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Tangled Lives: Daughters, Mothers, and the Crucible of Aging

Tangled Lives: Daughters, Mothers, and the Crucible of Aging by Lillian B. Rubin
Beacon Press, $23

If the word young is equated with being healthy and attractive, then the word old becomes, almost by necessity, associated with illness and rejection. Growing into an old woman is a challenging task. Nearing the final stage of life in a youth worshiping culture, many women find it painful to give up the self-image of being and feeling young.

Lillian Rubin, sociologist, psychotherapist and writer, candidly explores her own aging process. Hers in an intimate portrait, an introspective account of the author’s inner life, replete with dreams, childhood flashbacks and the poignant moments of the two years preceding her 75th birthday. She untangles and uncovers the deep connections between the present and the past, between early trauma and age-related anxiety.

Confronted with her aging mother’s dementia and subsequent death in a Florida nursing home, the author is prompted to examine the painful history of their unpleasant relationship. Born ten months after her parents and older brother arrived in this country from Kiev, Lillian grew up in excruciating poverty. Her father died when she was five; her mother, unskilled, illiterate and bitterly angry, managed to keep the family alive but not without constant rejections and deprivations. She favored her son and often threatened both children with placement in an orphanage.

Unlike so many mother-blaming accounts written by aging daughters, Ms. Rubin does not just offer a recital of the very real injuries inflicted by her mother. Instead, she goes further in trying to understand and explain the conditions of her mother’s life that might have contributed to such faulty mothering. She takes us into the exhausting, demeaning, and inhumane working conditions inflicted on her mother as a garment worker and the indignities of the pre-welfare, pre-labor working force.

In contrast, the author depicts a near perfect relationship with her own daughter, her husband, and her numerous close friends. Her journey into old age is indeed cushioned by their love and support. Ms. Rubin narrowly misses the two pitfalls of vilifying her mother and idealizing her spouse and daughter, but finally her portraits are multi-dimensional and more complex

Shortly after her mother’s death, Lillian survives a close brush with her own mortality. The fear of old age permeates the author’s days and nights as she recovers from a pulmonary embolism. Her approaching 75th birthday looms as a symbol of her own ambivalence and her anxiety about the uncertainties of old age. Moving back and forth between childhood and old age, Ms. Rubin examines the inner and outer forces that caused or permitted her to move out of the ignorance and poverty of her surroundings, to educate herself and to create a full and productive life. During her recovery, she puts the final touches on The Transcendent Child, a book about children who have achieved success by being able to cut themselves off from the paralyzing circumstances of their childhoods. She sees herself as such a child.

This reviewer would have welcomed some acknowledgment of the fact that this book does not intend to cover the field of aging mothers and daughters, as the title implies. It does not speak for the large number of aging women who have had close and loving relationships with their own mothers or those who have less satisfying encounters with their children or their spouses, nor does it address the broad range of possible responses to one’s own aging. Still, Tangled Lives is a moving and engrossing account of one woman’s rich and complicated adjustment to late life. Its strength lies in the particulars of a deeply examined life, in the depth and uniqueness of the author’s own story. Some aspects of this experience will reverberate with other women’s late life journeys; some will accentuate their differences.