Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide by Linda Gray Sexton

I was approached by TLC Book Tours to review Half In Love by Linda Gray Sexton because I write a lot of posts about poetry (thanks to Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit for recommending me).  Even so, I hadn’t read much poetry by Anne Sexton and my knowledge of the Sexton family history was minimal.  I went into this book knowing next to nothing except the title and I just have to tell you up front that this book floored me.  It has  done what all good books should – changed my perspective.

Linda Gray Sexton grew up watching her mother’s multiple suicide attempts until she finally succeeded when Linda was in college.  Linda makes a pact with her sister and she promises her own children later in life that she will never be like her mother.  But the legacy of suicide and her depression ends up being too much for Linda and she eventually tries to commit suicide three times before finally getting the help she needs.

Even though this is a memoir, Half in Love often reads like poetry. Linda Gray Sexton  writes beautifully and honestly. I don’t know that I’ve  ever encountered a more honest memoir. This is a book that not only served as a way to heal for Linda, but as a way to change the way people think about suicide and depression. This is a view from the inside out and it is remarkable.

Depression is a disease that affects everyone, not just the one who suffers from it, but everyone they are close to as well. Unfortunately, the most common reaction seems to be frustration and anger.   I have had those thoughts, I will admit it. But I never will again. Linda Gray Sexton has changed that for me. I can say now that I have a broader perspective on depression and suicide than I did before. Half in Love is beautifully written, heartbreakingly honest and an invaluable as a resource for everyone who has experienced depression or who knows someone who is suffering from depression.

This is a memoir, not a scientific non-fiction book. Linda Gray Sexton does not include many facts about depression or suicide, but instead focuses solely on her own experiences.  She documents how this disease was and is for her. Reading this memoir made me eager to learn more about the more scientific and medical/psychological facts about depression. Memoirs like this, and like Losing My Mind by Thomas DeBaggio are so important because it’s so difficult for someone who has not experienced a psychological disease to understand what it is like to be under the power of one. How many times did I get frustrated and angry with my great-grandmother for her Alzheimer’s instead of being understanding? Too many.

Favorite quotes:

“Unconsciously, my mother had bequeathed to me two entirely unique legacies, and they were inextricably and mysteriously entwined: the compulsion to create with words, as well as the compulsion to stare down into the abyss of suicide. Both compulsions have been with me for as long as I can remember.” (23)

“Just as [my mother] interlaced fragile words of poetry among the sweet and spicy, so did she weave stories into the very texture of our lives. A story here, an image there: she built her tales out of daily ordinary events to which she gave no less weight than the tale of a daughter’s maturation, or an elegy for her parents, or a villanelle cooked up in Robert Lowell’s class. These were often the topics that her poetry introduced to the reading public […].

As a child I had watched the way she made her illness into a career. The love and the attention her disease brought to her were plain to see. Once depression became subject matter, she began to write about it more and more openly in her poetry. It even won her praise and respect and to me that somehow felt unfair. The aspect of public acclamation confused me. Though I hated her insanity, she was coining this shameful aspect of the illness and eventually she would be able to support herself financially upon it. Sadly, I realized that I wanted to be able to rise up someday and spin the straw of my own misery into gold, just the way my mother did. Sadly, I also realized I wanted none of it.” (47)

“I’d thought I could pick the sort of mother I would be, as simply as I might pluck events or holidays from a river of experience. I’d thought I could consciously choose the foundation on which I would build the style of my mothering. I’d thought that decisiveness and self-control were the ways we shaped our futures; if those futures were handed down from generation to generation, then to succeed at changing them was still within reach with the application of a little bit of effort. It didn’t occur to me then that there was some secret code in both learned behavior and genetic, biological expression that was embedded within us. I could not see that these two factors might actually govern what I did, and what kind of mother I would be, regardless of how I strove to aim at a particular vision of myself in this role. I began to discover, slowly, that it was not a question of pure willpower.” (67)

“The belief that love can conquer immense pain in the life of the ordinary person is another way in which the legacy of suicide continues to be handed down generation to generation, damaging all family members.  This misperception traumatizes those who experience the loss of someone close (certain that if they had only been more worthy, their friend or family member would have loved them enough to bear the suffering), and it also becomes an obstacle for those who survive the attempt to end their own lives. I would guess that even now my father and my sister must still suppress some rage at this idea in a private, silent way: they are angry that my mother did not care enough to put them and their feelings first. It became an issue of love, when really, it should have been seen as a barometer of pain. Despite my former fantasies about dedication and worthiness, I now believe that by committing suicide, my mother simply bowed out from under the hurt in her life.” (216)

This memoir is important, it’s beautiful, but it is often difficult to read because it can be so upsetting. I hope that won’t deter many people from reading this important memoir.

So go read  this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.
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7 thoughts on “Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide by Linda Gray Sexton

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. I really appreciate your posts about poetry, they are an inspiration. The connection between creativity and depression has alway interested me and I will definitely read this book. It is important to learn about this disease and other mental illnesses, to share thoughts and even share stories.

  2. Thank you all so much for “getting” the message of my book. Suicide is still a taboo sujbect and we need to talk about it to prevent further escalation of the suicide rate and misinformation from being spread. I tried to write honestly and openly and the reaction of readers like you make me glad I did. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing comments like these and knowing I have succeeded in reaching you. THank you so much for reviewing Half in Love, and thank for the wonderful posts. I will keep blogging about all this on my website, lindagraysexton.com. I hope you’ll join me there. Cheers!

  3. I have this one to read too! I was so freaking excited to get it as I’ve always loved Anne Sexton and it’s really an honor to be approached to review this one. Sounds like such a beautiful, important, honest book and I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the beautiful review, Lu.

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