by LINDA GRAY SEXTON
Published: April 2, 2009
Palomar Park, Calif.
I HAVE been crying for Nicholas Hughes.
I never met Dr. Hughes, yet I believe I know a great deal about him. He was the second child of the poet Sylvia Plath, who gassed herself in her oven when he was a toddler. I am the elder daughter of the poet Anne Sexton, who gassed herself in her car when I was 21.
Nicholas Hughes hanged himself two weeks ago at the age of 47. And despite my insistence that I would never turn out like my mother, I tried to kill myself, too – three times – and would have succeeded once had it not been for the efforts of a determined police officer, who forced open the window of my car.
Did it surprise me to read about his suicide? Not in the least. As my mother wrote in one of her most famous poems: «I have gone out, a possessed witch… lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind./A woman like that is not a woman, quite./I have been her kind.» All of us who follow that depressing family path – from suffering to suicide – have known what it is like to be her kind.
Nicholas Hughes’s mother, and mine, succumbed to the exhaustion of unrelenting depression. They self-destructed. And we grew up in the wreckage of their catastrophe. Their deaths took away from him and his sister, Frieda, and from me and my sister, Joyce, the solace of a mother’s love. And worse, all four of us, I imagine, had to live with the knowledge that our mothers had quite willfully abandoned us.
Understanding and accepting this is heart-wrenching, but it is a necessary part of healing. I have wanted to kill myself, but I survived, and so can attest to what Dr. Hughes, like my mother, probably must have felt – that there was no other alternative.
Studies show that some kinds of depression are hereditary, and suicides tend to run in families. But even if there isn’t an absolute genetic component, there certainly is an emotional one. When I turned 45, the age at which my mother killed herself, I too began to be drawn to suicide as a way to escape pain. This was my inheritance. My guess is that I wasn’t alone: hundreds of thousands die by suicide each year. And hundreds of thousands of families are damaged by that loss.
Of course, not everyone reacts in the same way. My sister doesn’t like to speak publicly about our mother, and she doesn’t think she is «her kind.» Perhaps Frieda Hughes is more like Joyce, perhaps her brother once was as well. Or maybe they were more like me, trying to recover by talking about what happened. My mother always said, «Tell it true,» and I believe she thought, as I do, that it is important to share the experience of depression with others, who may be suffering in the same way.
Which is why we need to speak about these things, to help families deal with their depressed children, siblings and parents, and to intervene and alter the dark world of suicidal legacies. I continue to worry about myself – but I worry about my children more. Despite the dangerous inheritance my oldest son faces, and the depression he also fights, he urges me to keep writing about it, just as his grandmother did.
Sadly, I’ll never get to know Nicholas Hughes. I know he was a fisheries biologist living in the forests of Alaska. I know he was more than a suicide. In a memorial, a friend wrote that he was the kind of man who «would seek out a larch tree in a forest of spruce.» I hope he’s succeeded in reaching it.
Linda Gray Sexton is the author of «Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton.»
A version of this article appeared in print on April 3, 2009, on page A29 of the New York edition.