Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir

Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir

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by Erica Jong

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Opening on her fiftieth birthday, Jong's midlife memoir reads like fast-paced fiction as it flashes back and forth in time to tell at last the truths at the heart of her novels. Poet, novelist, essayist, Jong has forged one of the most visible and volatile careers in American letters, and as a charter member of what she calls the "whiplash generation," she has had a…  See more details below


Opening on her fiftieth birthday, Jong's midlife memoir reads like fast-paced fiction as it flashes back and forth in time to tell at last the truths at the heart of her novels. Poet, novelist, essayist, Jong has forged one of the most visible and volatile careers in American letters, and as a charter member of what she calls the "whiplash generation," she has had a front seat on the roller coaster American women have been riding for the past decades. Raised to be Doris Day, growing up wanting to be Gloria Steinem, now rearing daughters in the age of Princess Di and Madonna, today's women have had their expectations raised and dashed and raised and dashed again, as they've watched themselves go in and out of style like hemlines. Now, as she and her contemporaries look for answers to the second half of their lives, Jong offers powerful, provocative insights into sex, marriage and aging; feminism -- past, present and future; the writing life; motherhood and family; identity and love, loyalty and loss, drawn through the brilliant prism of her own experience.

In chapters such as "Fear of Fifty," "The Mad Lesbian in the Attic," "How I Got to Be the Second Sex," "How I Got to Be Jewish," "Fear of Fame," "Seducing the Muse," "Dona Juana Gets Smart," "Becoming Venetian" and "How to Get Married," Erica Jong takes readers on an impassioned, outrageous, irreverent tour de force through the sea of changes that have defined a generation. From technical virginity to the sexual revolution to the AIDS pandemic; from The Feminine Mystique to "political correctness"; from monogamy to open marriage and back again; from stay-at-home moms to moms who have won the right to be eternally exhausted; from sexual secrecy to sexual openness -- Jong proves yet again her unique ability to tap into the inner lives of women and the issues that matter most to them.

Fear of Fifty is an intoxicating, riveting read, free-wheeling and fun, warm, tough and full of wisdom. Sure to be embraced by women everywhere, it is destined, like its classic predecessor Fear of Flying, to become required reading for a generation on the threshold of a new revolution.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.33(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.94(d)

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When people say

"I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold, and very often do; When poets say, "I've written fifty rhymes," They make you dread that they'll recite them too; In gangs of fifty, thieves commit their crimes; At fifty 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.
--George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan

(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.
--Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life

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 appears--I will never be her either. For years those were my values--whether I admitted this to myself or not--but I cannot afford such values anymore.

Every year anothercrop 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 class--Barnard '63--yikes! Thirty-plus years out of college. Most of my contemporaries are grandp�res, 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 restored--but the gloom still wouldn't lift. (I was facing the eternal question: to lift or not to lift--and 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 hat--so to speak--every 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.

Mortality is the question here, not face-lifts. Can we embrace our mortality, even learn to love it? Can we pass along our knowledge to our children and then pass along, knowing our passing is the proper order of things?

That is the problem I and all my contemporaries are facing at fifty. We have come smack up against the spiritual hollowness in our lives. Without spirit, it is impossible to face aging and death. And how can women find spirit in a society in which their most enduring identity is as consumers above all, where every struggle for autonomy and identity is countered by the relentless dicta of the marketplace--a marketplace that still sees us as consumers of everything from hormones to hats, from cosmetics to cosmetic surgery?

I wander around the spa with my daughter, knowing that my body is not the issue. It's whether or not I have the right to my immortal soul.

Even the phrase sounds suspect. Women? Immortal? Soul? You can just hear the cries of derision. Yet whether or not women have the right to their own souls is the whole question. It is not a matter of fad and fashion. It is not a matter of new-age or twelve-step hype. It is the essence of whether we are allowed to be fully human or not.

If you own your soul, you don't have to be afraid at fifty.

I flash back to a time exactly three years before my fiftieth birthday, when the age clock inside me was inexorably ticking.

I am on a plane, flying to Switzerland to attend the wedding of a former beau, now a friend. He's a beautiful Roman ten years younger than I, and he is about to marry a German princess ten years younger than that. I'm happy for them and, at the same time, desolate. It's not that the bridegroom and I are still in love, but just that we have talked endlessly about how we'd wind up together (because neither of us would ever marry), and now he is marrying and I am not.

I don't want to marry again, I think (at not quite forty-seven). I'm free. My freedom is such that I'm involved in a long-distance triangle with another delicious Italian, a domestic triangle with a man who can't decide to leave his wife, and I'm also seeing a variety of men who are as terrified of commitment as I've become. My life is a social circus, but I can never relax and curl up in bed with a book. Though I may deny it, I am off to this wedding, as usual, in search of the perfect man. Of course, I don't believe in the perfect man. Of course, I nevertheless hope to meet him.

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Fear of Fifty 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Dr_Wilson_Trivino More than 1 year ago
Reaching a milestone like fifty can be earth shattering to many however Erica Jong has been able to open up and share her wit and wisdom marking this half century mark. In Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir by Erica Jong, the writer delves back to her life well lived and attempts to pass along gems of wisdom. One of the most powerful is the chapter entitled ¿Doña Juana Gets Smart, or a Good Girl¿s Guide to Bad Boys.¿ She lays it all out. However as she quotes an Arabic proverb, ¿If you lack Freedom, you cannot give it to others.¿ As in most of her writings Jong gives women to freedom to be sexual and expressive and not be afraid to be honest to themselves. The dozen fallacies women buy, with are followed with an explanation in the book. Here they are simply listed: If he loves me, he¿ll be faithful forever. I need a man to feel whole. If you use your power to support a man, he¿ll always support you. Men love it when you tell the truth about your relationship. Men love women who never oppose them and cater to their every whim. Men want to be knights on white chargers and rescue you. Men hate feminist. Men love babies and all ache to be devoted daddies. Men like lusty women. Men are rational, women irrational. Men hate women who have more money than they do. Men like beautiful women with perfect features and perfect bodies. I believe that these capture the essence of the message that Jong convenes over and over again in her writings. She simply is pushing the envelope for her fellow sisters and wants to empower them to be whatever they want to be. Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir by Erica Jong is a great guide for women to discover their inner being, it is great guide for men to understand what women are thinking inside their very complex brain.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved the insight into the fears of turning 50. Erica Jong is such a bright perceptive writer. She shares her own fear, which we identify with. Every woman should read it that is approaching 50, or even 50 now. I was so impressed with her writing and went out and bought all of her books. Terrific book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago