- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Too many of the memoirs in the current bumper crop consist of taking large egos out for extensive airings. The notion often seems to be that one's singularity demands to be shared with the universe, the more intimate and clinical the better. From time to time, though, a writer records the years in a less egocentric way subjective, to be sure, but beyond existential bleating, connecting the life lived to the social and ideational tides of the time.
Midge Decter's "An Old Wife's Tale" is pre-eminently of the latter. She does not turn her soul inside out for the titillation of readers, indeed is reticent about "particularities." The memoir is serious but not somber, a recollection and analysis of the decades as daughter, wife, mother, grandmother and a wider context as a highly visible participant in the cultural rumblings that define the half-century past. It is a distinctly American tale. In brief synopsis it unreels like this:
Restless daughter of Midwest middle-class family drops out of college and heads for New York City at a dead run. With scant training, she lands as secretary at a magazine that later will figure dramatically in her life. After World War II, she marries a graduate student, quickly has two baby girls and shares the crowded and energetic life of the men returning from the war and the women who marry them and, with fecund haste, create "the Baby Boom." A few years later divorce; the memoirist must scramble to provide a home for her daughters. She labors at a variety of jobs to keep bread on the table, eventually holding a series of magazine positions, each with greater responsibility. There's a second marriage, two more children, another girl and a boy. Then, in the late 1960s, she becomes executive editor of Harper's magazine.
Around this point, Miss Decter began to emerge in a more public persona, in large part in vocal disagreement with the rise of the feminist movement. In the coming decades, her name and that of her second husband, now editor of Commentary magazine, would be prominent in the fierce intellectual contention as almost one name, Midge Decter-Norman Podhoretz.
This extra-domestic role would expand endorsement of and writing on behalf of the civil-rights movement; opposition to the rise of the counterculture and anti-Vietnam protesters ("a war of the privileged young against the working-class young"); to an intense and increasingly vocal anti-communism (her husband would swing the liberal editorial stand of Commentary magazine to the right and be anathametized by the Eastern literary tribe); consistent support for Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East; and stout backing of Ronald Reagan and his presidential policies with her evidently surprising realization that she was an "ardent ideologue."
She would be among the founders of the Committee for a Democratic Majority that campaigned for strong defense policies and was the chrysalis of the neoconservative movement. Miss Decter also established a small but articulate advocacy group, the Committee for the Free World, and, uncharacteristically for such organizations, she folded it with the implosion of the Soviet Union.
It has been a lively gallop as a "public intellectual." But for Miss Decter a principal involvement has been in the debate over the seismic shaking "family" and its components have undergone as a result of the sexual revolution, so called, and the often disastrous consequences. She finds "a seemingly never-to-be-mediated internal clash of ambitions: the ambition to make oneself a noticeable place in the world and the ambition to be a good mother."
The women's movement is roughly handled for what it has wrought, and Betty Friedan, her polar opposite, takes some wicked whacks. Miss Decter argues that the institutionalized women's movement has viciously denigrated the female's maternal nature and metastasized to a hatred of men. She notes that much of this doctrine of oppression has been abetted by men. Males for the most part decided it would be just as well not to get in the front of that accelerating political vehicle.
So where has the relentless current taken marriage since the 1960s? It has poisoned the relations between the sexes, she writes, "women explosively complaining and men silently seething with resentment." The end result, Miss Decter contends with sadness, is "that the offspring born to the most 'enlightened' sector of my generation, who had as no babies before them been cosseted and petted, whose bodies had been cared for and minds stimulated, so to speak, within an inch of their lives, were in the end neglected children" neglected in the vital sexual roles and intellectual manners that, male and female, sustain civilized society.
Miss Decter is not against women working, to be sure. She's worked for much of her life, earlier from necessity, and then from the desire to find a complementary furrow to her first obligation as a parent (and she ruefully looks back on some of her decisions, as any thoughtful individual must as the years mount up).
"An Old Wife's Tale" is not a jeremiad. Rather, it is a reflective and penetrating essay on our jostled immediate history and the writer's own.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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