The Legacy of Mercy Street Seekers

Ananya Mahapatra
New Delhi, India

 

The Sexton Family during happier times.
 Anne Sexton, her husband Alfred Muller Sexton II, and
daughters Linda & Joy

“In my dream, drilling into the marrow of my entire bone, my real dream, I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill searching for a street sign – namely MERCY STREET. Not there.” — Anne Sexton 1

In October 1974, Anne Sexton, the American poet famous for her signature style confessional poetry, committed suicide. Forty-five-year-old Sexton wore her mother’s old fur coat, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her car, and turned on the ignition. The mounting levels of carbon monoxide extinguished the life of a woman who had taken the contemporary literary circles by a storm; a woman battling long-standing mental illness and alcohol abuse; a woman constantly at war with herself.

A few months after her death Linda Gray Sexton, her twenty-one-year-old daughter, found a letter in her dresser drawer. At first sight of her mother’s handwriting, Linda believed it to be the suicide note, so glaringly missing at the scene of her mother’s death. It seemed unfathomable to Linda that her mother would leave this world without a word. Anne Sexton had made “a documentary out of her life” through her compelling and ruthlessly expressive poems. Linda had rushed her mother to the Emergency Department every time she consumed bottles of sleeping pills to escape the unceasing mental agony that encumbered her. It was difficult for her to grasp that in the end, her mother chose to leave them without notice; in silence, and in the solitude of her suffering.

The letter was indeed addressed to Linda, but it was written in 1969. However, it was not for her sixteen-year-old daughter. Her mother wrote it to a forty-year-old Linda of the future.

“I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother (wrote Anne) ….…And I thought of you—someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me. I know. I was there once. I, too, was 40 and with a dead mother whom I needed still.”

Although it was not a suicide note, metaphorically Anne Sexton was predicting the eventuality of her death to her daughter. She had assumed with matter-of-fact certainty that she would not be around to see her daughter grow old. For Linda, the letter brought back a deluge of conflicting emotions. But even then she was entirely unaware of what a letter written in the past by a dead mother to her forty-year-old future self would portend.

Linda, a writer and poet herself, had inherited more than the gift of words from her mother. In 1992, when she turned forty, she suffered from clinical depression so disabling that it felt like a constant physical pain. The looming shadow of her mother’s mental illness now became a part of her own existence. Cobwebs of self-destructive ideas drove her to contemplate suicide.

For years Linda had battled bitterness and self-rejection for being abandoned by her mother. But her mental affliction opened a window that allowed her to see her mother in a different light. For the first time she truly understood the magnitude of her mother’s pain. Gradually anger gave way to empathy. With this newfound understanding, she decided to write a memoir – Searching for Mercy Street-My Journey Back to My Mother.2 Published in 1994, it is a poignant account of a daughter trying to come to terms with the tempestuous life and death of her mother. Candid and as “confessional” as her mother’s poetry, it delves deeply into the way her childhood and subsequently her entire life was shaped by her mother’s mental illness. With this memoir, she has tried to answer a fundamental question:

How do we learn to accept and forgive those who have both succeeded and failed in helping us become who we are?”2

Anne Sexton suffered her first psychotic break after the birth of Joy, Linda’s younger sister. She was hospitalized for the first time after a suicide attempt when Linda was only three years old. Her mother’s psyche frayed under the debilitating forces of depression that made her too ill to take care of her children. She lashed out at them, reprimanded them for being “fussy & annoying,” and even hit and choked them. For years Linda and her sister lived under the muting influence of their mother’s spells of insanity. In this memoir she speaks to her readers in an empathetic voice, and at times with unflinching clarity, about the after-effects of the rupture in their mother-and-child relationship and the myriad of emotions that have emerged from it. She talks unabashedly of the intense resentment she felt towards the infant Joy, after whose birth she was sent away to live with other relatives since Anne was “too sick to be a mother” to two kids.  She painstakingly revisits the crushing sense of self-incrimination that made her believe that her demands for proximity and affection incapacitated her mother. The act of being sent away further solidified her fear of abandonment. It transformed her into a neurotic child who suffered from anxiety, recurrent nightmares, and sucked her thumb vigorously for reassurance. At a later age this fear also evoked an immense urge to gain her mother’s approval. Linda details how she would do her chores diligently, never got into any trouble, never invited her friends over to the house. At times, when she accompanied her mother on her book tours, she kept a watch over her and made sure she did not have too much to drink. The most innocuous occurrence could trigger a meltdown in her mother. A reversal of roles led to “parentification” of a daughter who donned the role of a caretaker for her mother, even though the weight of this responsibility stifled her.3

While her childhood was tethered to the ebbs and tides of her mother’s moods, there were also moments of unadulterated joy between them. Her devotion and a profound sense of awe for her mother’s creative genius is reflected in nostalgic accounts of her mother creating poetry out of mundane everyday occurrences. They bonded over the shared medium of poetry and language, and under her mother’s tutelage, she learned to discover and nurture the writer within her. From the age of eleven Linda began to write poetry. Her mother was her first audience and her best critic. But even though they had finally found a niche to connect, as Linda drew close to her teenage years her striving for independence conflicted with her mother’s constant demands for attention and companionship. When Linda went to a summer riding camp, she wrote frequent letters imploring her to come back sooner:

Linda, you are almost twelve. Please give me another year to grow up myself so that I can let you longer. Meanwhile, try to put up with me the way I am.”4

As her mother’s mental state steadily deteriorated with frequent self-harm attempts, it kept Linda in a state of frozen desperation, always looking over one’s shoulder for the worst possibility. Fear, anxiety, and resentment had finally given way to a kind of emotional fatigue. She yearned to get away from it all. Once she moved out to college, she experienced a sense of liberation. She firmly pushed her guilt away every time she failed to answer her mother’s calls, every time she skipped a meeting with her. This sense of guilt resurfaced with a vengeance after her mother’s death. After days of cold numbness, Linda began to experience symptoms of depression, which had once crippled her mother and wreaked havoc on their lives.

In another letter, her mother had written to her:

“You are my extension…For better or for worse, you inherit me.”5

The title of the book talks of “Mercy Street,” a metaphor evoked by Anne Sexton in one of her iconic poems. Mercy Street was a place where all of Anne’s conflicts found a resolution, a place she zealously sought till the end. After her death, Linda set forth on a journey of her own to seek “Mercy Street.” It was a journey backward. The resolution of a deep-seated conflict often lies at its inception. This memoir sifts through the travails of a young woman who seeks redemption beyond the chaos of insanity.

For mental health professionals, this book profoundly depicts how a parent’s mental illness confers psychosocial vulnerability on their children through insecure parental attachment. Mental afflictions often render a person incapable of fulfilling their roles. Lack of understanding about the nature of such illnesses results in misplaced anger, resentment, and guilt amongst family members, especially children. A chronic sense of rejection and internalized guilt results in a cycle of destructive symbiosis. Family members of such patients need to be educated early on, so that they can recognize and reconcile with the aftermath of a psychiatric disorder in their loved ones.

In her second memoir, which further charts her road to self-discovery, Linda wrote:

“We took it personally because no one better educated in the tortuous twists and turns of those half in love with death bothered to explain it to us in any other way.” [v]

This book reminds us that it is imperative to address the emotional needs of caregivers, which will have far-reaching consequences in facilitating them to come to terms with their loss without perpetuating a cycle of negative emotional states.

 

References

  1. Sexton, Anne, and Linda Gray Sexton. 45 Mercy street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
  2. Sexton, Linda Gray. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. Vol. 86. Counterpoint Press, 2011.
  3. Chase, Nancy D. “Parentification: An overview of theory, research, and societal issues.” Burdened children: Theory, research, and treatment of parentification (1999): 3-33.
  4. Sexton, Anne. Anne Sexton: A self-portrait in letters. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
  5. Sexton, Linda Gray. Half in love: Surviving the legacy of suicide. Counterpoint Press, 2011.

 


 

ANANYA MAHAPATRA, MBBS, MD, DNB (Psychiatry), is a psychiatrist working in All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. She has published many research articles in the field of psychiatry. She is also involved in creative writing, which helps her to communicate the narratives of people living with mental illness to the public. She has previously published her experience while treating patients in Hektoen International. Her short story “Confessions of A Neurotypical Mom” is to be published shortly in the anthology Twilight’s Children: Chronicles of an Uncommon Life.

 

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