Table of Contents
I. - Fear of Fifty
Chapter 2. - How My Parents Were and “All That David Copperfield Kind of Crap”
Chapter 3. - The Mad Lesbian in the Attic
Chapter 4. - How I Got to Be Jewish
Chapter 5. - How I Got to Be the Second Sex
Chapter 6. - Sex
Chapter 7. - Seducing the Muse
Chapter 8. - Fear of Fame
Chapter 9. - Baby, Baby, Baby
Chapter 10. - Divorce and After
Chapter 11. - Dona Juana Gets Smart, or a Good Girl's Guide to Bad Boys
Chapter 12. - Becoming Venetian
Chapter 13. - The Picaresque Life
Chapter 14. - How to Get Married
Chapter 15. - Men Are Not the Problem
Chapter 16. - Woman Enough: Interview with My Mother
Chapter 17. - Births, Deaths, Endings
AFTERWORD: FEAR OF FIFTY, REVISITED
ALSO AVAILABLE FROM TARCHER/PENGUIN
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
“A half-century under her belt has not staled Jong's passion nor has painful controversy withered her talent for unflinching observation.... With a quotable line on almost every page, Jong's story is more than flash and fireâthere's poetry and wisdom, too.”
“A Bovary of our time without the dead end.”
Washington Post Book World
“The sharpness of her epigrams spurts across the page.... She is plainly wild, impossible, unreasonable, pursued by dark things, yet brings shafts of revelation and brightness into dark places. Erica Jong lives very dangerously.”
“What Jong calls a midlife memoir is a slice of autobiography that ranks in honesty, self-perception and wisdom with Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs
Daughter and Mary McCarthy's Memories
a Catholic Girlhood, although Jong's memoir of a Jewish American princess is wittier than either.”
âPenny Perrick, The Sunday Times (London)
“It's clear from this book that Erica Jong is not afraid at all.... She is fierce and female and leaves nothing out.”
“Jong's contemporaries will identify with many stages of the journey she recounts.... However, one need not be female or Jewish or advancing toward (or receding from) fifty to relish this lively, frank, absorbing memoir.”
“Fear of Fifty is so glorious that I pray Erica Jong lives to a full century so she'll write Fear
One Hundred.... This book radiates truth, humor, and deep insight.... Fear of Fifty, a mighty shout of joy, is an antidote to boredom.... You must read this celebration of life.”
âRita Mae Brown
ALSO BY ERICA JONG
Fruits & Vegetables
At the Edge
How to Save Your Own Life
Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures
Megan's Book of Divorce;
Megan's Two Houses
Any Woman's Blues
Erica Jong on Henry Miller
What Do Women
Seducing the Demon
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England Â· Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Â· Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Â· Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Â· Penguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Â· Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
Copyright Â© 1994, 2006 by Erica Mann Jong
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada
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eISBN : 978-1-101-15342-0
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For my daughter, Mollyâ
your turn now
Let us answer a book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.
âRALPH WALDO EMERSON
NEVER FOLLOW A DOG ACT
“You know you're on the skids when you play yourself in the movie version of your life,” my father used to warn me when I was nine. I had no idea what he was talking about.
He had come out of show business to make a killing in the tchotchke
business, and though he trafficked in ceramics and phony antique dolls, all his metaphors were drawn from that other business he had left in his twenties.
“Never follow a dog act” was his other favorite saying. I never knew what that meant either. Or how it applied to my life. But, as it happened, my life was to teach me both these lessons.
“You might as well give up, Mom,” my daughter says. “You're a seventies writer.” My daughter says “seventies” as a synonym for “old stone age.” “The kids in my class say you write pornographyâis that true?”
I explain to Molly that women who push boundaries are often treated with something less than respect, and I give her Fear of Flying to read. She sits absorbed by it on a train from Venice to Arezzo the summer of her thirteenth birthday. Every few minutes she looks up at me and asks, “Hey, Momâdid this really happen?” or “Who was that guy anyway?”
I tell her the truth. In the funniest way I know. About a hundred pages into the book, she loses interest and picks up The Catcher
A year later, on a publicity tour for The Devil
Large, my book about Henry Miller, Molly confides to Wilder Penfield III of the Toronto Sunday
“I make it a policy not to read any of my mother's books because [they] really scare me. I got a hundred pages into Fear
Flying and I was so nervous! I kept asking her, âDid you really do this?' I was so shocked, I had to stop reading.”
She smiles with satisfaction as all her quotes are written down. She's dying to do her riff on “My Mother's Husbands”âexit, stage right, husband number 1; enter, stage left, husband number 2; et ceteraâbut I give her a withering look and kick her under the table.
At fourteen, Molly already knows that I'm her material, just as she sometimes has been mine. If she has to put up with a writer-mother, she'll take her revenge with words.
Molly is never at a loss for words.
Nobody could make her follow a dog act.
So here I am at fifty, whiplashed between the generations. I am reduced to a sort of missing link in the evolutionary chain. I have all this advice from my father and all these riffs from my daughter. Somehow I have to make sense of it all.
That's how this book was born.
HE'S FIFTY, SHE'S NOT
At fifty, the last thing I wanted was a public celebration. Three days before my birthday I took off for a spa in the Berkshires with Molly (then thirteen)âslept in the same bed with her, giggling before sleep, slumber party style-worked out all day (as if I were a jock, not a couch potato), learned trendy low-fat vegetarian recipes, had my blackheads expunged, my flab massaged, my muscles stretched, and thought about the second half of my life.
These thoughts alternated between terror and acceptance. Turning fifty, I thought, is like flying: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
When, on the evening of my birthday, my husband (who shares the same birthday but is one year older) arrived, I had to adjust to the disruption of my woman's world. He liked the food but wisecracked about the holistic hokum. His critical-satirical male eye did not quite ruin my retreat but somehow tainted it. I was doing inner work in the guise of outer exercise, and his presence made that inner work harder.
Real men don't like spas.
The year before, when he turned fifty, I had made a party for him. I sent out invitations that read:
COME HELP CELEBRATE.
I still couldn't face fifty, so I knew I did not want him to reciprocate for my fiftieth birthday. Nor did I want to do what Gloria Steinem had done: make a public benefit, raise money for women, and rise resplendent in an evening gown, shoulders dusted with glitterâas Gloria's lovely shoulders wereâand say: “This is what fifty looks like.”
Who can fail to admire such brave affirmation of older women? But I veered between wanting to change the date on my Who's Who entry and wanting to move to Vermont and take up organic gardening in drawstring pants and Birkenstocks.
I needed something private, female, and contemplative to sort out these conflicting feelings. A spa was perfect. And my daughter was the perfect companionâdespite her adolescent riffing that spares no one, her mother least of all. Still, there is something about a woman turning fifty that is female work, mother-daughter work, not to be shared with the whole male worldâor even with those representatives of it whom one loves and cherishes.
My husband and I have always made much of our birthdayâin part because we share it and because, having met in midlife, after the wreckage of many relationships, we treasure the synchronicity of our births during World War II, a world of ration coupons and fear of Axis invasions that we only dimly remember from twice-told family tales. One year we took our daughters to Veniceâmy magic cityâanother year we made a blast in our new apartment in New York, bought jointlyâthe ultimate sign of commitment in a world where marriages die like moths.
But fifty is different for a woman than it is for a man. Fifty is a more radical kind of passage to the other side of life, and this was something we could not share. Let him make fun of “new age” contemplation. I needed it, as have women back to antiquity. Venus de Milo contemplates herself turning into the Venus of Wiltendorfâif she doesn't watch out.
You tell yourself you ought to be beyond vanity. You read feminist books and contemplate falling in love with Alice B. Toklas. But years of brainwashing are not so easy to forget. The beauty trap is deeper than you thought. It's not so much the external pressures as the internal ones that bind. You cannot imagine yourself middle-agedâcute little you who always had “it” even when overweight.
For years I had stayed legally single, fearing both the boredom and the entrapment of something not accidentally called “wedlock”; now I thought the most difficult challenge of all was to keep my mental and spiritual independence while inside a nurturing relationship. This meant constant negotiation of priorities, constant noisy fights, constant struggles for power. If you were lucky enough to feel safe enough to fight and struggle, then you were lucky indeed. If you felt loved enough to scream and yell and exercise your power openly, the marriage had a fifty-fifty chance.
I had come to such a marriage only because I had come to a place where I was not afraid of being alone. I discovered that I liked my own company better than dating. Treasuring my solitude, secure in my ability to provide for myself and my daughter, I suddenly met a soul mate and a friend.
Famous for writing about relationships that flamed with sex then petered out, I surprised myself with this one.
Conversation ignited. The sex was at first disastrousâdetumescence at inopportune moments and condoms limply abandoned on the counterpane. So much fear of commitment on both sides that ecstasy seemed irrelevant. Instead, we talked and talked. I found myself liking this person before I knew I loved himâwhich was in itself a new thrill. I would run awayâto California, to Europeâonly to call him from far-flung places. We felt our connection so strongly that it seemed we had been together all our lives.
Has anyone dared to write about the disasters of safe sex in the age of AIDS? Has anyone dared to say that most men would rather wear condoms around their necks to ward off the evil eye than put them on their cocks? Has anyone recorded the traumas of midlife lovers who have been through everything from fifties technical virginity to sixties sexual gluttony to seventies health and fitness (you met your lovers at Nautilus Clubs) to eighties decadence (long limousines and short dresses and men who impersonated Masters of the Universe) to nineties terror of AIDS warring with natural horniness?
And then there are the eternal questions of love and sex: Can there be friendship between men and women as long as the hormones rage and rule? How is sex related to loveâand love to sex? Are we truly pigeonholed in our sexualityâor does society alone insist on this? What is “straight”? What is “gay”? What is “bi”? And does any of it matter deep in one's soul? Shouldn't we get rid of these labels in an attempt to be really open to ourselves and to each other?
What was happening to me in the second part of my life? I was getting myself back and I liked that self. I was getting the humor, the intensity, the balance I had known in childhood. But I was getting it back with a dividend. Call it serenity. Call it wisdom. I knew what mattered and what did not. Love mattered. Instant orgasm did not.
I look around me at fifty and see the women of my generation coping with getting older. They are perplexed, and the answer to their perplexity is not another book on hormones. The problem goes deeper than menopause, face-lifts, or whether to fuck younger men. It has to do with the whole image of self in a culture in love with youth and out of love with women as human beings. We are terrified at fifty because we do not know what on earth we can become when we are no longer young and cute. As at every stage of our lives, there are no role models for us. Twenty-five years of feminism (and backlash), then feminism againâand we still stand at the edge of an abyss. What to become now that our hormones have let us go?
It may seem that, in the last few years, there has been a spate of empowering books for midlife women, but how much have things really changed? Can we so easily undo fifty years of training for midlife self-annihilation?
I figure that if I'm confused, you are too. After all, we are the whiplash generation (patent pending):
raised to be Doris Day, yearning in our twenties to be Gloria Steinem, then doomed to raise our midlife daughters in the age of Nancy Reagan and Princess Di. Now it's Hillary Rodham Clinton, thank goddess. But sexism (like athlete's foot) still flourishes in dark, moist places.
What a roller-coaster ride it's been! Our gender went in and out of style as hems went up and down and up and down and up again, as feminism rose and fell and rose and fell and rose again, as motherhood was blessed then damned then blessed then damned then blessed again.
Raised in the era of illegal abortion (when a high school or college pregnancy meant the end of ambition), we grew up into the Sexual Revolutionâan essentially fake media event that was promptly replaced by good old-fashioned American Puritanism when the AIDS epidemic hit. The tragedy of losing a whole generation of some of the most talented among us was predictably turned into an excuse to bash the life-force and her messenger, Eros. Sex was out, was in, was out, was in, was outâa new twist on what Anthony Burgess called “the old in-out” in
A Clockwork Orange.
The point was: We whiplashers could depend on nothing in our erotic or social lives.
Think of the advice we got growing up. Then think of the world we grew up into!
“Don't wear your heart on your sleeve!”
“Don't let men know how smart you are!”
“If he has the milk, why should he buy the cow?”
“It's as easy to love a rich man as a poor man.”
“The way to a man's heart is through his stomach.”
“A man chases a girl until she catches him.”
“Diamonds are a girl's best friend.”
If we'd been stupid enough to live the lives our mothers and grandmothers made proverbs of, we'd all be bag ladies, scavenging in garbage pails. If we'd been stupid enough to live the lives the magazines and movies of the sixties and seventies recommended, we'd all be dead of AIDS.
Raised to believe that men would protect and support us, we often found we had to protect and support them. Raised to believe we should care for our children full time (at least when they were little), we often found Donna Reed motherhood a luxury few of us could afford. Raised to believe that femininity consisted of softness and conciliation, we often found that our very survivalâin divorce, in work, even in our homesâdepended upon our revising those ideas of femininity and fiercely sticking up for our own needs.
We found ourselves always torn between the mothers in our heads and the women we needed to become simply to stay alive. With one foot in the past and another in the future, we hobbled through first love, motherhood, marriage, divorce, careers, menopause, widowhoodânever knowing what or who we were supposed to be, staking out new emotional territory at every turnâtike pioneers.
We have been pioneers in our own lives, and the price of the pioneer is eternal discomfort. The reward is the stunning sense of pride in our painfully achieved selfhood.
“I did it!” we exclaim with some shock and amazement. “I did it! You can too!”
Did men change or did women change? Or was it both? My father and grandfathers, sexists though they were, could never have abandoned their children to waltz off with younger women. They may have been pigs. Perhaps they were less than faithful. But at least they were pigs who were providers. They were in for the long haul, providing also a kind of security unknown today. Why did the generation of men who followed them have no such scruples?
Did women let them off the hook? Or did history? Or did some enormous change take place between the sexes which we still have not recognized or named?
As women grew stronger, men appeared to get weaker. Was this appearance or reality? As women got little crumbs of power, men began to act paranoidâas if we'd disabled them utterly.
Do all women have to keep silent for men to speak? Do all women have to be legless for men to walk?
The women of my generation are reaching fifty in a state of perplexity and rage. None of the things we counted on has come to pass. The ground keeps shifting under our feet. Any psychologist or psychoanalyst will tell you that the hardest thing to deal with is inconsistency. And we have known a degree of inconsistency in our personal lives that would make anyone schizophrenic. Perhaps our grandmothers were better able to cope with the expectation of oppression than we have been able to adjust to our much-vaunted freedom. And our freedom anyway is moot. Our “freedom” is still a word we can put in inverted commas to get a laugh.
For decades, we couldn't expect to take a maternity leave and get our jobs back, let alone find affordable child care. No day care, no Americans who wanted to be nanniesâand yet we were (and are) penalized for hiring those who needed child-care jobs.
The dirty secret in America is that every working woman has had to break the law in order to find child care. I have broken the law. So have most of us. (Poor women use unlicensed day care and middle-class women find nannies without green cards.) Look for a woman who is squeaky clean and you'll end up with a woman who has no children. Or with a man.
With ascending expectations and a declining standard of living, we asked ourselves what on earth went wrong. Nothing went wrong. We were merely brought up in one culture and came of age in another. And now we are hitting fifty in a world that is grandstanding about feminism once again. But this time we have good reason to be skeptical.
The whiplash generation is, in its own way, a lost generation. Like spectators at a tennis game, we keep snapping our heads from side to side.
No wonder our necks hurt!
Perhaps every generation thinks of itself as a lost generation and perhaps every generation is right. Perhaps there were flappers of the twenties who longed for the security of their grandmother's lives. But the first wave of modern feminism at least carried its members along on a current of hope. And the second wave (of the late sixties and early seventies) made us dream that women's equality would soon be universal. So my classmates and I have seen women's expectations raised and dashed and raised and dashed and raised again in our not very long lives. The brevity of the cycles has been dizzyingâand enraging.
The media still try to comfort us with bromides. Fifty is fabulous, we hear. We should wear hemorrhoid cream on our wrinkles and march off into the sunset popping Premarin. We should forget centuries of oppression in exchange for a new hat with “Fabulous Fifty” embroidered on the brim.
What about our needâwomen and men bothâto prepare for death in a culture that mocks all spirituality as “new age” pretension? What about our need to see ourselves as part of the flow of creation? What about the deep loneliness our individualistic culture breeds? What about the dismissal of community and communal values? What about society's mockery of all activities other than getting and spending? What about our own despair in seeing liars and manipulators become rich and powerful while truth tellers are chronically outmaneuvered and fall through that porous “safety net” the liars have woven with loopholes for themselves and their children?
But most of all, what about meaning and what about spirit? These are not empty words. These are the nutrients we hunger for increasingly as we age.
“More things move,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote in her last years, “than blood in the heart.” As human beings, we long for some ritual that tells us we are part of a tribe, part of a species, part of a generation. Instead we are offered hormone replacement therapy or pep talks about how hip it is to be fabulously fifty.
Let's be clear: These pep talks insult our intelligence. We cannot so easily forget that we were raised in a world that mocked female maturity. We cannot instantly forget generations of hoary jokes about old bags, cows, yentas, witches, crones. “Menopause-lady painters” my artist-grandfather used to say about the women who shared a studio with him at the Art Students League. And I didn't even realize this remark was sexist and agist. I just dismissed the old bagsâas he didâhardly knowing I was dismissing my own future.
Just because new shibboleths are broadcast over the airwaves, or printed on glossy pages, we cannot expect our images of self to be instantly healed. We are more than just consumers of magazines, television shows, makeup, face-lifts, clothes. We have inner scars, inner wounds, inner needs. We cannot be treated like chattel for fifty years and then suddenly be flattered into political compliance because it has been discovered (quite belatedly) that we vote.
The new hype trumpets that fifty is fab because the baby boom generation has reached that formerly dangerous age and we now run thingsâor rather our husbands and brothers do.
But I look around and see the best minds of my generation still bucking the system. Women directors are still begging male studio heads for money; women writers and editors are still pleading their cases to male CEOs; women actors are still scrambling for a handful of parts that truly reflect their lives; women artists are still paid and exhibited far less than their male counterparts; women conductors and composers are still seldom heard. Women everywhere are settling for half a loaf or even crumbs. Not losers, these women, but the fiercest and brightest. Not complainers, not whiners, and certainly not lazy, but still subject to a relentless double standard.
As mediocre men are promoted upward, supplied with their platinum parachutes, stock options, lemon tart wives, new families, new cars, new planes, new boats, we get older only to become less and less employable. Of course, we are spiritually strongâwho ever doubted it? But spiritual strength alone does not overcome discrimination.
In a world where women work three times as hard for half as much, our achievement has been denigrated, both marriage and divorce have been turned against us, our motherhood has been used as an obstacle to our success, our passion as a trap, our empathy for others as an excuse to underpay us.
In our prime, we looked around the world and saw an epidemic of rape frequently not even reported in mainstream newspapers. In our childbearing years, we frequently met our deadlines only by giving up sleep. We began to get angry, really angry, angry for the second time in our adult lives. But now we knew the time was short.
We are finally learning to harness our anger and use it to change the world. But we have not stopped turning against each other. Until we do, sisterhood will continue to be a comforting theory rather than an everyday reality.
This is the next great taboo subject: When will women learn not to divide but to unite? And how can we learn to be allies when society still pits us against each other as tokens?
At fifty, the madwoman in the attic breaks loose, stomps down the stairs, and sets fire to the house. She won't be imprisoned anymore. The second wave of anger is purer than the first. Suddenly the divisions between women don't matter. Old or young, brown or white, gay or straight, married or un-, poor or richâwe are all discriminated against just because we are women. And we won't go back to the old world of injustice. We can't. It's too late.
The anger of midlife is a ferocious anger. In our twenties, with success and motherhood still before us, we could imagine that something would save us from second-classnessâeither achievement or marriage or motherhood. Now we know that nothing can save us. We have to save ourselves.
My books have always been written out of headlong passion. Despite the fact that I've somehow made my precarious living as a professional writer for twenty-three years, I cannot write for hire. I have to feel a deep internal pressure that says: This book doesn't yet exist; I have to make it. I always write as if my life depended upon itâbecause it does.
At the beginning of Tropic
Henry Miller quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographiesâcaptivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.” Actually, women have fulfilled this prophecy more than men have. Women writers have taken up Emerson's prophecy and made a whole literature of itâa literature that has also changed the way men write books.
“Truth truly” is what I am after. And clearly we live in an age where bearing witness has the force for us that fiction used to have. The novels and memoirs we take up as guides for our lives have that quality of immediacy, of truth told truly, at the expense of false modesty, shame, or pride.
Hard as it is to tell the truth without the comfort of a mask, “an autobiography must be such that one can sue oneself for libel,” as Thomas Hoving saidâapparently not knowing whom he was paraphrasing. Mary McCarthy, in her Intellectual Memoirs, gives the source as George Orwell: “An autobiography that does not tell something bad about the author cannot be any good.” McCarthy then confesses more sins than even her detractors can load her with: And we are charmed. But then she's deadâalways more charming in a woman than being alive.
The fear of criticism has silenced me many times in my writing life. And the criticism has often been fierce, personal, and wounding. But criticismâas everyone from Aphra Behn to George Sand to George Eliot to Mary McCarthy knewâis one of the first things a woman writer must learn to bear. She does not write of experiences that the dominant culture applauds as “important,” and, like any writer, she does not write with a guarantee. To become inured to ridicule is surely a woman writer's most important task.
Often I have tricked myself into writing with candor by telling myself I would not publish (or would publish only under a pseudonymâperhaps even a male pseudonym). Later, I might be persuaded to sign the book by the loving letters I received from readers or by the publisher's need for a brand name. But during the writing process, I could be free, could knock the censorâmy mother? my grandmother?âoff my shoulder only by promising myself never to let my words see publication.
I wrote Fear of Flying that way and many subsequent books (including this one). Writing has often been accompanied by terror, silences, and then wild bursts of private laughter that suddenly make all the dread seem worthwhile.
But the great compensation for being fifty in a culture that is not kind to older women is that you care less about criticism and you are less afraid of confrontation. In a world not made for women, criticism and ridicule follow us all the days of our lives. Usually they are indications that we are doing something right.
Is fifty too young to start an autobiography? Of course it is. But maybe eighty is too old.
Fifty is the time when time itself begins to seem short. The sense of time running out has been exacerbated lately by the AIDS epidemic and the deaths of so many friends still in their thirties, forties, and fifties. Who knows whether there will be a better time? The time is always now.
At nineteen, at twenty-nine, at thirty-nine, evenâgoddess help meâat forty-nine, I believed that a new man, a new love, a move, a change to another city, another country, would somehow change my inner life.
Not so now.
I know that my inner life is my own achievement whether there is a partner in my life or not. I know that another mad, passionate love affair would be only a temporary distractionâeven if “temporary” means two or three years. I know that my soul is what I have to nurture and develop and that, alone or with a partner, the problems of climbing your own mountain are not so very different.
In a relationship, you still require autonomy, separateness, privacy. Outside a relationship, you still need self-love and self-esteem.
I write this book from a place of self-acceptance, cleansing anger, and raucous laughter.
I am old enough to know that laughter, not anger, is the true revelation.
I make the assumption that I am not so different from you or you.
I want to write a book about my generation. And to write about my generation and be fiercely honest, I can only start with myself.
Fear of Fifty
When people say
“I've told you
They mean to scold, and very often do;
When poets say, “I've written
They make you dread that they'll recite them too;
In gangs of
thieves commit their crimes;
love for love is rare, 'tis true,
But then, no doubt, it equally as true is,
A good deal may be bought for fifty Louis.
âGeorge Gordon, Lord Byron, Don
(Was Byron afraid of fifty? Probably. He died at thirty-six.)
When I undertook to write about myself I found that I had
embarked upon a somewhat rash adventure, easier begun than left
off. I had long wanted to set down the story of my first twenty
years; nor did I ever forget the distress signals which my adolescent
self sent out to the older woman who was afterward to
absorb me, body and soul. Nothing, I feared, would survive of
that girl, not so much as a pinch of ashes. I begged her successor
to recall my youthful ghost one day from the limbo to which it
had been consigned. Perhaps the only reason for writing my books
was to make the fulfillment of this long-standing prayer possible.
When I was fifty, it seemed to me that the time had come.
âSimone de Beauvoir, The Prime
So there I am at the spa with Molly, facing my fiftieth birthday, and feeling hideously depressed. I am no longer the youngest person in the room, nor the cutest. I will never be Madonna or Tina Brown or Julia Roberts. Whoever the flavor of the month is by the time this book appearsâI will never be her either. For years those were my valuesâwhether I admitted this to myself or notâbut I cannot afford such values anymore.
Every year another crop of beauties assaults me on the streets of New York. With thinner waists and blonder hair and straighter teeth, with more energy to compete (and less cynicism about the world), the class of 1994, or 1984, 1974, is inexorably replacing my classâBarnard '63âyikes! Thirty-plus years out of college. Most of my contemporaries are
as my daughter would say. They press baby pictures on me at parties, the offspring of offspring.
Having started late, I have no grandchildren yet, but I do have a couple of grandnephews crawling around Lebanon, Lausanne, and Litchfield County. My older sister's children are moving me closer and closer to the state of grandparenthood. I am the older generation now, and I'm not always sure I like it. The losses sometimes seem more clear-cut than the gains.
The astounding energy of postmenopausal women (promised by Margaret Mead) is here, but the optimism to fuel it is not. The world seems ever more surely in the grip of materialism and surfaces. Image, image, image is all it sees. As an image, I'm definitely getting blurry.
What has happened to our twenty-five years of protest about not wanting to be plastic Barbies? What has happened to the anger of Naomi Wolf analyzing beauty myths, or Germaine Greer fiercely celebrating cronehood, or Gloria Steinem showing us how to accept age gracefully and turning inward at last?
Is all our angst (and attempted self-transformation) just more fodder for the talk shows as the youth culture grinds on inexorably? Are we just a bunch of old broads talking to each other in the steamroom, cheering each other up?
We write and talk and empower each other, but the obsession with newness and youth (newth?) does not seem to change. Ours is a world of shifting video images more real and more potent than mere words. The television age is here, and we word people are relics of a past when the word could change the world because the word was still heard.
The image is all now. And the time of the image is always NOW. History no longer exists in this flickering light show.
These were some of my thoughts as I trooped around the spa in the Berkshires with Molly, doing step aerobics, aqua-trimming, speed-walking, and other fitness rituals, and avoiding my own image in the mirror. Molly dragged me out of bed for every class, and I lost the same few pounds I always lose (and gain back), drank water, steamed my pores, and felt restoredâbut the gloom still wouldn't lift. (I was facing the eternal question: to lift or not to tiftâand should I do it before the next book tour?)
Worse than my despair over my inevitable physical decline (and whether or not to “fix” it) was my despair over the pessimism of midlife. Never again, I thought, would I walk into a room and meet some delicious man who would change my life. I remembered the mad affairs begun with a flash of eyes and a surge of adrenaline, and the upheavals they inevitably led to. By eschewing upheavals and embracing stability, by disowning my tendency to throw my life into a cocked hatâso to speakâevery seven years, I had also becalmed myself. I wanted contemplation, not boredom; wisdom, not despair; serenity, not stasis. The sexual energy that had always called forth the next book, the adventurousness of a life that settled nowhere, had begun to seem rash and foolish at fifty. At last I had “settled down” to cultivate my garden. Now all I needed to do was figure out where my garden was and what to grow in it.
Because that, after all, is the question, isn't it? You can never really “fix” mortality and death even if you can snip back your chin flab and eye bags. You may look good in a glossy, but in life, there are still scars. The real question has to do with how to grow inner-directed in a relentlessly other-directed society; how to nurture spirituality in the midst of materialism; how to march to your own drummer when alternative rock, rap, and hip-hop are drowning her out.
Thoreau is our touchstone writer in defining the central American dilemma: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” In this, contemporary women are more Thoreau's heirs than are men. Bill W's philosophy of AA is our touchstone spiritual philosophy (whether we are alcoholics or not), because we are always thirsting for spirit, looking for it in all the wrong places (booze, drugs, money, new clothes), and finally finding ourselves only by losing ourselves, surrendering the materialism on which we were raised.