The Middlepause; On Turning Fifty by Marina Benjamin

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Reviewed by Victoria

When you think of all the great defining events of an ordinary life and how often they feature as the focus of a novel – growing up, falling in love, losing love, having a child, going on a journey, seeing down one’s demons – it is striking how rarely growing old becomes the basis for a narrative. Oh, secondary characters may grow old and die, but not the main protagonist, for growing old seems to put a person outside the realm of interest. Even more rarely does menopause dominate a female heroine’s experiences. Any woman who nears 50 understands that the transition into invisibility awaits her, and that whatever strange occurences alter her world in that transition, she had better keep quiet about them.

So it’s excellent to see books like Marina Benjamin’s memoir, The Middlepause, tackling this last taboo. Benjamin vows to take us back to the body at every turn in her story, as the body becomes the place of disavowal, where the signs of middle-age may be read but are all too often ignored, or silenced. The author begins with her own abrupt and traumatic leap into the menopause in the wake of a hysterectomy. Menopause is ‘like some internally explosive chain reaction,’ Benjamin writes, sending a woman’s body into a kind of trauma that results in hot flushes, changing metabolism, a loss of bone density, flagging energy levels and depression. Anxiety ‘can feel tidal’. These violent changes signal unmistakeably the ageing process for a woman, which Benjamin describes as:

a rapid and catastrophic onslaught in which alarming changes bubble forth, unstoppable. What is more, these changes are enacted not around you, but on your very person. Written on the body. As indelible as ink.

There are mental and emotional reactions to be gone through as well – the brain fogs and fuzziness of memory, the sense of walking in a marginal territory. Benjamin samples the self-help books available on post-menopausal life and finds nothing to truly inspire her, and certainly not Jaki Scarcello’s (a Californian-based life coach) ‘Women of the Harvest’, who are exhorted to be wise and confident, passionate and peaceful, finally able to concentrate on themselves now the burden of rearing children is past. Benjamin finds in the term ‘unfortunate overtones of organ harvesting, as well as vaguely menacing Wiccan intimations. Like something Margaret Atwood might parody.’

Benjamin’s solution to the problem of writing about women’s mid-life is to take a good long look at the relationships that surround her. She talks at length about her father’s death, about the way her relationship to her teenage daughter is changing, about her mother’s very different upbringing in the Middle East and the way she has undertaken the ageing process, and she talks about a good friend who died before reaching her 50th birthday from lung cancer. Benjamin also delves into the (scarce) literature of female middle age, giving a careful reading of Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep and Colette’s Break of Day. And she turns to a number of theorists, psychologists, and social scientists for some intriguing ideas about the period of midlife transition.

For instance, an American engineer, Frederick Winslow Taylor, had a lot more to do with the negative way we view middle age than you might guess. Taylor was responsible for rapidly speeding up the production line system by using division of labour – making each person an expert on one small part of the process. Using this system, Ford Motors reduced the time it took to produce a car from twelve and a half hours to just an hour and a half. Buoyed up by the evident success of his theories and obsessed with the need for speed, Taylor suggested that his methods ought to be applied to the management of our homes, farms, universities, governments. In fact, people themselves could be broken down into processes and measured for efficiency. Adolescence and adulthood were the stages where the most production might be expected, middle age was edging dangerously close to senescence and finally obsolescence. His views coloured social ideology and altered the way people thought about themselves – the need to stay young was a need to look useful and productive still.

This is a fine cornucopia of the personal and the psychological, and I was impressed by the honesty and clear-sight that Marina Benjamin brings to her subject. This 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. If I had a criticism, it would be that it reads at times like an extended magazine article. A very good one, but with a bit too much padding. There’s a tendency as well for Benjamin to romanticise some of her relationships, but then it’s extremely difficult not to pull punches when writing about people who are still alive and living alongside you. These are really small quibbles and shouldn’t detract from the importance of the topic and the courage with which Benjamin is ready to share her experiences with us. This is a thoughtful, compassionate and wise book.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Marina Benjamin, The Middlepause; On Turning Fifty (Scribe, 2016). 978-1925228526, 240 pp., hardback.

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