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Ideas

Q&A

What Anne Sexton told her psychiatrist

A new book mines the poet’s confidential therapy tapes. Author Dawn Skorczewski of Brandeis University explains why.

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Dawn Skorczewski used Anne Sexton’s therapy tapes for her new book, “An Accident of Hope.”

In 1974, when poet Anne Sexton committed suicide at age 45 at her home in Weston, her groundbreaking, confessional work had already earned her a Pulitzer Prize and made her one of the best-known writers in America. In her unrelentingly personal poems, she mined childhood traumas, mental illness, and the years she spent in intensive psychotherapy.

Her poetry wasn’t the only thing to survive her death: Her therapy did, too. Starting when Sexton was 28, a young mother struggling with mental illness but not yet a published poet, she began seeing a Boston psychiatrist named Martin Orne two or three times a week. In 1960, he began tape-recording their sessions, instructing Sexton to transcribe them to help her reflect on their work together.

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Years after Sexton’s death, Orne passed these tapes on to biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook. When Middlebrook published her 1991 biography of Sexton, which made significant use of the tapes, both the therapeutic community and the reading public exploded with outrage. It’s a basic tenet of the field that the details of therapy are supposed to remain confidential. Medical ethicists accused Orne of betrayal; Sexton’s daughter and poet friends defended him, saying that he had only done what Sexton would have wanted. The biography, which became a best-seller, until recently remained the only book on Sexton that made use of the tapes.

Now, Dawn Skorczewski, an associate professor of English at Brandeis University who has also studied psychoanalysis, has written a new book using the tapes for a different purpose: to explore the relationship between Sexton’s therapy and her poetry. In “An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton” (Routledge), Skorczewski examines the last six months of Sexton’s regular therapy with Orne, in 1963 and 1964.

Sexton’s relationship with Orne was transformative. Orne encouraged her to begin writing poetry again after a 10-year break, and Sexton found almost immediate success: She enrolled in a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education in 1957, then took a seminar at Boston College with Robert Lowell, and in 1961 her first collection was nominated for the National Book Award.

In 1964, Orne moved to Philadelphia. Sexton’s next therapist started a sexual relationship with her that continued for years--another bombshell revelation in Middlebrook’s book. Orne went on to be recognized for his work on hypnosis and brainwashing, testifying on behalf of the kidnapped Patricia Hearst in her trial in 1974, the same year Sexton committed suicide.

Skorczewski spoke to Ideas from her home in Cambridge.

IDEAS: Did you feel conflicted about using tapes of a patient talking to her therapist?

SKORCZEWSKI: I heard Sexton say to Orne several times, “I hope that somebody can use this one day,” or “I hope this can be useful,” about the tapes. So she clearly had the idea that if her personal pain, as it was articulated on the tapes, and also her work with her therapist could be helpful to patients or clinicians, that would make her happy; that would feel good to her. And that conclusion corresponds exactly to what we know about Sexton, which is that her personal life was the raw material of her poetry.

IDEAS: The tapes were a huge controversy when Diane Middlebrook published her biography. Is the therapeutic community still upset?

SKORCZEWSKI: I was talking a little bit about my book in New York a few months ago, when there were some psychoanalysts in the room, and one of the analysts became really angry that we were talking about this case at all because she felt we shouldn’t have access to it. So it’s still quite raw for analysts.

IDEAS: Why did Orne suggest she start writing?

SKORCZEWSKI: Orne said to her, “One of the ways people get well is by having something to do. What is it you think you could do other than being a mother?” She said, “Well, the only thing I think I have a talent for is to be a prostitute, because I think I could make men feel sexually powerful.” And Orne said, “Well, I don’t think that’s the best use of your talents, so let’s think about other options. Have you ever tried writing? Maybe if you wrote about your experiences you’d be helpful to other people.”...Orne did not know then that Anne stopped writing poetry years before when her mother falsely accused her of plagiarism. He helped her emerge from that silence....He reminded her that she had been a writer.

IDEAS: How did the therapy affect her poetry?

SKORCZEWSKI: Most of the first poems that she wrote after she and Orne discussed her becoming a poet were about therapy....If you look at her very first poem in her very first book, “To Bedlam and Part Way Back,” it is “You, Doctor Martin.” The first line is: “You, Doctor Martin, walk from breakfast to madness.” That use of “I, you”--I am the poet, you are the doctor--is the speaker/listener relationship that shapes a lot of the poems in that first volume. Another poem is called, “Said the Poet to the Analyst.” In that poem, the speaker says, “My business is words” and “Your business is watching my words.” She makes the poet the more creative person.

IDEAS: And yet you find that Orne was unwilling to discuss Sexton’s poetry.

SKORCZEWSKI: He thought that if they talked about her poetry, they’d get sidetracked from her real troubles, which were about her mental illness, her struggles at home with her children and her husband, her problems with sleeping, and especially not living a life that would be worthwhile, productive, and manageable.

IDEAS: Do you think that was a fruitful tactic?

SKORCZEWSKI: I’m ambivalent. When I hear them talking about a poem together, it seems like Sexton is at her best and it seems to help her a lot.

IDEAS: Yet despite his unwillingness to engage, she kept writing.

SKORCZEWSKI: The therapy helped her become a much better poet than she would have been otherwise. It also gave her confidence. The fact that Orne helped her find something to do with her life, something she was really good at, gave her the self-esteem to apply for grants, to travel to Europe, to go out into public to read, to meet people she wouldn’t have met.

IDEAS: What did Orne and Sexton accomplish over their years of work together?

SKORCZEWSKI: In one of their final sessions before Orne left Boston, Sexton...says in essence, that’s what we did, we gave birth to me: “the discovery of a human being.” That was pretty moving to hear....Towards the end of the treatment, she was on the one hand feeling really bereft and upset that the therapy was ending, but on the other hand she had grown a lot....One has a sense of what she might become. We could say he helped her as much as he could given his own limitations and the limitations in the field of psychiatry at the time.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.

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