“This Kind of Hope”: Anne Sexton and the Language of Survival

  • Cassie Premo Steele


It might seem strange to begin our examination of the healing process with the example of a writer who was ultimately unsuccessful at healing. Or was she? As we will see, many critics point out that Sexton’s life ended in suicide and they take this as evidence to support their own negative assessment of Sexton’s life and work. But the distinction between life and work, which we explored in the first chapter, must be attended to again here, as we now turn to Sexton’s attempts at healing. We will see how, while her life ended in suicide, her work was filled with creative endeavors to survive. Through her poetry, Sexton not only shows progress in the processes of remembering and reconstructing of trauma, but moreover, she invents a language of survival, a language through which she—still—survives.


Fairy Tale Traumatic Memory Cultural Critic Childhood Sexual Trauma Ideological Structure 
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  1. 1.
    The term “progression” is from Alkalay-Gut; “mouvement d’expansion” is from Cunci; and George calls Letters to Dr. Y a “sequence from sickness to cure.” 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. 140; Marie Christine Cunci, “Anne Sexton (1928–1974), ou comment faire taire Jocaste,” Revue Francaise d’Etudes Americaines 7:15 (Nov. 1982): 383–394, p. 392; Diana Hume George, “Death Is a Woman, Death Is a Man: Anne Sexton’s Green Girls and the Leaves That Talk,” University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Criticism, 18:1 (1986): 31–44, p. 32.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Suzanne Juhasz, “Seeking the Exit or the Home: Poetry and Salvation in the Career of Anne Sexton,” in Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 303–311, p. 304.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Diane Wood Middlebrook, “Poet of Weird Abundance,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 12–13:2–1 (Spring–Winter 1985): 293–315, p. 295.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Alkalay-Gut, cited above, calls “Flee on Your Donkey” a “pivotal poem” (145), while Middlebrook, cited above, presents it as a transitional poem on the perspective of illness, where the speaker is not a victim but an interrogator of her illness (296, 298). Cunci, also cited above, sees Transformations as a turning point where Sexton leaves personal confession behind for something larger (392), and Leventen points out that Sexton focuses on social context, not individual psyche in Transformations; see Carol Leventen, “Transformations’ Silencings,” in Critical Essays on Anne Sexton, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989): 136–149, p. 139.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    The connection between Sexton and Woolf, of course, does not stop here, as both were survivors of childhood sexual abuse as well as brilliant writers and suicides. See Louise DeSalvo’s groundbreaking biography, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work (Boston: Beacon, 1989).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    The term is from Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    For more on the specific nature of traumatic memories as “frozen images” see Lenore Terr, Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories Lost and Found (New York: Basic Books, 1994), especially pages 41–60.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    “What Prison Is This? Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton’s ‘Briar Rose,’” Signs 21: 21 (Winter 1996): 309–342.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Among those who address the melancholic themes in Sexton’s poetry are Diana Hume George, “How We Danced: Anne Sexton on Fathers and Daughters,” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12:2 (1986): 179–202, pp. 184 and 193; Susan Adler Kavaler, “Ann Sexton and the Daemonic Lover,” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 49:2 (June 1989): 105–14, p. 113; Caroline King Barnard Hall, who writes of Bedlam as about loss: “The speaker, surviving, is diminished, and that survival is not, or is barely, worth the effort”—“a sense of guilt at having survived” in “Transformations: A Magic Mirror,” Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, ed. Frances Bixler (Conway, AR: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988): 107–129, p.122; and Banerjee, throughout. Hilary Chark, in particular, reads Sexton’s poetry as a tool for healing from melancholia, but identifies the “lost object” as the mother, in “Depression, Shame, and Reparation: The Case of Anne Sexton,” in Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing, eds. Joseph Adamson and Hillary Clark (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999): 189–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 19.
    For more on melancholia, see Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” and “Negation,” in General Psychological Theory (New York: Collier, 1963): 164–179; 213–217. See also Melanie Klein, Contributions to Psycho-analysis 1921–1945 (London: Hogarth Press, 1948): 282–338.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    It has been found that “depression is the most commonly reported symptom among adults who were molested as children,” writes Arthur Green in “Childhood Sexual and Physical Abuse,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, ed. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 577–592, p. 581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 21.
    See Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, “Deuil ou mélancholie: Introjecterincorporer” in L’Ecorce et Le Noyau (Paris: Flammarion, 1987): 259–275, p. 272, my translation.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    See Deborah Nelson, “Penetrating Privacy: Confessional Poetry and the Surveillance Society,” in Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home, ed. Catherine Wiley and Fiona R. Barnes (New York: Garland, 1996): 87–114, for a discussion of how Sexton’s poetry breaks down the barriers between private and public discourse.Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    Eniko Bobolas, “Woman and Poet? Conflicts in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton,” in The Origins an Originality of American Culture, ed. Tibor Frank (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1984): 375–383, p. 381–382.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    Lenore Walker, The Battered Woman (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. ix. Judith Lewis Herman also notes that “Numerous studies have now confirmed the strong association between wife-beating and sexual abuse of children,” which leads us to read Sexton’s poem as more than personal—perhaps intergenerational. See Herman, “Father-Daughter Incest,” International Handbook of Traumatic Stress Syndromes, ed. John P. Wilson and Beverley Raphael (New York: Plenum Press, 1993): 593–600, p. 593. In the same letter quoted previously, Sexton touches on the possible connection between incest and domestic violence when she writes: “no sex (well maybe twice a year but it was always when we were away—kind of like taking your daughter away to have an affair with her),” which indicates that she saw her marriage as a repetition of a sexual relationship between father and daughter. From Sexton Collection, Box 26, HRHRC.Google Scholar
  16. 29.
    Klein, Contributions to Psycho-analysis 1921–1945 (London: Hogarth Press, 1948), pp. 330–331.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    See “Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience,” Sexton: Selected Criticism, ed. Diana Hume George (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 3–18, p. 8.Google Scholar

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© Cassie Premo Steele 2000

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  • Cassie Premo Steele

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