Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today she considers how two new books evaluate the experience of the woman who lives alone.
On My Own, by Florence Falk, is subtitled “The Art of Being A Woman Alone.” Since 1970, the percentage of single adults in the United States has increased from 28 percent to 42 percent, and more than half are women. In this book, psychotherapist Falk addresses the ways in which attitudes about the woman alone have evolved—and, more important, how they have not. She asserts that for women, being alone presents special challenges and difficulties that are different and distinct from those faced by men. Falk also believes that the ability to tolerate solitude is essential to women’s personal development and growth.
For many of us, despite the many advances brought about by feminism, to be an unmarried female means that we are not “wanted,” Falk says: “We don’t automatically call unmarried women spinsters anymore . . . (b)ut the archetype of the spinster is still alive in our unconscious: she has simply morphed into her present incarnation as the woman alone—that is to say, the stoic, sometimes quietly mournful woman who has missed out on finding a partner and carries some shame or guilt about it.”
Making assumptions that we don’t automatically make about men, we often assume that the single woman is not single by choice: Something is amiss. Falk demonstrates how much of this attitude is based not only on outdated social conventions but also the difference in the way men and women define themselves. Women often define themselves in terms of their relationship to the others in their lives. Beginning in early adolescence (and often with an attendant drop in self-esteem), they ask the question “How do others see me?” For many of us a lifelong quest begins to be seen as desirable and worthy in the eyes of the other. As Falk puts it, “(I)t is one thing to be guided by good mirroring—something we all need throughout our lifetime—quite another to depend upon the way that others view us, our sense of self rising and falling according to another person’s opinion.” This kind of dependency, still so common in girls and women, puts them in a perilous position. At any time, the withdrawal of love or approval can lead to not just an interpersonal loss, but also a devastating blow to her sense of self.
The antidote, Falk says, is for women to actively cultivate the experience of solitude. She believes that the ability to be alone is critical to self-development and personal growth. Throughout the book, using case histories from her practice, she also demonstrates how crucial this ability is to forming relationships. The more independent people are, the more sure they can be that they are entering a relationship for the right reasons and will not be trapped by fear when it is challenged.
Falk’s book is mostly descriptive, and doesn’t offer much in the way of practical advice. For a more engaging descriptive view, try Anna Quindlen’s latest bestseller Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a novel, which illustrates many of the points Falk is making by telling the story of Rebecca Winter, a divorced woman in her 60s. Financially strapped by the demands of caring for her aging parents, she rents out her New York City co-op for a year and takes a lease, sight-unseen, on a “charming” cabin in a rural community upstate. A photographer, she had achieved early fame and success with a series of black and white photos chronicling moments of domestic life (such as the one referred to in the book’s title, her most well-known photo) decades earlier, when she had been married to a pompous, self-involved university professor.
Having divorced her husband (who leaves her for the first of what is to be a string of ever-younger women), she makes a modest living being represented by a (hilariously) self-important agent. Her son now grown, her best work seemingly behind her, Rebecca ambivalently embraces the solitude that this cabin offers her, reasoning that the money she will be earning from the rental of her apartment will make it worthwhile. During the course of her year in the cabin, she endures more than she imagined she would, trapped at times by bad weather and challenged by the cabin’s isolation and lack of creature comforts. These hurdles lead her to find new strengths, and she finds herself re-investing in her work and taking it in a different direction. Meanwhile, her independence allows her to make an unconventional choice of a new lover, one that would have been impossible if she were too dependent on how others see her.
While On My Own is well written and worthwhile, it’s somewhat meandering, and at times, disjointed. Meanwhile, Quindlen’s fictional character, Rebecca, illustrates most of the points Falk makes. Though Still Life is at times predictable and perhaps prone to tying up loose ends a little too neatly, I found Quindlen’s characters recognizable and vivid. This entertaining novel demonstrates how by “embracing” her aloneness rather than seeking the validation of others, Rebecca is able to grow in a way that makes her subsequently more open to a mature relationship in the end. The writer does a great job of showing how a woman who overcomes her neediness can wind up choosing a life that she truly wants.