Do I keep the book or return it? You decide.

Yesterday, I was browsing in Barnes & Noble and saw the collected poems of Anne Sexton. I read her short bio on the back and thought, this looks interesting. I’m going to put her on the shelf next to Sylvia and Virginia.

Anyways, later on I decided to Google her and discovered she freaking molested her own daughter.

So now I’m like, how can I read this? Poetry is a pretty deep thing and I don’t really want to get into the head of a child molester. I have major OCD with this stuff and I’ll start thinking there’s something wrong with me, too. I feel I should return it.

On the other hand, if we don’t read or listen to any work of art that wasn’t written by a saint post-sinful, then we’re gonna be pretty bored.

But she sexually abused her. own. kid.

(The only consolation is that she’s not making any money off of it because she’s dead.)

Her work was clearly excellent, but her behavior… She was also very mentally ill, not that that excuses her or impugns other ill people.

I wonder, is there a certain limit beyond which we can’t be forgiven? I’m inclined to say yes on this particular sin. But it’s not up to me to decide.

What I need to decide is what to do with the book.

There is much to say on the topic of whether or not the personal “worthiness” of an artist should be considered when consuming art, but I’ve got a return period policy to adhere to.

So my question to the Internet is–what would you do? Keep the book or return it?

71 thoughts on “Do I keep the book or return it? You decide.

  1. I’d say that if you think her poetry is good and you appreciate her body of work, keep the book. It’s like how I feel about Woody Allen. His character and morals are flawed and questionable (in my opinion), but that doesn’t prevent me from watching and enjoying his movies and appreciating his artistry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find that I learn more towards the “separate the art from the artist” side of the spectrum. I think it’s a mistake that society seems to presume that if a person is talented at one thing, they should be an amazing role model overall. It should be feasible to say, for example, “R. Kelly, you are a talented musician, however, you’re moral behavior is reprehensible and you should be held accountable for your crimes”, instead of the “celebrities-are-above-the-law” worship culture , and even the extension of “we are extremely devastated when a talented person is not a good moral role model” culture. However, I do appreciate the moral squick factor.

    If you’re uncomfortable with buying Sexton’s poetry, you could return the book and read that of her poetry available to you for free on the internet, eg. on poetryfoundation.org. You could also read her abused daughter’s memoir and books so that it doesn’t only feel like you’re reading the abuser’s side of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. We shouldn’t expect people to be talented all the way around. Even at clearing the lowest bars set by morality, which is pretty darn sad. You make a lot of good points here about reading the work online or reading the memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be clear, I think that it would be nice if everyone, artists and non-artists alike, met the lowest bar of morality. But this is not always the case.

        Also, to be clear, I don’t think that it is morally wrong to keep the book. There are many people in the book publishing supply chain other than the author. Also, as the author is deceased, it isn’t impossible that some proceeds are making their way to the children/victims (Note: I have no idea if this is the case and it doesn’t justify the sexual abuse). I mention the options to read Sexton’s work for free online (or perhaps in a library – didn’t think of that earlier) if that’s more comfortable for you, but I want to be clear that I don’t think it is morally wrong to keep the book.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ashley Peterson commented that her daughter is the executor of her estate, so who knows, she could be getting something. I guess I just felt weird at the idea of getting in bed, pulling up my comforter, and reading poetry by a child molester. But maybe that’s the wrong thing to focus on. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

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          1. Your feelings in either direction are valid and worth paying attention to. My point was more that my suggestions were meant as alternatives that might feel more comfortable than keeping the book. If you decide to keep the book, I don’t think it is morally wrong. But there alternate ways to read the poetry (for free online, via the library, secondhand) that might feel more comfortable, and if you are more comfortable with going that route, I absolutely encourage you to do that.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I hadn’t thought of the alternatives until you and others mentioned it, I guess because I had already purchased it on a whim. I’m alright keeping it. Plus I don’t feel like going back to the store immediately.

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    1. I thought when I posted, Deb is a decent person and would probably say return it. It does make me a little uncomfortable. Of course, that’s why I wrote this in the first place 😆.

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    1. Not gonna lie, that crossed my mind, but then I remembered when I used to sell underwear and people acted according to the same principle, and I didn’t like that, so I don’t do it.

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  3. This is what libraries are for. However, doing artist relations all those years puts me in the first comment category. Many talented artists are complete whack job shits one way or another. Not all. But if they are, so what? Some become so insulated and isolated their behavior is abominable, but it doesn’t take away or demean their output. You have VW on the shelf. She was suicidally depressed, a victim of molestation. But the whack job gene goes further back. Do we ignore her brilliance because suicide is a mortal sin? God forbid. Woolf makes some of the best look like pulp chumps. SP the same. Chistina Rosetti the same. Do we dump the Pre Raphs because their favorite model, the promiscuous laudanum addict (and DG Rosetti’s wife) Lizzie Siddal suicided to abort rather than face another possible stillbirth? Nah. Study the work, forget the artist. Besides, isn’t the tortured artist deal like some sort of proverb?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The comments in this post are eye-opening. I always say do what your gut /heart says. I am such ‘do what my gut says. Maybe, the more read we are, maybe it makes us more open. Maybe get it from the library to read and return the one you brought.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You are certainly more read than I am.

        Though I said maybe read her work to be well read. I am not well read. But, once I was in Waterston a UK book shop, and I saw a book written by Boris Johnson our current prime minister about Church Hill. I think he wrote it before he became prime minister. I was so tempted to buy it just to know and see how he writes. But I didn’t as I don’t think much of boris Johnson, and his actions speak louder than his words. Plus I didn’t want to give him royalties. So my thoughts are a bit askew on this topic.

        I can’t read all books. I love the obamas. I brought Michelle’s book becoming and loved it. I brought the promise land, and well I haven’t finished it yet. I like Obama he certainly writes well, but it’s not as engaging as Michelle’s, but you see his personality and his reasoning.

        In writing this I see your dilemma. We are influenced by the company we keep, so it implies that books influence us. In our spiritual readings they always becareful of the company you keep.

        I read another comment that she was probably abused as a child, to abuse her child. I guess I wouldn’t read her work. But I wouldn’t read her book as I am not well read. Or I would read her book if I liked her poetry. But I am so particular anyway.

        What a dilemma 😅

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sometimes we just plain don’t gravitate towards certain people and that’s completely fine. I’m pretty hypocritical about it, quite honestly. If I like certain music, I’ll listen to it, even if I’d hate the musicians otherwise. Or I’ll dislike the music based on who they are. No rhyme or reason at all.

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      2. I just read up about her. Managed to find some of her poems. I am on the fence. I think a lot of her stuff seems dark, not upbeat, and I wouldn’t read it as what we read impacts us. But, knowing her history as per wiki (?), I read a few out of interest and , out if interest and learning a way of expression it is interesting. But I wouldn’t be able to read all her poetry it too dark for me.

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        1. The reason I hesitated about the book is the very thing you bring up–we are affected by the company we keep and the thoughts we put into our heads. I as a person tend to skew very negative, and I know I’m much better off with a positive counterbalance to pull me back. I think I’ll be okay with the book. I draw the line at things that are obscene or gratuitous.

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  5. Hi Hatty,
    I’m writing this to you, because I think you will read it. Nobody else will, because it’s too fucking long.
    It will be our little secret.
    So this is pretty close to my heart, this question. I often say, not originally, you can’t be a great writer and a good person. There is too much in stories that require conflict, tragedy, a crime of one sort or the other. Hard to write convincingly about illegal, harmful drugs unless you have used them, same with booze, same with punching someone or being punched in the face, same with war, famine, an epidemic here or there, mental illness, marital dysfunction, same with a sexual fantasy. There is a big difference between daydreaming about fucking a panther and actually fucking one. In that connection, for those who have actually done the terrible deed of pedophilia, molestation, rape, torture etc. they have first-hand knowledge. Now how many of these people have the wherewithal to write? Fortunately not many. However, along comes a Nabokov (probably a pedophile), a Bukowski ( a severe misogynist and abuser of people), and a Burroughs (does getting drunk and killing your wife count?). Consider this piece of text from Baudelaire:
    “If rape or arson, poison or the knife
    Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
    Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
    It is because we are not bold enough
    Yes, not bold enough to give rape and murder true importance in our lives. Does that mean we need to consider rape and murder an acceptable, fun, important part of living or even commit rape and murder? For the crazy Baudelaire, maybe. Was Kosinski a rapist? He wrote like one and after getting drunk with the guy, I wouldn’t put it past him. FYI, his head was like one of those plasma static electricity globes that used to be for sale in head shops. It was hard to get a word in edgewise. Jeez, don’t get me started on Mailer and Jack Abbot.
    Anyway, about Anne Sexton. She seems mild to me. She was totally fucked up, really had mental health issues. It seems conclusive she molested her daughter. But as someone who enjoys poetry, I have to say, I don’t dig her poems that much and never have. So I don’t read her because I think her poetry is uninteresting, not because she molested her daughter. If she had gone to trail for that crime, she would have probably been found insane or incompetent. I learned a long time ago that abusers were first abused. Sexton probably fell into that category, at least psychologically abused. Those first days and weeks and months of abuse seem to alter the perception of the victim and makes it seem, after awhile, in their demented state, that abuse of one sort or the other, is okay. They think: I mean, it happened to me and it happens to thousands everyday, so what is the big deal? Maybe that goes through their minds and if they have the ability to connect their deeply felt pain to words on a page, we end up getting these really extreme descriptions of life and death. Without those sorts of people, I think we would be the lesser.
    Ask yourself the question: would you rather read about killing somebody or kill somebody? Easy answer. So, to fill out our own limitations of experience, we rely upon writers who have some sort of insight into terrible deeds, stuff they have actually done. Is it right? No. Is it human? Yes. Who every said that the human experience is one of fairness and righteousness? Not too many. So give her a try and put yourself in her place. How do you feel? An expansion of your empathy through reading is key to a well-lived life, a life that will never be what you want, yet you can lean in that direction through the written word in all its uplifting and destructive meaning.
    Here is a good guy writer, Borges. The following quote is why he never won the Nobel Prize. This is from the head of the selection committee. Borges is “too exclusive or artificial in his ingenious miniature art”. WTF. Borges should have cut the heads off of a few children or at least cats. He probably would have won. Thanks. Duke
    I sent this to Jan and Aaron. You got to watch it at least three times to get the existential/meta dynamics of the thing.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2zWfxW60z0

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always read your long posts and am grateful you took time to write them. I’m conflicted on the matter because on the one hand, it does seem like the greatest works touch on the darkest things. And to reach the lightest and highest, you’ve got to start from the darkest and deepest places. It seems unavoidable. On the other hand, there’s got to be meaning out there for the milder and less troubled souls. Do we need all this misery or knowledge of it in order to say we’ve really lived or understand life? I dunno.

      I think you hit my nail on the head here: “An expansion of your empathy through reading is key to a well-lived life, a life that will never be what you want, yet you can lean in that direction through the written word in all its uplifting and destructive meaning.” If I can’t get “out there” and experience anything or know anybody, the next thing is to simply… read.

      I think I shall keep the book because I feel like we’ve all been through hell and high water over it now.

      When I have time I’ll watch the video soon. I’m beyond swamped.

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  6. One should read it if they want, just to see what fueled that episode. Megalomaniacs in high office are not so uncommon. Plus, that dude was surrounded by some serious nut cases launching their own brands of evil weirdness. If we are unaware of how shit lie that gets started, we’ll end up there again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In that case one would be studying almost like a psychologist, not so much to put up the recliner and kick back with the book and a cup of tea. Though there are people who probably do. Weird freaking people are doing things right now that even the most jaded commenters here can’t picture. I need to go to bed now.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, Hetty. I’m working on your scenes . . . I’m a slow reader. More on that later. On this post, I only wanted to say–for what it’s worth–that Wagner had so much disdain for Jews that he would only conduct music written by Mendelssohn while wearing white gloves, which he would remove and discard after the performance.
    I can’t work out how that informs your decision to buy or return, but I would read–respect the institution–and consider it as I would anything. Lots of things make the world go round, with forces that are almost never perfectly aligned.
    Have a good night!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not so much about impacting the author, but impacting my own psyche. But I’m gonna keep it because I’m more informed picking it up now. Thanks for commenting, Mason 😊. Good to see you around.

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          1. I suggest supporting her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, by buying her memoir “Searching For Mercy Street.” Her mother’s manipulations and abuses are raw, stomach-turning and graphic. Her daughter struggles so hard to find redemption and reconciliation with her mother’s memory. It’s heartbreaking that she tried to commit suicide many times after writing her memoir.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Is this a book you were already familiar with? Did she ever say anything about her mother’s work and how its reception affected her? I agree that it’s heartbreaking and it’s hard to comprehend that someone, much less a mother, would do something like this. And that’s why my initial reaction, once I learned this, was the normal one of recoiling. Nonetheless, there’s a larger philosophical issue of whether a work can stand apart from its author’s personal qualities and deeds. Is there a line between what we can stomach and what we can’t? I dunno. Thank you for bringing the human factor of the victim into the fore. Sometimes it’s not about being lofty but rather, human and down-to-earth.

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              1. I read her daughter’s book and yes, she does go into many details of how her mother’s work affected her. I don’t believe in separating the art from the artist. I don’t support the work of child abusers or rapists. Period. For example, I would never again see anything by Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby or Woody Allen for this reason. It’s not a philosophical issue for me. It’s a human decency issue. The line is very clear to me.

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                  1. Yep. That’s my line.

                    In the daughter’s book, Searching For Mercy Street, there are examples of invasive, sexualized and inappropriate poems her mother wrote and published about her (the daughter). It’s gross to read them once you know who and what they’re about. All the poems sound pretty grody once you know what was going on behind closed doors in that family and that house.

                    Liked by 1 person

  8. I like to always think of an author as separate from their work. Like, I enjoy Bukowski a lot, but I watched a video of him, drunk and kicking his girlfriend/wife/fiancee (I forget) and my impression of him as a person definitely took a toll. I still like his work though. So keep the book!

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  9. Well expressed, Hetty. I certainly share your concerns. If you do opt to return Sexton’s book, the consolation is there’s no shortage of other poets. who lead more respectable lives; whose content is sure to enrich your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi CommonSenseTom, thanks for reading and commenting. No, there’s certainly no shortage of poets with more respectable lives than that. At the same time, I can’t help but pity her, while condemning her actions. Who would want to live in her head?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. You can find solace within Ashley’s above comment:

    “Wikipedia says that her daughter is the literary executor, which presumably means that she’s making money off the book sale, so I say keep it. Like JYP, I tend to lean toward separating the art from the artist.”

    Liked by 1 person

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