I just finished reading Erica Jong's latest book Fear of Dying. The cover jacket is that of a zipper, an obvious reprise of her startling first book Fear of Flying and its notorious phrase "Zipless Fuck." This book published in 1973 when she was 30 established her as the doyenne of libidinousness. Its demanding sexuality titillated, and splattered the tranquil self satisfaction of the time.
I first met Erica here at Stanford as she was promoting her then latest book, Fear of Fifty-- A Midlife Memoir. It was largely the ruminations of a menopausal woman in 1994. She recalls "50 years of training for midlife self annihilation." She acknowledges that she liked her teenage daughter better than herself, maybe jealousy. She actually begins Fear of Dying with a remembrance that she related to me directly, recalling "how I tried to swish every man that I encountered on 57th street. When I heard a wolf call I figured that I was the source of the flirtation, but then I recognized that the object of the whistle was my daughter, not myself. This was a startling right of passage that spoke to the archival nature of the triad of Fear of Flying, age 30, Fear of Fifty, age 50 and now Fear of Dying, age 70. Her aging was in print.
At our first meeting here at Stanford she wowed the audience, She was salty as hell and challenged any conventionality. She received a standing ovation for her insistence of the autonomy of Women.
After her talk I spoke to the assemblage using my geriatric diploma to state my case that aging was less of the problem than was the attitude about what aging represents. I'm a good speaker, and the audience was generous with their response as was Erika who quickly engaged me in telling me that her parents' capacities were starting to dwindle and she was consumed by anxiety about this. We hit it off famously, and I offered up assorted platitudes to her on how she could provide grease for her parents' omega slide.
Fear of Dying displays the varied indignities suffered separately, but infecting all. Repeated hospitalizations, incontinency, and assorted other frailties and decays became the daily drill. The bleakness of her parents' lives impacted her reserves of courage. She feared that her own future years would follow the trajectory of her own parents miserable decline. She tried to escape from this depression in seeking out further amorous trysts, both here and abroad.
Much of the text of Fear of Dying relates multiple dreams of earlier sexually charged encounters that continued to bubble up and make her wakening more anxious than ever.
She saves her most tender narrative for the adoration she feels about her baby grandson Leonardo (Leo now). He is invested with images of beauty and perfection. It reminded me of my own personal favorite line in my first book We Live Too Short and Die Too Long. I wrote "the birth of a grandchild is my personal Easter." I'm proud of this observation. I recall thirty years ago when I was on my own book tour I was being interviewed by NPR in Boston. My interviewer remarked "my favorite line in your book Dr. Bortz was the birth of a grandchild is my personal Easter. I reacted "my God you read the book." Book tours are usually excruciating indignities as the interviewers are informed by reading from the book jackets , not the meat.
Erica hates aging and its warts. This third novel of her age Trilogy concludes with her husband and she pondering their prospects for reincarnation. This speculation was fueled by their visit to India, and bathed in its mythologies.
She observes," Once we are dead we are utterly fearless. Death is fearlessness. It's the anticipation of our dying that's the problem.""Fear is a waste of Life". This echoes Woody Allen's famous remark, "I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
I resonate with Norman Cousins' advisory "Worry less about Life after Death. Worry instead of the Life that you allow to Die while you are still alive ."