Courage or cowardice?

I love Carolyn Heilbrun’s quote, the one that inspired the title of this blog:

“Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged—desires that now seem possible. Women can catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.” ~ Carolyn Heilbrun, Last Gift of Time

However, I cannot read the quote without a twinge of sadness for the author’s final choice. She was one of the writers whose work I followed, starting with a book that strongly influenced me, Writing a Woman’s Life.

An academic feminist, Heilbrun inspired my generation with her critique of the patriarchy. She had long agreed with Virginia Woolf’s insistence women needed a room of their own, but in 1968 she went farther. She bought a house of her own, away from her loving marriage and “family togetherness”, a place where she “might sit in front of a fire and contemplate, meditate, conjure, and, if in need of distraction, read.”

Old Woman Reading Newspaper

Old Woman Reading Newspaper, photo courtesy of

Her suicide in 2003 was not a sudden response to long despair. She had decided long before to choose the time of her death. She wrote that the Biblical three score and ten was a long enough life.

At 77 she acted on her resolve, which she had put off to complete one project after another. The day started normally. She walked with Ann Caws, the art historian and literary critic with whom she had walked every week for 26 years. But this time she went home and pulled a plastic bag over her head. The note found beside her read simply, “The journey is over. Love to all.”

Heilbrun was not ill. She was not alone. She was in full command of her literary and intellectual powers. She was loved. She was admired. Her decision to die was coolly calculated, an intellectual exercise rather than the cry of an anguished soul. Or so it seems, to me as an outsider to her life, but also to those who were intimates.

Heilbrun might have lived another ten or even twenty years. She might have retained her faculties until the moment of her death. She might have written yet more works that would have inspired, provoked, delighted. She might have remained healthy until her death, not slipping into the loss of abilities, dementia and physical infirmities she attributed to aging.

Though a highly successful and admired intellectual and writer, Heilbrun was afraid to grow old. Was it courage, to pull the plastic bag over her head and die of asphyxiation, or was it cowardice in the face of the uncertain end toward which we all journey?

Examples of accomplished elders abound. As I write this, in June 2010, I think of some of my role models. Maya Angelou is 82. Helen Mirren turns 65 in July. Joni Mitchell’s 67th birthday is later this year. Gloria Steinem and Jane Goodall are 76. Louise Bourgeois was eighteen months shy of a century when she died a few days ago.

Heilbrun’s suicide does not affect my appreciation for her work. None of us can fully understand the workings of anyone else’s heart. We are all prey to fears and can never be completely free of the impacts of cultural stereotyping.

Still, for someone of her stature, in good health and with a sound mind, to choose death over aging is sobering. I can’t help but wonder if she would have made the same choice had she lived in a society in which elders are venerated.

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5 comments for “Courage or cowardice?

  1. Carol Mason
    June 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Whenever I am tempted to think of the paths that the years have etched, I reassure myself that I have deserved them all – for they have been acquired in the great gift of life that I have been given. So many in today’s world do not achieve “old age”. How lucky we are if we do, and how sad it is if we do not make the most of every moment that we have…for with each new day comes a new opportunity to make a difference,sharing what wisdom we have contemplated and incorporated into our being, encouraging about us those qualities which we have, by dint of experience, come to value. And what wrinkles or wearing of our external being can detract from that?
    It is true that society focusses its spotlight upon “youth”, to the unfortunate overlooking of life experience….but we have it within, that spirit, waiting to be expressed in order to make those difference. Love, Carol.

  2. June 2, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Beautifully expressed, Carol. I wake up every day with grey hair, wrinkles, and body parts that seem to have a mind of their own. And every day I am grateful.

  3. June 9, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    A very thoughtful response to this post can also be found on Story Route:

  4. June 22, 2010 at 8:09 am

    I was directed to this post after tweeting this article from my blog .
    I interviewed women from 45 to 102 in order to write my book Fifty& Fabulous The Best Years of a Woman’s Life and I realized during that process that great intelligence and great accomplishment does not necessarily guarantee peace with aging
    Our fear of aging is deep rooted and we have much work to do to keep the world ripe and abundant with women such as Louise Bourgeois.
    I am today in Kiev and I just saw one of Louise’s last pieces at the exhibit, Sexuality and Transcendence at the Pinchuk Art Centre. She was exploring the meaning of male and female relationships and expressing her message and medium until her last hours.
    I am inspired and excited about finding ways to encourage other women to see the opportunity and potential in their mature years

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