Erica Jong: Fearless at 64
In the final pages of Erica Jong’s new book, a dishy, wickedly irreverent, poignant memoir entitled Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, Jong tells us, “I cannot bear very much reality. I often wonder how people who don’t write endure their lives….Sometimes my funniest stories have come out of the blackest despair.” And so the reader alternately chuckles and weeps through Jong’s disjointed but piercingly honest recollections of her career highs and lows (from becoming a best-selling author of the widely acclaimed Fear of Flying in 1973 to instigating a failed lawsuit against Columbia Pictures on the grounds of fraud, leading to deep depression), her husbands (four of them), sexual escapades (a one night stand with Martha Stewart’s then-husband in Germany, among others), parenting problems (she accompanied her daughter, Molly, a teen cocaine addict, to rehab, pondering, “How can your children get so far away from where they started?”), her own struggle with alcohol abuse (“I have given up alcohol for years at a time and then drifted back to it”), and her elation at being a grandmother to a delightfully curious toddler named Max.
At 64, Erica Jong seems to be at the top of her game, as we sip tea in the dining room of her Manhattan apartment (she divides her time between here and Connecticut), Max’s high chair lovingly ensconced at the oversized round table, bold, original artwork peering down at us from all corners. Reminiscing about a three decade long career that has spawned nineteen books of poetry, fiction, and memoir, Jong talks about her early days at Barnard College, where she began as a budding painter (her grandfather was a painter) and took Zoology I in hopes of becoming a doctor. “But I couldn’t dissect the fetal pig…and the formaldehyde made me faint…So I went in tears to [freshman writing professor] Bob Pack, who said to me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be a poet.’” Jong credits the single sex, intimate environment at Barnard with nurturing her muse: “I had a lot of professors who recognized my gift in writing and encouraged me to continue.” Jong later founded the writing center at Barnard, endowing three fellows who provide a support system for their colleagues by helping them learn how to edit their writing.
Like the feminist heroine of her groundbreaking Fear of Flying, the feisty Isadora Wing, who for a generation of twenty-something women coined the catch phrase “zipless f___” to embody sex without emotional involvement, Erica Jong is getting older and more traditional in her life goals. She’s been married to her current husband, lawyer Ken Burrows, for 17 years, her daughter Molly is now a mother and published author in her own right, and many of her favorite moments are now spent crawling on the floor with Max. (“I crawl behind him on the rug in perfect bliss. He stops to inspect a toy and I stop to inspect it too. He makes up nonsense words and I make up nonsense words. Hours go by in a sort of trance,” she writes in Seducing the Demon.)
So it’s only fitting that Jong is working on a novel that revisits Isadore as “a woman in her fifties moving into her sixties…I want to talk about a woman’s life when she encounters the losses of late middle age, when friends start to get sick and die, parents are departing in various ways, usually very difficult ways, your kids are not babies anymore but their problems are bigger, and your marriage may be a good marriage but you’re facing the problems that come with failing health…I really want to put my heroine into a situation where all around her people leave her, and her life is diminished because she doesn’t have her own life …She’s taking care of everyone except herself!” Will that novel take up where “Fear of Fifty”, Jong’s self-proclaimed midlife memoir, left us in 1994? “I think I’m through with fear,” Jong laughs. “Two years ago, I lived through my father’s death. Once you’ve done that, there’s nothing to fear except that it will happen to you, and you hope it’ll happen fast, not slowly…I’m not so afraid of the future. I’ve accepted the future,” Jong adds on a quieting note.
One can only guess that Jong’s newfound calm lies in the hope that is embodied by her grandson, Max. Indeed, it is no coincidence that she ends Seducing the Demon with Max hard at play, entranced in a fantasy with his trains and toy animals. “The love of words is clearly in his genes,” writes Jong. “The story is not over yet.”#