Sunday, May 25, 2008

"The Last Gift Of Time"

My book group had an interesting discussion last week of The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn Heilbrun. Not being over sixty myself, and never having heard of Ms. Heilbrun, I wasn't expecting to relate much, but whatever. Most of the rest of the group is in their 60s and beyond, so I was interested in what they had to say. Turns out there was plenty to think about. Last Gift is a collection of essays about some universal themes of women's lives, brought into sharper focus through decades of experience and reflection. However the essays are of uneven quality, and as I found the ones toward the beginning of the book pretentious and dull, it was kind of hard to get into.

Heilbrun begins by saying she'd always planned to commit suicide at seventy, feeling that useful life would probably be best wrapped up at that point. However, reaching seventy, she chose not to do herself in. Thinking of her life thereafter as "borrowed time," each day actively choosing to live on, gave it more power than she might have felt it had otherwise. Fair enough. She goes on to discuss the need for solitude, a theme to which I expected to relate, but to my reading her essay about it came off peevish. She has three adult children and a companionable marriage, a Central Park West apartment and a house in the country. Plenty of space. Yet at sixty-eight, she buys herself another house, to be alone. And at this point I am thinking... yay you, Carolyn. And I mean it -- I think it's great that she had both the self-awareness and the means to create the kind of place that makes her feel most fully realized as a human, and the fortitude to carry it through in her later years. But this was written from such a place of privilege -- luxury, really -- that I'm sorry, but it's dull as dirt. I wouldn't publish my journal, please don't bother me with yours -- especially as I've just come from reading Greg Mortenson's powerful book about his work building schools for impoverished girls in war-torn places. You know, making the world better for people in real need, instead of sitting on one's ass thinking about how it might be made better for oneself.

Eventually I found points to relate to and admire. Heilbrun's essay On Not Wearing Dresses was short and to the point; she relates, with humor and satisfaction, her decision to dispense with ever again wearing dresses and nylons. Her true self, she feels and has always felt, is androgynous. What freedom to declare in one's sixties not to be subject to what society expects you to wear by the accident of your assigned gender. I thought it was terrific - a bright spot among the forgettable pages of introspective muck.

Having since learned more about Carolyn Heilbrun's distinguished career and accomplishments as a writer, critic, professor and feminist, I can judge all the introspection somewhat less harshly. Still, it isn't the kind of thing I most love to read.

Incidentally she did kill herself at 77, leaving a note that said simply, "The journey is over. Love to all. C."


  1. I'm not sure I'd have made it through that one, but it's interesting she chose 77 to kill herself. I don't know, I find that somewhat selfish in itself. I wonder what was the difference in her head between 70 and 77?

  2. Yeah - I don't know what made her decide her life was best concluded.

    Part of what made our discussion of the book interesting was the difference in opinion within the group about whether suicide is something a person does if that person is not mentally ill -- depressed? -- in some way.

    Some readers felt that it was a sane, rational thing to have done; kind of noble to end your life on your own terms, etc. Others thought that depression must have played a role. Why else would a person with a family whom they loved, and who loved them, do such a thing?

  3. I hadn't thought of that, but you know, honestly I'd have to agree, there must be some sort of mental illness going on if you've lived a fulfilled life, have a family that loves you, then just say..."trips over", see ya. Since she had been planning on it for years, there must have been some depression issues somewhere....

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  6. I heard her speak once, in about 1987-88. But it wasn't as Carolyn Heilbrun. Completely apart from her academic career, she wrote mystery novels, using the nom de plume Amanda Cross. She spoke at a little club for mystery fans a friend of mine organized (which was where I met my wife-to-be, but that's a different story).

    I do vaguely remember something being mentioned about her suicide plans, though I don't think it was by Heilbrun/Cross herself. What I do remember her talking about, though, is that her academic colleagues totally disregarded her side career, which she had kept secret at first.

    I suspect that the reason she delayed her suicide plans was at least in part because her life at 70 was different than she had anticipated. She was still writing--besides "The Last Gift of Time" she produced three mysteries in her eighth decade.

  7. That must've been a terrific club meeting!

    I should've mentioned in my post about Amanda Cross. Also that Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure in the English Department of Columbia University, which was notoriously sexist. A whole career in that environment must grind a person down, despite the advantages of academia (pleasure and satisfaction of research, relatively flexible schedule, &c.).

  8. I actually read this book and had the same reaction that you did. I kept thinking, "What the HELL is not to live for? You have no wants, needs or plans that cannot be had or at least partially attained."

    I have never understood the truly wealthy. So much of my time is spent just staving off worry that I will end up a bag lady somewhere. I can't even imagine that sort of life style. I did not know that she did end up killing herself, though.