Fifteen years ago, Dr. Ruth O. Saxton was my professor in my MFA program. She punctuated her lectures and class discussions with verve and clear insights. But in the midst of that semester she suffered a traumatic brain injury, one that wiped away her energy and ability to juggle multiple high-stakes projects. Professor Saxton struggled for words in her lectures, her shoulders slumping; she had, for the first time in her life, been betrayed by her brain.
One year later, I suffered a stroke that left me with a fifteen-minute short term memory. And suddenly, Professor Saxton and I had a unique commonality. Over the course of the next year, Ruth Saxton and I would meet regularly and have what we now call “conversations we don’t remember”—she because of her traumatic brain injury and I because of my left thalamic stroke.
One of the things I do remember discussing were our dreams deferred. Hers was to write the book that would become The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age in Fiction, out from She Writes Press earlier this month. It examines women and aging and the impact of patriarchy, which renders older women invisible—it is an act of defiance against erasure. You can read an exclusive excerpt from the book here.
Dr. Ruth O. Saxton is a Professor Emerita of English at Mills College in Oakland, CA. She served as the college’s first Dean of Letters and co-founded the Women’s Studies program. Her scholarly works include The Girl: Constructions of the Girl in Contemporary Fiction by Women, Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (with Eileen Barrett), and Woolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold (with Jean Tobin).
Ruth O. Saxton and I corresponded in June and July, discussing The Book of Old Ladies as it pertains to the trajectory of aging women, the treachery of patriarchy, and the embedded lessons in literature for living a life well-lived.
The Rumpus: You open The Book of Old Ladies by saying you read fiction “to find models for how to live, how to be.” What models did you find in these readings?
Ruth O. Saxton: When I lost my brain as I had known it in a car accident in my early sixties, I wanted stories of development and hope to counter the dismal medical advice to quit my job and accept that I might not ever read or write again. I am not given to denial, but I do have a streak of defiance when faced with dire predictions. Rather than give up, I spent years of hard work—physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, vision therapy, psychotherapy, acupuncture, pilates, all while impersonating my former self at home and at work—and when my reading improved from its second-grade level, I returned to my original project knowing firsthand the importance of hope and reinvention after loss.
I am committed not to regaining a lost “whole” self, but to embracing the possibilities and new modes of knowing that the self I am in makes possible. The organization of my book echoes that movement and my belief that stories help us imagine new plots for our own lives.
Rumpus: The Book of Old Ladies is structured by critiquing past (deathbed memories of romances), present (current passions and ruminating on the end of life), and future-oriented (late-in-life crises that bring about future change) stories. What was your intention in organizing your book this way?
Saxton: As I began foraging for stories with old women as central characters, I was surprised, disappointed, and then angry. Often, I discovered that highly praised stories about older women turned out to be youthful romance stories in sheep’s clothing. These stories open with a dying woman, often in bed, and end in her anticipated death. These stories provide little focus on the day-to-day experience of older women, instead relegating the old women’s experience to what I started to call “deathbed bookends.” The emotional focus and most of the pages however are a flashback to her (generally unrequited) youthful romance, which is formally and thematically positioned as the central drama of her life.
The diminishing of narrative value of old women’s experience was disappointing. That these deathbed bookends structured novels were often specifically praised for their attention to old women’s experience was particularly galling.
While the past remains always present, old women exist in the present. While youthful erotic memories are rich mines for fiction, so are elderly present erotic stories the stuff of narrative! Think of all those novels about men and by men, who are not presumed to be simply existing as shades of their once nubile selves. And, life consists of more than youthful (or elderly) romance.
Rumpus: How do you wish to see “old ladies” represented? What is the complex truth that should be told?
Saxton: I felt angry at such impoverished plots and set out to find alternatives. How could fictional old women be so much less interesting than the actual older women I knew? Let’s talk about romance: My husband’s seventy-five-year-old grandmother missed our wedding because she was on her honeymoon with the widower who lived on the neighboring ranch before her first husband’s death. A senior colleague was reunited with her first husband decades after their divorce when he encountered a fictional version of himself in her novel, published in her seventies.
Neither of these septuagenarians was on her deathbed and obsessed with her youth. Instead, they were enjoying themselves more than either had done in years. I wanted to find fictional accounts in which older women took risks, made choices, and had fun. Sometimes erotic fun, and sometimes stories of a different dimension, stories of new modes of being, of ambition, motherhood, narratives that did not imply women’s value is only located in their (relative) youths.
I discovered Toni Cade Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne,” in which Miss Hazel embarrasses her adult children by her joyful seductive dancing at a community event and Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo in which older members of feuding families fall in love with each other and must outsmart their adult children. A satisfying emotional connection develops in Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in which a struggling young writer pretends to be the nephew of a lonely widow whose actual nephew never visits her and both of their lives are enriched.
I also noticed a discrepancy between fictional accounts of women with dementia and my experiences visiting my mother-in-law in the Alzheimer’s unit of an assisted living community. When she called me her favorite teacher, I sensed she recognized me but couldn’t find the right name. Right up until her death, when she seldom talked at all, she would clap when she saw me coming. Some of her self was still alive beyond the surface confusion. She was not just “your loved one” of the texts addressed to caretakers of people with dementia; she was uniquely Dorothy. Her life had texture and pleasure, not only loss.
I was thrilled then when I read Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad with its characterization of Marina, and her “memory palace” who sometimes penetrated her present dementia with wonderful insights that sprang from her life as an artist and her appreciation of beauty. Similarly, Leonora Carrington’s marvelous ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby of The Hearing Trumpet made me laugh out loud as she narrates her surreal perceptions of life in a home for senile old women. Her wry sense of humor and her spot on descriptions of old age are splendidly rendered.
The more I read, the more I appreciate stories in which old ladies not only survive the huge losses of their lives, such as divorce, death of a spouse, serious illness, forced retirement, or alienation from adult children, but discover undeveloped parts of themselves, sometimes defy limiting conventions and habits that no longer serve them well. Stories of satisfying lives after loss lift my spirits and affirm what I have observed not only personally but also in life writing—in journals, diaries, biographies, and memoirs.
Rumpus: You make the point about how a woman’s life is curated; romance reflects an “omission of a lifetime of experiences beyond young love.” Additionally, while the male gaze transforms women into sexual objects meant for pleasure, the youthful gaze here sees old people as not capable of sex at all. Why are women still writing as if romance is the heart of a life well-lived? Why the youthful gaze as a continuation of the male gaze?
Saxton: Perhaps fiction and life collude in limiting the imagination of what can be possible for girls and women. Finding a soul mate, a life partner, a best friend is deeply ingrained in many of us and for many people the romantic ideal of a person who meets all those criteria is symbolized in marriage. However, living happily ever does not necessarily follow in life as it so often does in romance plots. And life for many people today is considerably longer than it was in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. Both the times and people change.
In addition, the stories we consume, that we are fed, may undermine our sense of what is possible. Families and communities may hold strong beliefs about what is legitimate for a woman, and even today girls may be encouraged to define themselves solely in relationships. Perhaps we may be frightened of change, convinced that we are somehow not okay unless we fit within certain cultural patterns of marriage or motherhood or career, if we don’t meet certain standards of beauty and health.
Even in our beloved fairy tales, the old woman eventually loses her youthful beauty and the stories focus primarily on her role in the life of a Cinderella or Snow White. Outside fairy tales, those stereotypes of the old woman lie hidden in fiction where she hovers on the edges of the true heroine, who is always the young woman, primed for romantic union or tragic death.
What I can tell you is that in our culture, the emphasis on youth permeates everything and has too often been internalized by all genders. For example, cultural notions uphold the myth that women lose sexual desire when they are no longer capable of childbirth and that men maintain desire throughout their entire lives. Science and medicine counter those notions. But in addition to sex, people can experience desire and feel passion throughout their lives. Physical touch, companionship, joy in friendship are not limited to the young or to the conventionally beautiful or to the conventional romance plot.
Yet advertising bombasts us with ways to prolong our youthful appearance, to hide all signs of aging. No longer encased in our grandmothers’ girdles, we are expected to exercise away any signs of aging. We are encouraged to buy lotions and creams, serums, facials, masks to create the illusion of youthful skin and then urged to apply cosmetics not for a sense of play or self definition, but to further blur the differences between our younger and older selves.
Obviously, I am generalizing, but as I have aged, I have been increasingly determined to avoid collusion in such lies. Far too many women of all ages have internalized the male gaze, and see themselves reflected in looking glasses and store windows through an internalized gaze. (And here I refer to male and female as powerful social types, not as biological givens; these pressures operate beyond the body, and across gendered spectrums). Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own writes about the ways in which women have served as magical looking glasses, reflecting men at twice their normal size and speculates that is which is why men have such confidence in themselves.
I am eager for women to reflect themselves and each other without the carnival looking glass of the internalized gaze that distorts and diminishes.
My book introduces readers to a small selection of older women who, as Fran says in Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, are “already too old to die young.” All of them have lost someone or something, yet most of them discover new ways of living out the rest of their lives with joy. They are not role models; in fact, some of them, like Olive Kitteridge, are rather mean and set in their ways, but nearly all of them are honest about who they are and what they need; they take action to bring about change in the present rather than dreaming of their youth.
Their actions range from subtle acceptance to burning down the house, from disregarding the limited plans of their adult children to traipsing across Canada with a talking hyena. They are fully-rounded characters, not lurking around the edges, but taking up the center of their stories, and we get caught up in their adventures.
And, they are neither wicked witches or fairy godmothers.
Photograph of Ruth Saxton by Kirsten Saxton.