
therapy. Sexton's parents sent their housemaid to help with the housework and
sent money. However, this practical help did not solve Sexton's problems and in
of 1956 she entered Westwood Lodge, a private hospital, for three weeks. While
Westwood Lodge, Sexton met Dr. Brunner's son, Dr. Orne, who was to be her
psychiatrist for the next eight years.
Sexton was released from Westwood Lodge on August 3, 1956, but her condition
continued to decline. Dr. Orne placed her in Glenside Mental Institution after
took an overdose of Nembutal in November. Sometime in 1956, Sexton began writing
poetry. She showed the poems to Orne who vigorously encouraged her to continue
writing. Over the course of 1957, Sexton brought over sixty completed poems to
for approval. In the fall of 1957, she began attending an adult education poetry
workshop taught by John Holmes. By the end of the year, Holmes suggested that
seek publication. In April of 1958, The Fiddlehead
Review published "Eden Revisited."
Sexton continued to attend Holmes' seminar through 1958. It was there that she met
and became close friends with Maxine Kumin. That same year, Sexton attended the
Antioch Writer's Conference, where she worked with W.D. Snodgrass, and took a
graduate poetry writing seminar with Robert Lowell. In 1959, she received a Robert
Frost Scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. In
this work culminated in the publication of a collection of poems, To Bedlam and Partway Back. Well received, Bedlam was the first of ten collections of verse Sexton
published in her lifetime.
In 1961, Sexton received a Radcliffe Institute fellowship as did her friend Maxine
Kumin (1961-1963). The two women became part of a circle of close friends that
included the fiction writer Tillie Olsen and the painter Barbara Swan. Sexton
one of Swan's first lithographs, and the two later collaborated on various projects,
including some broadsides, jackets for three works( Live or
Die, The Book of Folly, and The Death Notebooks), and illustrations for Transformations.
Over the next fourteen years Sexton wrote poetry, short stories, a major theatrical
production, and presented her poetry at readings, alone and with musical
accompaniment. She taught poetry courses at Boston University, Oberlin College,
High School. She became a major presence in the American poetry scene and helped
earn respect for women poets in general. In 1965, she was made a Fellow of the
Society of Literature and in 1967 she received both the Shelley Memorial Award
the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die (1966). In 1968,
Sexton was awarded honorary membership in the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa,
first woman to receive this award, and in 1969 she was made a member of the
Radcliffe chapter. She received honorary doctorates from Tufts University and
Fairfield University in 1970, and from Regis College in 1973.
Despite these and other accolades, Sexton continued to struggle with her mental
illness, taking pills and drinking heavily to combat her fears. To the dismay
many, but perhaps the surprise of none, she took her own life on October 4, 1974.
Sexton's daughters and friends published several volumes of poems and letters
her death, including 45 Mercy Street (1975), Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977), and
Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems with Three Short