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Interview: New Adventures For Older Women


Dr. Phyllis Perrakis

In The Last Gift of Time (The Dial Press) literary scholar Carolyn Heilbrun searched for a late-life "adventure" for women that did not mean romance. According to Heilbrun, older women yearn for opportunities that involve risk, challenge and "something new, something as yet not found". But what?

Now Dr. Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis thinks she has found the answer. Perrakis is editor of Adventures of the Spirit (Ohio State University Press, 2007), which brings together 11 Canadian and American literary gerontologists to examine a new kind of adventure for older women.

"These journeys of the spirit explore a new kind of aging, one that is spiritual in nature, enabling new ways of being and becoming, but open-ended and capable of great variation in practice," says Perrakis.

Perrakis is a part-time professor in the department of English at the University of Ottawa. She has a special interest in spirituality and aging studies. She has published widely in the area.

AHB reached Dr. Perrakis in Ottawa.

Ruth Dempsey: What sparked your interest in literary gerontology?

Phyllis Perrakis: My own aging was the initial impetus. When I turned 60 (I am 66 now), it was a particularly joyous milestone for me, as I felt freed from some of the anxieties that had haunted my earlier years.

I relaxed about my role as a mother, as my sons were now adults progressing well on their life paths. I also felt more comfortable with my own professional career as a part-time professor of English literature. I no longer felt that I had to apologize for not being a full-time professor.

I had always been fascinated with literary portrayals of women’s experience. As well, I had been reading and writing about the works of Doris Lessing for more than 25 years. As Lessing aged so did her female protagonists. My own greater freedom made me
sensitive to the increasingly varied and exciting new opportunities for midlife and older women I saw portrayed, not just by Lessing, but by other women writers as well.

Around this time also I participated in a study group on A Brief History of Everything by philosopher Ken Wilber. It helped me see my own life more clearly as an evolving spiral of development and to become aware of how this pattern was often manifested in the portrayals of women literary protagonists.

RD: The search for meaning at midlife is a human need. But you suggest the path for women may be unique. How so?

PP: For both physical and cultural reasons "midlife" women often become more autonomous and empowered to take psychic risks. As psychiatrist David Gutmann, a specialist in the study of men and women in later life, points out, women’s midlife flowering may be partly influenced by the increased concentration of testosterone in their blood, as well as by the lessening of responsibilities at home.

RD: This midlife search is often triggered by a crisis – a serious illness, perhaps, the breakup of a relationship or an unexplained feeling of emptiness. Is that right?

PP: Yes, women at this time in their lives must face the loss of a familiar stage of self-identity and, as in any transitional period, the encounter with the unknown brings fear and uncertainty that may erupt in a physical, emotional or existential crisis.

RD: In the book, we meet women who challenge conventional scripts of aging. Sexual older women like Arachne in Aritha Van Herk’s No Fixed Address or Felicity in Fay Weldon’s Rhode Island Blues . . .

PP: Characters like Felicity, suggest older women need not become sexually "invisible" or totally deny the body. Indeed 83-year-old Felicity’s fairy-tale romance with a man 11 years her junior is presented with a feeling of joy and the sense of new possibilities. The two lovers outwit disapproving relatives and the nurse at Felicity’s retirement residence to achieve happiness and marriage.

And while Arachne has not yet reached midlife, her passionate affair with a nonagenarian lover encourages our appreciation of alternatives to the usual cultural scripts of aging.

RD: And we meet intense women, bent on making the most of the moment, like the three protagonists of Suzette’s Mayr’s The Widows . . .

PP: In this wonderful magical realist romp, Mayr’s three protagonists dare to take on Niagara Falls, going over it in a barrel. Their tumble over the falls can be seen as a symbolic expression of the rough and tumble of old age which succeeds because of their adventurous spirits, cooperation and use of local resources.

RD: Some women are sustained by the urge to create like Iris, the 83-year-old writer of Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin . . .

PP: Yes, Iris’s willingness to survey her past life, warts, weaknesses and all – to discover and reveal the secrets she has kept from herself as well as others – and to write her story is her legacy to the adult granddaughter she does not know. And, in writing right up to the moment of her death, she shows it is never too late to come to terms with one’s life.

RD: Others struggle to get a "second wind" – to find the courage to grow older and not merely get older . . .

PP: Indeed, the whole book is about this struggle of women characters to make sense of their lives and to find the courage to become who they potentially are.

Characters like 65-year-old Sarah Durham in love again (Doris Lessing), 64-year-old Avey Johnson in Praisesong for the Widow (Paule Marshall), and fifty-something Candida Wilton in The Seven Sisters (Margaret Drabble) all use present difficulties as motivation to take stock of their lives – to dare to journey back into their pasts – and to move forward into more satisfying older years, characterized by ways of self-knowing and being not possible before.

RD: In your own essay, you move beyond the individual to look at the development "of humankind as a journey along a spiritual spiral." Can you please elaborate?

PP: I came across the theory of "spiral dynamics" developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan when I was engaged in the Ken Wilber study group. Beck and Cowan provide the striking image of individual and cultural growth as the movement along a developmental spiral.

They suggest that at each stage of growth, individuals and cultures revisit earlier concerns and ways of understanding from a more mature point of view and incorporate them into their more mature selves. Thus, later selves include and transcend earlier ways of knowing and being.

Furthermore, we are all at various stages on the spiral. All the stages are necessary for the health of the complete spiral. Understanding this developmental journey allows us not only to look back at earlier stages in our own personal or cultural growth with understanding and tolerance, it also helps us to view others wherever they are on the spiral with respect and appreciation.

For this reason, I attempt to include works of literature that portray women at various stages of development. This inclusiveness extends to choosing essays that examine the journeys of midlife and older women whose lives have been damaged by physical and sexual abuse like that of Mala in Cereus Blooms at Night (Shani Mootoo) and Sidda Walker in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Rebecca Wells).

Finally, I include works of literature that show how this developmental spiral extends into the transpersonal realm, as characters like the survivor in Memoirs of a Survivor (Doris Lessing) attempt to achieve attunement with the deepest levels of self.

RD: Adventures of the Spirit presents old age as a time of "exploration, discovery, and map-making." In fact, these are new scripts for aging. Right?

PP: Absolutely. This is one of my reasons for the book and why I called it Adventures of the Spirit. I wanted to emphasize that aging is a kind of spiritual adventure. No one kind of breakthrough is emphasized. Instead, the essays reveal the rich and varied adventures midlife and older women take as they confront difficulties and obstacles, as well as successes and breakthroughs on life’s journey.

I believe creative works that celebrate these evolving journeys are worthy of our deepest yearnings. They expand our ability to imagine alternative ways of seeing old age, and they help us fashion our own individual scripts for aging.