The Poetics of Boundary Violation: Anne Sexton and Her Psychiatrist

by Charles Levin, PhD and Dawn Skorczewski, PhD


In 1965, Frederick Duhl began a sexual relationship with his patient, poet Anne Sexton, whose previous psychiatrist, Martin Orne, had moved from Boston to Philadelphia. Little is known about this relationship, perhaps because Sexton was persuaded by health professionals, including her previous psychiatrist, not to expose Dr. Duhl. These professionals closed ranks behind Duhl, covering up the ethical misconduct, which may have contributed to Anne Sexton’s eventual suicide in 1974. Apart from documented reports elicited by her biographer, Diane Middlebrook, information about Duhl’s sexual misconduct is limited to his personal correspondence with Sexton, which Sexton preserved. The exchange of letters between them, including examples of Duhl’s amateur poetry, provides an unusual opportunity to investigate the dynamics of sexual boundary violations in psychotherapy. Sexton represents her bewildered feelings poignantly in letters to Duhl, whereas Duhl’s stilted efforts to respond to her emotional needs reveal a disturbing pattern of envious appropriation.

Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 30(2), 206-221, April 2020.

Link to Online Publication [fulltext can be requested from the library].

Discussion of this article can be found in the following publications:

Celenza, A. (2020). Righting a Wrong: A Discussion of “The Poetics of Boundary Violation: Anne Sexton and Her Psychiatrist.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 30(2), 222-229.

Levin, C. and Skorczewski, D. (2020). Bringing It All Back Home: Reply to CelenzaPsychoanalytic Dialogues, 30(2), 230-236.

About the Authors

Charles Levin, PhD, is currently Director of the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis and Editor-in-Chief, Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis/Revue canadienne de psychanalyse. He has produced a number of articles and books, including the new edited volume, Social Aspects of Sexual Boundary Trouble in Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2021).

Dawn Skorczewski, PhD, is BPSI Affiliate Scholar Member and Silberger Paper Prize Award Winner (2015), Research Professor of English Emerita at Brandeis University, and Lecturer at Amsterdam University College. Her books and articles explore intersections of pedagogy, poetry, psychoanalysis, and trauma. Her books include Teaching Writing One Moment at a Time: Disruption and Repair in the Classroom (2005), An Accident of Hope: The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton (2012), Pursuing Happiness (2016, 2019), and Sieg Maandag: Life and Art in the Aftermath of Bergen-Belsen (2020).

Previous Posts:

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