Confessions of an Angry Middle-Aged Lady
Don't worry—Chelsea G. Summers doesn't bite. But her novel's understandably enraged main character does.
I am a middle-aged lady, and I am angry. While I can’t pinpoint the moment that I became middle-aged, I can tell you the first time I experienced a middle-aged woman’s rage, and that was October 21, 2008, the day that Jezebel published an article titled “Why Are Middle-Aged Women Down in the Dumps? I Asked My Mom.”
On its surface, the piece was simply reporting on recent studies, which found that suicide among middle-aged women had jumped 57%, that women felt that “life was over” at 44, and that women 45 and older felt “unrecognized and unsupported” in their work lives. But what enraged me was less that women my age felt diminished and sad. It was that Jezebel, a feminist site that I once read devotedly, couldn’t be bothered with actual middle-aged women; indeed, Jezebel used a young staff writer, one who conveniently had a fifty-something mom. Forget paying an actual middle-aged lady to write the piece. No one wants to hear from her.
In creating Dorothy, I channeled my anger at the publishing industry, at societal ageism, at people who had rebuffed me because of my age, and at a faceless reading public who considered their mom to be the kindler, gentler, most easily dismissed face of female aging.
When I read this Jezebel piece, I was 45 and still an emerging writer. Today, I am 58 and I have emerged, in no small part because I wrote a novel that drew from the anger that I first felt reading that Jezebel piece 13 years ago. I began writing A Certain Hunger, my debut novel, in the fall of 2011, when I was 49; I finished it in the fall of 2014; and it was published last year. As much as this book is the story of a cannibalistic serial killer food critic (the elevator pitch is “Eat, Pray, Love meets American Psycho”), it is also the story of me coming to terms with my own middle age, my rage, and my antipathy for the publishing industry. It’s a bloody, gory, sexy book written in unapologetic purple prose, but most of all it’s a fierce, furious book.
Dorothy Daniels, the novel’s protagonist, is some things I’m not: a murderer, for one, and a James Beard award winner, for another. She is also many things I am or have been: a massive slut of a certain age, a smart writer, and a funny bitch. In creating Dorothy, I channeled my anger at the publishing industry, at societal ageism, at people who had rebuffed me because of my age, and at a faceless reading public who considered their mom to be the kindler, gentler, most easily dismissed face of female aging. I often wrote in a kind of possessed state, imagining Dorothy standing gloriously akimbo before me, demanding to be heard, demanding to be seen, demanding not merely to be recognized but to be exalted.
I created a character with massive flaws—Dorothy is a psychopathic narcissist who violently puts herself at the top of the food chain, ordinary morals be damned. The queen of the urbane jungle, Dorothy bestrides as a colossus, gleefully stabbing, asphyxiating, gutting, and cooking the men she claims to have loved. She doesn’t edit her language, her pleasures, or herself. She says the things and does the things and eats the things that we lower mortals could only dream about. She is a middle-aged woman who remorselessly takes up space.
Just as Flaubert said about Bovary: Dorothy Daniels, c’est moi. At that time in my life, I needed someone to express my complicated feelings about being slowly, inexorably, horribly erased. I needed a middle-aged woman who was flamboyant, visceral, and unashamed. I needed her to point her age-spotted finger at the things that made me royally pissed off. I couldn’t find her, so I wrote her into being.
Chelsea G. Summers is a freelance writer whose work focuses on sex, politics, tech, fashion and culture. A former academic and college professor, Chelsea's work has appeared in VICE, Fusion, Hazlitt, The New Republic, Racked, The Guardian, Roxane Gay's Medium imprints, and other fine publications. She splits her time between New York and Stockholm, Sweden, and can be found on Twitter @chelseagsummers. A Certain Hunger is her first novel.