“My night mind saw such strange happenings”: Anne Sexton and Childhood Sexual Trauma

  • Cassie Premo Steele


To read Sexton’s work and life approximately twenty years after her death shows how much has changed in our society in one generation. Born to a wealthy family in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928, Sexton’s life looked—from the outside—like a version of the American dream. She attended a private high school, was beautiful—even modeled for a time—then married and settled down to take care of her house and to have children. Even Sexton herself had wanted to be married from age 13 and thought that children would make her happy.1 After the birth of her second daughter, though, the illusion started to crack; Sexton became increasingly depressed and, on the day before her twenty-eighth birthday, attempted suicide.2 Soon after, at the suggestion of her therapist, Sexton began to write poetry.3


Traumatic Event Sexual Trauma Traumatic Memory American Dream Private High School 
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  1. 1.
    See Diane Wood Middlebrook, “1957: Anne Sexton’s Bedlam,” Pequod: A Journal of Contemporary Literature and Literary Criticism 23:24 (1987): 131–143, p. 137.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    All biographical information, unless otherwise noted, is from Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography, Anne Sexton (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), where Sexton’s breakdown is narrated on pages 31–40.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    His suggestion may have been prompted by the growing literature on poetry and therapy in Sexton’s lifetime, such as Smiley Blanton, The Healing Power of Poetry (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960); Jack J. Leedy, ed. Poetry Therapy: The Use of Poetry in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1969); and Jack J. Leedy, ed. Poetry the Healer (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1973). In this last volume, Sexton is mentioned by Ruth Lisa Schechter in “Poetry: A Therapeutic Tool in the Treatment of Drug Abuse,” where Schechter writes that Sexton’s poems were used in Schechter’s workshops when “survival was the theme” (17–23, p. 19).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In 1986, Diana Hume George wrote that the incest “may be true.” See “How We Danced: Anne Sexton on Fathers and Daughters,” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12:2 (1986): 179–202, p. 184. In a recent essay from Signs, Dawn Skorczewski cites only male critics who ignore the signs of incest in Sexton’s “Briar Rose,” while many female critics have ignored them as well. See “What Prison Is This? Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton’s ‘Briar Rose,’” Signs 21:2 (Winter 1996): 326–329. For example, two women critics deny the incest in essays from 1992 and 1994; see Karen Alkalay-Gut, “‘For We Swallow Magic and We Deliver Anne’: Anne Sexton’s Use of Her Name,” The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, ed. Mickey Pearlman (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992): 139–49, p. 142; and Jacqueline Banerjee, “Grief and the Modern Writer,” English: The Journal of the English Association 43:175 (Spring 1994): 17–36, p. 21. Finally, two critics resist confirming it; see Ellen Cronan Rose, “Through the Looking Glass: When Women Tell Fairy Tales,” in The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Dartmouth Coll., 1983): 209–227, p. 216; and Alicia Ostriker, “Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience,” in Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 3–18, p. 13.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Middlebrook, “Becoming Anne Sexton,” Denver Quarterly 18:4 (Winter 1984): 24–34, p. 23.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    In January 1973, Sexton told her friend, Maryel Locke, that she wanted a divorce, that her husband, Kayo, had beaten her and had recently beaten their daughter, Joy. Locke writes, “From then on I wondered what part Kayo’s behavior played in Anne’s emotional disorder.” See “Anne Sexton Remembered,” Rossetti to Sexton: Six Women Poets at Texas, ed. Dave Oliphant and Robin Bradford (Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1992): 155–63, p. 161.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    For example, both Jane McCabe and Suzanne Juhasz criticize Sexton for not being feminist, either because of her “flirtatious parading, her glamorous posing, her sexual exhibitionism” (McCabe 216), or because she fails to “realize and analyze the political implications of being both female and a poet” (Juhasz qtd. in McCabe 220). See McCabe, “‘A Woman Who Writes’: A Feminist Approach to the Early Poetry of Anne Sexton,” in Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics, ed. J. D. McClatchy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978): 216–243.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katharine Jones. (New York: Knopf, 1949), p. 105.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    In his essay, “Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Recollection, Reconstructing, Working Through” (1914), Freud first used the term “repetition compulsion” to refer to the actions of a survivor of a traumatic event, actions which seemed to him to be attempts to master the traumatic event. See Therapy and Technique, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan, 1963): 157–166, pp. 160–161.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961): 8–11. Also, in his Case Studies On Hysteria, through the case of Katharina, Freud shows how trauma is constituted through departure and return. From Freud and Breuer, Studies in Hysteria, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, ND): 125–134.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Pierre Janet first used the term “traumatic memory” in Psychological Healing [1919], vol. 1, trans. E. Paul and C. Paul (New York: Macmillan, 1925): 661–663.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Elizabeth Waites, Trauma and Survival: Post-Traumatic and Dissociative Disorders in Women (New York, Norton, 1993), p. 14.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    For a succinct summary of the research on traumatic memory, see Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992): 37–38.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Caruth, “Traumatic Departures: Survival and History in Freud.” Lecture given on 3 February, 1994, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    Long before Sexton, in both history and literary history, the woods have been characterized as places of sexual and racial danger: in medieval Europe, the woods were associated with pagan peoples and witches; in Puritan America, in a carry-over from the medieval fear of pagans, the woods become the place of the evil savages. See, for example, Ronald Takaki for an account of the demonization of Native Americans, in A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), pp. 40–44.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    The Politics of Survivorship: Incest, Women’s Literature, and Feminist Theory (New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 24–25.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    Judith Herman and Lisa Hirschman, “Father-Daughter Incest,” Signs vol. 2, no. 4 (1977): 735–756.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 26.
    See Erikson, Everything In Its Path (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 184; and Janis, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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