Photo illustration by Miki Lowe
Anne Sexton began writing poetry at the suggestion of her psychiatrist. She became known for sharing the thorny details of her personal life—including her fraught relationship with her late mother, which she described as a complicated intertwining of love, abuse, and grief. In “Praying on a 707,” published in The Atlantic in 1972, she describes trying to talk to God as she ascends into the clouds on an airplane—but she’s distracted by thoughts of her mother, who seems to be as powerful as God himself.
In a 1967 postcard, Sexton wrote, “I believe the theme of the death of parents and thus the inherited life is everyone’s great theme.” It was certainly one of Sexton’s—not just the imprint of her parents, but also the “inherited life” of mental illness. Several of Sexton’s relatives were hospitalized for psychiatric illness, and her aunt and sister committed suicide. In 1974, at the age of 45, Sexton put on her mother’s old fur coat and took her own life as well. After Sexton’s death, her daughter wrote a memoir about their fraught relationship, alleging that she’d been sexually abused by her mother. Reading this poem with that knowledge, it seems immeasurably darker: not just a poem about the memory of a mother, but one about the destructive ways our families can shape us—and a testament to the ways our history can follow us.