In 1938, as Europe trembled before the likelihood of war, Alfred Hitchcock directed The Lady Vanishes, a comic thriller shadowed by grim reality. It takes place on a train where all the characters are crossing the continent when one of them mysteriously disappears - a woman described by a fellow passenger as "middle-aged and ordinary." She wrote her name in the condensation on a window but it quickly evaporated. The other characters nervously try to puzzle out her identity. Their determination results in a happy ending.
The Lady Vanishes is for sure a Hitchcock masterpiece, but lately it's also been used as a metaphor in discussions of real-life women and their problems -- their loneliness, their failure to find roles, their sense of being forgotten, ignored or isolated. It was cited recently when the Atlantic magazine ran an article called The Invisibility of Older Women.
Being invisible is unsettling for many women who reach their 60s or 70s. In youth and middle age they were clearly identifiable, but in their latest stage they tend to vanish into the crowd. They complain about their trouble being served in a store or a restaurant. They may feel totally absent. They yearn to be noticed, as they expected to be during the first half-century of their lives.
A widely exhibited American artist, Patsy Carroll, calls a series of her paintings and her book Anonymous Women (Daylight Books), in which she uses everything from curtains to wallpaper to hide her female subjects -- whom she considers victims of domesticity. She calls her paintings "unportraits."
These themes have lately become the focus of media attention -- online, on paper, on radio and in bookstores. The how-to manuals focus on attitude, and how attitudes (good or bad) are spread by mass media. Carl Honoré, in his recent book, Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives (Knopf Canada), tells his readers that "When older people are ignored or dished up as caricatures, aging becomes anathema to everyone."
Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist in Nebraska, offers solutions in her new book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing As We Age (Bloomsbury). In 1994 she wrote a best-seller, Reviving Ophelia, on issues faced by adolescent girls. Now she's writing about her own generation (she's 71), for women who are moving into old age.
When she told friends she was writing a book on older women "like us," one of them protested, "I am not old." She meant she didn't feel like the cultural stereotypes of old women. Now Pipher writes, "Ideas about old women are so toxic that almost no one will admit she is old." Women's bodies and sexuality are devalued, she says. "We are denigrated by mother-in-law jokes, and we're rendered invisible in the media. Yet, most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage."
Their happiness apparently comes from self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and empathy for others. Pipher does her good-natured best to explain how her readers can acquire those qualities while navigating the "last stretch of the river with its treacherous currents." In this developmental stage, there are challenges. "We are unlikely to escape great sorrow for long. Those of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss. In fact, this pendulum between joy and despair is what makes old age catalytic for spiritual and emotional growth."
We have learned, she says, to look every day for humour, love and beauty. "We've acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering." Pipher demonstrates that a how-to book can be written with eloquence and commitment. The women she describes have earned the right to be both present and accounted for.