Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) by Linda Gray Sexton

Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide
About the Book:

As the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton, Linda Sexton witnessed her mother’s enigmatic presence but also her multiple—and ultimately successful—suicide attempts, which led her to struggle with an engulfing undertow of depression. In Half In Love, Sexton conveys with powerful and unsparing prose her urgent need to escape the legacy of suicide that consumed her family—a topic rarely explored, even today, in such poignant depth.

Linda Gray Sexton tries multiple times to kill herself—even though as a daughter, sister, wife, and most importantly, a mother, she knows the pain her act would cause. But unlike her mother’s story, Linda’s is ultimately one of triumph. Through the help of family, therapy, and medicine, she confronts deep-seated issues and curbs the haunting cycle of suicide she once seemed destined to inherit.

Linda Gray Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1953.   As the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Anne Sexton, she grew up in a home filled with books and words and an attention to language, and at an early age she, too, began to write. Afternoons were sometimes spent together with her mother, reading aloud from Anne’s favorite poems.

By the time Linda was an adolescent, she had begun to write poetry and short fiction seriously, and spent many special hours curled up on the sofa in Anne’s study, discussing her own fledgling work as well as her mother’s growing oeuvre.  Gradually, Anne began to rely on her daughter’s opinions, and dubbed Linda, “my greatest critic.”

Linda left her lifelong home of the east coast in the spring of 1989, and moved her family to Northern California, just in time for the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake.  There, while working in a soup kitchen, becoming Bat Mitzvah, and running a Meals on Wheels program for her temple, she finished her first memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, which was named a New York TimesNotable Book of the Year and was optioned by Miramax Films.In 1982, Linda and her husband moved to New York City, where she made a very brief foray into the world of writing soap opera, though throughout she stayed devoted to her love of fiction.  But her most important work was raising her two sons, who were born in 1983 and 1984.Linda graduated from Harvard in 1975 with a degree in literature, and then continued to live in the Boston area.  After the death of her mother, Linda became the literary executor of the estate at twenty-one and edited several posthumous books of her mother’s poetry, as well as publishing Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters.Concentrating at last fully on fiction, she published her first novel, Rituals, in 1981;Mirror ImagesPoints of Light and Private Acts followed over a ten year period.Points of Light was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Special for CBS television and was translated into thirteen languages.   

Having tea with film director Martin Scorsese in his home and discussing his interest in her book was a high point of Linda’s career as a writer.  Searching for Mercy Streetwill be reissued by Counterpoint Press in April 2011.  On the West Coast, with a big enough backyard at last, Linda added three Dalmatians to her family—the type of pet she had when she was a child.  She developed a passion for showing them in both the breed and obedience rings, and she bred and then whelped two litters of puppies on her own.  She and her new husband are avid sailors on the San Francisco Bay and own a sloop named Mercy Street.  

Sexton’s most recent memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, is about her struggle with her own mental illness and the legacy of suicide left to her by her mother and her mother’s family.  Through the help of family, therapy and medicine, Linda confronted deep-seated issues, outlived her mother and curbed the haunting cycle of suicide she once seemed destined to inherit.

In pre-publication praise, Erica Jong, author of “Fear of Flying” and “Seducing the Demon,” says:

 “In a country where someone commits suicide every seventeen minutes, where bipolar disorder is rampant and poorly understood, Linda Sexton’s beautiful book is a cry for health and sanity.  It willbring hope and understanding because it explains the way suicide blights families from generation to generation.” 

Joyce Maynard, author of “Labor Day” and “At Home in the World,” writes: “With brutal honesty and total lack of self-pity or sentimentality, Linda Sexton has dared to explore a subject more taboo than almost any other: not only suicide, but what comes after, for survivors.”

Linda is now at work on a third memoir, and lives in California with her husband and their Dalmatian, Breeze.

You can find Linda at http://www.lindagraysexton.com  You can find her other books on her website as well as articles and essays she has written. One that I particularly enjoyed is Along the Bridal Trail: Wearing a white wedding gown at fifty-six. 

Author Interview:

I would like to thank Linda for taking the time to answer the following questions. Some of the information can be learned while reading the book, but I felt it was important to bring some of the facts to my readers in the hope of encouraging them to read the book.

We all want to leave a legacy of love and laughter and perfectness to our children. After all of your research into your family’s history of bi-polarism, alcoholism, and suicide and how much of these disorders are passed on through genetics, does it frighten you to think that you may have no control over what is passed down to your children?

ANSWER:  Yes, of course it does.  I worry about my kids a great deal.  This is why I’ve been so upfront about the risks they face.  I want them to be on guard about all the signs and symptoms of these diseases.

 When the details of your suicide attempts were made public to your friends, what did you feel knowing that they knew you tried to kill yourself?

ANSWER:  Several of my best friends knew and came to the hospital to visit me.  I felt ashamed and embarrassed.  Suicide is so taboo—which is why I was determined to write Half in Love.  I wanted people to know what happens to someone who hopes so strongly to die.  And I wanted families and friends to feel comforted and less alone with the confusion of the situation.  It was very difficult for my friends to understand, though they wanted to.

 You mention in the book that after your mother died, her oldest sister and your father’s sister both committed suicide, and that you wondered about your cousins. Have you spoken to them about the legagy of suicide? If so, what has been their reactions?

ANSWER:  I haven’t been in touch with them.  They were very angry about Searching for Mercy Street and I haven’t spoken to them since the publication of that book, much less this one.

 “We took it personally because no one better educated in the torturous twists and turns of those half in love with death bothered to explain it to us in any other way.” Is this where the title of the book came from?

ANSWER:  Yes, that is part of it.  The rest of it is from the epigraph in the book, taken from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” which says: “many a time I have been half in love with easeful death.”  I wanted people to understand how easy it was to be partially in love with the idea of easing my pain, of finding a way out.  That pain is ferocious and the desire to die also.

 “As a child I had watched the way she made her illness into a career. The love and the attention her disease brought to her were plain to see. Once depression became subject matter, she began to write about it more and more openly in her poetry. It even won her praise and respect and to me that somehow felt unfair. The aspect of public acclamation confused me.” Did you feel your mother was “in love” with death? Did you feel that being a writer, perhaps she glamorized it?

ANSWER:  Yes, I did feel my mother was in love with death. She often said so, in both her poetry and in her life.  And yes, sometimes she did glamorize it.  But I think underneath she felt helpless before it.  If the medical possibilities had been different, with more and better medications available, I believe she would be alive today.

 Is there anything else you would like to add? Is there another book in the future?

ANSWER:  I hope that Half in Love will bring many people away from the cliff of suicide and closer to life.  That was my profound wish while writing the book.  Now I get innumerable emails from people reacting to the book, and all those who write tell me how much Half in Love means to them.  Apparently there are many people out there who connect.  And yes, there is absolutely another book in the future.  For a writer, there always is.

 Book Quotes I wanted to share:

In December of 1997, I fell into a pit of loneliness and sorrow and couldn’t climb out. I couldn’t talk with those I loved about my grief or my despair, so afraid that by speaking about such things, I would make them even more real. I worried, unconsciously, that even if I described the pain wrapped around my heart, I would not be heard. I worried, consciously, that others-no matter how close-would perceive me to be preoccupied with myself in unattractive ways. Who could really understand how I felt and refrain from making negative judgments about it all?

 I had nothing planned that night. Suicide simply came up from behind and took me in a bear hug.
 Unconsciously, my mother had bequeathed to me two entirely unique legacies, and they were inextricable and mysteriously entwined: the compulsion to create with words, as well as the compulsion to stare down into the abyss of suicide. Both compulsions have been with me for as long as I can remember.
 After my mother died, her oldest sister and her father’s sister both killed themselves, handing the legacy down and on to another generation in their own families. I wondered about my cousins.
 Perhaps in self-protection, perhaps simply in weariness, by the time I had reached late adolescence, I no longer took her attempts to die seriously, not did I feel compassion when she grew depressed enough to try. In fact, part of me simply wished she would succumb. There could be no peace with her engaging in such dramatic convulsions, and each attempt hurt us all: the big rejection, a slap in the face. We took it personally because no one better educated in the torturous twists and turns of those half in love with death bothered to explain it to us in any other way.
 Depression is a country with no borders. In my mid-thirties, just after my children were born, I found myself to be a citizen there. Having suffered a postpartum depression, as had my mother, I could not look back and see the safe ground where my life and I once were, where the lives of other people continued to move; my depression changed from the low-grade chronic variety I’d experienced for the majority of my life, starting from when I was fourteen, into what is termed the “clinical” form of the disease. I had vanished into the twilight zone.
 On Rituals, which was published by Doubleday: I had found a niche; confessional fiction instead of confessional poetry.
 To me, the phrase “wish I weren’t here” meant more than it might to another mother: to me, it could never be an empty or idle threat, even though Nathaniel was a markedly dramatic child, who might only be using the theatrical sound of the phrase to communicate his distress.
 I always promised myself that I would never wind up on a mental ward. That I would never have to have my stomach pumped. That I would never live, however occasionally, behind a locked door.
 “Why did you do it?” His voice reeked with an awful despair. “Why didn’t you tell me how depressed you were last night? I would have come straight home. When I think of all the years I tried to make sure this didn’t happen-“ he broke off; …
 The belief that love can conquer immense pain in the life of the ordinary person is another way in which the legacy of suicide continues to be handed down generation to generation, damaging all the family members. This misperception traumatizes those who experience the loss of someone close (certain that if they had only been more worthy, their friend, or family member would…
 (At the outpatient clinic) One of our exercises the previous day had been to fill out an hourly schedule for the approaching weekend, and then trade your sheet with the person next to you, w ho hopefully, would have some good suggestions. (Why the staff thought other disturbed people could provide answers to questions as large as these escaped me.) It made me feel depressed.
 (On writing the book) Yes, it always came back to the story-no matter how humiliating-because the story was just another aspect of my mother’s life and therefore of my own. yet I doubted, and worried that I would never grow strong enough to let it loose on the page. As J. M. Coetzee writes in his novel Elizabeth Costello, some experiences are too dangerous to be put into words-too dangerous for the reader, but even more dangerous for the writer, who may feel overtaken and undone by them.

 My Review:

 My mother would not allow me to date when I wanted to. My father would not let me drive the car. We all have the same thoughts; I am not going to be my mother or my father. I am going to be a better parent. But, what do you do when your mother is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the legacy she leaves behind is one of suicide? You do what any mother would do, you promise to be a better parent and a better person.

 But, what happens when your good intentions are derailed by bi-polarism and alcoholism? Linda Gray Sexton writes an amazing memoir depicting her life in “Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide.) This story is not for the faint of heart. It is a heart wrenching, soul-gutting honest accounting of a life filled with struggles. What do you do when those closest to you turn away because they think your depression and attempts to take your life are simply bids for attention? What do you do when your trusted psychiatrist decides you are too much of a risk to continue treating?

 When I was approached to review this book, I have to admit that the topic peaked my interest. I wanted to see if it would answer a question I had long been pondering. Why is it some of us come so close to the edge and then step back, while others take that last breath and step off the ledge and take that flight into oblivion? Is it our genetic makeup? Is it simply our cowardness? I soon learned there are huge differences between being depressed and wanting to die (those of us who step back from the ledge) and being “clinically depressed” and wanting to end your life.

 I do not want to simply read a book; I want the book to teach me something. I want a book to make me feel. I want the book to speak to me. Half in Love accomplished all. Linda Gray Sexton has a story to tell and she does not sugarcoat it. She sticks to the cold, cruel facts, even as she betrays herself as less than a human being and a horrible mother. Linda teaches us the truth of mental illness and the devastating effect mental illness has on families. The book does not glorify her mother’s mental illness or her own.

 Linda’s accounting of her life gives insight into the difference between depressed and being clinically depressed. She takes the reader through her day-to-day life and the dark debilitating depression from which she struggled, and how she reached the point where she stepped off the ledge and attempted to end her life not once, but several times. She shows us how many people manage to function in their daily lives with no one the wiser to the depths of their depression. Her story enlightens us to the effects her suicide attempts had on her children and their relationship. Linda also shows us through her story how she went to the brink and came back a stronger person and able to overcome her mental fascination with ending her life and her mind’s call to commit suicide.

 While I cannot begin to put myself in her place, I now understand more deeply about how a clinically depressed person thinks and how their thoughts can guide them either to attempt suicide or to successfully achieve the goal of ending their lives. Half in Love is an intriguing story and there were so many phrases that I wanted to quote to entice my followers into reading this book that I ran out of sticky notes (as noted in the photo). I think this book will help someone who has lost a love one to suicide or knows someone who is suffering from depression or bi-polarism. The book gives us insight into the mental anguish that humans are able to hide from the world, especially from those who know and love them. Every person is different, and every story is different, but there are common threads that weave throughout the stories of these individuals.

 In addition to writing about her own personal life, she also gives the reader insight into her mother’s (Pulitzer Prize winning author, Anne Sexton) illness and how her illness may have directly or indirectly led to her success as a poet. I definitely recommend reading this book and having finished it, I would now like to read Searching for Mercy Street, the prelude to Half in Love.

Notable Statistics (taken from Half in Love):

  • In the United States, someone commits suicide every seventeen minutes.
  • Nearly one million people worldwide take their own lives annually.
  • There is twice as much suicide in America as there is homicide.
  • Ninety percent of the people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness, such as major depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Mood disorders are medical conditions, just like diabetes or heart disease.
  • Fourteen million Americans suffer from a major depressive disorder each year, and 730,000 of them make a suicide attempt.
  • Suicide is the third-highest cause of death among teenagers, following by a small margin accidental death and homicide.
  • Fifty percent of wives caring for a depressed husband will develop depression themselves.
  • Adult children of depressed parents have five times the rate of cardiovascular disease.
  • Among the adult children of depressed parents, the rates of anxiety disorders and depression are three times higher than those of the general population.
  • The tendency to commit suicide is now considered to be partially heritable.


Disclaimer / Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book with no obligation for a positive review. No compensation – monetary or in kind – has been obtained for this post. Cover art and book description courtesy of the author, publisher, or PR firm.

Linda has graciously offered a copy of Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) to be given away to one lucky commenter.

For photos of the author and to enter for the chance to win a copy of the book, follow this link:  My Life. One Story at a Time.: Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) by Linda Gray Sexton

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