This morning I saw it was announced that Heather Armstrong, an early blogger formerly known as Dooce, had died. She wasn't a friend. But we came out of that same milieu of early blogging, where someone telling unadorned stories of their lives could find themselves catapulted into a new and different kind of fame beyond just Internet notoriety.
It wasn't so long ago that Julie Powell, better known as the first half of Julie & Julia, died as well. It really feels like my cohort of bloggers Are Not Okay.
Last month I went back to Florida for a long weekend. Since selling off my father’s house, it is been a while since I returned, but one of the cousins who helped clean out the place was getting married, and she has always been a fun and cool person to hang out with, so.
I took the opportunity while I was there to visit with a few other people. On the morning of Orthodox Easter, I met up with an old friend, someone I've known since the age of 12. She lives in Orlando now but agreed to meet me in the small Greek sponging village of Tarpon Springs, where we shared a meal of spit roasted lamb, potatoes, and garlicky horta.
In the spare few hours we had, we talked about everything and nothing. Other people’s annoying children. Sick pets. Husbands. How much the place where we were born and raised, has changed, and how indescribably. How being brought up in Florida in the 1970s and coming back to it now feels like being a time traveler, trapped, trying to explain to people about the world as it was and the world as you thought it would be.
‘I consider myself to be a writer,’ my friend said. ‘Not a professional writer. But my skill set is telling a story.’ She works in part of law where this is very true. We talked about books I might write someday. Something about DeSantis and the evolution of late 20th century ideas of Florida. That Hamlet thing. Something on what it’s like to be formerly internet famous (‘But no one wants to read about that, I’m not a millennial, and it’s too depressing.’)
Sitting across the table from someone who on paper has achieved everything we thought we would do when we were younger - the house, the career, the family – could have been intimidating, but a thing about old friends is that they know who you really are in a way and Internet audience never can. They saw your evolution. They get to the heart of it.
Middle aged women really are not okay.
People handle this in different ways. Over the last decade, I have watched in quiet horror as one subset of women upon approaching menopause, decided to deal with the difficulty of advancing age by becoming a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF for a short. Heather played in that shallow pool. Gatekeeping the boundaries of that which objectively is slipping away from us every day, and, as Sylvia Plath put it, old age rising towards us from the mirror like a terrible fish.
I am fascinated by the question not only of how to transition elegantly into the declining slope of my life is a woman, but also how to do so when the first half of my life was so thoroughly documented for the appreciation of a faceless audience which, due to the level of access they had to random factoids about my life, feel they know me. How, in short, to be ex-famous.
People like Heather and Julie encountered difficulties with depression in the public sphere in a way that previous generations simply did not do. Oh, there were portraits of the sadness of women who were formerly famous. And they are universally unflattering like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane or Sunset Boulevard.
Even the baby boomers have not really left good documents on what to do with middle age, preferring instead to continue their lifelong project of self mythologizing in Hollywood output that paints feminine existence past the age of forty as a you-go-girl montage of neck bangs and shopping (First Wives Club) or visceral revenge on disappointing men (She-Devil). Instead of holding out a hand to us they get facelifts and toy boys and pretend everything is A-OK even when it obviously is not.
There is a certain pressure when you are someone who has put so much of yourself online to keep the narrative going. Everyone loves a redemptive arc!
Pulling out your own insides for content is a double edged sword. Talking about mental health in public can help others, but it doesn’t always help you, because the support of readers is not the same as the support you really need to survive. It’s nice to hear from fans! It’s lovely! It also is not the thing that makes me get out of bed in the morning and decide to live another day. Knowing other people go through what you are going through is valuable, but it is not the same as accepting it. That’s work that happens in the dark and on your own.
At the same time, when that public attention goes? Wow. It’s a deep hit. Some people will do anything to keep that spotlight from disappearing, with varying results.
God, how I wish I had been able to stay anonymous. Once you are seen it is impossible to disappear - except by the most final way. And when you are notorious or famous? The only person you disappear for is yourself. Everyone else gets to pore over the remains.
The pitiable character of Norma Desmond in Sunet Boulevard, by the way, was written to be the impossibly ancient age of 50. The age I will be two years from now.
And Sylvia Plath, who wrote so startlingly about the experience of watching yourself grow old? She died at the age of thirty.
Plath did not live to tell us what’s on the other side of the mirror. Heather and Julie didn’t, as well. These are the peers, the voices I would have wanted to seek when I also struggle with how to live a life after The Big Thing Has Happened, and how to do that when there are still people watching. You can do what I did and move to an off-grid smallholding in the middle of nowhere and people are still watching. Letters from strangers still turn up from time to time. People still migrate from one platform to another to glean silly details from my life to print in the Daily Mail.
You can seize on controversial trends in an ever more desperate attempt at relevance, and I’ve lost count of the number of writers of my generation who decided to do exactly that, both alive and dead (the aforementioned TERFs in particular). It’s ugly and it speaks to base fears, almost all of which come back to the inevitability of death.
The only person I can easily identify who models in public the struggle of how to deal with intrusive fame, and what to do when it goes, is someone who only by a slender margin predates the blog era: Monica Lewinsky.
She may not have risen to public knowledge because of putting her life online, but the press did that for her. Streaming and liveblogging did not exist and yet the details were pulled out day by day, a,omst hour by hour, on a timeline we would now recognise as something from the Internet era alone. Reporters and readers alike pored over every detail of her existence until it became an almost unbearable burden. The fact that she is still with us, putting her face in public, talking about her depression and grief and process of moving past the things we all think we know - that’s incredibly rare and inspiring, but also frightening and tough, because she almost didn’t make it, and you can do all the work in the world and you might not make it.
(The great thing about staying alive, I have found, is that it becomes far more difficult for people to paint you however they want when you’re dead. And this is doubly true when the thing you’re famous for is sex.)
As someone who has worked extensively in the death industry, the concept of aging and death is far from unfamiliar to me. Indeed, the alternative to growing old is dying young, which is not a superb outcome. Everyone dies and that is the way of the world. Though as perhaps I have documented in this substack through the lens of my father’s death, not everyone dies well, and the individual circumstances of a death like his, or Heather’s, or Julie’s can be rounded into the problems we encounter when the individual experiences run straight up against worldly realities.
The vast gulf between what we hoped our lives would be, and what they actually turned out to be is expressed for me most beautifully by Philip Larkin in Dockery and Son:
Where do these / Innate assumptions come from? Not from what / We think truest, or most want to do: / Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style / Our lives bring with them: habit for a while, / Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got / And how we got it; looked back on, they rear / Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying / For Dockery a son, for me nothing, / Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.
I have no answers to the question. I have spent most of the last decade grappling with the thought that, even though I spent most of my life training to be a scientist, and call myself a scientist, it is something I possibly will never do again. And that the career which fell into that vacuum, the career of being a writer, is also on the way out. Looking in the mirror and seeing the terrible fish is by the by when I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and in fact, how the world will remember me if at all has already been decided.
When I was younger I used to take comfort that at some point billions of years from now, when the sun has grown large enough to swallow the earth, humans will long since have ceased to exist upon it. Therefore no mistake you make is so great that it won’t be forgotten. The freedom of obscurity! And indeed, I find the idea of the desperate effort to try to send ourselves to Mars, and from there, presumably further into space, horrifying. All of the choices you could have made, all of the things you never did, and never will happen, pales in insignificance next to what is functionally eternal, and that is the amount of time after which we no longer are.
I find it harder to connect with that strange optimism now because of how much of online life seems dedicated to actively creating a dystopia of sending rich morons into space so that they can propagate our ridiculous species forever. And the thought that somewhere so many years from now, long past when it will be relevant or kind, someone might still be updating the audience on who we were, how we lived, and in what pitiable or ridiculous or unremarkable circumstances we eventually died.
Great piece, as usual
You write so perceptively on your own situation and link it, movingly, to that of other women of your generation that this piece ought to come with a 'time for reflection required' warning.
Never doubt your exceptional talent.
Signpost from a baby boomer slipping out the back door of middle age as you're approaching the front - the zen art of gently letting go can ease your latter years considerably.