Who doesn't love dogs, especially Dalmatians? Bespotted: My Family's Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmations is Linda Gray Sexton's warm, witty, and deeply moving account of how dogs just might have saved her life, and made her a better person. She's also the author of Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, and Between Two Worlds: Young Women in Crisis. Her novels include Rituals, Mirror Images, Points of Light, and Private Acts. Points of Light was both a Hallmark Hall of Fame Special and was translated into thirteen languages. Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to my Mother Anne Sexton, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was optioned by Miramax Films. Linda’s second memoir was Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.
I'm so thrilled to have Linda here! Thank you so, so much, Linda! i
What’s so wonderful about this book is that it’s not the usual dog book. It’s a rich and haunting look at how another species can save our lives emotionally and get us through the darkest times. What do you think the major things are that we can learn from dogs?
Dogs of all sorts provide us with the special kind of love and companionship that we experience only some of the time with the humans in our lives—be they friend or family. Dogs’ personalities are marked with a strong sense of character, and often I think they live the way we ought to. As such, they provide us with a kind of role model. If we are smart, we listen to them.
Dogs are honest, compassionate and empathetic, with that “true blue” quality we are always seeking. Because they never know what is coming, they have learned to live purely in the moment—a trait of which we are often envious—and they savor all that is good and do their best to endure, or ignore, the bad. Unlike spouses who divorce you or friends who turn their backs on you, dogs never just get up and leave. This is an example we could learn from.
Sometimes dogs pull us through the hardest times of our lives just by the way they take care of us. When I was suffering from a clinical depression and feeling suicidal in my forties, I relied on my Dalmatian, Gulliver, to guide me through each day and make me believe I could survive. He is an inspiration to me now.
Dogs also provide us with great antics at which we can laugh. They lighten our days and our burdens and teach us that not everything has to be so serious. Whether it is jumping high for a biscuit, running in circles for their supper, or just the simple shake of a paw, they delight us with their desire to learn and their smarts. Even if you have a dog who is not the sharpest tack in the box, you appreciate all he or she tries to do for you, and this, too, gives us an inordinate amount of pleasure, just as does a toddler learning to walk.
All in all, dogs enrich our lives and try—whether successfully or not—to teach us to be better human beings. We could not live without them.
The book begins with a wonderful story of how Dalmatians gave birth to one of your mother’s (Anne Sexton’s) most famous poems, about life and survival. Can you talk about that please?
In 1967, my mother and father unintentionally allowed our Dalmatian girl to escape out of the backyard where she had been confined as soon as she came into heat. She was immediately bred by the mixed breed dog of my best friend, and my parents were aghast. They did not want to try and place puppies who did not have AKC papers, so they rebred Penny to the purebred Dal of one of my mother’s friends. They told us their plan: to drown the puppies as they came if they were not Dalmatians. My sister and I were crushed, but when the little ones arrived on a snowy morning at 6:00 a.m.—all fortunately snowy white with soon-to-be-black-spots—the four of us sat and watched the whelping with awe. Penny knew what she was doing and shortly after we discovered what was going on in the basement, she gave birth to her last and eighth puppy. My sister and I were thrilled at the spectacle before us. My parents gave up on the idea of drowning the puppies in a pail of water, Joy and I danced around in pure delight, and my mother sat in a worn green armchair, musing.
After a time she went upstairs to her study and soon the sound of the manual typewriter she used at that time came pounding down the stairs. She was writing a poem that she would eventually call “Live,” a poem that would become the centerpiece of the book she was then writing, and which would win her a Pulitzer Prize and a national reputation. That book was entitled Live or Die, and chronicled her mental illness, her depression, and her suicide attempts—as well as her newly discovered desire to survive, an emotion brought about by the emotionally moving scene we had all just witnessed. As I say in Bespotted: “The Dalmatian puppies had cheated death.”
All of your dogs (all 38 of them!) have been Dalmatians. What do you think the experience would be like if you got a bulldog or a terrier? Are you ever tempted?
Sometimes I am tempted. Those Border terriers are awfully cute and smart, with big dog personalities in little dog bodies, but then I remind myself how deeply they dig—all of the time. I think everyone has the breed they identify with. For me, it was Dalmatians because during my childhood they embodied life (life for my mother, and therefore the rest of us) and then as the years wore on, I became enraptured with their sense of humor, their joyful way of dealing with life, their smart attitudes, their trainability—well, I could go on and on. After all, I am a Dalmatian aficionado. Everyone has a liking for a particular breed and I don’t really think our experiences are that different dog to dog. Dogs are all characterized by the traits I listed in the first question: physically affectionate, companionable, loving, joyful, and all the rest of it. Some dogs are not as smart as others, some dogs shed, some dogs bark—and yet their owners put up with whatever it may be because they love the breed. I could never, truly, imagine any other kind of dog for me, even thought I know many others who do switch breeds, or have one of each kind. The point is: they are all dogs.
Can you talk about the science of dog shows? I’ve watched them choose a Best in Show, and I never quite understand what makes one dog better than another. Do these standards change?
There is indeed a “standard” for every breed, and it is this standard upon which the dog is judged in the ring today, and against which it has always been judged. The standard does not change and it elucidates what the physical and temperament characteristics of the breed should be, and is set up on a numerical scoring system. The characteristics themselves are determined by what function the dog was initially intended to serve.
As I describe in Bespotted, Dalmatians were originally “coaching dogs” in England in the days when passengers travelled from inn to inn. The dogs ran behind the traces of the horses, and then guarded the coach, the passengers and the luggage when all arrived.
It was important that they have capacious chests to help them breath deeply, tight and round feet, and strong toplines, (overall a very athletic body), all because they had to run over rough ground for many miles and not be the worse for wear. Temperamentally, they are a guard dog as well, alerting the coachman to times when those who might threaten appeared.
Today, when a stranger comes down my driveway, my dogs alert with ferocious barking to let me know someone is coming. I don’t need a house alarm! But when that someone is welcome into the house and is obviously a friend, they stop barking and begin their happy dance, usually ending up in everyone’s laps before the visit is over. So the standard decrees that they should both alert and be friendly. It is all these attributes on which the judges bases his scores as he assesses the Dalmatians before him with his eyes.
Likewise, the Border terrier was bred to have long enough legs to keep up with the horses and other foxhounds, which traveled with them, and small enough bodies to crawl into the burrows of foxes and chase them out so the hunters had a good shot. The foxhounds that traveled with them were not small enough to do the Border terrier's job. Today Borders are judged according to the standard that was created long ago to keep these features intact.
Another example would be the Standard poodle: the breed was first known in France, where it was commonly used as a water Retriever. Because its job required it to be in the water constantly, the coat was clipped so that the joints remained covered with the hair as an insulator, but the body had to remain sleek enough to move quickly through the water. This cut, often demeaned by those who don’t understand it, served an integral purpose and thus is still the way the poodle is presented in the ring. This dog had to be an agile swimmer with a love of the water, webbed feet, an athletic stamina, and a moisture resistant, curly coat. And these are a few of the things it is judged for today—thus a “standard.”
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I have what I call publication psychosis. This happens to nearly all writers when their book is published. I imagine some lucky few are able to concentrate on their current work (whatever they are working on once the previous book is in their readers’ hands), but I have only rarely been able to do this. I get caught up in publicity, radio tours, writing newsletters and blogging on my website, as well as doing as many guest blogs as I can get fit in—and especially blogs such as this one, which is a true treat, because it has been created by a writer I deeply admire.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Here is one that I am asked all the time: who is the cover dog on Bespotted. The answer is a funny story. When the book’s preliminary jacket was sent to me, I loved the format and the colors, but I hated the Dalmatian they had used. It was truly ugly. I told my editor they had to change the dog, that everyone I knew would make fun of me if that were the Dal on my book cover—and anyway, I wanted one of my own dogs featured. His response was that I would never be able to reproduce the way the dog was looking up so adoringly at his master or mistress, and that they definitely had to have the dog wearing that red collar. “I promise you I can get the pose with no difficulty,” I answered, “and I have the same worn red collar already in my dog drawer.” So, we put it on all three of my dogs, stood them against a blank beige wall in the bedroom and I stood in front of them, waving a hot dog. My husband manned the camera. It took no time at all.
When we put the images up on the computer, we had gorgeous photos of all the dogs with their heads in exactly the right spot. I sent the three best, one of each dog, to my editor and let him pick. He chose Mac, named for Paul McCartney, who was a young boy from my last litter, which was in turned named for the Fab Four. And thus it is Mac who graces the cover of Bespotted—even though he is not actually part of the book, having been born after the galleys were finalized. And, in any case, then I would have had to redone the subtitle to read: My Family’s Love Affair with Forty-Two Dalmatians. My editor said enough was enough.