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Book Review

The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life by Ann Burack-Weiss

(Columbia University Press, 2015)

Reviewed by Donna Baier Stein

When visiting the home of a potential new friend, I often make a beeline to the bookshelf to determine how sympatico this person might be. My first dip into the pages of Ann Burack-Weiss’s astute book immediately assured me I’d found a wonderful new companion. She has gathered writings from authors who “lived large, long, and out loud”: Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, May Sarton, Colette, Doris Grumbach, Anais Nin, M.F.K. Fisher, and more. The women Burack-Weiss has chosen accompany her as sherpas traversing the rocky terrain of old age. Both their stories and her own are engaging and edifying.

Burack-Weiss has been a social work practitioner for four decades. From the beginning of her practice, she made the aged her client focus, partly, she confesses, so she could observe and acquire the practices, skills, and mindsets that might help her handle her own fear of aging.

And yet, when that time came—she is now in her mid-seventies—she “realized she had packed sneakers to climb Mount Everest.”

As she notes, those of us who reach old age have usually experienced a string of personal losses as well as a lessening of physical and mental abilities. Too often, the aged also find themselves isolated and lonely, and perhaps most intractable of all is our loss of the sense of the possible.

When Burack-Weiss confronts her own aging, she does so as a widow who misses the love and companionship of her husband. In her aloneness, she turns to other women who have travelled this path before her—quoting from more than a dozen autobiographies, memoirs, journals, and personal essays to find grace and even joy.

She augments their writings with her own experiences, both as a young social worker and as an educator at the Columbia School of Social Work. One of her early experiences is especially instructive. She describes going to visit an elderly woman who is blind and paralyzed, “…conditions that—to my young mind—seemed impossible enough to bear individually, inconceivable in combination.” And yet, the young social worker notes how, even though the 87-year-old woman she was visiting “was not immune to frustration or fear or lonely moments… she seemed able to overcome them by continuing a lifelong pattern, connecting her life with that of others.” In fact, even on her deathbed, the woman makes a point of telling Burack-Weiss and a minister how much she had wanted them to meet.

There was this “connecting thread—the sense of self that she carried into the present. It linked who she used to be with who she now was.” It’s this narrative thread—the story we tell ourselves about our lives or what Joan Didion calls “a narrative line”—that is key to successful aging, Burack-Weiss suggests. It is the story we tell ourselves about our selves—our relationship to our parents, to our bodies, to our place in the world—that sustains us.

Instead of despairing that all the good days are behind her, as Blythe Danner’s elderly character does in the recent movie I’ll See You in My Dreams, Burack-Weiss suggests that we find the dignity inherent in becoming a crone, a queen. She advises us to make our old age a powerful time of coming into our own authority.

It’s true that for some things it is too late. Women in particular lose their ability to seduce, at least in ways they did when the flesh didn’t droop. Too often, our culture inundates us with messages that urge us to hold on to youth as long as we can. To get that facelift, date that younger person. But no matter what anti-aging creams we use, no matter how disciplined our exercise routines, age will, again if we are lucky, outplay all.

This book couldn’t be more timely, both in my life and in the American culture. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in just 45 years, there will be 98 million older persons, more than twice what that population was in 2013. This aging of America will dramatically affect government policy and programs, housing, healthcare, and so much more.

As one among that cohort, I found The Lioness in Winter a wonderfully enlightening and important read about what lies ahead.

Burack-Weiss makes it clear that she did not want to succumb to the wail of too late, too late. After the death of her husband, Burack-Weiss turned to Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the death of that author’s husband John Gregory Dunne. She commiserates with the painful regrets expressed in that book. But when she goes to see Didion read in New York City, she wonders why Didion attempted to hide the frailty brought on by her own advancing years by refusing a wheelchair on stage or large print type to read from her work. Burack-Weiss asks, “…what would happen if we began to question assumptions about the inner and public life of old women—how we appear to ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world?”

In the end, it may well be our story-making capacity and our ability to “just show up,” to be present in our own lives that leads to successful aging. Another factor that may help, the book suggests, is turning our life into art, just as the writers quoted have done. “Getting oneself down on the canvas, like getting oneself down on the page, is work that occupies and sustains until the end of life.” Even if one isn’t an artist or writer, reading about those who are can sustain, and perhaps equally important, prepare.

Of course, the preparation must take place on two fronts: inner and outer. It’s not only how we see ourselves as we age but how society sees us as well.

“We live on,” Burack-Weiss writes. “The largest group of old women the world has ever known.”

A powerful cohort indeed. Just think what might happen if instead of holding up the bodies of nubile young women as the holy grail, our culture decided to honor the significant wisdom older women have to offer about life and how to live it. What a different, probably better, world this might be.


Donna Baier Stein was a founding poetry editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. She is the author of Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), Sometimes You Sense the Difference (chapbook), and the forthcoming The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN New England Discovery Award Winner). She founded and publishes Tiferet Journalwww.donnabaierstein.com