Diane Middlebrook’s biographies

The late Diane Middlebrook was my graduate-school advisor at Stanford University. She was a truly wonderful friend, too, for more than two decades. After I had left academia (and the United States) in 1996, Diane asked me to edit the first draft of her biography of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician who was designated female at birth but who lived his adult life as a male, hiding his “secret” from everyone, it seems, private as well as public.

Shortly before this biography was published, I interviewed Diane for my old ezine Ellavon. I asked her whether she had any “moral qualms” about “outing” Billy Tipton or possibly causing embarrassment to his family and others.

“The dead cannot be shamed,” she replied. “They have been removed from their social sphere where all of their defenses – let’s say their unconscious or sideways ways of not being known – those are over. And their secrets are useless to them.”

Diane continued: “A living person can feel shame being exposed to curiosity [and] manipulation. … But dead – in a sense, the problem with being dead is that people ignore you.” But what if these people wanted to take their secrets “to the grave,” I asked?

“But not BEYOND the grave,” Diane replied.

She added: “You have to be very tough-minded to be a biographer. You have to avoid casually exposing people. A biographer ought to preserve a certain amount of darkness around people who are involved with someone in the public realm, though not public figures themselves. But it is the penumbra of their *own* privacy. Friends or relatives cannot censor the life of somebody else, just because they don’t find certain information very agreeable. … Somebody else’s life is somebody else’s life, and the biographer is writing about that, and your proximity to it is just something you are going to have to deal with. As a human being you have to accept the ethical position that *it ain’t your life*. If you feel invaded, that’s *your* problem.”


I finally bought and read Diane’s last published book, Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath – A Marriage. Reading this vivid book about the two poets I was immensely moved to hear my friend’s voice again, so full it is of affection and clarity.

The last line from the book made me gasp: “the only thing the living can give the magical dead: empathetic but pitiless attention.”


Middlebrook’s masterpiece is Anne Sexton: A Biography. It is hard to think of a book that made me more uncomfortable while reading it. But it was also truly thrilling: Having one’s scorn and aesthetic prejudice dismantled is a vertiginous blessing. (From the time I started reading poems, I had disliked the “literary figure” cut by Sexton, and thought her poems drippy and garish; Diane turned me around on both counts.)

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[…] late Diane Middlebrook ends her book on Sylvia Plath with this sentence: “The only thing the living can give the magical dead: empathetic but […]

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