Consorting with Angels: A Life of Anne Sexton

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BBC Radio 4, 17 January 2010
Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was well-known for her confessional poetry, which she took up as a way of coping with mental illness. After repeated attempts, she committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Consorting with Angels looked back on her life and work, with contributions from leading critics and writers, as well as Sexton's own daughters Joyce and Linda. We learned that her depression came about as a result of her upbringing; she had an inappropriate relationship with her father, which might not have been sexual but nonetheless had a profound effect on her unconscious, as well as her capacities in the future as a wife and mother. Sexton found it difficult to integrate with the world: her unconscious often took over her conscious mind, to such an extent that the police frequently had to be called to prevent permanent conflict between Sexton and her husband. Such conflicts were fuelled by a clash of expectations: in common with most males in the post-1945 period, Sexton's husband hoped that his spouse would undertake the familiar roles of wife and mother. However Sexton refused to conform: she not only wrote poems, but she pursued a series of casual sexual relationships and eventually became an alcoholic. She was a person of extremes - a great artist yet simultaneously unable to take control of her own life. Her suicide seemed somehow logical, as she eventually realized that this was the only way she could deal with her life.
Charlotte Austin's documentary pulled no punches; we learned how Sexton's children found her impossible to live with, and eventually moved out. It was only after her death that they could appreciate her state of mind, and how her poetry reflected her inner conflicts.
Since her death, Sexton has continued to attract controversy, particularly since the public release of tapes recording the therapy sessions between Sexton and her therapist, Dr. Ome, which reveal Sexton's inappropriate behaviour with her daughter Linda, her physically violent nature and her fights with her husband. However Consorting with Angels preferred instead to conclude with a positive assessment of her poetry and its brutal honesty.