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The Times: Man’s Midlife Madness

This article by Celia Brayfield originally appeared in The Times on January 14, 2003

Unlike women, when some men hit 50 they fall apart spectacularly. Our correspondent charts the fall.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in a literary career of eight novels, I have written a book about men. Why? Because men, at the time of life I wanted to write about, are much more fascinating than women. Fascinating in the way that a mushroom cloud is fascinating, or an erupting volcano, or one of those films of a tower block being demolished. Fascinating in the way that September 11 footage is fascinating; which is to say horribly, compellingly, destructively, unbelievably and helplessly fascinating.

I am talking about the middle of life. Women, at this life passage, are not fascinating as literary subjects. Sorry, sisters, but I could fuel a power station with the drippy, midlife-lady novels I’ve read, in which our heroine goes off to find herself in the Hebrides/Provence/Timbuktu, spending hours in internal monologue as she picks up sea glass/olives/camel fleas.

Men, on the other hand, tend to go mad. Not all, not even the majority, but a significant minority of menopausal men go so spectacularly off the mental rails that insanity is the only possible diagnosis. And they are hilarious to watch and rewarding to write about.

Intelligent, successful and wealthy men seem to be the worst. Like the distinguished professor who binned his wife and children, decided that he was gay and ran off to California — only to crawl sheepishly back when he found that nobody on Muscle Beach fancied him. Or the well-established lawyer who binned his wife and children, and moved in with a call-girl, all the time denying that that was her profession, even while she was doing time in Holloway.

Or the immensely successful architect who decided not to bother with the standard indemnity insurance on the biggest job of his life, and was bankrupted when it all went horribly wrong. In this case, the wife and some of the children binned him, quite cruelly, because, they said, he had become somebody they just didn’t know any more, ie, somebody poor.

One of my close men friends admitted: “It was as if I went mad for two years,” amazed to have emerged with family still loyal and career just about retrievable after a fling with an equally loony woman who, in her turn, was obsessed with gangland criminals.

So, for a novelist, the man in a midlife crisis has far more amusing dramatic possibilities than the woman. For his wife, his children, his lover, his business associates and his political colleagues, however, he has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, sweat and long hours in counselling. He who wreaks this havoc, whose judgment is suddenly way out of whack, can pay a heavy price. The damage can be permanent: the wife who suddenly gets cancer, the children growing up depressed, rebellious or addicted, the business that goes down the tubes, the midlife marriage that lasts a nanosecond but costs a bomb.

In medicine, the male menopause is a tiger economy. Duncan Gould, consultant and founder of the WellMan Clinic, in Central London, gives a definition. “The male menopause occurs insidiously, with fatigue, loss of sex drive and fantasies, depressed mood and irritability (often perceived as grumpiness), erectile problems and a general feeling of being worn out, old and beaten. It is related to a hormonal decline of testosterone, and takes several years to reach its nadir, whereas the midlife crisis is not hormonal but psychogenic in origin, and is more acute in its presentation.”

Ron Bracey, a consultant clinical psychologist, agrees that “male menopausal” behaviour is socially and spiritually, rather than hormonally, inspired. “People are looking for peak experiences . . . the feelings of exhilaration, of abandonment even, that they had when they were young, which their lifestyle subsequently won’t provide.”

But I still wanted to go beyond his rationale. Neither nostalgic hedonism nor fading testosterone explains the madness part, that acute commonsense deficit or inability to predict the obvious consequences of your actions, that makes a bad midlife crisis look like temporary insanity. I’m not a doctor, of course, but if I was, I’d outline the manifestations of this syndrome something like this:

BEHAVIOURAL DISORDERS

Curmudgeonosis: Atrophy of social skills, leading to temper tantrums, rudeness, disdain for personal hygiene, unacceptable political views loudly voiced regardless of audience sensitivity, and uncontrolled farting. Elsewhere identified as Grumpy Man Syndrome.

Andropausal megalomania: Similar to normal megalomania, causing unreasonable belief that one’s word is law and that one is master of the universe while all about one people have lower intelligence than plankton.

Chronic conductive choleria: Inability to drive a motor vehicle without swearing. Elsewhere identified as Road Rage.

Lemmings’ disease: Sudden lapses of judgment in financial or commercial affairs, giving rise to permanent pension loss and causing many a good business to fall off a cliff.

Selective auditory failure: Inability to hear any criticism on the grounds of any of these conditions, or any hints that one’s behaviour is unacceptable or foolish in any way. Often related to andropausal megalomania.

SEXUAL DISORDERS

Pulcherissima Americana: Sexual obsession with one’s daughter’s friends, and young women of a similar age. The delusion that such young women are either unaware that one’s hand is on their knee/bottom/breast, or actually welcome such touching. Named after its glossy apotheosis in the film American Beauty.

Futile barrymoritis: Coming out as gay when there isn’t any point, when no one is going to love you either way.

Maenadosis: Sexual obsession with crazed and exhibitionistic women, especially those having a business relationship with Max Clifford and/or close ties with a prominent mafia boss or the global public enemy du jour. Like Bill Clinton, David Mellor, John Profumo, Robert and John F. Kennedy, remember? When the world is full of willing and discreet women, why do they choose an exhibitionist who is bound to kiss and tell?

Given that these behaviours are so well recognised that they are almost stereotypical, it seems strange that more is not being done to help men get through midlife without screwing up all the achievements of the past 40 years and making the next 40 much tougher than they would have been otherwise.

Last year, the US Government decided to spend £1 million on research to find out if the male menopause exists. Now shall we try to guess the gender of the person who made that decision? Not female, wouldn’t you say?

Because if you ask a woman if the male menopause exists, she howls with laughter. Or sometimes, she just howls. Women do not need a £1 million survey to give the answer yes to this question.

Men, as I realised when I was writing my book, are the denying sex. The most difficult passages to write were the denying self-talk of the most deluded of my characters. And midlife men, of course, are most often in positions of power, from which they can deny their problems big-time.

When men decide to tackle this subject, we get American Beauty, in which the daughter’s friend is beautiful and an aggressive nymphomaniac with rose-petals stuffed up her jumper, while all women beyond 20 are psychotic bitches who deserve to die. Not helpful, really, is it? The crux of the film’s argument was that this selfish and destructive man was basically OK because he declined to take advantage of the teenager when she said she was a virgin. Like that really happens.

While reams have been written on adolescence and having babies, the next big life passage has been largely overlooked. Even Shakespeare missed it out. There is no menopausal male in the Seven Ages of Man speech, because in Shakespeare’s day, a man was lucky to reach the age of 50.

Now we are all living longer, and midlife really is that, not a euphemism for near-death, shouldn’t we be giving real attention to this phenomenon?

Having written a comedy about five menopausal males, I feel, frankly, that I have done my bit. It is over to you guys, now — and please, spare us the rose petals.