'60s-era poetess Anne Sexton and her husband Kayo 'rip themselves apart on purpose.'
If there is a true, unequivocal love story in Anne Sexton's life, it is the one between her and her unabashed, unheeded pursuit of the written word—despite her lack of formal education, despite her family's discouragement, and despite her own crippling mental illness.
The love story between literature and the famed ‘60s-era poetess—best known for her confessional style, her friendship with Sylvia Plath and her dramatic suicide by self-asphyxiation (she died in her car in her locked garage with a glass of vodka while wearing her mother's favorite fur coat)—is often played out in biographies and manuscripts, and through letters exchanged with her fans, idols, and friends.
There is also another wildly interesting, complicated, sordid, and sometimes ugly story of love in her life as well: the one between Anne and her husband, Alfred "Kayo" Sexton.
The couple eloped when Anne was only 19 years old and had no interests other than becoming a housewife and a mother. It was after the birth of her first child that Anne began making regular suicide attempts and experiencing severe mental breakdowns. She began writing poetry for therapy and quickly catapulted into one of America's most beloved poets, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her poetry collection Live or Die.
Kayo mainly rested in the shadows—a traveling salesman who worked for Anne's father. He spent much of their marriage attempting to cope with Anne's hopeless depression and rapid rise to fame, mostly through the use of alcohol and sometimes violence.
The story of Anne and Kayo is much more difficult to find, to read, and to tell, as Anne does not often openly write or speak about her 25-year marriage that eventually ended in divorce. However, the love letters sent from Anne to Kayo between August and October of 1963—collected in a 2004 book, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters—expose the vulnerabilities, affections, and a clear and definite love shared between them, no matter how muddled it became in their day-to-day lives.
On August 22, 1963, Anne set off on a traveling scholarship to Europe offered to her by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At this point in her life, she was the mother of two young daughters and had spent enough time in mental institutions to know that her health was fragile and her dependency on her husband and the affection of her daughters was intrinsic to her sanity. Offered between a three-month and a year-long journey, she was convinced by Kayo that she should accept the year-long trip and set off with her neighbor and friend as companion. It is, as Anne describes it, "the biggest joint project [they] ever undertook...to rip [themselves] apart on purpose."
Why Kayo encouraged such a long trip (she cuts it short after three months) is partly up to speculation-—perhaps he believed it would strengthen her independence and help fortify her mental health, as he told her. However, their marriage was a volatile one to say the least, and it's possible he saw the separation as a much-needed reprieve from her intense co-dependency and emotional neediness. What's more, the division that existed so staunchly and wholly in their marriage was her pursuit and endless desire to write.
Kayo was a product of his time and had only hoped for a wife who would look after the children and provide a hot meal when he came home from a job he loathed. Instead, he found a pacing, chain-smoking wife who was waiting for him to make the girls' dinner while she buried herself in verses, letters, and painstaking psychotherapy.
Regardless of their original expectations, what emerged from her trip to Europe was an absolute rekindling of Kayo and Anne's intense devotion to each other. From their separation, their "marriage, [their] understanding and [their] love...profited." The letters from Anne Sexton to Kayo during this period of their marriage are some of the most confessional, emotional, and intense exchanges she shares with any correspondent, including her many lovers and her dearest friends.
Part of why this is such a special and unique demonstration of Anne and Kayo's love is that it is very difficult to find written materials wherein we learn much of Kayo at all or where Anne speaks kindly of or toward him. It is during this period that we are exposed to some of Kayo's affections, rather than his abuses, which he is well-known for after cocktail hour droned on. Instead, his letters to her are "sad, nostalgic" and make her feel "missed." When Anne and her friend are robbed in Brussels, she writes "WE NEED OUR HUSBANDS...we miss being kissed and hearing ‘it's all right now.'"
This is not often the portrait of Kayo that biographies, interviews and essays portray. Rather, we are often meant to see him as an adversary, one who "demanded [Anne's presence]" despite the fact that when she was writing, she "knows it was what [she] was born to do."
It is also within these letters we learn that Kayo writes eloquently to Anne, enabling Anne to see him in a different light, one that more closely resembles her own. For Kayo, his discovery of a need for her companionship and care-giving, no matter how untraditional it may have been, was a welcome surprise.
Alternately, the Anne Sexton that we have come to know as wife to Kayo prior to her European travels is one with little regard to fidelity. Many of her letters are wrought with jealousies and insecurities about his behavior while she is gone, although there is no known history of him cheating on her but rather the opposite. She has dreams that he is cheating on her, and when he doesn't write her for a time, she "wrote all friends asking why [he] didn't write...thought [he was] sick or unfaithful."
But she is also incredibly confessional, and perhaps more honest about her infidelities without being spiteful or intentionally hurtful through her letters to Kayo while his absence enabled her heart to grow fond once again. At one point she writes, "I have seriously, at times, though of leaving you and have tested the thought of other men as my husband...and I made a choice, an adult choice. You are my mate for life."
These three months of letters between Anne and Kayo Sexton are harrowing and beautiful. The couple's relationship before she leaves for Europe is full of abuses, both verbal and physical, anger and infidelities with glimmers of intense devotion, affection, and sexuality.
The couple that emerges after her return and into their divorce falls back into argumentative, unsupportive, and yet deeply reliant. It may seem tragic that some of the best moments of their marriage occur with an ocean between them, but it is precisely that divide, that time and space, that frees them to be honest, faithful, and truly committed, if only for a brief time.