'Scary Old Sex': Stories Of Love From The Aged
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There are some graphic sex scenes in Arlene Heyman's new collection of short stories, "Scary Old Sex." But they're mostly from the point of view of people in their 60s and 70s for whom sex is still fulfilling but requires some effort and planning. Viagra may be necessary, certain positions can aggravate arthritis, death is in the background or foreground of several stories. A remarried woman compares her husband with her late husband. A woman watches her husband decline as he's treated for leukemia. A 68-year-old woman watches her 99-year-old mother lose her faculties.
One of the stories is dedicated to the late writer Bernard Malamud and draws on the affair Heyman had with him when she was a student and he was middle-aged and married. The affair lasted a couple of years. Their friendship lasted until his death. "Scary Old Sex" is Heyman's first book, but she's been writing throughout her life. She's a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who lives and works in Manhattan.
Arlene Heyman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to start with a reading, and this is from one of the stories in your book. And there's a couple who are on a cruise. They've each been married before. They each have children and grandchildren through previous marriages. They haven't had any children together. And they haven't had any sex since the cruise started. Would you do the reading?
ARLENE HEYMAN: Certainly. (Reading) They have not made love since they started the cruise a week ago and she was too rushed and tense the week before getting ready. Not that frequency matters, so long as they care about each other, and making love helps them care about each other. Although, since they started having to schedule it in, it has become a little like brushing and flossing - something almost hygienic, good for you.
Yet, there is passion in it, too. It erupts right out of the schedule. You do it with regularity to show you are a human being, that you are alive and civilized and can still become ecstatic. You can still do it. You still want to do it. And it is, after all, a sign of love. And the repetition of it, the making of it into a weekly habit, like phoning their children and speaking to the grandchildren, the lovemaking grafts them to one another, comingles them, despite their having no children together. And besides, after 10 years of doing it, it is a reliable pleasure.
Eleven years - it is not as though they met yesterday and are trying to figure out will this work? He is a permanent part of her, of her life. But it is the daily familiarity with her husband's body she is missing, the handling of his old, knobby flesh. Aged flesh is so fertile, grows excrescences, papules, papillomas, skin tags, moles that have to be checked yearly.
Yet, the hair thins out, underarm and pubic, as if the soil had changed to one that no longer supports that verdant shrubbery but instead nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms. Beautiful, if you have an eye.
GROSS: How old are these characters, Arlene?
HEYMAN: I think the woman may be 65 and the man 70. Well, one could be 70 and one 75 - I think 65 and 70.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about what sex is like, what naked bodies are like when you've gotten older?
HEYMAN: Why not? That's part of life. If you're lucky you get older and then you have sex with old bodies, stuff that's terribly interesting. People don't write about that much. I'm sure they have their reasons, but I want to see everything there is to see and I'm 74, so I want to see.
GROSS: Do you think more older men have written about sex than older women? And I think a lot of those books by older male novelists, the person who they are in love with is often a younger woman, so they're often describing sex with a much younger and beautiful woman.
HEYMAN: Old men - I think it is true that some writers - male writers - have written old women off. Their loss. You have a person in front of you that has a whole life. And to me that's very interesting. So yeah, there's a whole landscape of male writers who want women 30 years younger, but I don't think that's what the average man wants. He wants a companion, someone who knows things that he knows, who's lived through things he's lived through.
And if you love someone, you don't just cut that off when a person hits 40. What are you then? So I think it's - comes some kind of aberration. I think maybe - I don't like to psychoanalyze writers if I don't know them...
GROSS: That's right, if you're not their - if they're not your patient (laughter).
HEYMAN: If they're not my patient I can't - but maybe it's some sense that as people become their mother's age and old women are their mother's age they become even more taboo. Maybe only a young woman will distract them from thinking about their mothers.
It's a problem in marriages. Sometimes people are very active sexually before marriage. Then they get married and immediately the interest dies out because it's as if you've become your parents, and that's a kind of taboo situation. So there may be that some of these old male writers have a taboo against being with a woman their own age. Then they're the couple.
When they were little boys, they wanted to get into that couple and separate that - be part of it, not be left out. But it's also frightening and forbidden to be part of that couple. And maybe I'm just trying to imagine why would a 70-year-old man want a 40-year-old woman - a 30-year-old woman - and eliminate - a 70-year-old woman is a horror. A naked - 70-year-old woman naked is a horror. That's weird.
GROSS: I'm thinking you're a Freudian analyst?
HEYMAN: Yes. How could you tell?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Arlene Heyman, and her new collection of short stories is called "Scary Old Sex." One of your stories is dedicated to the late writer Bernard Malamud and the story is drawn from a real-life experience that you had. You were lovers with him for, I think, two years while he was married. He had two children. And then the affair ended, but your friendship continued till his death in - was it 1986, 1984?
HEYMAN: I think it was '86. But I'm not 100 percent sure.
GROSS: He died in his early 70s. I'd like you to do a brief reading from that story. And in the story, the female character, Leda, is a 19-year-old undergraduate art student. And Murray, who is a very successful painter in his late 40s - Murray is married to a woman named Sigrid. They have a couple of children together, and Leda and Murray are having an affair.
HEYMAN: (Reading) How a man, who never changed a stroke of his painting to please anyone, managed to live a double life she didn't know. He seldom spoke about his wife, to protect her - which her? She believed he rarely slept with Sigrid. Once he let slip that she complained about his bad breath. Leda sniffed prodigiously but detected nothing. Although Leda imagines Sigrid accepted him dutifully when he dutifully offered himself.
Unasked, Murray told Leda twice that he would never leave his wife. Her mother had died when she was 4 and Murray did not think she could survive another abandonment. Hey, my father died when I was 12, she thought to say - but didn't. She wasn't sure why. He also told her that in the 28 years since he'd met Sigrid, he'd never loved anyone as much as he loved Leda.
What Murray did not tell Leda, although she had half-intuited it, was that he was afraid of her, of her dissatisfactions with herself, of her inability to organize herself, commit herself to her work in the thoroughgoing way. He feared that he might somehow be undone if he married her - his ability to concentrate destroyed. She was hurt that he didn't ask her, although she half-believed she had never really thought about marrying him herself. He was 51 now and had liver spots on his hands and was growing ever more orderly.
Was she a groupie? Yes. But truth was he was the best company she'd ever known. Going to a gallery with him was like seeing with five eyes - her two, and his three. He was the background music of her life and the foreground music, although she knew she should be her own foreground music.
GROSS: That's my guest Arlene Heyman reading from her collection of stories "Scary Old Sex." So I'd like to talk with you a little bit about your relationship with Bernard Malamud, who was of course famous for writing books like "The Assistant," "The Natural," "The Fixer." You were how old when you had an affair with him?
HEYMAN: Nineteen - until 21.
GROSS: So in the story that you just read from, the character Leda becomes the painter's muse. He paints her nude. She's an inspiration to him, you know, in his artwork and of course in his life and in bed (laughter). Were you Malamud's muse in any way? Was he your mentor?
HEYMAN: He was a mentor - probably my main mentor. The Leda character is painting, too. She's an aspiring artist. I was writing all the time. I was writing at 19. In fact, I - since I knew you were going to ask me about him - I brought in some stories of mine that I'd written in 1961 - so I was 19 - with his comments all over them. So my writing was a very important part of our relationship, as certainly his writing was. And that's an important part of this young woman in this story, that that's what she aspires to do.
As for being his muse - a book that he wrote after our erotic relationship was finished - but we went on being friends, you're right, until he died - was "Dubin's Lives." I'm not sure what date that was written, but it probably was at least 15 years after our affair was over. And in that book, there's a biographer and he's married and he has an affair with a young woman. And I am the model, it seems to me, for that character.
In fact, he had me send him his letters to me. I'd kept all his letters to me. He'd kept my letters to him. And he was looking them over while writing that book. Also, he was reading me sections of it as he would write it. He would - we'd be on the phone, or I'd go by his apartment and he'd read me parts of it. It's a beautiful book.
GROSS: My guest is Arlene Heyman, author of the new collection of short stories, "Scary Old Sex." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is psychiatrist and writer Arlene Heyman. She's written a new collection of short stories called "Scary Old Sex." One of the stories is dedicated to the late writer Bernard Malamud. When he left off, we were talking about the affair she had with him when she was one of his students at Bennington College. He was then a middle-aged married man with two children.
When we left off, we were talking about Malamud's novel, "Dubin's Lives," which has a character modeled on Heyman. In the book, the main character is a biographer. And the biographer, in talking to the young woman in the book - the young woman who's his lover - says, (reading) what stays with me most from the biography as I write is that life is forever fleeting, our fates juggled heart-breakingly by events we can't foresee or control, and we are always pitifully vulnerable to what happens next. Therefore, what the poets say about seizing the day, dear Fanny, is incredibly true. If you don't live your life to the hilt or haven't for whatever reason, you will regret it, especially as you grow older, every day that follows.
And then they kiss. I think it's for the first time that they kiss after that. And I read that, and I thought, yeah you're going to regret the things that you didn't do, and you're going to regret some of the things that you did do. And this might be one of those things that you regret. I mean, you know, having an affair when you're married and you have two children - that's something you really might live to regret. And so I'm wondering how the idea of regret entered, if at all, in your life in terms of your relationship with him.
HEYMAN: Well, I wondered at some point whether I should've pushed him - I don't think it would've taken a huge push, but maybe it would've, I don't know - to leave his wife and marry me. I didn't want to do that. And I think that I got the best out of him. I mean, to know a man like that for 27 years, 29 years, whatever - a person of his cultivatedness - I mean, he saw so much everywhere he went - that's a real privilege.
And I could, at the same time, be with other men and be in love with other men. And I married, and I had two marriages. I think only once in a fleeting while I thought, well, what would that have been like? But that is - I don't have too many regrets about my relationship with him, actually.
GROSS: So something you didn't mention in terms of regret is feelings of guilt - regretting that you hurt maybe his wife or his children's feelings - that they were upset.
HEYMAN: I think that around 19, 20, 21, you don't know so much about what you're doing. I don't think that my guilt quotient was up very high. To me, it was exciting, thrilling, and I wanted it. And I honestly did not think too much about what the impact would be on his wife and his children. That change later - that is, when we became friends and the friendship went on a long time.
I was called, after he died, by Philip Davis who wrote this wonderful biography of Bern. He called me to speak to him about Bern. And I didn't answer his call. He called me several times. Finally, I called Ann, Bern's wife, and I said, look, what do you want me to do? Because I hadn't told anybody. I mean, I did respect their privacy. So I was aware that this was not a thing to be touted.
GROSS: But she knew about it.
HEYMAN: She knew because at some point - and I don't understand why - at some point 15 or 20 years later, when we were no longer having an affair, for some reason he told her. I don't know why. At any rate, when I called her up - and I remember - she said, how old are you now? And I think I was 65. She said, I can't imagine you being 65. So I said, Ann, what do you want me to do? This biographer, Philip Davis, has called me several times. Do you want me to talk to him or not? And she said to me, I gave him your name. And then she said, it was a very long time ago; just tell it as it was. And then she said something contradictory, which was use your good discretion.
So I got those contradictory signs which I think are natural. One feels at least two ways about so many things. But once I knew she had given him my name, then I felt free to speak about it. So I suppose on the issue of guilt, it probably might've been a small element there, but I didn't marry him. That would've been to destroy a family. I don't know that I thought it in so many words, but I wasn't willing to push to go there.
GROSS: So what would you consider some of the ups and downs of having an affair with with an older man who is a brilliant writer when you're a young, aspiring writer? I mean, in your story based on your relationship with my Malamud, the character, the young woman, is so enamored of him and so, kind of, you know, trying to hold onto everything that he says that when she's at dinner with him and his friends, she sneaks off to the bathroom so she could write down things that he said so that she'll remember it.
And so I could see how that kind of relationship would help you grow as a writer and help you learn things that you didn't know. I could also see how it could be a little stultifying to be in a relationship with somebody who you are not his equal. You're not his age. You haven't had his experience. And you have not developed, you know, his kind of literary talent. You know, and few people ever do, but still, at, you know, 19 or 23, like, you don't know what you're going to become.
HEYMAN: I am not Leda.
HEYMAN: Leda is a creation. I never ran into the bathroom to write down what Bern said. Also, she is besotted. And she reveres him. I did not have that kind of relationship with him. I went to Bennington. Bern, who came when I was a junior, was - he treated me as a complete equal. And what happens is, if you're treated as an equal, then you can learn a lot more. As an example of the equality between us - I think maybe I was in my 30s, and he had given me a few pages of something that he was writing to read.
He would call me at least once a week, and he would read what he had written. And this time I had it in print. So when I came over to his house, I had some critical comments to make. And I made them. And he got quite angry. And he took the paper from me with my notes, and he ripped it up into pieces. I thought, OK. Then he called me the next day, and he said he'd taken the pieces, he'd gotten Scotch tape, he'd taped them all together, and he'd made some of those changes.
GROSS: My guest is Arlene Heyman. Her new collection of short stories is called "Scary Old Sex." After a short break, I'll talk more with Heyman, Maureen Corrigan will review two historical suspense novels, and Kevin Whitehead will review the new album by Henry Threadgill, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music this week. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with psychiatrist, psychotherapist and writer Arlene Heyman. She's been writing all of her life, but now at the age of 74 she's just published her first book, a collection of short stories called "Scary Old Sex."
One of the stories is dedicated to the late writer Bernard Malamud. When she was his student at Bennington College in the early 1960s, they had an affair. He was middle-aged and married with two children. The affair lasted a couple of years. Their friendship lasted until his death.
So you mentioned that you brought with you some short stories you've written when you were still a student. And those stories have notes that Bernard Malamud wrote on them 'cause he was one of your teachers. So would you read some of those notes for us?
HEYMAN: OK. I'll read one. This was on the front of - we had to write stories every two weeks, so you can imagine - and then you had other courses to do - how thickened they were. But this is a note on one story that I wrote in October 1961. It's called "The Weaning" - weaning - W-E-A-N-I-N-G. So he wrote on the front (reading) the story becomes effective when the man starts crying and is even moving in the end. As story it is, despite its emotional strength, somewhat underdone. She is not developed enough. Somehow there has to be more variety to her sameness. And he is dangerously close to the oddball. Only when he weeps - and this should come more slowly - he must be developed further. Only when he weeps does he become human. Strong writing - work for finer expression - somehow a bit of poetry.
GROSS: Interesting. So what did you focus on when you read that comment? Did you focus on what you'd done right or what you'd done wrong?
HEYMAN: I read the story again this morning 'cause I had a free hour. So I read that again and I thought he's right in what he said, that he spotted an emotional strength that was there. But some of the characters were underdeveloped. And I think, well, with two weeks to work on them and 19 years old they would be. So I appreciated that he was respectful of me enough to say what was the matter and to say how to fix that and also to see the strengths of it. That's what one wants.
And I was going to say something else, that I came upon a - I looked through some of the letters that I wrote to him last night. And there was one letter from the 11 of August 1972. So then I'm already in my 30s and I'm still writing, going to medical school - whatever I'm doing, I'm writing. And I wrote him the following two paragraphs (reading) Dear Bern, I just came across a note from you that moved me very much. It was attached to a short story of mine and after a few critical paragraphs you wrote, quote, "I don't care how many stories come out badly or partly badly. I have faith in you as a writer," end quote.
GROSS: Can I ask how the affair ended?
HEYMAN: We were in Italy together. I had a Fulbright and we were in Genoa together and I believe we were in Milan also. And I think that he felt I was interested in younger men. I - there was nothing that happened between me and anyone, but I was a flirtatious young woman. And so I can't remember any - what the specifics - there were no specifics. But he had the sense that I wasn't deeply committed to him in a passionate way, in the way of being lovers. And he decided to leave. And it was sad, but he had picked up something that was not untrue.
And I went on to Venice by myself and then I went to Spain and spent the year in Spain. And he wrote me a letter saying that he - I think he said I shan't be writing for a while. If you need me, write me, and I will always help you. And he signed it Bern. I don't have that by heart, but that's pretty much what it was. And I did try to keep in touch with him and we were back in some kind of touch within a year of that break up in Italy.
GROSS: So you're a writer and you're also a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. So as a writer of fiction, I think it's part of your job to observe things and describe things in a way that other people might be uncomfortable, you know, acknowledging, you know, to say the things that other people wouldn't say, to describe those things that other people try to pretend don't really exist. That's part of a fiction writer's job I think.
And as a psychoanalyst, you're hearing people's secrets all the time. They're confiding in you the things they won't tell their best friend or their spouse or their lover or their child or their parent. So do you see those two things as being united in some way - your work as a fiction writer, in your work as a therapist just on the level that you try to get to of, like, truth?
HEYMAN: Yes. There is a level of truth that I try to get to, though I try to get to it very differently in the two media. In one, you're accreting a character. In the other, you're trying to thin down what you're hearing so that you can say something useful, you can understand the connection of a symptom to the whole history of a person. But truth - truth is very important in both, you're right.
GROSS: One of those stories in your collection, a story called "Dancing," is about a couple where it takes place at about the time of 9/11. And its about a married couple. The husband is in the hospital on 9/11 being treated for leukemia, getting kind of high-dose chemo. And without giving too much away here, when he's dying at the end of the story, like, she can't believe that there isn't an intervention left, you know? There's no more transfusions. There's nothing - this is going to be the end. There's nothing that can be done.
I know your first husband died of leukemia. And if you don't mind my asking, was there that moment when you realized this is really the no There's more interventions.
HEYMAN: Yes and no. I think even after he died, I still thought there should have been an intervention. Princess Diana died three days after my husband died, my first husband. So that was '97. And it - they didn't save her. She died. And I remember having a thought, well, if Princess Diana can't be saved then maybe Shepard - maybe he couldn't be saved either. So I think that idea of an intervention, that possible intervention, it goes on, even after the person's dead. There should've been something. This can't be true. It's so contrary to what I wish that it just can't be true. And he was a physician, and why can't he take care of himself? You know, he should be able to avoid death. So it takes a long time to appreciate that someone has really died.
GROSS: You remarried about 10 years later. There's one of the characters in your story who goes through this period in the story where she's comparing her second husband to her first. Is that something that you try not to do or is that something that one just naturally does whether you want to or not?
HEYMAN: At times one does but it - what are you doing with comparing? You see, what is that woman doing in that story? She's diminishing her current pleasure with her husband by seeing all his flaws writ large. And she remembers the first husband in a very idealized way. And she realizes that at a certain point in the story. And she says that she sees this husband as if he were a Lucian Freud painting.
She sees that husband and that marriage as if it was by Fragonard, a very romantic painter. And then she starts remembering what things were really like with that first husband, and she remembers things she doesn't like to remember. She attacked him, too. And it's a complex story in which with the ending - I don't want to give that away - but it's a shocker.
But the idea of diminishing what's in front of you and what you can have and always looking towards something you couldn't have, that kind of regret, there's always a better one in the past - dead, inaccessible - you know, that's something that we all have to cope with.
And as a Freudian, would probably go back to - the first people you love are totally inaccessible, or they should be. For a little girl, the father; little boy, the mother. And so there is some - always idea that the - the fish that got away. And that can make life barren if you give into that too much.
GROSS: So you've published your first book at the age of 72.
HEYMAN: I just turned 74 a month ago.
GROSS: OK, so what is this doing to your self-image and to the image that you present of yourself to the world? A lot of people fancy themselves writers and actors, whether they've had any professional success at that or not. A lot of people profess to have novels in their drawers. You had three novels (laughter) tucked away.
But now you actually have a book and the book is being very positively reviewed. So when you say you're a writer now, you have a book you can present, you have good reviews to back that up, so how is that changing how you see yourself and how you think other people see you?
HEYMAN: More solid I think. I mean, I've always had a sense of solidity, but this is kind of enlarging. When people you don't know are writing in first-rate publications that this is all good, it's like, yeah, I always thought that. I did thought that and I hoped that (laughter). And I'm very glad. You know, I got a lot of rejections on this book - a lot of them.
In fact, one of the most recent rejections, at the same time as it got accepted in England by three publishers, a fellow in this country wrote she has a disgusting view of the human body. That title is awful. So I was looking at that and I thought, no, no, no, you're wrong.
So it gives one a sense that, yeah, people will have all kinds of feelings about it, but there are other people who will love it. And that's, you know, you just need a few people. My father used to say you only need one. With writing you need more than one. And you get them - it's very gratifying. It's thrilling. I love it.
GROSS: Well, congratulations on the publication of your book. Arlene Heyman, thank you so much for talking with us.
HEYMAN: It's been a joy.
GROSS: Arlene Heyman is the author of a new collection of short stories, "Scary Old Sex." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two historical suspense novels. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.