First came the ranging controversy. One of the psychiatrists frequented by the mercurial poet Anne Sexton before she killed herself (in 1974 at 45) taped their sessions. In writing this biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook has, with the permission of the psychiatrist, Dr. Martin T. Orne, and Sexton’s older daughter, Linda, made use of the tapes. Recently a battle of psychiatrists erupted in The New York Times over whether the doctor’s release of the tapes was a violation of professional ethics.

It’s tempting to try to solve the matter by quoting Samuel Goldwyn (”Anyone who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined”). Certainly those of us who think there’s something fishy about the whole business will find plenty of fishiness here. Middlebrook reports that one of Sexton’s analysts spent their weekly sessions on the couch with her, giving his libido a workout — and still made her pay for it. Another psychiatrist dismissed Linda Gray Sexton’s accounts of her mother’s sexual approaches to her because mother-daughter incest doesn’t fit in the Freudian scheme. All of Sexton’s head doctors prescribed the pills on which she routinely overdosed and which, combined with heavy drinking, undermined her health (and poetry). Given that the only exact thing about the science of psychoanalysis is the fee charged, it seems superfluous to get excited about a single indiscretion, especially since Dr. Orne had done his best by Sexton — he gave her sound advice by encouraging her to write poetry, which kept her going for 16 years.

Anne Sexton isn’t an outstanding biography but it has an irresistible plot — the abrupt metamorphosis of a conventional suburban housewife into a remarkable poet, followed by glory and inexorable doom. Born into a prosperous New England family, Sexton wrote some schoolgirl poetry but dropped it to devote herself to dates, parties, and marriage plans. She soon had a suburban Boston house and two small daughters, but she couldn’t cope with her husband’s frequent absences on business or the children’s demands. At 27 she attempted suicide and was sent to a mental ward. When Orne began prescribing poems as well as pills, she suddenly ”found something to do with (her) life” and pursued it with admirable determination against the odds. Soon she was friendly with other ”confessional” poets — notably Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath — who were working with the same raw material of madness, family infernos, sex, and suicide (when Plath killed herself in 1963 Sexton felt upstaged). Then acclaim, standing-room-only-readings, grants, travel, a Pulitzer, friendships (and torrid affairs) with other poets. Obsessed with suicide, she lived, as she put it, to the hilt.

Sexton’s best poems combine intricate form with a succession of swift, startling images, but it was the in-your-face intimacy of the subject matter, rendered in a detached and almost jaunty voice, that made her famous. She explored rather than wallowed in her suffering. In person she was tall and attractive, strikingly dressed, flirtatious, ”bawdy and funny.” But she couldn’t go shopping alone; she needed several drinks to keep herself from trembling at readings; she lapsed into trancelike withdrawals. Middlebrook traces her problems to the usual family can of worms. In any case, combining exceptional insecurity, self-absorption, and self-hatred, she was infantile all her life. She would crawl in bed with her 15-year-old daughter and ask to be cuddled, pleading, ”I want to be nine.” Linda Sexton gradually became aware that her mother was masturbating while clinging to her. Even more that most over-the-edge writers, Sexton gave her family hell, The chic suburban matron belonged to the distinguished demented succession of romantic poets who were egoistic messes, insatiable in their appetite for passion, sex, and self-destruction. B