Did Anne Sexton's Therapist Help Her Poetry?

Expert analyzes famous poet's therapy tapes for clues to creativity.

Posted Apr 12, 2012

The tapes of poet Anne Sexton's lengthy therapy were first released by her psychiatrist to biographer Diane Middlebrook years after Sexton's suicide in 1974. Naturally, there was an uproar within and outside the psychoanalytic community. Middlebrook's biography was published in 1991.

Now we have a new book based on those tapes: An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton by Dawn M. Skorczewski, Ph.D.

An Associate Professor of English and Director of University Writing at Brandeis University, Skorczewski has authored books and articles about education and the connections between psychoanalysis and pedagogy, some of which have won awards. She listened to the last several months of tapes from 1963 and 1964—tapes that Sexton had hoped would help other depressed and mentally troubled patients—and sought out links to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's abundent creative output at that time.

You don't need to have any expert background in psychoanalysis, or in psychology, to appreciate the way Skorczewski puts together an intriguing narrative out of Anne Sexton's therapy tapes. Sexton hadn't been writing for a decade when she began therapy with Dr. Martin T. Orne, and he encouraged her to start again. She was 28 and he was 29 when she began seeing him two or three times a week for eight years.

We learn from the tapes that Orne refused to engage with Sexton over the specifics of her work, yet she wrote a lot about him and their therapy sessions. In some poems, she seemed to be writing FOR him, but he tried to keep her focus on her mental illness, her family, and her life, not on seeking his approval for her poetic output. Skorczewski writes,

Orne remained committed to the idea that Sexton should learn to feel special just for being herself. Neither her poetry nor her fame could be owned as aspects of her real self. But her children might be, as Orne's question about them suggested.

It's hard not to wonder whether that approach was precisely the best one for Sexton.

When Orne left for another state, which was very challenging for Sexton, the psychiatrist who replaced him wasn't as scrupulous. He had a lengthy affair with Sexton while treating her.

Did Orne cure Sexton of her mental illness? No. Did he help her find meaning and productivity in her life via the poetry? Clearly he did. It's quite fascinating to be a voyeur at their sessions, picking up Sexton's sometimes playful voice, her efforts to figure herself out, and Orne's often minimal responses and strict adherence to psychoanalytic formulae.

An Accident of Hope
Reading about Sexton's therapy, knowing that she later killed herself, is kind of sad. For those who love her poems, reading about her life and what was going on in her mind at the time she wrote them is likely to be enlightening.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry 

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