June 14, 1982 12:00 PM

On Oct. 4, 1974 the sun was dipping low over Harvard Yard when a senior named Linda Gray Sexton, reading in her room, got up to answer the phone. After the caller, a doctor friend from the university health services, asked her to see him immediately, she sensed what had happened. “How?” Linda asked, intuitively knowing that her mother, poet Anne Sexton, had killed herself at 45.

It was not a surprise. Linda’s mother had won fame with her dark poems on love, death, matrimony, madness and menstruation, and her 1966 book Live or Die had earned a Pulitzer Prize. But after the birth of Linda, now 28, she had plunged into bouts of depression that led to several suicide tries. “She’d get crazy, and we’d visit her in places with barred windows,” Linda remembers. “I was always thinking about how to get Mother put together. My only goal was to grow up and not be crazy.”

Now, almost eight years after Anne Sexton died sitting in a car with the motor running in the family’s Weston, Mass. garage, an event that still haunts her daughter, Linda has probed the subject of death in an affecting first novel called Rituals (Doubleday, $15.95). It deals with a Harvard senior named Kat Sinclair who, after her drug-addicted mother dies in a car crash, tries to hold her family together by performing all the household rituals (preparing her father’s dry martinis, hostessing elegant dinners) her mom used to handle. “The emotional content is autobiographical,” Linda concedes. “But I went out of my way to make the character fictional. I was not raped by a waiter at Grossinger’s as Kat was. Nor did I have an affair with another woman.” Like Kat, she did drink heavily, though Linda now sips only an occasional glass of champagne. “The book,” she says, “gave me a lot of perspective on my life.”

Linda decided she needed perspective after hunching over her mother’s battered kneehole desk to edit 1977’s acclaimed Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters and two collections of her poems. Anne, Linda came to believe, was a presence she had to exorcise as much as honor. Sexton’s madness rocked not only Linda but her younger sister, Joy, and their father, Alfred, a Boston wool merchant. As Linda puts it, “My mother was so unpredictable. She could be very high, lots of fun. Next day she’d be so depressed she could hardly talk. I had trouble making friends. I didn’t know what I was bringing them home to.” One morning when 6-year-old Linda was cuddling with her mother in bed, Anne put her head on her daughter’s chest and said, “Now you be the mummy and I’ll be the little girl.”

As a teen in Weston, Linda wanted to be a poet, “a little Anne Sexton.” At Harvard, where she graduated cum laude in English after doing her thesis on another woman writer who took her own life, Virginia Woolf, she decided to break her mother’s grip on her. “I rebelled and said, ‘No, I won’t go to see you in the hospital. I won’t cater to your sickness. I won’t hold your hand.’ I was fighting for my life. I didn’t want to get sucked down into her illness.”

She drew strength from John Freund, 28, a surgeon’s lanky son whom she married in 1979. At Harvard he has picked up both an M.D. and an M.B.A. Having made a bundle marketing spoof Ronald Reagan movie posters (his best-selling item is the classic ‘Bedtime for Brezhnev”), he’s joined an investment banking firm. He and Linda plan to live in Manhattan, where Sexton, who converted from Episcopalianism to Judaism, aims to continue her habitual 9 a.m.-to-12:30 p.m. writing schedule (“If you write 9 to 5, you burn out”).

Though the working title of her second novel is A Family Matter, she claims it has nothing to do with the Sextons. “Suicide is not courageous, it’s manipulative,” she says. “When my mother killed herself, she freed me. I knew it then. I know it more now. I’m beginning to be happy with who I am, something my mother never was.” Linda’s goal now is to have people ask 10 years hence, “Anne Sexton? Wasn’t she the poet who was Linda Sexton’s mother?”

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