Margaret Morganroth Gullette – Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America takes a hard look at the major sources of ageism and what I call “middle ageism”–bias against people because they are “too old.” In the US, this can start when people are as young as forty. I needed to search out a lot of different sources, not all as obvious as the current attacks on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which have of course gotten worse since I sent the book to press. Agewise has a chapter called “Overcoming the Terror of Forgetfulness’ – which starts off being about my mother and how people treated her in her nineties as her memories began to fail her. The reviewer in the Women’s Review of Books described it as “the best essay on memory loss that I have read.” I am glad I was able to do my mother some justice. She died at age 95, a year ago. She was an anti-ageist and would have loved seeing the book in print.

I like to bring issues up close and personal–a friend unable to find a job when she was in her fifties, midlife women who are refusing cosmetic surgery, what my gynecologist ignorantly told me even before I started menopause, why later-life sexuality can be better than youthsex, what the suicide of the feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (who was a mentor of mine, as she was to so many women) has to teach us about ageism at retirement.

I coined the term ‘age studies,’ which means taking a critical perspective on the entire life-course, starting with my grand-daughter Vivi at age five, and what she is likely to learn about age and aging.

Ignorance of the sources of ageism is a social epidemic. This bias can be remedied not just by living, which is slow and uncertain, but by raising one’s consciousness.

Agewise is mant to be a rational and passionate indictment of the toxins emanating from the new regimes of decline, a manifesto for fighting back, and a judicious gauge of how well cultural combat is succeeding in some areas.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m Brooklyn-born from the days when Brooklyn was where the gangs were, before the days of million-dollar brownstones. But I got into a special school, P.S. 208, and received fine all-round schooling from wise tenured teachers. My parents were good lefties, early to march against the Vietnam War, marching for integration; pro-labor and pro-union. My mother was a dedicated first-grade teacher; my father was a working man who wound up owning a parking lot.

I was Radcliffe-educated at a time when boys outnumbered girls 4 to 1 at Harvard and Lamont, the undergrad library, was closed to a quarter of the student body. My mother paid for what my scholarship didn’t. I got a decent education, but never saw a woman teaching a class; nor did I encounter one male professor willing to mentor a female, although my sophomore Teaching Fellow later helped me to my first job. My Ph.D. also came from Harvard; it was the same gender story. I wrote on Proust, whom I continued to read in French for decades after. I married a classmate, a handsome, brilliant and talented fellow I am still married to. We just celebrated our 47th anniversary, in Venice, with our son, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter.

I live in an 1876 house almost every square inch of which my husband and I have improved. I recently repainted the kitchen, and I always prune the yew hedges around the property. It is August as I write; time to get up on a ladder for the tallest hedges.

I was a late starter in my critical writing. I didn’t publish my first book until I was forty-seven. But that book, which was called Safe at Last in the Middle Years, launched my entire career in age studies. Now the title makes me laugh, not in derision at myself, but in furious wonder at the changes in American age culture since I started writing. I try to keep up with the runaway train of history.

I have been invited to work as a scholar at Brandeis, at the Women’s Studies Research Center, since 1997; that has been a fabulous home for all sides of myself–my activism as well as my research.

Those are the surface facts but to know me one should read the books and the essays; they say where I come from and who I am indirectly and far better than I can do here explicitly.

What inspired you to write this book?

Anger at the injustice of decline, the loss of a better vision of the life course, the erosion of respect for seniority. Curiosity, as to how all this had come about. Pleasure, in making some preliminary sense of the history of ageism and middle ageism–so that there is something for others to correct, perhaps; or to judge the future by.

What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?

For me, it is the determining structure of the story. If you can once tell it to a friend in a an interesting paragraph, you can probably unfold it smoothly as an essay. Once you get the right first sentence, the whole rest of the essay or chapter may come. (In journalism, the right first sentence is called “the hook”–the place where the reader foresees the general point.) For an essay, the hook might come three paragraphs or three pages later, after an introductory anecdote, say, that personalizes the story as if it were fiction.

But there is no formula. If there were, it would make the successive chapters of a book deadly. They should all build the argument, in nonfiction, of course. I got some very good advice from a Harvard professor of English history: He said a book should be an extended essay. It follows that an essay is an extended paragraph.

So an entire book could come out of the right paragraph.

Should make it easier, shouldn’t it?

How do you do research for your books?

I try to find an interesting question that no one else has answered to my satisfaction; and then I dig. I use plenty of help from across the disciplinary spectrum–history, literature, the social sciences, science studies; I read popular as well as scholarly materials; and I talk to friends and friendly strangers whenever I can. People come up to me, knowing my books–or their titles–at parties and tell me the most intimate things. Including how sex has gotten better over time, and how they want to die.

Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?

The entire decline system–innocent absorption of cultural signals, youthful age anxiety, middle-ageism, ageism–infiltrating our society from top to bottom–is increasingly a threat to psychological well-being, to healthy brain functioning, public health, midlife job growth, full employment and a growing economy, intergenerational harmony, the pursuit of happiness throughout the life course, the ability to write a progress narrative, and the likelihood of getting a good-enough death. That is what I am learning, and it continues to be a sobering higher education.

What are you reading now?

I am rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, marvelling at the calm meditative strength she was able to bequeath to its old and dying narrator. I am reading David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, deeply impressed as always with Grossman, by his ability to make deeply emotional responses plausible rather than hysterical. In Venice I started to read Via col Vento–Gone With the Wind, in Italian–just to see if I could get some verbs and nouns and rhythms back.

I am always perusing materials about age in the mainstream and writing infuriated letters to the editor or contrarian opeds. The mainstream so often just doesn’t get it.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Persevere. This is a tough market, even for someone like me who has published a great deal and sold modestly well. Try to get into networks–like WAM! (Women, Activism, and the Media is one of mine)–where like-minded people will give you ideas and encouragement and options.

What are you doing to promote your latest book?

Now that Agewise is being well reviewed, I may do less specifically around the book. But fighting ageism is a mission, so I don’t see my work on the topics ever ending.

I am doing interviews, mostly for talk radio and the press. I had an oped in the New York Times’ Week in Review on May 22nd, attacking the idea that people will readily want to commit suicide because they think they have Alzheimer’s, as Tony Kushner suggests in his latest play, which I saw in New York. I call the pressure on us to opt out in old age the “duty to die”: it is getting a stranglehold on popular culture. The oped, based in part on my chapter about my mother, “Overcoming the Terror of Memory Loss,” recommended that we treat people with cognitive impairment with more forbearance and attention, even as they lose memories.

That piece became far more controversial than I could have anticipated. But professionals of all kinds wrote in gratefully, some saying they would use it in their teaching: psychiatrists, professors in medical schools, social workers, therapists. And people who are caring for people with growing cognitive losses also wrote me, most saying the benefits they found from being-with them. I answered all the letters, including those from the people who felt aggrieved.

I have a lot of conferences coming up, in Europe and in the States. That is a way to get graduate students involved– and in a new field like cultural studies of age, it is an important direction. And I continue to write opeds. I would like to promote resistance to cutting the safety nets, help to expand that movement. It can’t merely defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It needs to go more on the offensive.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

The best site is maintained by my publisher, the University of Chicago Press.