Time passes, and we get old. Our faces wrinkle, our hair goes gray and MIA, our teeth yellow, our knees ache, we forget the names of people we said hello to just yesterday on the way to pick up the Geritol, and there are days when a nap sounds real nice.
At least that’s the way it’s been for most of humanity. But rumors that boomers will be joining the great biological stream turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Boomers—especially feminist-influenced women of a certain class who are now publishing their philosophy of life after 50—will not be growing old. And it seems equally inaccurate to say that they will mature. They are going to season, as Gail Sheehy puts it in her most recent book, Sex and the Seasoned Woman. They will “develop”; they will “grow.” Sheehy and her sister scribes have come forward to tell you that today’s older women are a new breed. They’re busy, busy, busy! They go to the gym! They work in animal shelters! They travel! They get divorced! And yes (Yes! Yes!), they have orgasms!
And in their own inimitably modern, American, follow-your-bliss, self-absorbed way, they want to tell you all about it.
Not so long ago, enlightened women of the boomer generation were known for worrying about equal rights, equal pay, Roe v. Wade, Title IX, and the location of the Masters Golf Tournament. Today, not so much. As they shuffle off into their golden years, many appear to be turning inward. As the title of a catalog that arrived in my mailbox recently put it, they want “Time for Me”—time that appears to involve a lot of anti-aging formulas, herbal supplements, figure-shaping undergarments, and vibrators. Don’t get me wrong. Boomer fems continue to be enemies of the patriarchy. They still want men to do the laundry. Their tone remains defiant. But their personal is no longer very political; even their political isn’t very political. Nobody’s putting it this way, but it seems that liberation politics have become irrelevant to what is now their most pressing concern, which—depending on your emphasis—is: how to bring meaning to their dwindling years, or how to avoid being mistaken for their grandmothers.
It probably should have been clear that Second Wave feminism would be changing direction a while ago. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, who just happened to be staring at 60 at the time, published Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. With its talk of the inner child and “authentic selves,” the book was a noticeable break from Steinem’s usual menu of feminist topics. A year later, Betty Friedan gave us The Fountain of Age, in which she proposed that we consider the years past 50 not as a time to play golf and show off pictures of the grandchildren but as “an additional stage of development,” a time of further emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. But despite Steinem’s and Friedan’s legendary history as trendsetters, no one paid much attention at the time, doubtless because boomers, who had yet to receive their AARP cards in the mail, were still in a “what, me worry?” mode.
But now that Newsweek has made it official with a cover story announcing the first boomers’ arrival at age 60, the signs of a revolution going inward are unmistakable. “Our record is impressive,” writes Suzanne Braun Levine in Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood. “We fought discrimination in the workplace and popularized the notion of family leave and flexible work schedules; we forced our way into institutions and professions and levels of leadership that even the most optimistic didn’t dare predict. . . . But for many, enough activism is enough. They want to stop fighting the system and invest their energies in themselves.”
Levine takes the phrase “Second Adulthood” from Gail Sheehy. Sheehy, you may remember, mapped the “stages of adult development” in 1970 in her megahit Passages—though she stopped at age 50, because at the time the post-50 years didn’t seem worth the price of ink. For obvious reasons, she has changed her mind, and in New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time she has announced the discovery of Second Adulthood, a new “frontier” that encompasses the years from 45 to 85+ (oh, the “passage” evoked by that “+”!).
Now, Second Adulthood does not—repeat not—suggest a decline. It does not bring inevitable loss, nor does it suggest that we should turn to the consolations of philosophy, religion, or arthritis medication—because Second Adulthood is nothing like your grandmother’s 50 or 60 or 70. According to Levine, Sheehy, and the numerous coaches, therapists, and lifestyle gurus who are banking on the idea, it is a thrilling time of growth and change, an exciting opportunity to redefine our lives and ourselves—“a second chance—to do it better, to do it differently, to do it wiser,” in Levine’s words.
The women of the Second Wave were already highly evolved—liberated yet sensitive, strong yet compassionate—but in Second Adulthood they are ascending into goddesshood. Christiane Northrup’s bestseller The Wisdom of Menopause describes the years after menopause—average age 51—as potentially “the beginning of a woman’s most sexually passionate, creatively inspired, and professionally productive phase of life.” So profound are the changes that a woman goes through as she passes into Second Adulthood that she must first pass through what Sheehy has dubbed “Middlescence,” a term that may sound to the cynics suspiciously like “obsolescence” but is actually meant to stand for “midlife adolescence.” Middlescence is Sheehy at her most canny—which is very canny indeed. Through the elixir of pop sociology, she offers boomers what they have most wished: they can now remain teenagers into old age.
The shape of midlife teen turmoil is well on display in Levine’s Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, a book of such stunning banality it makes Sheehy look like Hannah Arendt. “My teenagers and I are grappling with the same two disorienting questions,” Levine explains. “What is happening to my body and Who am I?” “The Problem That Has No Name has been replaced by The Question That Has Many Answers: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Don’t try to learn from the past, and definitely don’t count your blessings, because “You’re Not Who You Were, Only Older.” You need to “let go” of your past self by doing something dramatic. “Sooner or later each of us does do something. The something is different for every woman I talked to, as minor as throwing out that pillowcase full of mismatched socks once and for all, or as major as interviewing for a new job, getting divorced, or going back to school.”
What’s striking about all of this heavy breathing about missing socks and adult extension courses is that Levine is actually not only a woman of significant accomplishment but one who has personified the feminist dream. She was the first editor in chief of Ms. and went on to helm the Columbia Journalism Review. She has published in major magazines and serves on boards. She has also been married for decades to the same man, with whom she has raised two sons. Yet in Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, she trembles like a wallflower. She worries about what to do with her life. She frets about how timid she has been in saying what she really thinks. There is not the remotest hint of the authority or insight that you’d expect to emerge after 35 years of successful struggle in the trenches of the New York publishing world and the post-sexual-revolution marriage culture. More striking, though she does not repudiate the feminism of her First Adulthood, there is no indication that the success it inspired did anything to bring her the satisfaction of a life well lived.
On the contrary. Like other Desperate Grandmas, she now sees careerism as a distraction from finding her “real self.” In First Adulthood, say the acolytes of Second Adulthood, women figure out how to please the people who have power over them—parents, teachers, mates, and bosses. But when they are in what Levine labels “The Fuck You Fifties,” they need “no longer care what other people think, only what I think.” “If our 20s were about our physical peak and our 30s and 40s about work and productivity, after that it is about being and becoming you,” Alexandra Mezey, a Second Adulthood life coach, promises on her website. Turning in your office keys can be “a chance to shift from work to the self, from responsibility to freedom,” promise Alice Radosh and Nan Bauer-Maglin in Women Confronting Retirement: A Nontraditional Guide.
Somehow, though, the word “retirement” seems inadequate to the task of describing what happens to Second Adulteers when they cash their last paycheck. The Greatest Generation retired; they took up hobbies, joined book clubs, and went to lecture series near their Fort Lauderdale condos. Maybe they volunteered to read to poor kids at nearby schools. But Desperate Grandmas don’t retire. They “pursue the passionate life,” in Sheehy’s words. They “follow their dreams.” Levine celebrates a human rights lobbyist who becomes a devotee of “Neuromuscular Integrative Action” (a trendy mishmash of martial arts, yoga, and dance), a woman who is volunteering in an animal shelter, “a high-powered corporate executive” who at 55 joins the Peace Corps and goes to the Ivory Coast, and the psychologist Carol Gilligan, who is writing a novel: “Now sixty-eight, she has only just begun to explore new aspects of her talents.”
The Desperate Grandma who really wants to pursue a passionate life might try something even more dramatic. She might file for divorce. Since the 1970s, Sheehy has been an enthusiastic promoter of the notion that divorce is not the tragedy once imagined but rather a fabulous opportunity for personal growth.
A 50 percent divorce rate and the heavy damage inflicted on legions of children haven’t dampened her enthusiasm. Sheehy eagerly cites a study showing two-thirds of divorces among couples over 40 initiated by women. That’s because women, like men, “love the freedom that being single brings—citing independence, getting to keep their houses however they want, and not having to compromise with another person.” Single women are in a better position to “get to know [their] new self.” They also go on dates in the “midlife singles bazaar.” Sheehy quotes an AARP survey about midlife singles: 75 percent of women who divorced in their fifties had a serious relationship after splitting from their husbands. The fact that more men—81 percent—had such relationships passes by without comment. At any rate, “lusty, liberated women” are finding lots of romance, much of it, she assures us, with younger men.
In fact, sex is at the center of the passionate life of the Desperate Grandma. When they were young, boomers famously discovered female sexual pleasure. Now they are discovering that the fun never ends. Along with Sex and the Seasoned Woman, we are seeing a slew of books about sex and the 60-something, including Still Doing It, Better Than I Ever Expected, Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman, and Erica Jong’s latest orgasm dispatch, Seducing the Demon—all of them filled with examples of how today’s hip grandmothers are spending their leisure time. Jong and Juska write only about themselves, but the other writers go out hunting for horny females of a certain age interested in discussing their sex lives with a stranger. They find hordes of them.
What these women have to say will raise a lot of eyebrows. They are not just having sex; they are having the Best. Sex. Ever. They rejoice in their lovers, their fantasies, their sex toys, their orgasms—which they have in airplanes, in elevators, in the shower, in the woods. “Whether the writer is having sex after heart surgery, self-conscious about a wrinkly stomach hanging down, making love without an erection, experiencing leg cramps in certain positions, or worrying about dentures . . . ,” writes Joan Price in a review of Still Doing It, “most report that sex after 60 is the best they’ve ever had.” (The book, edited by Joani Blank, takes into consideration people of all sexual inclinations, including those who “choose self-pleasuring,” though whether they also are enjoying the best they’ve ever had, she doesn’t say.)
As for Price herself, the author of Better Than I Ever Expected: “Tell them at age fifty-nine, I’m having the best sex of my life!” she tells her publicist, who is no blockhead and does exactly that. And, of course, there is Jong, who in Seducing the Demon describes earth-moving tantric sex with her fourth husband. Even without Viagra—he’s on heart medication—“He could have a whole-body orgasm while giving oral sex—his orgasm triggered by mine. He could feel electric shocks down his spine—as if the kundalini were rising”—which, despite its ominous sound, evidently poses no danger to cardiac patients.
The most remarkable of the older hotties, though her experience is considerably more ambiguous than the hear-me-roar subjects interviewed by Sheehy et al., is surely Jane Juska, the author of A Round-Heeled Woman. Juska’s book chronicles her sexual adventures after she placed an ad in the New York Review of Books that read like this: “Before I turn 67—next March—I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”
After whittling down the 63 responses she received in order to weed out the creeps, Juska, who had been divorced and largely celibate for 30 years (though she assures us that she was always game for “self-pleasuring”), is able to arrange a number of affairs that include sex, sometimes even with men she likes.
Still, her gentlemen callers don’t deliver the romantic happiness so many of Sheehy’s subjects seem to find or that Juska, despite the modest demands of her ad, clearly longs for. They include an 82-year-old who on their third day together announces, “I do not desire you,” recommends she try a lubricant in her future booty calls, and steals her underwear; a retired doctor who talks on the phone to his steady girlfriend, while she, pining for more sex, cleans his bathroom; a New Englander who tells her that their weekend together helped him realize that he wants to go back to his girlfriend; and a “senior member of a well-regarded investment firm,” who feels her up at their first meeting for all to see in the cafeteria of the Morgan Library and later refuses to kiss her during lovemaking.
A lesser woman might sprint to the nunnery, but Juska, to her credit, is resolute. She has a book to write—and to move a lot of books, you need a happy ending. In her final chapters, she describes a continuing affair with another lover, Graham, who is smart, well-read, handsome, prodigiously endowed, extremely skilled in the amorous arts—and 33. It seems necessary to add that he could well be a character Juska borrowed from James Frey’s slush pile.
Juska’s “journey” is of interest not just for its steam. It is also an unwitting illustration of the political aesthetics of the Desperate Grandma’s revolution from within. Juska is not particularly well-off; she is a divorced, semiretired schoolteacher, living in a rented cottage. But she is highly cultured—the title of her book is an eighteenth-century allusion to a woman who easily falls horizontal; she lives in Berkeley and adores New York City. Sophisticated in her tastes, decidedly enlightened in her social and political sensibilities, she fills her conversations with her lovers with allusions to Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Unesco, and Eric Rohmer. The 82-year-old underwear thief piques her interest after he writes a letter that reads in part: “When I returned from my tea plantation in Sri Lanka, I went straight to the Breadloaf Conference in Vermont”—perhaps a calculating parody of her own fantasy. Although she breaks her vow never to sleep with a Republican, she still never beds a plumber with a beer belly or an ex-marine from Arkansas—or if she does, she doesn’t write about it—and it’s hard to imagine that Random House would have published her book if she had. Juska is a member of the graying educated class, and if her audience can read about her senescent sexual adventures with any pleasure, it is partly because they carry a New York Review of Books seal of approval.
Of course, part of what is driving all this early geriatric ink-spilling are the altered demographic realities of Americans living longer and staying healthier. There are 37 million women in their forties, fifties, and sixties living in America today, many of them single, and many of them financially independent. With more affluence, better health care, and advanced medical technology—Viagra, hip and knee replacements, Viagra, hormone therapy, face lifts, silicone, tummy tucks, hair color, Viagra—it’s now a cinch to fool Mother Nature. Not so long ago, Yankelovich, Inc. surveyed baby boomers, asking them when they believe old age begins. The most common answer was 85—three years after the average American can expect to be dead and buried. In a world where a 60-year-old woman can give birth and the biological narrative—you’re born, you reproduce, you get old, and you die—has gone haywire, inevitably some people will imagine that old age is history.
And that’s not an altogether bad thing. There is something supremely American about these aging boomer women. Freedom, possibility, frontier, change—you see these words over and over again in Second Adulthood tracts. Second Adulthood reflects a zest for experience, for the new, for the personal gumption that is rooted in our national character and that has been the source of many of our blessings. It would also be curmudgeonly not to admire the energy and young-as-you-feel verve that Sheehy and her ilk want to bring to growing old. Who can entirely resist such determined optimism in the face of the harshest of realities? Yes, women might lose their memories, but they “gain insight.” Yes, their stomachs fold into accordion pleats and their upper arms sag like forgotten balloons, but they know better than any Jennifer Aniston wannabe how to please a man.
No, what grates about the Desperate Grandmas is not their optimism. It is not their determination to firm their glutes or to do good deeds in West Africa or, for that matter, to study the Kama Sutra like Orthodox Jews study the Torah. It’s their enthusiastic display of that chronic boomer disease: narcissism. Tom Wolfe once dubbed the 1970s “the Me Decade.” Desperate Grandmas seem determined to make every decade a Me Decade. With its consciousness-raising, its denigration of family life, its rejection of the past, feminism has always flirted with excessive individualism, bordering on mere selfishness. Now, as Second Wavers like Steinem and Levine filter out politics, what’s left of graying feminism are the dregs of self-actualization, passionate pursuits, and sexual self-expression.
Not that Desperate Grandmas are entirely without social conscience. As in Juska’s case, blue-state politics seem to go with the territory. It’s a way for women to reassure themselves that they are filled with enlightened altruism, despite all the time and money they lavish on their self-actualization. Jong proudly describes the anger she stirred up when she gave an anti-Bush graduation speech several years ago at a Staten Island college. (The “Boos were honors,” she writes. “They meant I was questioning authority, speaking truth to power. They meant I was trying to tell the truth—my quixotic calling.”) Margot, the corporate-executive-turned-Peace-Corps-volunteer Suzanne Levine interviews, captures the combination of unapologetic self-absorption and liberal sensibility that characterizes the Desperate Grandma. When asked whether she will go back to work after she returns from Africa, she says yes. “Maintenance is expensive. Being a jazzy older woman costs money. And that includes plastic surgery—when I get back from the Peace Corps.” As the saying goes, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
The memoirs by Erica Jong and Jane Juska in particular illustrate how feminism’s promotion of self-actualization makes it particularly ill suited for women—no matter what their politics—who are racing toward the day when they will become deeply and humbly dependent on the kindness and love of others. In fact, Jong has always been a case study in the porous boundary between feminism and narcissistic indifference toward other people’s reality. Her breakout novel, Fear of Flying, celebrated for its uninhibited depiction of female sexuality, was also thinly disguised autobiography that must have caused great pain to the two ex-husbands and numerous lovers she once had (presumably) cared for. That’s not unusual: male novelists beyond number have betrayed family and lovers in their books, too. But in the spirit of those let-it-all-hang-out times, Jong won applause not despite her callous exhibitionism and disregard for others’ privacy but because of them. Her exhibitionism, like that of the hordes of women confessors who have followed her, was taken as proof of her irreverent honesty, bravery, and admirably voracious libido.
Now a grandmother and still proudly proclaiming truth-telling as the impulse behind her sexual showboating, she has become in Seducing the Demon deeply embarrassing, repeating stories she has told in previous books, prattling on about her orgasms, her problems with thongs—“they tend to give me diaper rash”—and her fantasies about sex with former president Clinton: “Maybe I can dress up like his dear dead mother.” Ironically, after Fear of Flying, reviewers compared Jong with Philip Roth and J. D. Salinger, two legendarily private men, who, though uninhibited in their fiction, would probably sooner get a sex-change operation than treat their readers to a glimpse of their jock itch. Feminism applauded Jong’s exhibitionism, and though it may have given her fame, a yacht, and a face lift, it has been no friend to her art or to other Desperate Grandmas tempted to imitate her.
Nor was the self-absorption much of a friend to those closest to her. She collected lovers and husbands the way some people collect orchids. “I seem to have married people because they would make good material,” she muses. The one who suffered the most was her daughter, Molly, the progeny of one of those husbands from whom she separated very early in the marriage. Jong appears to have had no interest in creating a coherent family life for her clearly troubled child. As she whiled away summers with her Venetian lover, her daughter, who has recently written an acid memoir describing those years, hung out at the Cipriani pool with her nanny and the neglected children of European celebrities. After divorcing Molly’s father, Jong wrote a smiley-face children’s book, Megan’s Book of Divorce, telling the story of a lucky child who can now enjoy two sets of presents, two sets of toys, and two sets of families—though the book fails to include the procession of men, some of them young enough to be Molly’s brother, traipsing in and out of her mother’s bedroom. So Jong got her orgasms and fed her muse, while—unsurprisingly—Molly became a depressed teenager with a serious drug addiction.
In A Round-Heeled Woman, Jane Juska provides a similar case study in narcissism in the name of feminist self-actualization. Juska doesn’t advertise in The New York Review for love or companionship; her goal, remember, is to “have a lot of sex with a man I like.” In Fear of Flying, Jong introduced her famous fantasy of the “zipless fuck”—sex with a stranger for pure sensation, unencumbered by emotion, history, or family entanglements. Juska is advertising for a modified version of the zipless fuck; she at least wants to “like” the guy. But the impulse is similar, and the results predictable. “[F]or just about every man I have met on this journey,” she writes toward the end of her book, “I am a swan song, a test case, a last hurrah, the tail end. . . . But the truth is no one wants me as a consort. I am a bend in the road. I am the dusty pike of stones. . . . Well, I expected this, but more and more, I wanted to be wanted and for more than three days. . . .” She is the recipient of precisely the sort of treatment she herself offers. She announces her willingness to use men, and they use her right back.
And as in the case of Jong, Juska’s egotism turns out to have a long history that has badly hurt her child. Juska admits to leaving her son’s father without much thought—“I just sort of forgot my husband”—and to being so self-involved that she doesn’t notice when the child jumps into the deep end of a swimming pool without knowing how to swim. Inspired by the women’s movement, she refuses to cook dinner for him (though she does learn to masturbate “without guilt”), and she considers changing her name from Juska, the name of her ex-husband, until her quasi-orphaned child wails: “If you change your name, I won’t belong to anybody.”
By ninth grade, the child expresses his despair by shaving his head and becoming a drugged-out, petty-criminal runaway, living wretchedly on the Berkeley streets. Both Juska’s and Jong’s children are now grown, married, and seemingly on good terms with their mothers, but interestingly enough, they both independently refuse to read their books. You can’t blame them.
For these books do not simply recall their mothers’ profound, feminist-sanctioned self-absorption; they are expressions of it. Not all Desperate Grandmas are quite so ready to cross the boundary into Jong’s and Juska’s brand of exhibitionism, but their positive thinking shades easily into discomforting egotism. It’s not just that older women continue to enjoy sex; it’s that it has to be—in defiance of all common sense—Better Than Ever. It’s not that they like working to rescue animals; they’re Pursuing Their Passions. “They are the most amazing women our country has ever seen!” Levine quotes a gerontologist as gushing in Inventing the Rest of Our Lives.
Please. Narcissism is the last thing a society needs from its graying population. Their job is in part to counter youthful egotism, especially in an individualistic society like ours. No one should understand better than those getting on in years our dependency on one another. And no one should have a stronger intuition of our own fundamental inconsequentiality. We “fill a slot for a time and then move out; that’s the decent thing to do: make room,” John Updike’s Harry Angstrom muses in Rabbit at Rest.
Desperate Grandmas may not need to move out yet. But it would be decent—quaint word!—if they would make some room.
Photo by Bill O'Leary/The The Washington Post via Getty Images