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Sheehy's New Passages'- celebrating centenarians


"New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time," by Gail Sheehy. 473 pages. New York: Random House. $25 'Surprise! The second half of adult life is not the stagnant, depressing downward slide we have always assumed it to be." So Gail Sheehy introduces the new sequel to her best-selling book, "Passages." "Our middle life is a progress story, a series of little victories over little deaths," she continues. "Surprise! We can go ahead. There is resurrection in life, and it is all right to say so."

The evangelical perkiness of Ms. Sheehy's tone is such a staple of self-help books and daytime television that we might forget how original "Passages" seemed when it first appeared in 1976. Built around the thesis that adult life contains predictable developmental stages, like childhood's Terrible Twos and Noisy Nines, the book used a mountain of statistics and personal histories to popularize an obvious but relatively unexplored idea.

"Passages" ended its life-cycle study at age 50. Now, 20 years later, Ms. Sheehy resumes where the first book left off, using current studies, focus groups, data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and a collection of "Life History Surveys," answered by a total of 7,880 men and women nationwide, to explore the unshocking thesis that Americans are living longer and ought to make the most of their extended years. It also borrows, and exaggerates into caricature, some of the shoddiest aspects of the first "Passages."

"Are you ready to set off into this big unexplored continent of Second Adulthood?" asks Ms. Sheehy. And off she goes, through the Flaming Fifties, the Serene Sixties, the Sage Seventies, the Uninhibited Eighties, the Noble Nineties and - please God - the Celebratory Centenarians.

Along the way we meet various focus groups, whose members illustrate such phenomena as "the Samson Complex" and "the )) Perimenopause Panic." A typical group includes "a 'bad boy' adman, a New Age electrician, and an African American prison counselor, all of whom seemed eager to compare notes with the Baptist geologist who had lost his libido in Indonesia and the 70-year-old engineer who had found his in Palm Beach."

Reducing individuals to catchy phrases from their Life History Surveys is not the only condescension here. The design concept of "New Passages" seems geared more toward children with Attention Deficit Disorder than toward fully actualized folk in their Serene Sixties. Tidy boxes with little information nuggets perk up the narrative ("Psychic prowess actually builds in women as they age,") as do frequent headlines ("SURPRISE! YOU'RE NOT GETTING OLDER, YOU'RE GETTING HAPPIER!" There are testimonials, lots of charts and diagrams, and something called "The New Map of Adult Life," of which Ms. Sheehy is inordinately proud. It looks like the placemat under a Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny's.

The pity is that while this book occasionally offers some useful facts and ideas about aging in America, they are lost in the relentless babble of happy talk. By forcing people into insulting little categories and grossly underestimating the intelligence of the book-buying public, Ms. Sheehy has nearly succeeded in taking the self out of self-help. Surprise! Americans of any age can recognize the offensive inanity of "New Passages," and they deserve better.

Donna Rifkind, a former literary agent, writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Criterion, where she used to be an editor, the Times Literary Supplement and Commentary.

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