What’s Age Got to Do With It?

You’re old, they think you’re senile then they feel they can wipe your mouth while you’re talking.
Kato Laszlo Roth

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)

I

When I worked in a day care center many years ago it struck me how almost everything involving children created anxiety and panic. This often resulted in sure-footed theories and frozen attitudes. Clashes were inevitable. Some over very small things. The large thing of course was the culture of hatred towards children, the need to control them, impose on them guilt-laden values and insecurities. Tame their energy, their sexuality, their curiosity. In that way all the theories were the same. Though of course some were much worse than others. But even those with the most enlightened theories didn’t examine their own underlying emotions too closely. There was also among everyone genuine concern and more than a little tenderness.

The same happens with aging and old age. It is a subject so fraught with confusion, mystification, love, anger, hatred, ancient hurts, vulnerability, pleasure, need, revulsion, desire, fear, and wild projection. All taking place inside an ageist and freedom-hating culture.

When my mother was gravely ill in the hospital, the two questions I disliked most were “Did you visit your mother today?” or “Are you going to visit her later?” I almost always felt there was a hidden judgment in the question. That it was asked to see if I were a dutiful son doing the right thing. I bristled. In retrospect I don’t know why people asked me that question. What it stirred up in me of course was more to the point. Still I asked people not to ask me that question. In fact I asked people generally to let me be the one to bring up my mother’s illness altogether.

Reading Agewise I would at times bristle in the same way. Feel guilt-tripped, dragged into a consciousness of rectitude and obligation. I would have to calm down. Was it something I was projecting (often), was I responding to an attitude that was actually in the book (sometimes maybe), or possibly some combination of both (sometimes maybe also)?

If only for that reason alone, this is a very important book. It touches raw nerves. It reaches deep into the culture; it explores a difficult and dangerous terrain. It stirs up emotion. Margaret Morganroth Gullette has thrown herself headlong into the subject. A formidable achievement. A combination of sharp analysis, the marshaling of significant information, and social outrage. Written with literary flair and eloquence.

Gullette’s mother Betty Morganroth appears intermittently in Agewise. She is 94 when the book begins. And suddenly near the end she is 96. It was exciting to realize that two years had passed and she was essentially still feeling good about her life. Much of the polemic force of the book seems fueled by their love.

In Agewise, Gullette argues that ageism and middle-ageism have grown more pernicious, more lethal, more life-deadening in recent years The assault on older people has expanded to an assault on those of middle age. She paints a very grim picture of the economic/social/political realities that many older people are faced with. In one chapter she analyzes and discusses a hidden truth about the devastation inflicted by Katrina and the criminally negligent response to it. 78% of the dead were people over 50. The book also focuses on the manufacture of medical need such as the successful marketing of unnecessary and dangerous “hormone replacement” medication for women experiencing menopause. There is a chapter on the wide and wonderful range of sex older people are having. She also analyzes those jokes about aging that are part of what she calls “decline narratives.” The anti-aging propaganda that helps set external and internal conditions for harsh social policies and personal/communal collaboration with them. She speaks of various ways this can be resisted.

II

Carolyn Heilbrun, a mystery writer, a feminist scholar, a well situated academic, a greatly admired figure, committed suicide at 77. The chapter opens at a memorial service with a young woman delivering a eulogy to a huge audience. She is deeply distressed that Carolyn would kill herself “to avoid old age.” She begins to sob.

Carolyn Heilbrun’s death created anger and confusion and a sense of betrayal among many women who admired her, and who saw her as an inspiration and a guide.

“It’s the kind of decision,” Gullette writes, “that might leave people who hear the story – including quite young people – with the idea that despair is a rational response to normal aging and that feminism can do nothing to alleviate it.”

Well, feminism in Carolyn Heilbrun’s case did not alleviate her despair. And other feminists could not convince her not to commit suicide. In Heilbrun’s mind feminism in fact helped reinforce her sense of agency. It allowed her the freedom to choose under what conditions she wanted to be alive. She argued that the right to commit suicide was similar to a woman’s right to have an abortion. Gullette argues back, “This appeared to be a feminist argument about control,” but “feminists presumably would want to distinguish more sharply between ending fetal existence and ending an adult life of achievement and connection.” This of courses raises basic questions about what constitutes “achievement and connection.” And why Gullette thinks they are so crucial to a person’s sense of self.

Elsewhere in the book her definition of what constitutes achievement can feel very expansive. It can apply to any number of people, in any number of circumstances. Here however the meaning is extremely clear. Achievement means institutional and corporate (publishing house and university) validation of what you’ve done. And “connection” means connection to important, powerful and unusually brilliant people. Are those things hollow or real? I think usually more hollow than real. But that is for another time.

Gullette feels that ageism very possibly played a role in Carolyn Heilbrun’s despair. Her writing career met new and unexpected stumbling blocks. “Older writers, however well established, are driven into silence by increasingly ageist attitudes in the increasingly feeble publishing business … in today’s youth-oriented climate.” Another, among many blows, occurred after her retirement from Columbia University. “She had resigned from Columbia University’s English department – famously, because male colleagues were not advancing her protégées. They were denying her the influence that her seniority merited and thwarting her ability to help the feminist movement.” After retirement, “she should have been able to join that small coterie of top men who resist ageism through traditional patriarchal means, retaining connections, prestige, and honors.”

As if guilt-tripping a ghost, Gullette wishes that Carolyn had “found a different image to live up to: not as an older woman who justified her increasing determination to die as stoic, but as an anti-ageist who would feel guilty about the legacy she might leave by saying age was the cause.”

In talking about suicide in general, Gullette makes a very sharp distinction. She is arguing against the “duty to die”, the pressure on older people or people with serious disabilities to choose death, rather than to be a burden either on their loved ones or on society as a whole. This as opposed to “physician assisted suicide” or “the right to die.” Though she thinks the right to die can be less of a free choice than its proponents might think. So there is great truth when Gullette writes, “The prospective fantasy of suicide operates without any hint that sexism, classism, racism, ableism or ageism might deform it.”

She continues “Many people thought that Dr. Kevorkian, who assisted people in suicide, was a hero. As Kevorkian went on, a few feminists pointed out how young some of those dying were, how relatively well many of the patients were – one was said to have played tennis the day before – and how many were women and/or recently disabled.” That all might very well be the case. But we are left with the other truth. It could really have been what those people wanted to do. She argues that even in an ideal situation, “counseling – more than two visits to a doctor – therefore becomes mandatory before one can get medical assistance with suicide, even with an illness diagnosed as terminal.” This might be a reasonable suggestion, but it hardly is without a potentially terrible downside. For any real delay might be subjecting someone to an unbearable hell. No matter how understanding the person you are talking to might be, the urgency and the pain are yours. All the theorizing in the world won’t mitigate that fact. To interfere with their decision could be a very profound violation of someone’s dignity and autonomy (as is forcing teenage girls to get permission from their parents to have an abortion or for women to be required to see the ultrasound of a fetus). For a person in physical or psychic pain an hour can be an eternity. Let alone having to endure multiple forced visits to an empathetic soulful well-trained professional. Even in the best of circumstances, the policy Gullette advocates is extremely coercive. Her reasonableness is not as reasonable as it sounds. Nor for that matter is my unease with her reasonableness all that reasonable either – because people are in fact coerced, manipulated, treated with contempt, and are easily discarded. Ugly bottom-line calculations are often at play. Secret and not so secret family and institutional agendas often create momentum in one direction or another that is hard to resist, particularly when you are in an extremely vulnerable and fragile state. Wherever you come down on this, for me at least, when actually faced with real situations, it is all one horrible, bewildering, nightmarish mess.

III

Gullette’s chapter on the terrors of forgetfulness starts with her escorting her mother to a table in a residential community where there was an empty seat. Over thirty years separate the youngest from the oldest resident. People are in various states of health and “cognitive functioning.” As they approached, one of the women at the table said, “Jack won’t like that!” She meant that Harvard-educated Jack, a man in his 70s, “wouldn’t like having to pass a dinner hour next to my mother.” Gullette still placed her at the table, while nervously mentioning how good her mother was at scrabble. Gullette’s response was a protective, visceral rage, but she couldn’t be sure how her mother took it in. The paragraph winds up with Gullette, as she is leaving, glaring at the woman who made the comment.

In a succeeding passage she writes eloquently about the “growing dominance of cognitive hierarchies” which can start in infancy, later reinforced with grading and testing in school, and which just continues and continues right to a table in a residential community. This whole system of evaluation of intelligence and functioning is brutal, dehumanizing and pervasive.

Eventually Betty Morganroth “often chose to sit with people who had more serious cognitive losses – people who spoke less but welcomed her with smiles. This was hard to watch.” Why was it hard to watch? We know absolutely nothing about the inner reality and complexity of the people she is writing about. Ironically, her assessment of them feels steeped in all kinds of ageist assumptions, assumptions similar to those often made about her mother.

Over the next few pages she writes movingly about the multiple dimensions of her mother. The powerful impact she has on people. Her wisdom and insight. Her sense of humor. Her courage. All while from a certain angle her “cognitive functioning” could be described as in decline.

In an extremely important observation Gullette writes, “How is it possible, that a mind can be … so uneven?… Having so huge a gap between one mental state and another may not be common, but some disparity between states is one of the things people discover who have a loved one with memory losses.” How true, how true.

A remarkably similar thing happened to my mother. One part of her brain felt like it was decomposing only to feed another part that flowered in spectacular and remarkable ways. I spoke to her about it as it was first happening. She said she felt it herself. Was both frightened and awestruck by the change. The last few years, she is 93 now, have been for both of us painful, difficult but at times beautiful beyond description.

IV

A young fashion designer from Africa with incredible flair and charisma through the graces of the gods (and the harsh realities of xenophobia and capitalism) stayed with me for a number of months.

The Nation
and Elle. The Nation and Nylon. Socialism and Democracy, and Bazaar. The Sun and Cosmo. Something from IKEA for variety. And Vanity Fair. I never knew what would arrive in my mail box.

Glamour magazines all piled in a corner. High heels. Red. White. Lavender. Gold. Torn jeans and army coat. Stop-traffic-dead dresses. In some way my small apartment became fashion central. Each time Aziza would look in the mirror with just the tiniest of adjustments she would totally change her appearance. It was fun to see her do it. Yet the harshness of the fashion world, as well its playful energy, was constantly being played out in front of me.

There was a photoshoot on the roof on my building. All the key participants were Asian and African women. The model was a broad shouldered muscular rock musician in her mid 30s. So in some ways a part of the age, racial and body-type biases of the fashion industry were challenged. But only in a very limited way. I also heard accounts of the increased oppressiveness of actual working conditions in the big time fashion houses themselves. Aziza wrote a wonderful poem about both her need and her ability to create beauty inside an industry essentially designed to keep women in constant states of insecurity and self-loathing.

And it just keeps getting worse. In her chapter on plastic surgery Gullette writes, “To the control of the male gaze and the white gaze has been added the age gaze.… Advertising that promises people they can pass as younger is overt, normalized, unashamed.” The use of the term “anti-aging” is everywhere.

In describing a very touching personal moment Gullette writes, “In the shower one morning I was twisting to get soap and looked back and down my side. In the shower you can never see your whole self, only parts. Suddenly the curves of my hip, buttock, thigh, calf, and ankle came into view – startlingly elegant, powerful and voluptuous. It was an angle of myself I had never before observed.” It was also an angle that she had never seen depicted anywhere before. Not in photos, not in paintings, certainly not in any anti-aging ad.

“The assumption of our culture is not just ageist but middle-ageist, that bodily decline starts not in old age but ever younger.” She concludes the paragraph by saying “I haven’t yet gotten my face to seem astonishingly lovelier, but every time I look down at that arrangement of hip and leg I am rewarded by a jolt of pleasure.”

Her chapter on plastic surgery is fraught and complex. It is called Plastic Wrap, which in my mind at least, is a particularly ugly and punishing title. Plastic wrap is a description someone gave to how faces look after plastic surgery. The chapter describes in detail the physical dangers attached to the surgery. The things that have gone wrong. The injuries and deaths that have resulted. Also the psychic injury often involved. The financial interests in pushing it. The cultural interests designed to reinforce what she calls the uglification industry, the need to make people feel ugly and inadequate. A feeling that can drive people into the arms of a plastic surgeon, to have surgeries that can cause long lasting bodily harm and at times can be even fatal.

The chapter examines pressures on people, mostly women, but an increasing number of men, to look younger and in general to feel inadequate about their physical selves. In recent years, the number of people getting plastic surgery has significantly decreased, which she is happy about. The reasons for this decrease are multiple. Some positive, some not so positive. Websites with names like Plastic Surgery Disasters show photos of people, women mostly, with botched surgeries. The websites are vindictive, mocking and hateful. What is driving people to do that would be interesting to know. There is no attending to the pain inflicted by those images. And no attending to the forces that drove the people to seek the surgeries in the first place.

More benign, but still stinging, are the responses of “the resisters [who] think ‘normal’ is the way their friends used to look before they succumbed. A woman described a friend who she says lost ‘the most gorgeous, beautiful eyes, they were her redeeming feature…. The bags are gone but the shape is different.’” If your dear friend thinks you have one redeeming quality, and it’s a quality that she cherishes, you just might tell her to go fuck herself. I can see why her friend who had the surgery ignored her and did not pay much attention to whatever she said or maybe even started to hate the one characteristic that she approved of. And then there is the argument that, with so many eyes now trained to see such things, “even if you don’t dislike the way you look ‘after,’ you may dislike being scrutinized for tell tale signs.”

To live in a culture where no matter what you do or don’t do, people continually look at you through some life-distorting microscope, is as much a problem as anything else. Because the obsessive judging and looking and scrutinizing are laced with a poison that is not good for anyone. It might be an advance that fewer people are turning to plastic surgery, but in truth it is essentially cosmetic in terms of addressing underlying dread and humiliation.

Another reason for the decline in plastic surgery is that other “anti-aging” alternatives, such as botox and various assortments of creams, are being aggressively marketed with growing success. This of course does nothing to challenge the basic oppression of “lookism.”

The most vivid positive response to age shame in the chapter comes from Joan Nestle, a lesbian S&M activist who has written astoundingly powerful pieces over the years. She writes, “Gray hair and textured hands are now erotic emblems I seek out. As I curiously explore the lines on my own chest running down to the valley between my breasts, I caress the same lines on the chest of my lover.”

I saw a show, a couple years ago, where two women with facial hair were being interviewed. One was a white, maybe Jewish, woman with a full beard. She was a dancer and a performance artist. I had seen her over the years walking through the streets looking to me like a dashing prince or one of the Three Musketeers. So narrow is the range of images available to me and so limited are my powers of description. But that’s how she looked to me. And it was exciting to see someone who felt almost like a friend on TV.

I felt that I knew her. I had once seen her do a performance piece about her life and what it was to be a girl and then a woman with such an abundance of facial hair. Her girlfriend, a lithe, athletic blonde woman was in the audience. The dashing prince and the gorgeous young damsel. Again that’s the image that flashed in my head.

The performance was powerful, at times very funny. Two friends upon seeing it started talking almost immediately about everything that they felt was missing in the performance. “It has no class analysis” being the most ridiculous. This was the very first time any of us had seen such a presentation, and rather than be deeply appreciative, the loony critique/distancing/getting-on-top-of-everything mode kicked in.

The other woman on the show was young, much younger than the first. But she looked considerably older to me. She was a black woman heavy set with thick patches of hair on her face. Her expression was one of pure torment. At some point she started to cry uncontrollably. She spoke about how painful it was for her to be seen in public. She felt that no man would ever want her. It was probably an act of tremendous courage for her to be on the show. She was in no mood to get to a place of “self-acceptance,” let alone pride. Clearly no “progress narrative” was going to soothe her pain. She was simply tormented and wanted to get rid of the hair. She wanted to be normal. She wanted and could not afford electrolysis treatment to remove the hair. The host told her the show would set it up for her. The etched pain immediately turned into a smile.

What do we as a community have to offer the second woman? Certainly not reassurance about how much we “appreciate her redeeming qualities.” There is the age gaze, the white gaze and then there is the progressive/radical/paternalistic/patronizing gaze. Subtle and not so subtle presumptions of power are the salient features of that gaze as they are of the others.

Reading Agewise, the whole world can seem, at times, like one big academic conference. Engaged and thoughtful academics are quoted throughout the book, along with an occasional line or two by a brilliant novelist or poet, or a profound insight by an informant or someone being helped by people of heightened consciousness. It is a stratified universe that I feel very alien from. And this is true regardless of how much I may admire, love, learn from or even be inspired by any number of the people who make up that world. Everything is a “discourse.” Any serious human concern seems to wind up as a department or a sub-department at a university. Suicide studies, menopause studies, one “studies” after another. If you’re not privy to the constantly shifting constantly refined distinctions, there is no entry place in the discussion. The universe that is Gullette’s reference point can feel like a variation of the table that shunned her mother.

I needed to get that out of my system. For Margaret feels to me like a second cousin, someone I don’t see too often but admire from a distance, whose values and politics are similar to mine, but different enough to more than occasionally get under my skin.

That said, Margaret Morganroth Gullette has written a significant, deeply engaged book on a massively important and nerve-wracking subject. She is a powerful advocate. And “family” tensions aside, I am grateful that she wrote it.

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