I just finished reading Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide by Linda Gray Sexton. Linda is the oldest daughter of Poet Anne Sexton who suffered from chronic undiagnosed mental illness and attempted suicide many times throughout Linda’s childhood. She finally succeeded and killed herself when Linda was 21 and a senior at Harvard. Linda’s lifelong struggle with depression, alcoholism, medications and 2 serious suicide attempts is vividly retold in the book. Despite being continually abandoned emotionally and physically by her mother, Linda is slowly drawn into repeating the very same behavior with her own children and family. While she knows first hand the pain that suicide leaves with those left behind she cannot resist the desire to reconnect with her mother even if it means her own destruction. The book opens with Linda’s first serious suicide attempt 6 months before she would turn 45. This is significant because her mother’s suicide was only 1 month before her 45th birthday. This can’t help but make me reflect on my upcoming 45th birthday this year and my brother Mike’s suicide less than 1 month before his 46th birthday. In a little over 1 year’s time I will be older than my big brother and time will continue on like that for the rest of my life. Linda’s detailed descriptions of her life at her lowest points also resonated strongly with me. Any reader will recognize the personal human pain she feels and lays out so unselfconsciously whether they are dealing with a depressed loved one or if they’ve traveled a similar path themselves. The book gives an eloquent voice to those who most need to be heard but because of their situations cannot get the words out.
Now I find myself wondering what kind of emotional legacy my brother and I received from our own mother. When my daughter was born my dad compulsively evaluated and criticized every single choice we made with her. I knew enough to ignore his advice even if it meant arguing over every single one. I now realize that he probably did the very same thing with my mother when my brother was born. As a new mother in a relatively new country I’m sure she had all the normal insecurities in her ability to care for her infant son. I have no doubt that my father was unable to let her find her way on her own. I can see him trying to control every single thing she did with the baby from the very start. She must’ve felt so inadequate when comparing herself to her professional Psychologist husband. Surely he knew what he was talking about! I can imagine how defenseless and alone she would have felt. Eventually my mom withdrew from the family and let my dad cast her as the enemy. I was quite young when my dad started to tell us that it wouldn’t take much for my mother to become an alcoholic. I guess that this was to undermine our trust in her and scare me especially into wanting to be on his side. It was very important in my family to take sides. I was very aware that it was my father and I versus my brother and my mother in a lot of ways. How did this dynamic play out as we got older and my brother started getting into trouble all the time? My parents always fought about my brother. My dad would rage and blame my mother for Mike’s every fault. She loved Mike through it all but of course just having her love wasn’t enough for him in the end. It was damaged goods.
I guess the question now is not what emotional legacy will I pass onto my own daughter but whose?
Thank you to award-winning author Linda Gray Sexton for sponsoring this series, which is inspired by her memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.
To learn more about Linda Gray Sexton and her writing, please visit her website.