The Sinister Implications of Abuse within Anne Sexton’s “The Room of my Life”

Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Middlebrook

Like her Confessional peers, Anne Sexton’s life was filled with trauma and psychological torment. In addition to struggling with mental illness, Sexton openly wrote about being a victim of sexual abuse by the hands of both her father and her aunt. Although the process through which this revelation was made remains uncertain and controversial, Sexton herself believed she had been sexually abused, therefore her poetry should be interpreted as being written from someone who was indeed a victim.

Sexton’s “The Room of my Life” offers direct insight into how that abuse has impacted her. The poem is riddled with voyeuristic imagery of pervasive objects that appear to control the poet. She begins by introducing her life as a room and the objects contained within as items that represent her experience. The objects also seem to have their own sentience in that they seek to either objectify the poet or invade her privacy and body. She describes a typewriter as “an eyeball that is never shut,” most likely referencing the direct honesty in her poetry, yet the description here makes the typewriter appear as if it is always watching her (7). She also describes books as “a contestant in a beauty contest,” speaking on the objectification of her life experiences through her poetry as well as the objectification she feels she must submit to (8). Sexton notes a telephone with “two flowers taking root in its crotch,” likely referring to her sexual abusers and how their impact has rooted itself within her experience (18). If one takes the image literally, Sexton is then forced to communicate on the phone through the filter of these roots. This signifies the true insidious effects the abuse has on Sexton’s approach to relationships and how she interacts with the outside world. She also mentions “the lights / poking at me” (21-22). The lights that illuminate her room, a metaphor for her life, not only reveal these horrific experiences and help her navigate through them, but also taunt and violate her.

Two interpretations can be pulled from the last three lines of Sexton’s poems:

My objects dream and wear new costumes,
compelled to, it seems, by all the words in my hands
and the sea that bangs in my throat

(lines 33-35)

The first interpretation suggests that the objectification and abuse she experienced is internalized in a maddening way. She describes “the sea that bangs in my throat” as if a vast, violent mass assaults her from within. The second interpretation builds on the first but goes deeper to reveal how those experiences are in some way connected to the abuse that Sexton enacts on her daughter.

Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton

I originally intended this post to discuss the controversial, post-humous discoveries regarding Anne Sexton’s personal life. Diane Middlebrook’s 1992 book, Anne Sexton: A Biography, and Linda Gray Sexton’s 1994 memoir, Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, reveals the darker side of the famous poet as a dysfunctional mother who sexually and physically abused her daughters. However, after digging through several of the College of Charleston’s library databases, I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed article that directly addressed Anne Sexton’s abuse or the abuse she perpetrated on her daughters in relation to her poetry. Though Anne Sexton is not the first and only poet discovered to have predatory and emotionally manipulative behavior (i.e. T.S. Elliot), the deeply personal nature of her work demands that her life and her experiences be fully realized when approaching her poetry.

With this understanding of Sexton in mind, these last three lines hold much more sinister implications. A few lines prior, Sexton refers to “the world in here too,” establishing that there is a separate world within her room (30). But whose “world”? This marks a shift in the narrative that redirects the reader’s attention from Sexton’s “room,” or life, to a very specific space within it. Sexton also states “I feed the world” suggesting an almost parental connection between Sexton and this world. This and the knowledge of Sexton’s abuse of her daughter suggests that this world within her room is representative of her daughter.

In the beginning of the poem, Sexton writes “the objects keep changing” (3). However, in the end of the poem, Sexton writes “my objects,” suggesting that she now has control and ownership. These objects, as mentioned earlier, relate to both Sexton’s turbulent psychosis as well as the trauma from sexual abuse that caused her mental instability. Yet, now, “the objects” that torment her are now “my objects that dream and wear new costumes” (33). This seems to be an admission of creating separate objects, similar to those that torment her, within her daughter’s “world.”

This “sea that bangs” doesn’t simply assault Sexton from within but in some way drives Sexton to repeat that assault. She marks the similarities of her abuse and the abuse she enacts on her daughter stating her objects “wear new costumes.” In a kind of retroactive fashion, Sexton uses a passive voice to reveal that her objects are “compelled to… by all the words in my hands / and the sea that bangs in my throat.” From the earlier contexts of the typewriter serving as a voyeur that watches her life, “the words” Sexton refers to are her experience while “the sea” is the torment caused by her own assault. The final lines of “The Room of My Life” offers an internal exploration of how sexual abuse torments its victim long after the abuse itself as well as offering a framework to see the possible, twisted implications that abuse can have on the individual themselves.

Anne Sexton and her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton

This is not to say that Anne Sexton’s work should be “cancelled” and forgotten. In her own reflection on the sexual abuse she faced at her mother’s hands, Anne Sexton’s daughter states the necessity of her memoir and Middlebrook’s work to explore “this aspect of our story because it enriched understanding of her poetry” (“A Daughter’s Story: I Knew Her Best”). Rather, Sexton’s dual life, as both victim and perpetrator, creates even more meaning—one of which reveals how the abuse of women and children can evolve into greater forms of violence. To ignore Sexton’s complicated personal life, no matter how controversial and uncomfortable, not only negates the suffering of her family but, in strictly literary contexts, strips her poetry of its deeper complexities. Confessional poetry is largely concerned with the darkest, most uncomfortable aspects of the inner self. I believe that to ignore the unpleasant aspects of these poets’ lives, even the aspects that complicate our understanding of the poet as an individual, would be missing the point.

But that’s only my opinion. What do you think? If you’re now learning about Sexton’s darker side, how does that change your view of her poetry, if at all?

One Response to The Sinister Implications of Abuse within Anne Sexton’s “The Room of my Life”

  1. Prof VZ September 28, 2020 at 6:32 pm #

    Really incisive observations here. You do an excellent job of describing the ways in which “The objects also seem to have their own sentience in that they seek to either objectify the poet or invade her privacy and body.” But then your second interpretation of those final three lines relates back to Sexton’s own troubled record of both abused and abuser that I hadn’t thought of before. You write that “The second interpretation builds on the first but goes deeper to reveal how those experiences are in some way connected to the abuse that Sexton enacts on her daughter.” Your attention to the passive voice here is really key, sort of relinquishing her own culpability even as she offers a tacit admission not only of the abuse she suffered but of the abuse she also wielded. I found a really
    interesting piece on Medium (https://medium.com/the-establishment/when-the-sexually-abusive-artist-is-a-woman-b12f6fd49ece) that speaks to what you write about cancel culture:

    “Looking to an abuser’s art denies any other work the opportunity to move us, affect us, and change our lives. It is communing around something with hatred at the center of its core — hatred for others, hatred for ourselves — and keeps culture trapped in a horror of its own making. Sexton’s story is ultimately one of destruction; she died by suicide at age 45. Her abuse towards others was inextricably linked in her own irreconcilable pain, and it’s possible her art really was enough of an emotional outlet to prevent an earlier suicide or further abuse towards others. But to elevate it outside the realm of humanity and separate it from the hands that created it implies that the art itself is worth both Sexton’s mortal anguish and the anguish she embedded into the life of her daughter.
    It implies that art in general is worth the pain, suffering, and abuse that may exist in its orbit. In reality, the exchange is the opposite; life is what makes art worthwhile, not the other way around. Art exists for humanity to propel itself into power. Keeping abusers in power pushes humanity further into the shadows.”

    I’m not sure where I stand on this matter, but yes, it does certainly change the way I read Sexton.

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