View Point: Documenting Decline, I Forgot to Remember to Forget

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By: Julia Suryakusuma

The older you get, the more you lose: your looks, your hair, your teeth, skin elasticity, muscle mass, sex drive and eventually … your mind.

Yep, this aging business eventually makes losers of us all. No wonder human beings have constantly sought eternal youth!

I’m 57 now and am no spring chicken, but I actually feel more serene and at peace with myself than ever before. I do admit to one fear, however: that I might lose my mind. I find myself on the verge of saying something and it’s right at the tip of my tongue, but I just can’t get the word out. Aaaargh! So frustrating!

I tell myself it’s because my brain is too crammed with knowledge and information accumulated over the decades. It’s a good excuse, but it’s still embarrassing when you forget the name of a close friend. I’m sure some of you have had that experience. Come on, admit it!

When I was in Australia for the holiday season, The Iron Lady, a film about Margaret Thatcher, was playing in the movie theaters. Meryl Streep — one of my favorite actors, and a genius at impersonation — was playing the lead role, and that made it priority viewing.

I have long had a morbid fascination for Mrs. Thatcher. British prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she was the most powerful and the most feared woman of her time.

I have always despised her aggressive conservatism, destructive policies and corrosive legacy, but have also felt fascination, even awe, at her achievements as a politician and leader. She was a woman and outsider who pushed her way into a man’s world.

A feminist icon Thatcher certainly was not, but her leadership helped normalize success for women. She was one chick who broke the political glass ceiling, blew it away sky-high, in fact. No one had ever done this before in England, and no one’s done it since. She remains a powerful rebuke to those who believe that women are unsuited to lead. Megawati Soekarnoputri (Indonesia’s fifth president) and Sri Mulyani Indrawati (finance minister in the Second United Indonesia Cabinet) will know exactly what I mean!

They say that behind every great man there must be a great woman. The reverse is certainly true too. Thatcher once famously remarked that every woman needed a Willie (referring to her deputy, Willie Whitelaw) but in fact husband Denis was Maggie’s rock. He was her promoter, source of security and financial supporter. He was (understandably) proud of his wife and gave her the support, companionship and unconditional love she needed.

But what married career woman, of whatever political persuasion, has not struggled with balancing work and family responsibilities? Thatcher embodied the tensions between feminism and conservatism and her response was never one of women’s liberation. In fact, she made a point of going home to cook dinner for Denis.

I left London in 1979 after living there as a student for three years. I departed just as Thatcher came into power (no correlation between the two!). This made the film a “reliving” of those years, but that was not what made it most meaningful for me.

The Iron Lady is a film about Thatcher but at the same time it isn’t. It’s also a wonderful story about leadership, women and power; it contains deep truths about aging, the isolation and loneliness it sometimes brings and memory loss.

The fact that the story is told through the life of someone as charismatic and completely unusual as Thatcher makes it all the more absorbing.

This film is moving because it’s about the decline into dementia of a once seemingly invincible person with a formidable will and a formidable mind. It is, in fact, a brave study of a difficult and sensitive subject.

The film humanizes a woman considered a monster by many, including the unions, miners, the families of the hundreds killed in the Falklands war, and other victims of “Thatcherism”. But it’s also a film about all of us. Not many of us will ever be in a position of power like Maggie, but certainly those over 50 will see aspects of themselves in this film — especially women.

In a revealing interview in New York last year (see YouTube: “Scott Feinberg Interviews Meryl Streep & Phyllida Lloyd”), Meryl Streep was asked if she found it easier to play people who were more like her. “Who says I am not like Margaret Thatcher?” she replied.

The audience laughed, not because Streep’s reply was funny, but because they realized the truth in what she said. Any woman who has had to succeed in a man’s world knows that she must be at least twice as good as any competing man. And that’s why aging is often so much harder for successful women. As their mental powers decline, their male competitors will show little mercy. That’s why Maggie needed Denis so much.

Not that this means every female memory lapse deserves our sympathy! Think of Nunun Nurbaeti, one of Indonesia’s most wanted corruption suspects. Accused of distributing bribes to lawmakers to secure votes for Miranda Goeltom’s appointment as deputy central bank governor, her now-famous amnesia seems more like a legal convenience than a personal tragedy.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for the Nunun biopic. She’ll be forgotten long before Maggie ever is!

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Notice: This opinion article was quoted in an an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 11 January 2012. It is able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 17 January 2012].

Julia Suryakusuma is the author of State Ibuism. She can be reached at: www.juliasuryakusuma.com

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