Degrees of Madness

For The Sunday Salon

I think I need to find myself a book to read that’s full of normal, sympathetic types who know how to crack a joke. Just lately it’s been wall-to-wall mad people. I suppose if I choose to watch the auditions for American Idol, I should know what to expect. And yes, the rare decent singer has been interspersed with a parade of plausible rogues, adolescent divas, some criminally insane and a great crowd of people who are scarily tone deaf. A classic case was a 16-year old girl who had been in the Idol version for children at 12 and clearly thought she was something pretty special. When the judges disagreed (unanimously and with their usual blunt charm) she pouted, protested, kept singing over the top of them and displayed all the signs of advanced delusion. Eventually she was persuaded to leave, accompanied to the door by Paula’s cries of ‘It’s all good. All good.’ Which was interesting, given that the next program on was a fly-on-the-wall documentary of Paula Abdul’s ‘daily life’, which featured a delightful clip of Paula pouting, protesting and declaring to the camera near tears ‘People are not treating me like the gift that I am.’

Why do celebrities agree to do these types of documentaries? I felt entirely neutral towards Paula Abdul before watching it, and now I think she ought to seek medical help. It’s a strange life when the people you call your best friends are your manager, your stylist, your lawyer, etc, and you expect these people to take complete responsibility for every detail of your day. The program featured a busy 48-hours in Paula’s life as she attended the Grammys in L.A. then flew overnight to Philadelphia to promote her jewellery line on QVC (I am so innocent televisually that I had no idea what QVC was). Paula’s entourage included two of the most completely hopeless female employees I have ever seen who were unable to do anything but repeat each other’s lame excuses, and an equally futile business manager with tumbling locks of suspiciously teased hair. All three sat around in a stretch limo, attached to mobile phones with helpless looks on their faces as Paula failed to emerge from the ceremony and the time ticked ever closer to their supposed departure. Where was Paula? No one knew and no one had any idea what to do about it. Eventually Paula appeared on the street, clearly accompanied by a film crew but equally clueless as to where her limo was. Crossing the street she was hailed by some blokes in a car. ‘You’re a legend, Paula!’ they yelled. ‘I’m a legend,’ Paula repeated to herself, and promptly tripped over the hem of her frock.

Matters did not improve when the group was finally reunited. The hopeless girls had packed skintight jeans and high-heeled boots for Paula’s flight when she wanted sweat pants and sneakers. With fourteen minutes to departure, Paula was laboriously unpacking her case in the middle of the airport concourse. She couldn’t find what she wanted either, and submitted to an uncomfortable and sleepless flight. Oh it was like watching a disaster movie only the cast was too inept even to die. How could anybody live this way? Paula snarled and cast blame around, the ineffectual employees/best friends looked apathetic, and so it continued, like Sartre’s play in which incompatible individuals are locked eternally together in a room in hell. Paula was not about to hire anyone who would be firm and clear with her about arrangements and neither was she about to take responsibility for herself. If sweat pants mattered to her, why couldn’t she have packed them herself?

Writing about Paula Abdul is very easy, compared to writing about the book I had intended to discuss here, Linda Grey Sexton’s memoir of her mother, the poet Anne Sexton, and I can feel myself continually edging away from it, pushing it carefully to one side. It’s been as compulsive to read as Paula was hypnotic to watch, but it was accompanied by a queasy repulsion for Anne Sexton’s toxic brand of mothering. There’s a moment early on when Linda Grey says that her mother ‘only attempted suicide nine times’ and that ‘only’ speaks volumes about the absolute necessity for the child to rationalize and contain what is wholly unacceptable. What’s strange is that, for me at least, the endless threat of suicide pales in comparison to Anne Sexton’s maternal crimes; forcing her children to mother her, obliging them to witness her every mad moment, transgressing every possible borderline in their private lives, abusing them physically and emotionally, and binding them to her with her wildly oscillating, inconsistent love. She was one sick woman, but of course her children were not able to understand that in any conceptual way. It is painful to watch Linda Grey struggling still in adulthood to find some stable, reliable piece of ground on which to base her own sense of self, away from the destructive influence of an overwhelming mother. It’s a very good book, but a harrowing read. And what I find troubling about it all as a reader (and I think this is the first time I can recall such a thing happening) is that I really like Anne Sexton’s poetry, which is generously quoted throughout the text. Her complete works have been in and out of my alibris cart this week as I’ve wavered over my buying decision. I’ll leave you with a little bit of her work, so you can appreciate her wayward, damaging genius.


Not that it was beautiful,

but in the end, there was

a certain sense of order there;

something worth learning

in that narrow diary of my mind,

in the commonplaces of the asylum

where the cracked mirror

or my own selfish death

outstarred me…

I tapped my own head;

it was glass, an inverted bowl.

It’s a small thing

to rage inside your own bowl.

At first it was private.

Then it was more than myself.

15 thoughts on “Degrees of Madness

  1. I see you are looking for a rarity in our obssessed with the crazy and ludicrous times – I mean’a book to read that’s full of normal, sympathetic types who know how to crack a joke.’ The trouble is we (I’m using this in its most generalised sense, as a society), seem to want or need this or are incapable of escaping what the big money-making corporations are thrusting upon us. Once what you describe about these programmes would have been send-ups on Monty Python or some such. Now they are actually ‘normal’! Anne Sexton is a different thing I think, because she produced important and lasting art, which says things about the human condition, but you could see the biographising of writers, etc as a forerunner to what is happening in the media now. The whole issue of the so-called confessional poets, which I don’t like as a label, adds further to this trend. By calling them ‘confessional’ it suggests we have access to their lives per se, when their poems are still art made from their lives, which in some complex and obscure way is what all art tends to be. Their style because it copies confession and is so obviously close to their life experiences is read as if it were merely a container for just that. If it were it could not be art. I’m tempted to read the Anne Sexton biography, but worry about my motives. I’m interested in the psychology it might reveal and what it might offer in understanding the poetry, but it is a form of invasion of the personal life. Would we be so interested if she wasn’t a significant poet. A lot of this is prompted because I’ve been reading various things by and about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, in particular the Janet Malcolm book about the biographication of their lives, which raises these issues. I know you have it and would recommend it

  2. I love Anne Sexton’s poetry, but I didn’t know anything about her personal life (I’ve learned that with poets I love, it’s better if I treat them as just their poems rather than real people), and now I’m very disappointed in her.😦 That sentence about suicide was just so sad-I’m blessed with an awesome mother, and I really don’t understand how people function well without one although of course they do. I can see how it’d be difficult to talk about a book like that.

    I had to giggle at your Paula Abdul discussion, though! My escapism TV runs more towards fashion (What Not to Wear, Project Runway, and recently Make Me a Supermodel) so I’ve never even watched American Idol. Sounds crazy!

  3. Dear Bookboxed – my take on it is that in times past people used to go to public executions and women sat by guillotines knitting for their entertainment. Now we have celebrities to watch. I wouldn’t read the biography as a way of getting into the poetry (although I can see why you might think that would help). It’s very much about a woman getting out from under the shadow of an unstable mother, and not really about art in that way. I do think Anne Sexton is a brilliant poet, and yes, her poems although they might be considered ‘confessional’ are clearly and distinctly literature, not life. Thank you for the encouragement towards the Janet Malcolm; I’ve wanted to read that for a long time and can see that I must.

    Eva – I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Anne Sexton before reading this, but I do like what I’ve read. And yes, there’s something about terrible mothering that is fundamentally upsetting! I haven’t watched the programs you mention, and I don’t dare start. The lure of escapist tv is like monosodium glutamate and fructose syrup – so good and yet so bad🙂

  4. It seems to be my day for telling stories about the children I’ve taught, but your tale of the way in which Linda Grey had to rationalise her mother’s frequent suicide attempts reminded me of another seven year old who was missing from class Monday and Tuesday and so when she turned up on Wednesday I said to her, “Have you been poorly, Lyn?” ‘No, Miss,”she said. ‘It wasn’t me, it was me Mom.” “Oh,” I replied. “Is she better?” ‘Oh yes, Miss. She tried to hang herself again, but she’s fine now.” We just have no idea what some children have to deal with, do we?

  5. Ann – you do have amazing stories today! That poor child, and yet what astounding composure. I wonder what happened to her in later life, and how she came to look back on her childhood?

  6. Your comparison of the Abdul scene to a Sartre play cracked me up! Sexton certainly is a good test case for figuring out just how much an author’s personal life should influence how we regard their writing! I generally think it’s best to separate the writing and the life, but Sexton certainly makes that difficult, if not impossible.

  7. “Normal sympathetic types who know how to crack a joke” seem to be in short supply these days, in the real world as well as in the literary world. But I agree, some sembalnce of normalcy would be a welcome change.

    I sometimes get fascinated with American Idol myself, for it seems like a performance in some strange theater of the absurd. However, the documentary (and I use that term very loosely) you described about Paula Abdul is indeed very disturbing.

    Having read and studied a fair bit about Anne Sexton in the past, I have found myself needing to set aside books about her in the midst of reading them, for her madness is almost too painful to contemplate for too long. As she wrote in the poem you quoted…”it’s a small thing to rage inside your own bowl,” but it inevitably spills out and become more than she herself (and her family) can take. As I wrote in my post today, I’m always interested in the way a writers life shapes their writing. In Sexton’s case, it’s almost a bit more than I need to know.

  8. Anne Sexton was a true artist. Paula Abdul never was any good (just listen to her songs). I’ve heard that she has addiction problems, but, honestly, I don’t really care.

    It’s terrible that Anne Sexton suffered from such severe mental illness. Back then, therapy was very poor, so everyone in the family had a horrible life. I can’t blame her for something that she often had no control over, but I do feel compassion and sympathy for her children.

  9. If you find any books full of normal sympathetic types please be sure to let us know. Paula is completely nutters, always has been if you ask me. Anne Sexton was completely nutters too but at least she could write good poetry. How profoundly messed up her children must be though. I mean, how can one possibly have any kind of normal mental and emotional life after having her as a mother?

  10. Dorothy – I’m glad if it made you laugh! I must say I had some fun writing it. Normally I read the work first and then maybe find out about the life. It’s just the way it’s turned out this time that I read the memoir first, although as you say, life and poetry are intertwined. I think you would feel extremely sympathetic to Sexton if you read her poems first, and then less so once one realises the cost on her family. Ravenous Reader – yes, I love that comment about the theatre of the absurd that is AI! I get completely hooked, I’m afraid. I hardly watch any television, but I have a compulsive thing going on with that program. I’m glad you said that about Sexton’s poetry; I’ve found myself often having to put the memoir aside because it is just too much. Char – hello and welcome. Yes, I think back in the 50s and 60s people understood far less well what happened inside the home of a mentally disturbed mother. It’s certainly not Sexton’s fault that she suffered as she did, I agree, although there are certain things she does that she might nevertheless have been able to think twice about. But still, who can say when not in the same position? Stefanie – LOL! I agree – the poetry is amazing. The fact that her daughter has a successful writing career and has brought up two boys healthily is pretty amazing also. It required a lot of therapy and struggle, though, by her account. Oh and I’m reading Digging to America by Anne Tyler as a palate cleanser, and I am happy to report an excellent percentage of sympathetic characters with just the usual eccentricities🙂

  11. I bought that book years ago but have not yet read it. I’m a huge fan of Sexton’s work and I think perhaps I can’t bring myself to view her through her daughter’s eyes. I highly recommend Diane Middlebrook’s biography of Sexton though. I don’t think that it minimizes Sexton’s behaviour and its effect on her family, but it’s got to be a much less painfully up-close view than her daughter provides. It actually draws on many hours of audiotapes of Sexton’s sessions with her psychiatrist, so it gets pretty deep into the nature of her mental illness.

  12. I have never read any of Anne Sexton’s poetry and am wondering what I will think of it – I like experiencing that tension in people who are not mentally stable and are also aware of that fact. (although it sounds rather horrible to admit that). I’ll be looking for your thoughts about the memoir when you do feel more like discussing it!

  13. Kate – I’ve been thinking about getting hold of Middlebrook’s biography (which Linda Sexton praises highly). I first read about the Sextons through the controversy surrounding the release of those therapy tapes. I must admit it is hard reading about her awful mothering, but I probably won’t be able to hold out on those collected works forever, so…. you can probably read in safety! Verbivore – no, don’t apologise, for it undoubtedly makes for fantastic art. I have a very interesting book, Touched with Fire, written by Kay Redfield Jamison which is all about manic-depression and artists and the significant correlation between mental illness and creativity. It’s an undeniable link.

  14. Positive proof that some people just shouldn’t be mothers and should focus on their art instead. (Oh, and don’t pick up MOMMIE DEAREST next, if you’re looking for that read you describe in your opening sentence.)

  15. Do you think poets are more mad than regular writers? Or does it just seem that way. I’ve always been curious about Anne Sexton, but never could bring myself to read about her. Where was her husband during all this? There must be some sort of creativity thing when it comes to madness–so many artists were just a little (or a lot) mad. Great for the art, not so great for the children. Only nine suicide attempts? That must have been great for her daughter’s self esteem. Still, you have to feel sorry for her–she must have been in agony.

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