Gail Sheehy
Gail Sheehy

Fellowship Title:

Where Have I Been?
Where Am I?
Where Am I Going?

Gail Sheehy
December 10, 1973

Fellowship Year

Sixty million Americans listen to him every evening give an account of the world. They take from him their daily minimum requirement of composure. He is a star, a television newscaster, and a face better known than that of our Secretary of Defense. He can afford to tan it in Barbados on an income nearly ten times the peak of his father’s earnings — his father rarely had the wherewithal to get out of the Bronx. He can tint out the gray in his hair, tone up the muscles of middlescence on the most exquisitely devised exercise tables in Manhattan, take out the woman of his choice to dinner at “21,” and take back any traces of psychic discomfort to a Park Avenue psychiatrist. Today he has been asked to sit for a portrait. It will hang with the likenesses of two dozen other men and women in an exhibition of the most prominent members of his profession. The portrait is just another testimony by which the world is telling him, at the age of 46, that he has placed near the top of the heap.

It is not enough.

“I’m near the top of the mountain that I saw as a young man, and it’s not snow. It’s mostly salt,” he blurts in the studio. As if anticipating that in the process of rendering his facade the artist would discover these internal truths anyway, he rushes on:

“Most guys I talk with who are successful — whatever the hell successful is — left their personal lives way behind them. They stopped growing at age 12 or 14 when they were overcome with the crying ambition to do some thing. Professionally, they’re terrific, but their personal lives are in a mess. There should have been concomitant growth, and there wasn’t. The idea now is to bring both of them together — that is the struggle.”

This confession brought forth a general lament: adults have kept the experience of adulthood largely a secret. Child development studies have given us a handy title for every change from the “terrible twos” to the “noisy nines.” Adolescence is understood as a period of human growth through which everyone must pass, no matter how stormy or temporarily shattering, before one can put together one’s own ship of life and embark on young adulthood. But after the age of 21, except to tend to our gradual physical decay, most medical and social scientists have left us to fend for ourselves on the way downstream to senescence. Where are the guidelines on how to get through the Trying Twenties? The Forlorn Forties? His age group, the newscaster noted angrily, has never been studied.

“You see, now I’m getting ready for the day when I get kicked off that salt-capped mountain.” He held out his hands, indoor hands, manicured for a life predicated on picking his way to the top as a performer, but empty of a map for descending the other side with spirit instead of despair.

“I want to have a goal and somebody to share it with who will bolster me on the way down,” the TV celebrity said, punctuating his painful admission with a mock tough-guy laugh, “because I’m going to need a little help.”

1897. Tompkins ColIection, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This man was asking the same questions which bedeviled Gauguin at 49, years after he abandoned his family and career as a prosperous Parisian stockbroker at 35 and became the central painter in the Symbolism movement by the age of 41. Even the sexual elixirs and non-material primitivism of Pago Pago failed to release the artist from that reckoning with conflicting visions of himself, with which he titled his triple-length oil: Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Go We?

Detail, D'ou Venons Nous…Que Sommes Nous…Ou Allon Nous? by Paul Gauguin.
Detail, D'ou Venons Nous…Que Sommes Nous…Ou Allon Nous? by Paul Gauguin.

Up until the last year, when the terms “mid-life crisis” and “male menopause” passed into the language as a result of new studies in progress, the only professional help in decoding, adult life came from psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson. He has described three stages of adulthood, deciphering the gross task to be mastered in each period if the healthy personality is to proceed, but leaving the age brackets undefined.

Intimacy is the key word for the first stage. Before one can establish real intimacy with a mate, or any other person, one must have developed a reasonable sense of identity. Marriage often short-circuits young people’s work on themselves as they slip under a grid, of obligations to act as they “should” as spouses and parents. Most researchers agree that the fuse of mid-life marital explosion is lit in the early 20s for those who fail to achieve genuine intimacy.

Generatively is Erikson’s next criterion for continued growth of the healthy adult. This is the interest in establishing the next generation, by becoming a parent, and in guiding it by means of altruistic teaching and “fathering” of younger associates in general. Adults who miss out altogether on the enrichment of generatively, Erikson emphatically warns, will lapse into stagnation and often begin to indulge themselves as if they were their own only child.

The final stage of ego integration requires the swallowing of a bitter but requisite pill: the acceptance of this as one’s own and only life cycle. By giving up the wish that one’s parents were different and by navigating through various life styles to that point of dignity worth defending, one can achieve what Erikson calls integrity. To stop short of this final challenge will plunge most individuals into despair, fear of death and a chronic contempt for certain people and institutions, which only substitute for the person’s contempt of himself.

Granted the work of adult life is not easy. The wish to stop the world and get off is perennial. With his next words, the newscaster expressed a commonly felt longing:

“Where is that point when all of a sudden my back goes up and — ” he smacked a fist against his palm, ” — I become rigid and I don’t grow? How much growth is there in a human? Is there a point at which you stop and smile to yourself and say, ‘This is my lifestyle, I’m content?'”

Had his question been submitted to Yale psychologist Daniel J. Levinson, the answer would have been — there is no stopping point. A man’s life structure is in constant evolution over the course of adulthood. There are periods when a particular structure is forming, when it is breaking up and reforming, and when it is relatively stable. Many changes can take place within a period, but there is a shift from one period to the next only when a person begins working, at new tasks of development. And no life structure, according to the Yale researcher, lasts longer than seven years.

Levinson’s intensive four-year study of men’s lives has led him to conclude that crisis is good, coasting is not. He and his team are biographers rather than statistic-seekers. Working with forty men in four different occupations, their approach has been to interview and reconstruct a man’s life over a period of years rather than at one point only. They also make use of biographies, novels and plays. The object has been to develop a theory about adult development, which amplifies on Erikson’s work. The major difference is that Levinson defines six developmental periods between the years of 18 to 45 and assigns a clearly demarcated age span to each. This is probably the most controversial aspect of his work. He proposes that the periods follow not only an ordered sequence, but that there is a fairly narrow range of variation between the age at onset, the duration, and the age at termination of each period.

(Terms are easily confused in this infant field of study. Mid-life transition is not to be confused with male menopause. The mid-Iife transition Dr. Levinson talks about falls between the ages of 39 and 43, while the male climacteric colloquially known as “male menopause” is a collection of physiological and psychological symptoms associated with hormonal changes that occur in some men between 45 and 60.)

Enthusiastic, good-humored, shy, slowly thoughtful and naturally generative — these are the qualities I felt radiating from the Yale psychologist during our many conferences. Although he is only a few years older than the TV anchorman quoted here, the difference in the grip they have on their lives could be felt as distinctly as the difference between a firm handshake and a vague wave from a train platform. For one thing, Levinson, at 52, has passed through the fire hoops of the 40s and is enjoying the equilibrium restored to those who reach this stage with their life homework done. For another, Levinson knows what to expect and expects what he knows. In each period he studies a person’s life structure in both its external and internal aspects. What kind of work he does and his various roles and memberships in family life and society are the external aspects: the ways he participates in the world. The internal aspects concern the meanings this participation has for him. What are the satisfactions and limitations? What values are reflected or violated in his present life structure?

To the newsman, the meaning of his membership in the hierarchy of “successful” TV performers had changed completely over the years between 39 and 43, the period Levinson calls “mid-life transition.” His marriage of 21 years-a marriage he had hoped would last for 50 — came apart. He realized he had never put enough of himself into it. He began another task of the 40s to acknowledge the feminine in himself — which came hard for a former city street kid who was bottle-fed on machismo. “We get accused of being ungiving and selfish, untender and ungentle, and we’re not all those things,” he felt compelled to explain that day in the artist’s studio. “The other side never got a chance to grow because nobody concentrated on it; all we heard about was drive, success, work — ” By the illustration he then gave, it was apparent he was trying, at 46, to be comfortable in letting out these new feelings: “I can go out on a city street and yell at the top of my lungs I hate you, you s.o.b.! and nobody will turn around, right? But get out there and start yelling I love you! and fifteen people will stop in their tracks as if I just held up a bank.” He smacked a fist against his palm again. “That’s not right!”

His sense of himself in the world then, in the early 40s, was shaken on all sides at once. He was plunged into that de-illusionment chamber from which the rare man can escape without facing up to the gap between the vision of himself in his 20s, and the actuality of his arrival at 40.

Whatever his occupation, the affirmation a man has or has not accrued by 40 tells him in what league he can expect to play out his life. Yes, he is en route from “promising novelist” to becoming a clearly defined writer. Or perhaps he must settle for being a dull but steadily paid hack. No, he will not become a full professor at M.I.T., but he might by adjusting down to a smaller university. Or yes, he has been made plant foreman or branch manager — but what looked on the way up like fulfillment now feels like a rut.

Even when he has not objectively fallen short of his goal, like the TV anchorman who reached his peak in the early 4Os with a slot on the evening network news, he must generally wrestle with incoherent feelings of futility. “Was it worth it?” he asks, in the same moment believing that whatever the answer it is too late to change.

man in box

Along with the job blahs come the physical panics. The first friend dies of cardiac arrest on the tennis court or his wife is operated on for breast cancer. Suddenly ordinary headaches become imagined brain tumors and any lymph node feels malignant. When a parent contracts a terminal illness — who is next? The 40-yearold man is abruptly flung to the back of the generational train, followed only by his own children, who have overnight become the mirrors of his own old age. He finds himself at once father to his own dying parent as well as to his distance-seeking children.

Death, like a job loss or a divorce, is a “marker event” in Levinson jargon. It is not the event itself which may send the individual into a turmoil, but the combined effect of the event and the point at which it bisects his own developmental scheme. If he is on the brink of a new transition, the blow will hit harder. If he has safely bridged a transition and is enjoying the relative safety on the other side, a marker event may more easily be taken in stride.

It is a paradox of our increased longevity that the psychic shock of sympathetic death is so much more severe. As Margaret Mead points out, “Today there are a tremendous number of people who experience death for the first time with a parent’s passing when they themselves are 35 to 40; this is altogether new in the world.” The anthropologist also posits that the major life crisis of middle age for men is when their daughters marry. “Then they feel what they have always suspected-that they’re out of the competition — and they look for an outside outlet for their crisis. The cheapest and easiest is a new wife.”

The terror and the fury felt by “old” wives, and anticipated by married women on approaching the “age of abandonment,” has only begun to find a common voice. Eccentric behavior due to a change of life has been traditionally ascribed only to women. The good-natured husband, whose “life review” begins at 40 and some time thereafter throws him into fierce mood swings — unfathomable depressions, self-doubts, fatigue, rage at the constrictions of his family, giddiness in the presence of young girls and stark terror at the decline in his sexual authority — this man was simply assumed to be suffering from my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me disease. Thus when The New York Times ran an article in 1973 asking “Is There a Male Menopause?” and describing such symptoms as common, hundreds of letters flooded in from women whose marriages were already among the midlife body count. Many signed their letters “Name Withheld,” but their scars showed big as life:

Unfortunately doctors, psychiatrists, men in general, have kept it all under the rug, where they have swept it themselves. They are in terror of acknowledging a condition which affects their behavior beyond control, but which they readily ascribe to women without mercy. They cannot even talk about it among themselves.

The “Name Withheld” who authored that letter, had she read about male menopause when her husband went through vivid climacteric changes at 46, said she would not have turned hopelessly to divorce.

One of the key issues in mid-life crisis, Levinson acknowledges, is the couple crisis. “To what extent does the man in his 20s invent the woman he can love, if the psychologist wonders, “and to what extent does he transform her? At 40, when he’s in struggle with new feminine feelings in himself [and when he wants to relate to a woman much less as Mother and far more as a Lover and Companion], he often projects these feelings on his wife — calling her castrating, depriving, oppressive. She doesn’t appreciate what is really important. She is not a soul figure.

“His experience of the crisis is: She’s going along in the same old rut, meaning he can’t find a way to tell her because she doesn’t want to know.

“Her experience of the crisis is: He doesn’t talk to me anymore, meaning she would like to know but he can’t seem to tell her. Both things are operating.”

It was by way of seeking to understand the whirlpool he himself had been through that decided Dan Levinson at the age of 46 to study the mid-life decade. Erikson had been a teacher of his at Berkeley when Levinson was studying for his doctorate in psychology. For some men passing 40, he has decided, renewal takes the form of getting a new occupation. For others, the renewal comes not by changing the category, but what he does within his occupation and the meaning that has for him. And so for Levinson personally, the shift of direction into this project has accomplished two purposes: it coincided with his getting past the mid-life transition and it is partly giving shape to the stable period, which follows.

“If a man goes through a relatively bland period when mid-life transition is going on,” he believes, “it will limit his growth.”

And so Levinson’s study grew with him. He vaguely wanted to place the mid-life decade (35 to 45) in a larger cycle. He didn’t anticipate he would stretch it to encompass the thirty-seven years from age 18 to 45. But since the way an individual attacks or ignores the tasks of any given period gives shape to the period, which follows, Levinson felt he had to begin where a man crosses the boundary from adolescent life to entry into the adult world. He and his team of five researchers now propose the following developmental periods in the life course of men:

Leaving the Family (age 18-22 — plus or minus 3 years in each stage)

This is a transitional period on the border between family and another home base of one’s own, where one will exist in a larger world as an adult and not as a child in the parents’ home. The task is to make that transition.

Getting, Into the Adult World (22-28)

One is now more in the adult world than in the family and is exploring and building the first adult structure-very tentative, but a structure. Major tasks are to give form to a dream of self-in-the world, to find a mentor who will support the young man’s dream and assist him in putting, it into effect, and to find a loved woman who will help to define and carry the dream.

Age Thirty Transition (age 28-32)

One makes important choices in marriage and occupation, either to deepen commitments or to reject the life one spent much of the 20s putting together.

Settling Down (age 32-39)

Life becomes less provisional. He joins a tribe and sets up a timetable for pursuing long-range plans and goals. The second phase, which occurs in the middle-to-late 30s, is so distinctive as to rate its own name: Becoming One’s Own Man, or BOOM. The tasks of Boom are to find one’s own voice as a senior member of one’s enterprise and to prune the dependent ties to bosses, mentors, critics and a wife.

Mid-Life Transition (age 39-43)

As described, this is the time one faces the gulf between youthful dreams and actual fulfillment, or its lack. The feeling is one of suspended animation. It requires re-working the dream and finding ways to connect parts of the self, which were not provided for in the old life structure. One of these newly discovered parts is the feminine in himself.

Restabilization and Entry into Middle Age (age 43-47)

Before this period is out a new stability is achieved, which may be more or less satisfying. If a man has met the self-confrontation of his early 40s and done the work of forging a new life structure, he may well feel renewed. If he stayed put through mid-life transition, the crisis will emerge again to pinch around 50.

For all its agonies of self-renewal, the passage into middle life is a triumphant journey for those who don’t lose themselves along the way. Another long-term study of men’s lives conducted at Harvard, the Grant Study, concluded that the men who ranked on overall adult adjustment (derived from thirty-two career, social, psychological and medical variables) as least adapted at middle age, longed for the routinized calm of their occupational apprenticeship before the turning point of 35, and viewed the middle of life as unhappy. The best-adapted men, however, counted the period from 21 to 35 as their unhappiest. The happiest period in their lives, as they saw it, were the years from 35 to 49.

Nothing succeeds like success. If development does indeed proceed throughout adult life, and if change is essential for development, and crisis is often the precursor to change, then this is the best wish I could leave with the TV newscaster:

With luck, the mid-life crisis will not be his last.

Received in New York on December 10, 1973

©1973 Gail Sheehy

Gail Sheehy is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner on leave from New York Magazine. This article may be published with credit to Ms. Sheehy, New York Magazine, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.