“Women Catch Courage”: Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never quite effaced.

It’s impossible not to be very aware, reading The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, that Carolyn Heilbrun committted suicide in 2003–six years, that is, after the book’s publication. As she tells us in the Preface, she had “long ago settled upon the determination to end [her] life at seventy,” but arriving at that age, which once seemed “far off, indeed unlikely ever to occur,” she surprised herself by choosing to live past it. Life, for her, became a daily decision, an empowering one because it meant she remained in control of the narrative of her own life. As someone who finds the opacity and finality of death profoundly disturbing, I am fascinated by her clarity and resolve about it.

The Last Gift of Time is a series of personal essays reflecting on Heilbrun’s experience of aging as well as on issues that took on new relevance or new dimensions as she aged. Perhaps because they are quite personal, to me they were not all equally substantial or valuable. I didn’t much like the chapter “Living with Men,” for instance, which seemed to me to overgeneralize carelessly. But I loved “The Small House,” in which Heilbrun writes about her desire for solitude, in pursuit of which she eventually buys a small house in the country. It turns out she does not love being alone quite the way she expected and she and her husband end up, paradoxically, finding “solitude together.” But she is astute about the temptation, the fantasy, of solitude, “a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation.” Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same conditions–indeed, my own experience is that it is sometimes possible to feel much more lonely when not alone. I imagine many women, particularly ones with young families, feel both longing for “quality time” with themselves and guilt about that desire; men who want to get away from it all have (as Heilbrun points out) more cultural support and precedent for it. I wonder how far Heilbrun is right that the pleasure of solitude depends on its being both voluntary and temporary.

Another chapter I enjoyed is the one on e-mail, which is also really about balancing aloneness and togetherness. E-mail “reaches into our privacy without invading it,” as she remarks, and she rightly notes too that it enables new relationships to develop as well as sustaining old ones that might otherwise erode with distance. She’s writing when this technology was still relatively new for non-techies. I got my own first email account in 1995, when I moved away from Vancouver to go to Cornell, and I remember how it sustained me (as, indeed, it still does) to open my mailbox and find messages from home. As Heilbrun notes, there’s an intimacy to email that is different (not better, just different) from both face-to-face and phone conversations: “with e-mail, one moves into it without notice, and may find there messages that are not, strangely enough, appropriate for the telephone.”  Also, because they are written and not in ‘real time,’ email messages can allow us not just extra reflection but also “the practice of wit.” I imagine Heilbrun would have been even more exhilirated by blogging–and might even have been an enthusiastic Facebooker.

Two other, more literary, chapters also stood out for me. One, “Unmet Friends,” talks in general about the way writers can come, in our minds, to be our close friends, though we have ‘met’ them only through their words on the page. “Women catch courage,” Heilbrun proposes, “from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage ‘friend.'” Heilbrun’s main example is Maxine Kumin, who, she says, “exists as a close friend only in my mind.” She talks in engaging detail about how she got to ‘know’ Kumin and what their ‘friendship’ has meant to her over the years. “Kumin,” she explains, “spanned both the refuted and the desired aspects of my life.” But she also mentions Dorothy L. Sayers (“her life and her writings spoke to me of a more expansive life, an existence devoted to aims riskier than I had previously allowed myself”)–and Virginia Woolf, who, though “a writer I have studied, taught, and written about with admiration, has never been a friend: she is entirely too much of a genius for that.” There’s also a separate chapter on a writer who became Heilbrun’s real-life friend, May Sarton. Heilbrun mentions her reading of Sarton’s 1968 memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, “a work that quite literally caught me in its spell,” as “the beginning of our friendship;” that comment, plus her account of Sarton’s eccentric personality and vexed writing career, made me glad I had coincidentally picked up Plant Dreaming Deep at the same time I bought The Last Gift of Time.

The final chapter in The Last Gift of Time is “On Mortality.” It’s here, of course, that the knowledge of her suicide lingers most hauntingly over her words, but the chapter is neither morbid nor sentimental–she considers her death in the context, especially, of her children and grandchildren, and admits that she faces her own mortality with equanimity but cannot bear the thought of her husband’s: “Perhaps death, the nearness of it, transforms long marriages. . . . I have noticed that marriages that have endured over many decades seem to have earned, as reward, a mutual mellowness.” She has learned to stop expecting or demanding change; she quotes George Balanchine’s instruction, “Just dance the steps,” and suggests that similarly she has come to believe that in marriage too, one should worry less about larger meaning and significance and “just dance the steps.” The chapter ends with a poem that was new to me and that will linger with me, Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise.” An excerpt:

I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

For Heilbrun, that day was October 9, 2003.

13 Comments to “Women Catch Courage”: Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

  1. February 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Am I right in thinking that Carolyn Heilbrun wrote crime fiction as Amanda Cross? If so, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read anything else by her and hadn’t realised that there was such a wealth of essay writing to explore. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of this. As someone who’s just turned sixty-one I think I’ll find much that is relevant and interesting.

  2. February 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Rohan, thanks. I’ve got the essays on order and hope they’ll be here by the end of the week. I’ll also look out your earlier post. I was taking your name in vain this afternoon when talking with a friend about crime fiction that predates Sherlock Holmes. She was wondering what critical reading there was available about that period and I said that while I didn’t know anything other than ‘The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction’ I knew of someone who would. If you could recommend anything we would both be extremely grateful.

  3. February 15, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    I taught ‘The Moonstone’ in conjunction with ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ at Summer School last year and we all loved it.

    I’ve had a look at the Thoms and Sherlock’s Sisters on Amazon and they do seem interesting. I’ll have to check if the library has them as the only copies available over here are too expensive for casual reading. The same is true of the Oxford collection, which is clearly our of print. That. however, is the sort of book that might turn up in pen of the local second hand shops so I’ll keep a weather eye open for it. Thanks very much for this.

  4. February 16, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for this, Rohan. So beautifully written. With birthday coming up on Saturday and number of years mounting, this post speaks to me. I didn’t know about Heilbrun and will surely look for her book.

  5. February 17, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    We all owe Heilbrun a debt of gratitude for her biography of Gloria Steinem, too. I wonder why more hasn’t been written about Steinem. As a feminist author, she has been a role model for me for decades: so strong in her convictions, so gentle in her demeanor.

  6. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    February 19, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I was interested that Heilbrun doesn’t seem very excited about her Steinem biography–she does not include Steinem, for instance, among the writers who she feels have become really intimate (mental) friends, partly because they live so differently (Steinem more in public, for instance, while Heilbrun feels herself to be more interior, if that’s a reasonable way to sum up the contrast).

  7. Susan Toth's Gravatar Susan Toth
    February 19, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Don’t you wonder, Rohan, how much Heilbrun considered the effects of her suicide on her husband, when she was evidently still healthy and mentally alert? How much did she take into account that “mutual mellowness” she claims to have achieved in their marriage?

    And what about her two daughters? What did her suicide do to THEM? As I remember, Amanda Cross didn’t permit her detective to have children. Would that have been impossibly messy? Is any woman detective in today’s fiction allowed to be a mother as well?

    I met Heilbrun once years ago–a formidably organized, brilliant woman–and I agree that she is indeed one of our feminist literary “mothers”. But I read now “The Last Gift of Time” with the knowledge that in the end she rejected those last gifts of time–or perhaps the challenges that accompany them.

  8. Susan Toth's Gravatar Susan Toth
    February 20, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    I’ve actually thought of one, Rohan. Do you know the historical mystery series, “Mistress of the Art of Death,” by Ariana Franklin (pen name of British writer Diana Norman) ? Franklin sets this series in medieval times in Britain, and her historical background–the reign of Henry II–is finely detailed. (The series–though often bloody, as were the times–is fun to read.) Her heroine is both feminist and (eventually) a devoted mother, not to mention a canny sleuth.

    It is an interesting point you raise about Heilbrun: what do we owe those we love most? And who love us in return? IF a perceived threat to our well being is in only the future and still conjectural, do we owe them our continued life? Do we owe them ANYTHING? Perhaps we should not judge Heilbrun’s decision, but I think it is not unreasonable to find it troubling.

    I think Carolyn Heilbrun invites this caveat because she has written a memoir–not a novel, but a series of personal essays– about her experience of aging (and Heilbrun, though brilliant, is never self-effacing about her wisdom). I think I wanted to protest a little against an idealization of Heilbrun as an intellectual and personal role model.

    (AFTER writing the above, I followed the link to your earlier and very moving testament to Heilbrun’s importance in your life. I have a feeling I may have been trampling on treasured ground. We don’t need to cross swords on it!)

    It is also interesting to wonder whether how a reader reacts to this book is a partly a function of age. (I am 70). I have many fewer “shoulds” in my life, thank heavens, and I wasn’t trying to apply a facile or dogmatic “should” to Heilbrun’s suicide. I grow less sure of everything as I grow older, not more dogmatic.

    Aside from Heilbrun, I wonder if you have written somewhere about your views on Edward Mendelson’s “The Things That Matter”? I’ve just finished that and wonder what you think of it.

  9. Susan Toth's Gravatar Susan Toth
    February 22, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I felt somewhat at sea with Mendelson’s reading of “Middlemarch,” and I’d love to know what you thought of it. I was very attracted to his reading of “Wuthering Heights,” though, which I actually haven’t read in eons, partly because he seemed to have understood it at a level I didn’t achieve. I hadn’t thought of his book as “self-help”, because I missed the marketing strategy you mention. How does he think his readings of these novels are going to be personally helpful, I wonder?

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