Little White Picket Fences
The sun was already setting one evening late in the winter of 1957 when twenty-nine-year-old Anne Sexton, shaking with nerves and clutching a cardboard folder, walked down Commonwealth Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Boston’s Back Bay. She passed Victorian brownstones, statues of local luminaries, and large, stately trees. She soon arrived at her destination, a large stone building on the boulevard’s north side.
She passed through the building’s imposing gray facade and walked through the opulent ballroom hidden inside. This was one of her first trips out of her home in Newton in recent memory; to accomplish it, she had requested the company of a kind neighbor named Sandy Robart. Sexton had always been a nervous woman, but these days she was something more: anxious, fearful, choked by self-doubt. Public places of any kind produced intense discomfort; most days she didn’t leave her house. She had recently attempted suicide; she would make a second attempt in just a few months.
She walked through the building’s foyer and wondered what she was doing there. She wasn’t cowed by the signs of old money. Wealth was familiar to her. It was what the building concealed that frightened her: a small poetry workshop, run by the Boston Center for Adult Education. Sexton, who had been writing poetry seriously for only several months, who had no college degree, who had a bad history in classroom settings, had uncharacteristically decided to enroll in the course. Until that winter evening, only two people had read her poetry: Dr. Martin Orne, her psychoanalyst; and her mother, Mary Gray Harvey. The idea of showing her poems to other people—other poets—was terrifying. And yet here she was, in matching lipstick and heels, with flowers in her dark hair, about to enter a classroom for the first time in a decade.
She stepped into the room; heads turned. The workshop had been in session for some weeks, and newcomers weren’t common. The instructor, John Holmes, sat at the head of a long oak table. A man with thinning hair and a long, hangdog face, he was the personification of dour New England. Holmes was a fixture in the Boston poetry scene: teaching workshops, reviewing books, and working as a professor at Tufts. Many of Holmes’s students had published poems, including a thirty-one-year-old mother of three who was also present that evening. Her name was Maxine Kumin.
Sexton and Kumin regarded each other: it was a bit like looking into a mirror. Both women were thin, dark-haired, and attractive. Unlike Sexton, Kumin was not a native New Englander, though by the time the two women met, Boston had become her home. Kumin was an assimilated Jewish woman from Philadelphia whose pawn-broker father had earned enough to send his daughter first to parochial school, then to Radcliffe College. For Kumin, education had been a way of becoming an individual, someone who could escape from her mother’s expectations. Sexton, by contrast, came from New England wealth. She relied on her parents for financial support and on her husband for emotional caretaking. Sexton was emotionally volatile, plagued by anxiety, depression, and suicidal urges. Kumin kept her temper in check and steered away from instability. She was immediately wary of this nervous, glamorous stranger—a woman who somehow fascinated and repelled. Both were there to do some thing that felt uncertain, even untoward: to establish themselves as poets. Each had to gather her courage to attempt this, an obviously solitary effort. What did it mean for them to encounter each other in this terrifying space?
Sexton once summed up her life prior to 1957 as follows: “I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.”
For much of her life, Sexton had believed she was dumb. She believed this because many people in her life told her so. Born in 1928 to a wealthy family in the comfortable Boston suburb of Newton, the youngest of three daughters, Anne Harvey was a skinny and fidgety child in a household that prided itself on grace and decorum. She couldn’t sit still. She often refused to eat. She tugged and twisted her hair until it tangled. As an adolescent, she showed up at the dinner table speckled with acne; her father, disgusted, refused to eat in her presence. Unlike her two sisters, who attended elite private schools, Anne attended public school for most of her youth (she was kicked out of a Waldorf school because she failed at naptime). By the time she got to high school, the boarding school Rogers Hall, she had been held back three times by teachers who considered her unintelligent, a “terrible nervous wreck,” and “high-strung.”
If Anne was dumb, her mother was smart. Mary Gray Harvey, who came from a wealthy family in Maine, was a petite, attractive woman, a true lady. She had been raised like a princess by her doting father, the editor and publisher of a newspaper, and she thrived on being the “brilliant” one in the family. Her husband, Ralph Harvey, a businessman who drank too much, held Mary Gray in high esteem, constantly reminding his daughters, “Oh, your mother is smart; mother is brilliant.” “She was the ‘writer,’ the cultured, brilliant one,” Sexton told an interviewer in the early 1960s. “She kind of over-powered us, I think, at times.” (The only thing Mary Gray actually wrote was her husband’s business correspondence, but Ralph Harvey lauded each letter as a “masterpiece.”) Mary Gray had a cultured air: she read a book a day, and she’d attended the prestigious Wellesley College. Although she never graduated, she let it be known that she had the highest IQ of all the girls on campus. To her, there was something admirable about simply being intelligent, as opposed to deliberately educating oneself. Mary Gray presented knowledge as something you simply picked up, as you would a canapé, when it suited you.
Anne tried and failed to impress her mother. When she was a teenager, she presented Mary Gray with a poem she’d written that had been accepted into the school yearbook. Mary Gray read over her daughter’s work, paused, and then launched an investigation. Surely this was not her daughter’s original work; surely she had copied it from somewhere. She sent this poem and others Anne had written to a family friend, a professor in New York, and asked him to find the source from which her daughter had plagiarized. (The professor wrote back: the poems were original, and they were promising.) Anne, chastened by the experience, didn’t show her mother any more poems. Soon, she stopped writing them altogether.
Foiled in her creative pursuits, Anne tried to emulate her mother’s stable, high-status domestic life, and she succeeded—but only with lots of help from Mary Gray herself. When she was nineteen, Anne was dating an upper-class boy from the Boston suburbs, Alfred Muller Sexton II, known to friends and family as Kayo, and she feared she was pregnant. On the advice of Mary Gray, the couple drove south, to North Carolina, where the legal age of marriage was eighteen for both men and women. (In Massachusetts, it was eighteen for women and twenty-one for men.) They married, and Anne Harvey became Anne Sexton. The pregnancy was a false alarm—Sexton had started menstruating on the trip south—but the marriage stuck. The young couple bounced back and forth between their respective parents’ households before finally finding an apartment in Cochituate, a town just ten minutes from the Harveys in Weston. (The Harveys had moved there in 1941; their house, built from scratch, included seven bathrooms and five garages.) While Kayo served in the Korean War, Mary Gray steered her daughter away from tempting flirtations and encouraged her to recommit to her marriage. When Sexton did eventually become pregnant—she’d flown out to San Francisco to meet her husband during his leave—Mary Gray tended to her, took her shopping for maternity clothes, took her on vacation to Florida, and allowed her to move back into the Weston family home. With Mary Gray’s financial help, the young Sextons paid for a house in the comfortable suburb of Newton. They started to carve out something like an independent adult life, though Kayo—who had dropped out of Colgate University, where he had been pursuing medicine— worked in the wool business under his father-in-law.
As long as Mary Gray was alive, Sexton never stopped craving her mother’s praise and fearing her criticisms. A harsh word from Mary Gray stung more than any of the insults Ralph had flung at young Anne when he was drunk. Sexton thought that if she could raise a family and run a household as her mother did, she would finally earn approval from this cold, elusive woman who always seemed to know what was best—the best dress, the best drink, the best book to demonstrate that you were cultured. As she later put it, “I had to be just awful or as good as my mother.”
By August 1955, with her mother’s assistance, Sexton had put together an admirable life: she owned a house in the suburbs, she was tall and beautiful and well-off, and she was mother to two daughters, Linda, age two, and a newborn, Joy.
But she struggled with the responsibilities of motherhood. She found herself reacting with anger and violence to her children’s needs. She once threw her older child across a room in frustration. She was eventually diagnosed with postpartum depression. “My heart pounds and it’s all I can hear—my feeling for my children does not surpass my desire to be free of their demands on my emotions,” she once wrote to a therapist. As the months ticked by and Joy approached her first birthday, Sexton’s symptoms lingered and deepened. Worried she would hurt her children, she contemplated using her sleeping pills to end her life. One dark night, she stayed awake for hours, fighting her worst impulses, and then, on a therapist’s recommendation, checked herself into Westwood Lodge—the same institution her father had gone to when he needed to dry out. Mary Gray cared for Linda, while Kayo’s mother, Billie, took in Joy. Sexton was released from Westwood Lodge after a couple of weeks, but her mental health continued to decline. She took an overdose of barbiturates in November 1956, one day before her twenty-eighth birthday. Her new therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, sent her to Glenside, a grim institution that put her at a safe distance from her family. “Her family was not very sympathetic about her problems,” Dr. Orne later recalled. He diagnosed Sexton with hysteria in the Freudian sense.
Sexton was released from Glenside after several weeks. It was a hard winter. Linda returned to her, but Joy stayed with Billie. Sexton was lonely and listless. “I walk from room to room trying to think of something to do,” she wrote to Dr. Orne. “I have this almost terrible energy in me,” she explained, and “nothing seems to help.” All that she’d learned about homemaking eluded her; she found herself incapable of baking a potato. She relied on Kayo as a child depends on a parent, and she feared his absences. He was often quite patient with her, but at times he exploded into rage. He was sometimes physically violent with Sexton (more often in the later years of their marriage). She loved her daughters, but she resented the way they circumscribed her life. “Who would want to live feeling that way?” she wrote to Dr. Orne in February 1957. It was a question that reverberated daily through her mind.
Desperate, Sexton searched for a reason to go on living. She found it somewhere she never expected: lyric poetry.
On Dr. Orne’s recommendation, Sexton began watching educational television; her analyst thought it would stimulate her mind and distract her from her emotional troubles. One Thursday evening in late 1956, just a month after her suicide attempt, Sexton tuned in to the local public television station WGBH and watched a program called Sense of Poetry. A Harvard English professor appeared on-screen; he looked every bit the academic, with his bald head and spectacles. His name was I. A. Richards, and he was one of the most influential scholars of English literature on either side of the Atlantic. While teaching at Cambridge in the 1920s, he had developed a practice of closely reading poetry without recourse to historical or biographical context. Richards called this “practical criticism”; by the time this practice spread to American universities, in the 1940s and 1950s, it was called New Criticism. This style of literary criticism appealed to university English departments at the mid-century because it made the study of literature seem scientific rather than dilettantish. It was also a very teachable method, perfect for educating undergraduates—or viewers of public television.
In truth, Sense of Poetry was a bit boring. Richards wasn’t particularly dynamic, though he hosted several different educational programs throughout his career (despite his professed distaste for mass media). He read out famous poems, such as Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” enunciating precisely so viewers could hear the scansion and rhythm of the work. Sometimes, a poem scrolled down the screen, or a helpful chart appeared, but otherwise the camera fixed on this austere man, who seemed better suited for radio than for the screen.
The program was dry and purely educational, and Sexton was rapt. She watched as Richards described the structure of a sonnet— fourteen lines, three quatrains and a couplet, ABABA CDCD EFEF GG—and took careful notes. “I could do that,” she thought to herself. The show over, the night dark, she wrote a sonnet of her own. Like an approval-seeking high school student, she showed the sonnet to Mary Gray. This time, Mary Gray believed the poem was original; she even suggested a better image to capture the poem’s sentiment. Sexton was grateful: she’d finally earned her mother’s approval, and she’d found a new way of managing her distress. She would order her disorder in verse.
Suddenly poetry flowed from Sexton faster than tears. Between January 1957 and December of the same year, she wrote more than sixty poems—a remarkable output. Most of them marched out messages and morals in regular rhythm, like the poems one would find in The Saturday Evening Post, the leading middlebrow magazine. Many referred to therapy or to Freudianism, and some addressed Dr. Orne himself: “Appointment Hour,” “The Psychosomatic Stomach,” “A Foggy Adjustment.” She typed up her poems carefully and presented them to Dr. Orne, who offered her the approval she craved. Untutored in the craft, unburdened by a traditional literary education, Sexton proceeded by instinct, learning “unconsciously,” a word she used frequently to describe her method. She set herself little challenges—write a poem in syllabic rhyme, write a double acrostic—just to see if she could succeed. When she made a second suicide attempt in late May 1957, Dr. Orne pointed to her poetry as her reason to live. “You can’t kill yourself,” he told her. “You have something to give.”
Sexton didn’t fully understand what she was doing as a poet; for years to come, she would describe poetic technique as “trickery.” She was an unpublished amateur. She submitted a few poems to publications, signing them “Mrs. A. M. Sexton,” but she heard nothing back. She considered finding a classroom of some sort, somewhere, and trying to learn as she had never done before. Dr. Orne recommended enrolling at Boston University or Newton Junior College. A return to school was a gamble for the girl who had been kept back and kicked out, undermined by teachers and family both. With her mental health still precarious, she weighed the risks against the possible rewards. She would have to leave the house and meet strangers; that would be terrifying. But perhaps some of these strangers would understand her in ways her family never did. Maybe, if she could push through her fear, she would find those she called “my people.”
Copyright © 2020 by Maggie Doherty. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.