An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton (Book Review)

Author: By Dawn M. Skorczewski
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 233 pp., 34.20, 2012.
Reviewer: Judith Harris

In 1956, Anne Sexton (1928–1974), one of America's best-known poets of the confessional school of poetry, was admitted to Westwood Psychiatric Hospital after being diagnosed with postpartum depression. Among other causes, it seems that Sexton's emotional and physiological vulnerabilities were made worse by the dynamics of being cast swiftly into motherhood.

Sexton's own childhood had been an unhappy one. Her father, an affluent businessman, was an alcoholic and highly critical of his daughters. Her mother, sociable and vivacious, apportioned love parsimoniously. Sexton always described her mother as taking “top billing” in the household. In contrast, Sexton's live-in Aunt Nana was soothing and uncomplicated, lavishing infantilizing attention on her niece when the young Sexton might have pursued accomplishments more appropriate for her age.

As a student, Sexton did not particularly excel. She eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II (Kayo), from a prosperous local family, just after high school. The couple moved back and forth between their parents' houses until Kayo went into the military service. Kayo then went to work for Anne's father in the garnetting business as a traveling salesman. During one of his absences, at her mother's insistence, Sexton began seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Brunner-Orne (the mother of Dr. Martin T. Orne, who would later become Sexton's analyst), who had treated Sexton's father for his alcoholism. In 1952, Sexton became pregnant with her first child, Linda Gray. Sexton's beloved Aunt Nana died in 1954. A second child, Joyce Ladd Sexton, was born a year later.

Admitted to Westwood Psychiatric Hospital after her second child was born, Sexton was referred to Dr. Martin T. Orne, who took over Sexton's case from his mother and treated her from 1956 to 1964. Sexton was seriously, even psychotically, disturbed and suffered from agitation, suicidal depression, and fits of feeling “unreal.” However, unlike most of the patients at Westwood, Sexton was not diagnosed as schizophrenic, and Orne sought her release from the hospital so that she could start seeing him as an outpatient from two to four times a week.

The relationship between Anne Sexton and her therapist, Dr. Orne, is one of the most intriguing in psychiatric literature and is the topic of Dr. Dawn Skorczewski's excellent book, An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton. Skorczewski analyzes the efficacy of the Sexton-Orne treatment as it related to her poetry, and many of the cultural myths surrounding psychoanalysis. The significance of the audiotapes of Sexton's private therapy sessions is the focus of Skorczewski's study, including how they became public in the first place and Dr. Orne's stunning role in bringing them forward.

Sexton's story as a psychiatric patient contradicts artistic fears about the anticreative power of psychotherapy. Sexton found her calling as a poet as a direct consequence of her treatment and—arguably—as a result of Orne's “innovative” treatment to help Sexton compensate for memory fugues that afflicted her whenever there was talk about close relationships that elicited internal rage, aggression, or anger. Skorcewski brings into relief the cultural implications of women being treated for mental illness in America in the mid-1960s. In such a climate, women were expected to behave and speak modestly and deferentially, often subjugating their own desires for independence and power to the men they married or consulted as authorities. Women's roles as sexual objects, magnified by film stars, went uncontested in most social circles. Although the diagnosis of “hysteria” was struck from diagnostic manuals, women were often met with the same stereotypes by male psychiatrists. Some never altered their view of female patients as unmanageable, views that were the focus of intense criticism by feminists in the decades that followed Sexton's treatment with Orne.

Skorczewski's work with the transcripts of Sexton's private therapy sessions refuses any prurient interest the reader may have in Sexton's flamboyant character—or the melodramatic features of her suicide. With her extensive knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, Skorczewski is able to make lucid comparisons between Orne's clinical approach, which relied heavily on Freudian theory and its later expression as ego psychology, and contemporary theories of analysis that she argues provide superior modalities for treating mental illness and depression. Thus, she sums up the intended argument of her book in her interview with Helen Epstein:

I tried to show how the therapy influenced the poems, and how the poems, less obviously, pointed to new directions that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis would take in the decades to follow. (8).

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