Jacob Bernstein, who is, I believe, the son of Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, has written in the best tradition of his parents’ candor the story of the suicide of Bob Bergeron, a Manhattan therapist who wrote a book about the bright side of gay life after 40.


Bottom line is, if you have made your way through life as a beauty, or, even if you haven’t and yet were granted the privilege of the good-looking, there is a point in life when it goes away.

Peoples’ eyes slide off you. Dinner party invitations — unless work-related or you are part of a couple — slide off too. New friends are hard to make; you get stood up for the first time in your life. And that’s all at age 45, before the invasion of the skin tags, the hearing aids, the night guards as well as anaphrodisiacs such as inflamed toenail beds and contempt for the young and their narcissism. (I actually had someone, a practicing, tight-lacing femme who was grinding her teeth in her sleep to the degree she was loosening their roots, filing off the edges of her molars, and scalloping her tongue, say to me about night guards: But are they feminine? My answer: rather more so than no teeth.)

The last rat-fuck I went to was an enormous soccer-related cocktail party. I walked through the crowd of 200 from end to end looking for friends; and became aware of serious eye contact. It was coming from one of the professional soccer players in a far corner, and it was laser-sharp and as aggressive and hostile a sexual gaze as I have seen. Of older women, it is written, on the walls of urinals, They don’t swell, they don’t tell, and they’re grateful as hell.

I was not surprised when he was later arrested for rape.

The encounter reminded me just how sexualized the universe is, how American social events are now held together by sexuality, how interest in conversation is mistaken for sexual interest rather than an entirely disinterested separate category of art, and how mostly unaware of it I had been until I stopped being cute. Here I flash on the dinner parties of my childhood in South America — at the Yugoslavians’ house where we girls stamped grapes with our perfect little feet. All three generations lived around the courtyard. One big table in the courtyard; grama at one end, grampa at the other, and everyone else in the universe in between. Candlelight, politics, the stars — all discussed by everyone. My mother plays the guitar.

There is a point — Germaine Greer wrote a whole huge book about menopause when somebody laughed at her when she took her clothes off — when somebody says something to you about wearing a miniskirt which you had thought was just a skirt. Your clothes stop suiting you. A stranger calls you on it. At a friend’s 60th birthday party, we touched upon some of these things until one of the ladies said, rather bitterly, But if you weren’t good-looking to start with, it’s not anything like a blow. So. You can fall on that sword early. Or late.

That sense of not being in your own body is the killer, I think. The proof is that it works the opposite way as well. I remember some epic hangovers and other traumata in which my body did not betray me. Looking at myself in the mirror and saying, Jesus, I feel like a typhoid-bearing barnacle on the underside a garbage scow in the Ganges, when it is going to show? When I dream about myself, I’m always about 30 years old and in fighting trim.

Erving Goffman, the great sociologist, wrote a book about the management of spoiled identity, including race and handicap, identifying status markers and society’s gatekeepers, among many other fascinating guideposts. I think it was the poet Alexander Pope, whose spine had been deformed by TB, who said it took him 20 minutes of talking to people before they forgot his hunchback. Virginia Woolf, the scion of three generations of women famous for their beauty, said society was exhausting because you had to put all your energy in your face — and not, presumably, your genius or your pants. Ralph Ellison famously wrote, of being black,

Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Invisible Man

There is a way, as Ellison documents, that lack of eye contact becomes soul murder.

I remember the belly rush I got, as a lady of a certain age, meeting a celebrity for lunch and discovering he was unfortunate in the face department. I was feeling anomalous about the post-cigarette weight. (Quitting your vices, along with the miniskirt, and investing all your disposable income in your teeth, is what Nice People do in their forties.) He’s ugly!, I thought, and my stomach plunged as if I were on a roller coaster ride. It was a huge relief. And an unprecedented ambush of an emotional transaction which still embarasses me. I felt something like it the other day when I walked into the senior center to get my taxes done. Somewhere, someplace, I remember a sociable and attractive octogenarian saying he could only “emerge” — put on his beautiful, well-chosen clothes as well as his unrapeable, unkillable social personna — and leave the house about once every three days.

Far from being a matter of vanity, to sustain the gaze of one’s fellow humans is a matter of life and death. Terrence Des Pres writes that one survivor technique in the concentration camps was literally to become unkillable by working to remain “recognizably human”. People who stopped washing and mending their rags and polishing their blistering wooden clogs with carbonized motor oil simply died; all the survivors noted that when somebody stopped washing themselves, they’d soon be dead.

There’s no mystery as to what the solution is. Wash. Polish. Oxytocin detox. Self-soothing. Generativity. Altruism. Spirituality. Pull on jeans. A tailor. A gym with nobody in it under 50.

(c) 2012  Jeannette Smyth. All rights reserved.