Women are often urged to run from aging: you could stock a bookstore entirely with volumes promising that a particular diet, exercise routine, skin care regimen, dermatological procedure, or attitude will help readers outpace the passage of time. In the piercingly intelligent and bracingly honest memoir
The Middlepause: On Life After Youth, Marina Benjamin, on the brink of fifty, resolves not to run but to take stock and wrestle with the meaning of aging instead. "I am all hard angles, sagging pouches, and knobby joints," the author observes at the outset. "I am past ripe, like those blowsy summer blossoms on the turn, and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't aggrieved by these changes." Her mournfulness is compounded by the emergency hysterectomy that catapults her into menopause, a process that typically spans years; as a result, Benjamin feels "ambushed" by middle age, beset with dread as her milestone birthday approaches. Hoping to find wisdom in books, however, she discovers that apart from the grimly cheerful self-help genre, not much has been written about what is lost and gained as women grow older. The Middlepause feels wholly original, with Benjamin seeking guidance from science, psychology, and literature and from her own experience caring for elderly parents and parenting an adolescent daughter. Most notably, in chapters titled after parts of the body"Skin," "Muscle," "Heart," "Guts"she insists on mapping the physical effects of aging with forensic attentiveness. For instance, Benjaminauthor of two previous memoirs, Rocket Dreams and Last Days in Babylonwrites of the different ways, in middle age, that she steps in front of a mirror. Sometimes she examines herself for "signs of decay . . . scanning for general puffiness, haggard-looking eyes, drooping lids, fine lines, deep furrows, burst capillaries, and whiskery hairs." Other times she approaches the mirror as "a supplicant, determined to intercede against the weight of the evidence." She continues, "I adjust the light, force a smile, and tell myself that all is not lost, that with some good moisturizer and foundation I can be fixed up to look almost as good as before." Finally, she is an accountant, carefully tracking losses and gains: "a graying temple for a softer curve of the cheek, a new wrinkle for a better haircut." She is aware, however, that "the ledgers cannot be balanced forever: in a year or two they're going to register a net loss." This is not as bleak as it might sound. After a lifetime of pressure to make herself attractive to others, Benjamin, once she comes to terms with an unpleasant sense of having been demoted, feels an unexpected liberation. Walking around her London neighborhood, she experiences "a dawning sense of relief at having been recategorized among the nonvisible." I was reminded here of a wonderful essay by novelist Sarah Yaw, "Midlife Woman Loves Being Invisible to Men," in which Yaw describes her "huge relief" that strangers passing her on the street no longer exhort her to smile. Benjamin also begins to discern invisibility's flip side. "In consequence of being seen differently, you begin to see differently in turn," she notes, with the "unanticipated freedom of being able to lookand not just to look, but to stare and ogle and glare." For a writer with Benjamin's remarkable powers of observation, this is surely a gift. Reading the French author Colette, known for her sensuality, Benjamin is inspired to consider additional benefits of aging. The autobiographical novel Break of Day, written when Colette was in her fifties, finds the protagonist, also named Colette, swearing off love and living alone in a cottage, happily tending to her garden and her pets. "Colette seems to be suggesting that renunciation is not to be equated with self-denial," Benjamin writes, "but with an unburdening or unfettering that allows the spirit to soar." By the end of The Middlepause, Benjamin's spirit is also soaring. She’s on the other side of fifty. She struggles with chronic sciatic pain, and she's suffered the losses of her father and of a dear friend who dies young. But like Colette, she has renounced things that she once considered importantyouthful ambition, sexual conquest, other people's opinions of her. "Gradually, I am shedding ballast and gaining buoyancy," she writes. She adds, "I suspect, looking ahead, that sixty will not represent the enormous hurdle that fifty has thrown in my path, that I have broken the back of my fear of moving forward." If we're lucky, Benjamin will write another memoir to tell us all about it. Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
The Barnes & Noble Review
This eloquent and intelligent memoir by Aeon editor Benjamin (Last Days in Babylon) tells of the author’s personal experience with sudden menopause after a hysterectomy, when she was struggling with physical pain and hormonal changes and felt “ambushed” by middle age. She lays bare her distress, feeling she was “fast-tracked” to menopause: “Much of the time I feel mournful, assailed by loss.” Menopause’s relationship to aging is deftly cataloged as Benjamin laments the physical changes in her skin, spine, and vigor, as well as forgetfulness. She notes her positive experience with hormonal replacement therapy, yet is conflicted because of its misogynistic history. Benjamin seeks guidance through diverse content: self-help books and online message boards, scholarly writings by Carl Jung and Erik Erikson, Edith Wharton’s novel Twilight Sleep, and writings of the French novelist Colette. This is a measured and beautifully written critique of menopause and middle age that pre-, mid-, and postmenopausal women will find eminently relatable, and that those who love and care for them will likewise appreciate. (Mar.)
Praise for The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin "In The Middlepause Benjamin deftly and brilliantly examines the losses and unexpected gains she experienced in menopause. Menopause is a mind and body shift as monumental and universal as puberty, yet far less often discussed, especially in public, which is what makes Benjamin's work here so urgently necessary."—Kate Tuttle, The Los Angeles Times "Women do a lot of things to mark turning fifty. Go to a resort! Have a bang–up party! Far, far better: read The Middlepause." —Jill Lepore, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman "Eloquent and intelligent . . . This is a measured and beautifully written critique of menopause and middle age that pre–, mid–, and postmenopausal women will find eminently relatable, and that those who love and care for them will likewise appreciate." — Publishers Weekly, starred review "Piercingly intelligent and bracingly honest."" — Barnes & Noble Review "We are not supposed to beguile, we the middle–aged women. But with The Middlepause, Marina Benjamin does that: she beguiles and entrances with a lyrical, thoughtful, erudite, and always lucid exploration of the middle years of her life, and what they mean to her, and what middle–aged women mean to society." —Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything and The Big Necessity "Intimate, open–hearted, clever and kind, this book is a companion which, by naming the shadow fears, finds the truer gold." —Jay Griffiths, author of The Wild: An Elemental Journey "While The Middlepause is indeed intellectual and cultivated, Benjamin also speaks directly to a sense of communal, lived experience. . . . She writes so perceptively about the familiar that she effortlessly freshens and elevates it." —Isabel Berick, Financial Times "I loved this candid and beautifully written 'wrinkles and all' meditation on the middle years." —Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller, Editor's Choice "Benjamin takes the process of self–help thoughtfully. For starters, to recognise change, rather than deny it, is to begin to deal with it." —Iain Finlayson, Saga Magazine "For emotional honesty, look to a midlife memoir from Marina Benjamin." —Tom Gatti, The New Statesman, The books to look out for in 2016 "This gentle but honest book should be standard reading for friends and loved–ones of women trying to make sense of this transitional stage in life." —Sue Wright, The Malcontent "Lucid and sophisticated. . . . The Middlepause is a restrained but wonderful guide to the convulsive changes of 50 and over. . . . This is a book that yields valuable insights on almost every page." —Melissa Benn, The Guardian "In The Middlepause, Marina Benjamin takes a candid look at what it means to be 50 today. . . . It's warm, wise and beautifully written." — Good Housekeeping (UK) "This book does not contain advice on diet, yoga, emollients or wardrobe makeovers. Marina Benjamin instead pursues an intellectual perspective of her journey to 50. . . . As a means of inducting younger women into the business of getting older, this is a welcome narrative." —Deirdre Conroy, Irish Independent " The Middlepause isn't some deluding self–help book that insists middle–age is a time of great growth for us all. It's an accurate and thoughtful assessment of the credit and debit sheet, and it remains emotionally genuine throughout. . . . This is a thoughtful, compassionate and wise book." — Shiny New Books
Middle age makes the writer feel "ambushed and laid bare."Journalist and memoirist Benjamin (Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation, 2006, etc.) did not enter menopause gradually, but suddenly after a hysterectomy at the age of 48. The change in her body was immediate: her hair became dull, her skin sagged, her energy diminished; and these changes corresponded to a spiritual and mental flagging. In a memoir notable for its autumnal, rueful tone, the author chronicles her experiences as she approached, and then passed, the age of 50, beset by losses: "of vigor, organs, luster" and "an unquestioning faith in possibility." She disputes feminists who see "fifty as the new forty, and forty the new thirty." For her, 50 means she will be "over the hill. Ahead of me, just as I am able to take command of the view, the incline runs downward." Benjamin's perception of aging has been shaped by physical problems that not all women share—e.g., scoliosis led to a bulging disk in her vertebrae and chronically painful sciatica. She is exquisitely attuned to "an imperceptible dulling of sight or hearing, a barely noticeable decline in the number of neurons firing or in the strength of firing," an "ever-so-gradual slowing" and increasing fatigue. The author has a "knee-jerk distaste" for upbeat popular writings that hail the possibilities and opportunities of middle age. Age, she insists, is not "all in the mind" but unarguably embodied. She does not acknowledge, however, that bodies differ, and the difficulties—"this crisis, this onslaught of unwelcome change, this punch in the face"—that she has experienced may not afflict her contemporaries. For Benjamin, writing this book has been therapeutic: "Interrogating my anxieties, my grief, my sense of loss, my nostalgia, my hauntings, all of this has been a form of exorcism." A thoughtful, morose meditation on aging.