“There’s an interesting story in the paper today about aging,” said my partner yesterday morning. He and I and I are inveterate fans of the Sunday New York Times Style section, where the lead story was that of Bob Bergeron, a therapist in New York whose suicide at 47 had taken everyone by surprise.
Described as “relentlessly cheery,” Bergeron had friends and family, financial security, and no history of depression. Extraordinarily beautiful as a young man, he believed that “every gay man peaks at one point in his life” — in his case, his thirties. Nearing 50, he’d written a self-help guide called The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. In his suicide note, next to an arrow pointing to the title page of the manuscript, he wrote, “It’s a lie based on bad information.”
My first take, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that this wasn’t a story about aging: the poor guy hadn’t gotten anywhere near old age. A materialist as well as a narcissist, he was new to struggles of the writing life and alone on New Year’s Eve — not a good combination. Then I came to my senses. Bergeron’s story has everything to do with aging: aging-past-youth, that is. I first encountered the term in Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Agewise, a searing indictment of our society’s one-sided depiction of aging-past-youth as decline. She writes, “The entire decline system — innocent absorption of cultural signals, youthful age anxiety, middle-ageism, ageism — infiltrating our society from top to bottom, is increasingly a threat to psychological well-being, . . . the pursuit of happiness, and the fullest possible experience of life itself.”
It’s hard not to conceive of some or all of these factors at work in Bergeron’s premature death. The suicide is particularly ironic in view of his attempt to challenge that narrative with his book, described by a mentor as about “what to do when you’re not attractive or you no longer have the appeal you once had. The idea was to transcend that and expand your sexual possibilities.” Belonging to a subculture that fetishizes physical beauty and sexual prowess did Bergeron no favors. His greater tragedy, though, was to inhabit a world so bereft of alternative narratives that dread overtook him. Our tragedy is that his voice will never join those of the many age scholars at work on a more nuanced, uplifting, and accurate picture of life on the far side of 40.