JULY 27, 2014
YOU’RE GETTING OLD, or older anyway. You’ve maybe had children, bought a house. You’ve built a career. You’ve strengthened your core and learned to like kale. You’ve quit drinking, quit smoking, quit taking drugs. You’ve quit playing in a band, but you love it when your kid plays “Seven Nation Army” on the drum kit you bought him. In other words, it’s all working out like it’s supposed to. You should be happy. You should be enjoying the fruits of your decades of labor. But that’s not exactly what’s happened. What’s happened is that you’ve started to have a lot of inconvenient feelings: feelings of recklessness, of intense impatience, of voluptuous despair. You fight with your husband and children. You find it difficult to be inside your house; you can’t believe you used to enjoy taking care of it. You yearn to leave. You go away on raucous girls’ weekends. You find yourself drinking again. Ditto for smoking, flirting, going to clubs. You haven’t taken any drugs yet but the way things are headed, who the hell knows. Also, you’re sad. Phone conversations with your best friend go like this: “I had tuna fish for lunch.” “I cried instead of eating lunch.” There are days you can’t get out of bed; you’re not faking it, you really just can’t. You have a funny feeling you might be going nuts.
Two things are going on here. What’s happening is: you are menopausal. What’s happening is: you are dying. Guess what: they’re the same thing. It’s futile to pretend otherwise. Your despair is natural and right; you are a dying animal, sloughing off your beauty and your fertility. Hormonal oscillations and loss of sexual power and surges of horniness and weird period stuff, all at once; that’s what you’ve got on your hands. Which is why menopause, or the death of youth, or whatever you want to call it, is such an excellent topic for a memoir. It’s my belief that a memoir’s highest good is to give voice to unworthy and difficult thoughts, thereby comforting the reader with the knowledge that she is not alone. Menopause, with its all-too-ample occasions for unworthy thoughts, should be perfect memoir fodder.
Except, let’s face it, one feels decidedly, erm, disinclined to read a memoir about menopause. A memoir about menopause sounds like it’s going to involve a lot of complaining about drooping body parts and hot flashes, all told in the key of “amiright, ladies?” I pretty much picture every menopause memoir ever as being written by Joy Behar. Which is okay — I don’t mind a little Joy Behar — but the fear is that a whole book of this might get a little old, especially if the joking never gives way to the real despair and horror that informs this time of life. (For some of us, if not for you.)
I See You Made an Effort, whose subtitle promises “Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge of 50,” comes from actress and writer Annabelle Gurwitch and falls immediately and almost entirely into an expected Behar-ish vein of gabby, self-deprecating humor. (I shouldn’t pick on poor Joy Behar. For all I know she’s about to publish a volume of experimental prose poems.) I’d summarize the plot but there isn’t one; instead the book is a series of linked essays, or essay-shaped objects, on: lusting after her boy Genius at the Genius Bar; buying fancy face cream; surviving the death of a close friend; caring for elderly parents; and, of course, plastic surgery: yea or nay? It’s an expected laundry list of midlife topics, which is no bad thing, and Gurwitch seems to have taken to the project in the right spirit. That is, she is determined to give voice to uncomfortable thoughts. When she fantasizes about getting it on with the Genius Bar boy, she gets all caught up in her anxiety over the logistics of being looked at, which any long married person can understand:
It’s been eighteen years since I’ve taken my clothes of in front of anyone other than my husband, my gynecologist, and women in the locker room at the gym.
She then attempts to imagine just how the tryst would unfold:
What’s the right position? I’m not comfortable with someone ogling my ass if I can’t get observe the reactions, so doggie gets a thumbs-down. Missionary seems too same-old, same-old. It has to be something where I can achieve the maximum attractiveness and get the most bang for my buck, so there’s really only one choice. Movie sex. Up against a wall.
The honesty Gurwitch demonstrates here is lovely and funny and arresting, as far as it goes. The trouble is, she seems all too content to stay within this narrow band of emotional truthfulness. The book is full of just such ankle-deep moments. Not every author has to, like, gaze into the abyss, but Gurwitch seems determined to remain in an intellectually mall-like zone of shopping and weight-obsessing. When a close friend dies, she and her pals talk about how they’d like their own deaths to unfold:
Gia, if I kick the bucket before you, take my suede Stuart Weitzman boots. I just had them reheeled.
This does nothing but reinforce a bunch of ideas about how women are supposed to talk to one another. Also, it’s not funny. There’s a strangely generic tone to much of the writing that keeps it from being either genuinely humorous or genuinely moving. Shoes! Ladies love shoes!
But when Gurwitch trusts the specificity of her own story, the essays reach a new level of pathos and sweetness. She’s particularly good on the indignities unique to the life of an aging actress. The material about auditioning for a commercial is, if not comic gold, then at least an interesting peek into her work. In “The Scent of Petty Theft,” she describes her aspirational feelings as a person who lives her life Hollywood-adjacent. But I loved best the weirdest, most outlying chapter, “Area Fifty-One,” which tells of her youthful involvement in a cult. This is the only moment where I really got a strong sense of her as a specific person with a specifically weird story, and not just a lovable, shoe-obsessed type. Perhaps not incidentally, this chapter has fuck-all to do with menopause. Which makes me wonder: in organizing her book around the difficulties of aging, did Gurwitch maybe reach a little too hard for universality? The strange truth about memoir is that readers identify with — and see themselves in — the particular details of the writer’s life. Paradoxically, that’s where the universality lives: in the specific.
The Madwoman in the Volvo is nothing if not specifically weird. Sandra Tsing Loh covers a lot of the same territory as Annabelle Gurwitch. In Loh’s book, as in Gurwitch’s, we find ourselves barreling down the highways of Los Angeles, worrying about refinancing and children, sex and affluence. But Loh writes like a woman on a mission. She has stood on the brink of the void, and she is desperate to bring back news of what she has seen there. The book begins with the story of her torrid affair with one of her dearest friends — nom d’amour Mr. Y — and the subsequent dissolution of her marriage to her first husband, Mr. X. The opening chapters are barnburners, dragging the reader into the white-hot battlefield of midlife crisis, which is played out on the sandy plains of Black Rock City: Loh departs her marriage by way of Burning Man.
The middle of the book describes the longueurs of post-divorce life, laying bare Loh’s struggling new relationship, her trials with her children, her challenges in caring for her divinely eccentric, ailing father, and the backstory of her mother’s early death. Things get a little slow and messy here, but then Loh sort of regroups for one final terrifying onslaught. The last seven chapters of the book tell of her utter despair as she nears 50, and her honesty makes these passages excoriating. She slips into a gray anguish that this reader found painfully familiar:
This is no longer a mere purse of anxiety that sits on the chest, it’s like my open coffin already ten feet down, as the dirt slowly, like sand in an hourglass, begins to pile in on me.
I’m not convinced this sentence is actually even grammatical, and yet I wouldn’t change a word, so great was my relief upon reading it. She goes on:
The sunlight hurts. My body hurts. The visuals of the bedroom hurt, the burnt-tangerine walls, the piles of clothing, the dusty books. Just blinking my eyes hurts.
Augh. The dusty books.
Loh wants to understand where this despair is coming from. The novelist Maria Semple has said that every book is, in its way, a mystery. Loh here goes bravely to the heart of her book’s mystery, which is every memoir’s mystery: how did I get this way? She ponders the options: is her midlife despair a late-reaped harvest of her mother’s death, or perhaps her father’s looniness? Is it hormones? Is it existential angst? Is it her just desserts for blowing up her nuclear family? The beauty of the book lies in that fact that she never quite figures it all out. Eventually a doctor swipes her wrist with estrogen, and she feels a little better … but, truth be told, she’s not buying that explanation any more than you are. She writes of how the doctor
gently smears the tiniest dot of clear estrogen gel on the inside of my wrist. Even though she had said it would take a few weeks to take effect, I instantly feel better, almost even a little bit high. Although, to be quite frank, I also loved her handing me the tissues, patting me on the knee, and saying, “There, there.”
In other words, the estrogen doesn’t work, the idea of the estrogen works. Sort of. The book closes with advice to menopausal women, but there’s a sense in which Loh is giving a giant Gallic shrug as she dispenses her tips: do whatever you want. Nothing helps; eventually it’ll pass, if you’re lucky.
Saying a woman is having ups and down during menopause is … like saying Janis Joplin would have been okay if she had only drunk eight glasses of water a day and had been really firm about hydrating.
Loh’s non-solving of the problem is more comforting than any solution. Her good book about a flawed woman does what memoir ought to do: it reminds the reader she’s not alone. Nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita, we come to ourselves in a dark wood, and the way seems lost. When this happens, shoe jokes aren’t going to fucking cut it. I mean, they don’t hurt, but I for one need a little more. Right this minute I need a writer who will admit she is lost, and will describe the darkness of the place where I, too, find myself.
Claire Dederer is the author of the bestselling memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Vogue, The Nation, Slate, and many others.