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Anne Sexton: A Biography

4.15 of 5 stars 4.15  ·  rating details  ·  2,933 ratings  ·  91 reviews
Anne Sexton began writing poetry at the age of twenty-nine to keep from killing herself. She held on to language for dear life and somehow -- in spite of alcoholism and the mental illness that ultimately led her to suicide -- managed to create a body of work that won a Pulitzer Prize and that still sings to thousands of readers. This exemplary biography, which was nominate ...more
Paperback, 411 pages
Published October 27th 1992 by Vintage (first published 1991)
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tee
Jul 12, 2010 tee rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: i-own, poets
An interesting read, to say the least. About 8 or 9 years ago, several of my friends, after reading some pieces I wrote, said that my words reminded them of Sexton. I had never heard of her but at some point bought a volume of her collected works. Flicking through it one day last year, I realised I needed to know who this woman was so that I could understand what force drove the poems. This book certainly helped me understand the force and a lot of the imagery that Sexton uses in her work.

And n
...more
Jamie
It's a bit hard to imagine what another Anne Sexton biography might look like. I read this for the first time maybe two or three years ago, and remember thinking: 'what else could I possibly find out about AS's life?' This time around, however, I began to notice subjective directions Middlebrook had taken, paths, perhaps, another biographer would more powerfully emphasize or maybe ignore altogether. You can certainly hear the preference for a pseudo-psychoanalytic reading of her life and poetry ...more
Ashley
Feb 20, 2011 Ashley rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: any one who is curious to learn more about Anne Sexton.
Shelves: biography
This is a great book. It really makes me feel like I'm right there with Anne and her family. When the book describes her hard at work, writting poem after poem, it's like you are hunched over the typewriter with her. I can no longer just casually pick up this book to read on a lazy day; my head has to be in the right space, but I hope that I'll be able to do that again sometime soon. Perhaps in the summertime when the weather is fine and the sun is shinning I'll make my way back to this lovely b ...more
Writer's Relief
Diane Wood Middlebrook’s ANNE SEXTON: A BIOGRAPHY tells the intricate story of how the poet turned to writing to keep from killing herself. Through detailed therapy notes and transcripts, interviews with friends and colleagues, and personal files and letters, this biography chronicles Sexton’s life from her youth in Massachusetts until the suicide that took her life. Middlebrook explores Sexton’s time as a “socially acceptable” housewife, her disintegration into an abusive mother and seductress, ...more
Kate
Feeling insane? Read this and feel better about yourself.
Katie Dreyer
A fascinating read. I recently read Ian Hamilton's biography of Robert Lowell and gave it the same rating, but I think Middlebrook wrote a far better, more detailed biography. Anne Sexton was a complicated woman. She didn't start writing poetry till age 29 ('her rebirth at 29' she called it) and never went to college, although she would go on to receive three honorary doctorates. Her family life was difficult growing up and there is reason to suspect she was sexually abused. I have never been wi ...more
Kari
A fascinating and shocking biography of the controversial poet Anne Sexton. Struggling with complicated mental illness, Sexton began writing poems about her experiences as a form of therapy. She quickly experienced success as her poems were printed in leading publications such as The New Yorker. These poems were at times shocking, brutal and above all confessional. She became one of the leading confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s along with the likes of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Her ...more
Kate Forsyth
Anne Sexton is an American poet most famous for her intense, shocking and autobiographical poems and for having committed suicide, much like her friend Sylvia Plath. She had spent most of her 20s fighting depression and suicidal thoughts, and her therapist suggested she begin to write poetry to help her express her feelings. The suggestion was like a match to paper. Anne Sexton took fire, and wrote obsessively. Within a remarkably short time, she was one of America’s best known poets and had won ...more
Lisa Ann Gallagher
Middlebrook is simply a first-rate biographer. She manages to piece together all the ragged threads of Anne Sexton's life and work: the possible sexual abuse as a child, the postpartum depression that led to her first hospitalization, the affairs, the alcoholism, the immense talent and the galloping madness that would ultimately take the poet's life in 1974. There is so much background information here: Anne's surviving family, her doctors and her fellow poet-friends all provide much needed and ...more
Dorothée
I really enjoyed this insightful biography of one of my favourite poets. Although I do think it could have explored her actual poems a bit more and perhaps provide a schedule of her daily life, it was filled with many interesting and important details (highlighted by the extensive bibliography & sources used). I think I read somewhere that this is one of the most accurate biographies of Anne Sexton which I guess is true because Middlebrook evidently made sure to get in touch with as many peo ...more
Kitty with Curls
One of my grandmother's oldest friends was Sexton's closest friend at Smith & afterward. Also knew Plath & J.C. Oates. Now she has disappeared & won't talk to anyone from the old days, especially writers.

I don't blame her at all.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the description of the end of AS's life, especially what happened to her teaching & how her students responded to her disintegration.
Bill Yates
The book is candid, well researched, and well written, but be prepared for the description of a very sordid life. The question that remains unanswered is, what came first, Anne's mental illness or her bad behavior? Did her mental illness cause her to seek refuge in alcohol, chain smoking, pills, and promiscuous sex, or did those habits feed her mental derangement? Anne was in psychotherapy for most of her adult life. Talk therapy was greatly in vogue back then. It has been proven ineffective in ...more
Christian Engler
Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography of Anne Sexton was balanced and insightful enough so as not to be too intrusive; it is simple and direct, as I believe this biography ought to be. It could be much more. True. But that would somehow seem indecent. It is a written work that will tantalize many readers to want to know more of Sexton's earlier life and later chaotic often disgusting behavior. Anne Sexton did indeed have some major psychological problems. She envied Sylvia Plath's suicide and infli ...more
Meghan
Jul 12, 2007 Meghan rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: crazy local-poet types who don't think less of a person based on their mental illness
in a lot of ways, anne sexton reminds me of myself... if things had gone much, much worse in my earlier life... and if my issues went unchecked and untreated. she was beautiful, but lived a life full of insecurity, which is what so many of the women i know battle with daily. the so-called "confessional" aspect of her poetry was reinforced by the true-life experiences that fueked this creative, demented mind, making her poetry (which i already loved) come alive with new meaning.

this book was beau
...more
Nanako
After deciding that I wanted to research Anne Sexton for my poetry project at school, I knew I had to read this book in order to truly understand her and her tortured poems.
I am very glad I read this, but at the same time I regret it. There's something about her that inspires me to write but then again there's something that makes me afraid of writing, afraid that I'm too inexperienced and too sane to ever write wonderful poetry.

-Nanako
Kyley
This was a very thoughtful biography. Perhaps in part because Anne Sexton was such a dynamic figure, Middlebrook's book is immediately engaging and rarely dry throughout all 400 pages. Middlebrook treats Anne Sexton as a professional first; she provides a thorough discussion of Sexton's mental health and it's relationship to her art, but she never fetishizes Sexton's illness. When this book ended, I cried for Anne, which surely speaks to the strength of this biography.
Ilze
May 08, 2008 Ilze rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People interested in Sexton + poets
Diane Middlebrook knows her subject well, and Linda Gray Sexton (Anne’s daughter) attests to that in her book entitled 45 Mercy Street: A Journey back to my Mother: Anne Sexton. She might’ve received a lot of flack from the media because she not only revealed the identity of dr Martin Orne, who saw Anne for years, but also the contents of some of the tapes that were used during Anne’s therapy. Middlebrook knew how to be sensitive about her subject and so doesn’t reveal “too much”. In fact, th ...more
Ashley
To be honest, I never finished this book. I got about 2/3 of the way through, and then it just became quite dry, in my opinion.

Having been a fan of her poetry, I found it incredibly interesting to read about what prompted her to start writing poetry, and her lifestyle- it gave you a nice 'behind the scenes' look at everything. However, that thrill soon died off, and I found myself bored with the book.


A decent read for the first half, and maybe I shall pick it up again and finish the rest, but th
...more
Charlane Brady
Middlebrook provided much insight into the life of a woman plagued with mental disorders and an uncanny ability to write poetry about her life. She also provided insight about writing and reading poetry.

Sexton was a mad housewife and began writing to live. She did unforgivable things yet was a disciplined, intelligent, beautiful artist capable of as much love as she was destructive behaviors.

Anne Sexton is the poet of all poets. She paved the way for confessional poetry and is the reason I sta
...more
Amy
More than just what it was like to be Anne Sexton, Diane Wood Middlebrook gives a really accurate idea of what it would have been like to LIVE with Anne Sexton, to be part of her life. It would have been exhausting. Because of that, the book is, at times, exhausting. Sometimes I just felt exhausted to the point of being done with her, like "go ahead and get to the part where you kill yourself already." I don't recommend this book if you don't want to dig deep into Sexton's life or if you don't w ...more
Saul
A beautifully written book that shows so much understanding for all of the people involved in Sexton's life and, of course, for Sexton herself and her work. As a friend recently reminded me, the book is also ethically murky, as it was written in close collaboration with Anne's therapist Dr. Orne, breaking the patient/therapist code of conduct. Still, I am riveted by the complete portrait of an intriguing writer with a difficult personality and life. As Denise Levertov wrote after Anne Sexton's s ...more
Sissi Schiegg-Zeiser
I could not get through the whole book, the narrative tone stays on the same level throughout the book.
Persephone Abbott
The only reason I would not give this five stars is because of the subject of Anne Sexton herself. While I like some of her work, the majority of her poems are not very attractive to me, this is totally subjective of course as is my rating. The missing star is due to the fact that not having had much insight in Sexton's work or life previously to reading this bio, I wonder what aspects I would have liked to hear more about or perhaps less about. Nonetheless I thought this book covered just about ...more
Reading with Cats
Too much psychoanalysis. Didn't interest me at all. Skimmed about halfway through.
Bob
Diane Wood Middlebrook was given access to a large amount of personal information from the life of Anne Sexton including tapes of her psychiatric sessons. The writing of this Biography shows that and through this we get a detailed peek into the world of Anne Sexton. I learned much about her that I did not know before and I came to a better understanding of who she was as a person warts and all. We see the greatness she had and the flaws which we all have and is a part of what makes us who we are ...more
Litbitch
I rarely read bios, but I've had a thing for Anne Sexton, flawed as she is as a poet, since high school. Read this in grad school, when I was writing a paper on Transformations (her interpretations of several Grimm's tales - must read if you're into her). I never found this bio presumptuous ("she felt..", as if the author knows), and as almost every activity of her life was the result of her depression & fodder for her artistic inclinations, it never bored me.
Cee
What a woman, and this book takes no shortcuts. I loved the story and all of it's forthcoming details but somewhere in the middle it lost me. I felt like I was reading a list of accomplishments...does that even make sense? Anywho, I enjoyed it.
Telaina
This is a well-written book deserving of its National Book Award Finallist status from a craft standpoint. However, I feel Middlebrook is extremely unfair to Sexton and it is an outdated look at the life of someone who cleary (EXTREMELY CLEARLY) suffered from manic depression/bipolar disorder and was completely failed by her medical and psychiatric care. Middlebrook has much more sympathy for the psychiatrist Sexton "seduced" than she does for Sexton.
Mary Ann
Nov 05, 2007 Mary Ann rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those interested in poetry, mental illness
A compelling story of one of the most creative, troubled people I have ever read about. Sexton, despite her lack of education (she didn't go to college in the traditional sense), was a brilliant poet. Her ability to write poetry kept her alive longer than she could have survived, had she not written. Ultimately, her story ends tragically, but it is a fascinating portrait of a person beset by various demons, whose words live on.
Alison
"W.H. Auden remembered her whole approach to the English audience as 'ill-judged': 'When Anne had finished, she laid down her book, threw wide her arms like a pop singer embracing her audience, and blew them a fat kiss. It was in a hall that held about two thousand people, I should think, and they looked at her in disbelief and horror. It was the most grotesquely ill-judged gesture I've ever seen at a poetry reading.'"

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Middlebrook, who taught at Stanford for 35 years, was perhaps best known for Anne Sexton: A Biography. Its intense scrutiny of the poet's life made it "one of the turning points of late 20th-century biography," according to the newspaper. Middlebrook published several other well-received biographies and works of criticism, and was known for funding various arts organizations and literary salons fo ...more
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“If suffering like hers had any use, she reasoned, it was not to the sufferer. The only way that an individual's pain gained meaning was through its communication to others.” 29 likes
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