The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new book promises to help women find joy late in life. If only it were so simple.

A respected clinical psychologist, Mary Pipher is best known for her 1994 bestseller, “Reviving Ophelia,” an astute consideration of adolescent girls. Now Pipher uses her skills to help us older girls — the 60-and-up set — women who in Pipher’s words are navigating the “last stretch of the river with its treacherous currents.” Despite the nautical cliche, the early pages of Pipher’s new book, aptly titled “Women Rowing North,” are encouraging and useful (if somewhat obvious): Resilience is key to aging well; age is less important than health; “happiness doesn’t come easily”; saying “no” can be powerful.

Pipher says hers is not a “how to” book, but a “how to think” book, which is a promising approach. Unfortunately, however, too many of her sentences sound like certainties or dictums. “We older women are uniquely suited for community work,” she writes. Others deflate into platitudes: “When times get tough we want to buy ourselves roses or chocolate bars.”

And while Pipher’s habit of using “we” proffers inclusion, it’s also assumptive — clumping together all women’s responses to aging and illness without regard to differences in temperament or economic realities. While Pipher and women she knows can afford trips to New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch and camping adventures in the Rockies, millions of others can’t afford a taxi ride to the doctor’s office.

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It’s not that Pipher is naive or arrogant. She’s honestly committed to helping others. Her values are commendable: love of family and friends; appreciation of nature; being true to herself; an absence of vanity. But her language is not adequate to her cause. “Many times,” Pipher tells us, “when I have faced a significant hurdle, I’ve witnessed a green shooting star . . . a reassuring signal from the universe.” After reading this, I worried if around the next bend of the river, there’d be another signal of union with the great Other, and sure enough there is. This time, Pipher identifies with a cholla cactus whose “pale green arms stretched Shiva-like in all directions.” In the plant’s “old and tattered” branches, Pipher finds signs of “new rich growth rising within” her. Ouch!

More troublesome is her overuse of words such as “bliss,” “transcendence” and “awe.” This misty trinity of New Age exhortations — besides being hackneyed — does a disservice to women who don’t wish to or can’t attain them. Like many authors writing in the helping genres, Pipher believes in the healing power of certain types of epiphanies. “We feel grateful, not in spite of problems, but because of them,” she offers. Is this true? It depends on one’s definition of “problems” doesn’t it? Then there’s this: “Many of us discover ways to experience bliss and awe when we are most in pain.” I read this sentence while in bed resting from a strenuous day of physical therapy to rehabilitate a femur fracture that necessitated a revision total knee replacement. Trust me, bliss and awe won’t be around anytime soon.

I don’t deny the value of optimism. But too often Pipher’s suggestions misfire, especially ones concerning the healing uses of literature. In a long passage about all the things aging women can do to forestall loneliness, Pipher suggests reading and sharing “our day” with Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre. By my calculation, that’s two suicides and an ill-treated orphan who ends up marrying a blind wannabe bigamist. This is supposed to make us feel good?

After reading tedious pages of Pipher’s can-do philosophy, I imagined the spirits of Barbara Ehrenreich, Audre Lorde and Nancy Mairs — Furies all — sweeping down with a corrective dose of reality to counter Pipher’s feel-good ethos. In her 2001 essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” Ehrenreich takes on the pink-ribbon brigade while challenging the government to fund more research on environmental causes of cancer. Lorde’s 1980 book “The Cancer Journals” approaches women’s health issues through a personal lens that isn’t Vaselined over with silence or slogans. And in her essay “On Being a Cripple,” Nancy Mairs writes directly and with humor about having multiple sclerosis. These women anchor their personal stories to political issues that affect women’s health and aging — to educate for wider change and awareness overall. They’re not just about the individual or squishy ideas about self-actualization.

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Movingly, Pipher tells us that she “has struggled with sadness and anxiety” much of her life. Her “quest for joy and happiness” is sincere, as is her commitment to helping other women achieve theirs. Some readers will treasure the book. All readers will admire her unadorned but wise summation that answered prayers are “a surcease of worry.”

But reading about all the questing, journeying, flourishing, rowing and growing can be exhausting. Our daily mantra shouldn’t be “Old age is a massacre,” as Philip Roth’s “Everyman” puts it, because that’s just too gloomy, however true. Getting older is messy; it forces us to face some ugly realities, some as painful as the needles on a cholla cactus. Pipher knows this but seems reluctant to write it down on paper in language that is up to the task.

Sibbie O’Sullivan writes frequently about culture and the arts. Her book of essays about John Lennon is forthcoming from Mad Creek Books.

By Mary Pipher

Bloomsbury. 272 pp. $27

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