Q: […] But why did you roll in the carcass of that dead seal when we took you to the beach at Morro Bay?
A: To transfer ghost-cloak of invisibility, silly. Death smell lends protection. Winner of ripest warm-day-decay contest is not challenged by pack peers — billowing putrefaction blasts inspire respect and great kill pride! Meat-rot bouquet is prey-smell’s best medal. What don’t you understand that?
— Amy Gerstler, “Interview with a Dog”
PART OF THE DEAL with a human-dog relationship is that the human gets all the language, and yet books about writers and their dogs are some of my favorite narratives. At the forefront of this genre is J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, in which Ackerley chronicles his close relationship with his Alsatian (or German Shepherd). In Ackerley’s day, dogs held a different place in society; there were no puppy boutiques or grooming salons — dogs hadn’t crossed over to fully occupy the space in our sensibilities that they eventually would. Ackerley, though, was a one-dog man, and Queenie (her name was changed to “Tulip” in the book) was the love of his life. As detailed by the author, My Dog Tulip was one of the first articulations in contemporary times of dog as supreme sidekick and companion.
There are more recent books that describe the relationship between dogs and their “keepers” (as we call ourselves in dog-circles, and as Amy Gerstler does in her interview in the collection Dearest Creature). Andrew O’Hagan channels the dog-as-speaker in The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. Mark Doty’s Dog Years is a gorgeous tribute to his golden retriever, Beau, as isCaroline Knapp’s Pack of Two to her puppy, Lucille.And then there’s Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (2011), a portrait of an international canine celebrity. The backstory, copiously researched, includes the medic who found the original Rin Tin Tin and brought him (and his sister) to Hollywood, the training that led to the dog’s appearances in silent films, and his nomination, eventually thwarted, for an Academy Award. The global appeal of Rin Tin Tin, according to Orleans, led to an understanding of the potential place of dogs as companions, as best friends.
Linda Gray Sexton has added a moving and beautiful account to the shelf of books about Dogs & Their Writers. Sexton became besotted — hence her title, Bespotted — with Dalmatians as a child, and her memoir-with-dogs is a chronicle of her deep connection to this specific breed over time. It took me a while, as a rescue-dog person, to understand Gray Sexton’s desire to purchase a dog from a breeder, but as I read on, I began to understand how deeply tied this desire is to the role that Dalmatians played in the life of her mother, the tormented and death-obsessed Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Anne Sexton.
In fact, Sexton begins the book with a powerful anecdote about the healing effect of dogs — an early pet named Penny and her puppies — on her mother’s mental health. Years later, debilitated by her own inner demons and depression, it is Sexton’s Dalmatian, Gulliver, who emerges as her closest companion, her life preserver. Like her mother, then, Sexton has the habit of writing, and like her mother she finds solace in the companionship of her dogs. These two dictums come to a happy fruition in this memoir. As she writes in the foreword:
Dogs have always provided a special kind of love and companionship that I experience only some of the time with humans. They have a strong sense of character and live the way we ought to: dogs neither compare you to your sister nor make judgments in her favor. Dogs never know what is coming and so live purely in the moment, savoring the good, doing their best to endure the bad—and they offer up this miraculous example so that we can learn from it, becoming role models of a sort. Dogs are radically different than the partners who sometimes give up on marriages, or the friends who get angry over real or imagined slights. Dogs never just get up and leave.
And as a child, Sexton “fell in love with the beauty of the Dalmatian breed and did not want any other kind of dog, not even the ‘neater’ ones owned by the families of some of my other friends.” Gulliver’s role as “the dog of [her] heart” notwithstanding, the book acquaints the reader with a delightful cast of canines (not quite 101) — 38 to be exact; and Sexton is exact — she counts each dog that she’s owned or loved, tracks their temperaments, and describes the placement and significance of their spots. She traces her introduction to the breed to her mother’s best friend, poet Maxine Kumin, who owned Dalmatians as working dogs on her farm. Anne Sexton, her husband, and their daughters, Linda and Joy, lived with two cats, but they yearned for a dog, and their first was Clover, who didn’t last long (she was hit by a car) but made a lasting impression.
The nature of dog years guarantees poignancy. Dogs age before our eyes — their muzzles gray, their limbs falter, and our relationship deepens. Dogs prepare us for our own mortality. In the case of the Sexton family, death was an invited guest. Anne Sexton attempted suicide many times before she was successful, in 1974. Linda writes:
I believe that for my mother, all our dogs were “therapy dogs” even though that concept did not yet exist in the general lexicon. She loved to stroke their soft coats; the motion mesmerized her and perhaps helped her bear her depression a bit. And so they were to us all: when my parents argued verbally, or fought physically, or when my mother danced with death, Joy and I could always retreat to a dog and hold on tight.
During Linda’s childhood, the role that Penny plays in her mother’s work and life is both unexpected and miraculous. After Penny’s assignation with a neighborhood mutt, the family quickly bred her with Maxine Kumin’s dog (now there’s pedigree) to produce the litter that occasioned the poem that is said to have prolonged the poet’s life. Anne Sexton had been determined to destroy the puppies if they weren’t purebred — she didn’t want mongrels. After seeing them born Anne Sexton let go of the idea of drowning them, though they actually turned out to be 100 percent Dalmatian, so it was moot. Moreover, having everything to do with her generous about-face, she was able to join the world around her … for a while at least. The poem that she wrote around the time of the birthing of the puppies, her dilemmas and decisions, are all part of the early narrative of Bespotted, and constitute for her daughter the mythic and real foundation of a life with dogs.
To be set free in love, to be free to love, to be unafraid to love, that’s at the core of this book-length meditation:
I had a firmly entrenched affection for dogs, for the way they set me free in love. There were no strings attached when dogs were the objects of your adoration.
Dog-fancy culture became respite and refuge as Sexton moved forward in her life and her writing. The birth of her sons, the ups and downs of her marriage, the vicissitudes of her successful career as a novelist and editor — all of these human concerns take a backseat to the stars of this particular show, the Dalmatians.
And so she carefully details the beginnings of her immersion in the world of competitive dog shows:
Though I had used to make fun of dog shows before I took Rhiannon from Marty and Stu, with the animals posed in stances and trotting around the ring, my new experiences had demonstrated that there was a whole science to it that many people just didn’t understand. While often thought of as a beauty pageant, dog showing in the conformation ring is not that unlike a sporting event, such as horse show competitions at the upper levels where there are money trophies — and no one laughs at that. This competitive “fancy” takes into account, solely, the work for which the dog was originally bred, even though most dogs are no longer required to perform in this way. Each of the different breeds — from cockers to poodles to Irish setters — have certain physical and character requirements that enable him to hunt a fox, or to tree a badger, or to flush a covey of quail, or to dig a badger out of its burrow.
She then goes on to describe the Dalmatian’s origins:
For the Dalmatian, originally a “coaching” dog that had to run many miles — often fifteen to twenty daily, in the traces just behind the horses’ hooves as they pulled a carriage — this meant he needed a strong and level top line coupled with the good angulation front and back that would produce an easy drive, a smooth and fluid motion built for endurance. A capacious chest was requisite so that the dog could breathe deeply for long periods of time, and his feet needed to be well padded and tight, ready for the rough roads and many miles he traveled.
Because the carriage took its passengers from inn to inn, he also served as a guard dog, protecting both the coach and its travelers. He was to bark at strangers, but never to attack, to warn off those who did not belong and alert those who did. It was only after horse-drawn fire engines made their debut that Dals became better known as firehouse mascots.
The breeders’ desire is, of course, to retain these distinctive features, so as to continue them. And this is understandable: I wouldn’t mind having a clone of my own never-to-be-replicated mixed-breed mongrel, because her temperament and her appearance are so perfect to me. So it’s no wonder, for a while anyway, that showing and breeding become Sexton’s occupation. She even has her own kennel, called, fetchingly, “Literati.” But this is just another phase of her life with dogs, and by the end of Bespotted that relationship has once again changed. It’s the connection that Sexton has with Gulliver, she in the throes of a deep depression at the time, that provides the crux of this memoir, and brings the book into the company of other great books about human-animal relationships:
I tried to keep up appearances, not to let neighbors and friends know how truly desperate I was, but with Gulliver, I held nothing back. And he didn’t mind. His eyes held sadness over my desolation, but he was not deterred by my need. True to his unspoken promise to stick around no matter what, he was there through each day, every day. Nothing about what I was enduring scared or disgusted him. He loved me without reservation, the way I wished my family would. He’d bump up against my legs, leaning his weight against me to reassure both of us, just the way a cat twines itself in and around your calves as a way of showing affection.
I needed his vigilance, as he used his warmth to anchor me to reality. He provided me the comfort a friend, a child, or even a partner could not. He had become my best friend— someone with whom I could commune. Someone who loved me, no matter how far I had fallen or how unattractive I had become, and someone whom I could love back, no matter how imperfect the love I offered. I never disappointed him, and he never disappointed me. He never remembered my faults. He never failed to dial in to my mood.
The unspoken subtext of her connection to her dog approximates that tug back to life that her poet-mother felt when Penny’s puppies were born. Indeed, throughout, the descriptions of Gulliver as a character are heartbreakingly funny and wonderful.
In the morning, his cold nose roused me from sleep and nudged me upright, leaving me no choice but to go and feed him, urging me on as he sacked me behind my knees in a rugby tackle. After breakfast, he went eagerly to the back door, but then, if it was raining, he changed his mind and would refuse to go out, no matter how desperately he needed to pee. When I went up the driveway to get the newspaper, Gulliver rollicked beside me happily, with his ears flying in the wind, his body curving back and forth in a rocking horse motion reminiscent of a Lippizaner. Late in the afternoon, having been curled in the overstuffed and dilapidated armchair beside my computer as he put in a “hard day’s work” alongside me, he would “smile” his special Dalmatian grin from where he turned to wait for me on the top step of the steep stairs down to my writing cottage.
When I read her description of Gulliver’s death, I had to step away — I couldn’t stop crying. Sexton writes: “My family outlived our dogs, mourned them, and then replaced them with others.” But Gulliver was not replaceable, not even remotely: “A few more months passed. The loss did not ease but kept changing shape.” It’s only after this time of mourning has passed that Sexton can come back to the world of dogs.
It must have been extremely painful to write some of these passages; to experience and re-experience the shock and the grief of the untimely and unfair endings, the vicissitudes of biology, the love that’s given and received in equal measure — here exquisitely re-imagined — between a keeper and each of her dogs. Also beautifully described throughout the book, as in the passage above, is the way the bespotted smile. That’s something I’ve never seen, though now I feel as if I have, and will be looking for it the next time I meet a Dalmation.