Planned Obsolescence

Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life

by Gail Sheehy
Dutton, 393 pp., $10.95

Psychiatric self-help, the twentieth century’s equivalent of “self-culture,” commends itself as the shortest road to health and happiness, at least for those who can’t afford regular visits to a psychiatrist. The market for books of psychiatric advice and consolation appears inexhaustible. The style of these manuals, however, has recently undergone a certain refinement. Exhortation has yielded to analysis, positive thinking to study of the laws of psychological development. The popularization of psychiatric jargon and concepts has created a half-knowledgeable readership that can no longer be satisfied with slogans and proverbs, formulas for winning friends and influencing people, injunctions to keep smiling.

The agreeable fiction that life begins at forty no longer invites a willing suspension of disbelief. We know too much about the “mid-life crisis” to find comfort in such pieties. Today we insist that our doctors tell us the worst; we find our chief comfort in the knowledge that others get the same diagnosis. Others share our fears, dread the prospect of aging as much as we do, and yet in some cases seem to have found means of psychic survival. We used to read about the rich and famous in order to learn and emulate the secrets of their success; now we also need to be reassured that they suffer the same anxieties, the same despair, the same fear of mirrors that afflict the lowly.

The principle that misery loves company—the more exalted the better—explains the current fascination with the “stages of life.” If life no longer begins at forty, at least a common fate awaits us all—a slow descent, the pains of which, according to the new psychological realism, cannot be eased by closing our eyes to the aging process. The only protection against the unpleasant facts of “development,” according to Gail Sheehy, is to look them squarely in the face. This is cold comfort compared to what used to be held out by the upholders of mind over matter, but it rests on better psychology and a more realistic understanding of human limitations.

Such at least is the reader’s first impression of Passages, one to which the book owes much of its success. Yet the impression of psychological realism is deceptive. At heart, Gail Sheehy believes in the power of positive thinking. She has too much sense of her audience, however, to try to convince us that youthful thoughts will keep us young. Indeed she deplores the cult of youth. Her approach to the “predictable crises of adult life” nevertheless continues the tradition of Mary Baker Eddy, Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale.

The book consists of material derived in part—some say, appropriated—from developmental psychologists like Erik Erikson and Roger Gould, in part from the author’s interviews with the affluent and educated. It offers the reader the knowledge that he is in the “good company,” as Sheehy puts it, of people with fictionalized names like Vanessa, Marabel, and Melissa—beautiful people who nevertheless experience the “trying twenties …

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