80-year-old Dr. Maxine Borowsky Junge explains why she co-wrote “Dear Myra, Dear Max: A Conversation on Aging” with her friend and colleague Dr. Myra Levick, who at age 93 now lives in an independent living community in South Florida while Max lives alone on Whidbey Island in Washington state. Born and raised in Los Angeles during the Hollywood Blacklist period, Max moved to Whidbey after retiring from Loyola Marymount University, where she was a faculty member and Chair of the Marital and Family Therapy/Clinical Art Therapy Department. In the show Max confronts aging stereotypes, she tells us why she has a problem with senior communities, why “life review” isn’t satisfying for a lot of older adults and why she gave up mirrors. Tune in for a compelling interview with this fierce, accomplished woman as she contemplates the next phase of her aging journey, which will involve leaving Whidbey Island but continuing to write and produce art.
Subscribe to The Agewyz Podcast: iTunes
Got a story to share? Email us any time at email@example.com
Explore the book: “Dear Myra, Dear Max: A Conversation on Aging”
Also mentioned in the show:
Rudolph Steiner Inter-Generational Care Community
Music: “Discovery” by Jon Luc Hefferman | CC BY NC | Free Music Archive
JANA PANARITES (HOST) – We recently spoke with Dr. Myra Levick, co-author of the book, “Dear Myra, Dear Max: A Conversation on Aging.” In the interview, 93-year old Myra shared her experience of building a career in the field of art therapy during an era when women were defined by the work of their husbands. She also talks about the huge shift in her life that occurred after her husband’s death, when Mayra moved into an independent living community. If you missed this lively interview, go to agewyz.com. That’s A-G-E-W-Y-Z dot com, and give it a listen. It’s Episode 136. Today we’re going to hear from the other half of the writing team of “Dear Myra, Dear Max.” Dr. Maxine Borowsky Junge was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Now 80 years old, she’s divorced and lives with her dog in her own home on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington. Max moved to Whidbey 17 years ago after retiring from her teaching post at Loyola Marymount University, where she was a faculty member and chair of the marital and family therapy slash clinical art therapy department. In addition to practicing art psychotherapy, Max maintained a private psychotherapy practice in LA for decades. She’s been making art since she was a child, and she’s written 10 books, mostly about art therapy and creativity. Dr. Maxine Junge joins us from Whidbey Island, Washington. Max, welcome to The Agewyz Podcast.
MAX – Thanks, Jana. I’m glad to be here.
JANA – So for context, tell us a little bit about growing up in LA. Your parents were these pioneering figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood. But tell us about growing up in LA.
MAX – It’s so funny to think of it as the Golden Age of Hollywood, first of all, because of course, it’s what you knew – what I knew. My parents actually lived on the same street in Philadelphia. That’s where they met. And then they worked in New York theater. My mother was – at the age of 21 – ran the whole WPA, Franklin Roosevelt project, a costume shop for all of New York City. When she was 21. And my dad at that time was a stage manager for Elmer Rice. And he sold a script to the movies about King Arthur of all things. And they came to California and never looked back. And I was born in California and lived there except for a couple of years, most of my life. California when it was all bean fields. LA when it was all bean fields.
JANA – And your dad was a founder of the Writers Guild.
MAX – Yeah, he was the founder of the Writers Guild, and I grew up during the Hollywood blacklist period. And one of the things he did as a founder of the Writers Guild was to establish the credit system for writers in Hollywood, which I’m sure they’ve changed it, but there was none of that before that.
JANA – Your mom was a theatrical costume designer. And she did that in LA as well, when you folks went west?
MAX – No, she didn’t. When they were in New York, she had a major sinus infection. And in those days, they didn’t have antibiotics or sulfur, drugs or anything else. And she went deaf. She must have been around – in her late 20s when she went deaf, and it was a bone deafness, so that when she had a child, me first, and then my brother, she went even deafer. So when she came out to LA, she had lots of offers, but she actually didn’t do anything much.
MAX – In retrospect, she didn’t talk about it a lot. She was, you know, deaf and trying to do whatever she could to adjust to that. In those days, she wore a five-pound battery pack on her leg and a huge hearing aid. This was before World War II. And then they developed the transistor hearing aid. So they were smaller during World War II, as you may know. And when I was in college, they developed the very simple stapes operation, the stapes bone in in the ear. She went into the hospital overnight, got one ear done, then got the other ear done, and she could hear again. It was really something she said she hadn’t heard the toilet flush in something like 25 years.
JANA – That was probably a sound she didn’t mind not hearing.
MAX (laughter) – No. So she did art, but you know, the kind of public stuff she really sort of withdrew, and I think it must have been very, very tough. My father was a very gregarious man and he had parties all the time and there was always something going on. And it must have been very, very hard for her. There was lip reading in those days, not sign language at all. And she told me later on that the way she came out of her depression about deafness was that she started painting portrait commissions. And she had to talk to the people she painted. So in a way, that was art therapy for her. She was a very, very good artist and kept that going. A pretty realistic style. And she kept that going, but it was mostly in her home studio. And then people finally would come into the home studio, and she would do a portrait commission of them and that, she said, brought her back to life.
JANA – Wow, that’s really moving. I thought it was really interesting in the book, how you talked about how your mom worked hard to appear normal, and how she counseled people sent by her ear doctors to help them adjust to wearing hearing aids, which were then very visible, and about technology and how technology inadvertently or not often is designed to make us look normal and to hide things.
MAX – I think that’s true. And I think it’s true these days. It’s been said to me by older people, that the virtually invisible hearing aids, you know, you can’t see them, people do not recognize that somebody might have that disability. If they see somebody who’s blind, it is visible in a way. That sounds like irony or whatever. But it is. Whether they have a white cane or not. But being deaf can be quite invisible, because they have worked hard to make the hearing aids and so on invisible, so people can get very isolated. I know a few up here.
JANA – Yeah. So let’s go back to your early life. Not that this is gonna be entirely about comparing you to Myra because obviously you both had different lives, but you both made sacrifices early on. She made a bargain, and you sacrificed something. You went back to UCLA for your husband when you were quite young, after you were married.
MAX – That’s right.
JANA – And you became a teaching assistant in the painting department, which was not necessarily what you wanted to do. What sort of sacrifices do you think that you made?
MAX – Well, I think it took me… women, if they didn’t have to work, like Myra said, but – women in a sense of my class, it wasn’t all women – but mostly in those times, even through my time – did not work, if they could help it. It wasn’t even on the radar. And when I started – and I was always going crazy with, you know, children. Or thinking I was. Now, what women did was get married and have kids, right, in those days? And sometimes stay home and take care of all that.
MAX – So I was very split. Because I was very driven to be an artist of some sort or another – a painter, a professional painter. But I was also, the culture was telling me that I needed to be a wife and a mother. So after a trip to Europe, on motorcycles through Europe – on motorcycles with my then boyfriend – my parents, by the way, didn’t mind that I was living in sin, they minded that I was- this is really how they talked then – they minded that I was going on a motorcycle, which was fairly advanced.
MAX – We were married, like on a whim in the City of London, where we were living at the time. We went down to the registry office, and then I had gotten a number of scholarships and a number of opportunities in various arts schools and art programs. But as you said, I chose UCLA mainly because my husband was getting a PhD there. And that’s what one did then. Except I do think Myra’s bargain is unusual.
JANA – Yeah, because her husband actually stuck to the bargain.
MAX – Yeah. Right! It’s true. Yes, he did. I met Len a few times – Myra’s husband – but I didn’t really know him. I’m sorry, I didn’t.
JANA – Well, your husband was unusual in the sense that he cooked. Your ex-husband, right? And did some of those so-called feminine things in the house.
MAX – Yes, he did. He was not a very good cook. But he did do the so-called feminine thing – some of the feminine things. And he would cook chicken, and he would never cook it all away. So the blood would be running out and all that. And the kids and I would say, Oh, you didn’t cook it all away, which would make no difference whatsoever. He would cook it that way, the same way the next time. So finally one night, he said, after we had complained, if you want me to keep cooking, you better be quiet. So we were quiet.
JANA – Did anyone eat the chicken?
MAX – Yeah, we ate it. You gotta eat something. I mean, it was mostly done, but not quite.
JANA – Right. You ate the outside parts.
MAX – It’s the notion of, Well, I did it, didn’t I? Even if I didn’t do it right, or the way you want it.
JANA – Right. So you were divorced about 30 years ago, and now you live alone on Puget Sound, which is quite a ways away from LA culturally and geographically. How do you like living alone? And paint the picture for us.
MAX – Well, I moved up here 17 years ago, because first of all, I had just retired from Loyola Marymount, but LA by that time was all cemented over. And I wanted to get out. I like rural life. I had had a house in the town of Mendocino for 20 years, and at times had lived in it for the whole year. So I like little towns and rural life, as I said. So I wanted to get away.
MAX – And what has happened since I’ve been here – it’s been sort of surprising to me, because as you can tell, I live sort of the day-to-day kind of stuff, in my own experience. But when I moved up here, I determined two things for sure. One was that I was not going to take responsibility for anything if I could avoid it, because I’d had a lot of it. And two, I was not going to be bored by people if I could stand it. And you know, sometimes you have to be. Especially sometimes you have to be if you’re the chair of the department and all that kind of stuff. So I’ve had a, quite an introvert-ish life up here and managed to stay out of most everything, which is sort of my way anyway, given half a chance.
JANA – What do you like about living alone? And what don’t you like about living alone?
MAX – Well, I like about living alone that it’s all mine, and I make all the decisions and I don’t have to make them for anybody else. And actually, this house is the first time in my life – let’s see, I moved in here about age 64 – when I didn’t have to consider children, husband or anything else. I mean, the dog doesn’t talk very much.
JANA – The upside to aging.
MAX – And it’s company.
JANA – And it’s company. Yeah.
MAX – And somebody – I’ve forgotten, it might have been James Taylor who said, to have freedom, you have to have a bit of loneliness. And I think that is true. I mean, I don’t have anybody to go to things with. I don’t have anybody who’s sort of there, except the dog, to talk to. In fact, I went to the drawing group that I started a few weeks ago and I came in and they said, What’s wrong with your voice? And I said, Nothing. They said, it sounds funny. And I said, Well, maybe I hadn’t talked before I got there. Maybe I hadn’t.
JANA – What what’s wrong with it? Did it sound raspy?
MAX – Nothing. I don’t know what it was that day. You know, it sounded all right to me – same old, same old.
JANA – Is that this so-called unstructured drawing class that you organized?
MAX – Yeah.
JANA – Okay.
MAX – Yes, I gave in. That’s the one thing I decided, with Diane Divalbeth (sp?), who, interestingly enough, I had gone to college with and found up here. She’s an international artist, and so she and I started this thing. So that’s the only thing I took responsibility for. But I like the rural life. I like the rain a lot. Having lived in sunny California forever, I really do like the rain. I like the seasons. It’s beautiful. And sometimes I get exasperated about the lack of sophistication or things like that. Not so much culturally, because I’ve got enough in my head to carry me forever. But talking to people. Living on Whidbey Island is, and maybe in the Pacific Northwest, I’m not entirely sure about that. But certainly living here, there isn’t the kind of sophisticated conversation which I’m used to and really enjoy and love and want as part of my life. So that’s the downside.
JANA – Uh huh. That might just be a big city thing, though, right?
MAX – Maybe.
JANA – I don’t know. This might be an elitist comment.
MAX – Well, yeah, it could be. But-
JANA – it’s what you’re used to.
MAX – Right. In LA, as you know, nobody speaks English anymore. They really don’t. There’s so much quote unquote, diversity. Up here, it’s much more difficult. And much more white.
JANA – Yeah, you’re used to being around diverse and very eclectic people. So you’ve often been told that you don’t look 80 years old. What’s the problem with being told you don’t look your age?
MAX – Well, part of why we – why I wanted to do the book, because of all the wrong assumptions and myths and everything else you can think about, and ageism, about quote unquote, older people – and I’m not even sure where I would start that. AARP now starts it at 55. How silly is that? But we live, as you know, in a youth-oriented and worshipping culture. I mean, there’s nothing on TV but creams to take away the wrinkles.
MAX – And I’m always so astounded that there are lots of pictures of a celebrity of one sort or another and they say, Oh, my, she could still wear a bikini at age 40. You know, I mean, Okay, come on, let’s see one at age 70. So that’s what the culture is about. And of course, we as women, men, too, but as women are a part of that culture. So even if we are older, we are thinking it would be better to look younger. And I don’t I don’t do anything. Well, I do dye my hair but I always have. I always wanted to be a redhead.
JANA – What do you say when people tell you don’t look your age?
MAX – Well, if I am really being confronted that day, I say, this is what 80 years old looks like and you’re being ageist. I have to keep my mouth shut sometimes. It’s very hard for me, but I manage to do it. I mean, the obvious response is, Thank you. And I know it’s sort of like, social conversation. But I listen to what people say. For example, I never heard as much anti-Semitism – not directed at me – but in LA in all the years I lived there and work for the Jesuits, than I heard up here.
JANA – So you kind of started talking about this, but I’d like you to expand on it because you made the point, I think in one of our emails, that “Dear Myra, Dear Max,” the book, has tended to be seen as two older people living differently. But from your point of view, it wasn’t intended that way. What was your intention with this book? And what are some of the themes of the book?
MAX – First of all, I wanted to say, here’s how I noticed and got interested in Myra. Cuz I think that’s interesting, and part of what we were doing. In 1994 – I might have written this in the book – I wrote the first history of the profession of art therapy. And in order to do that, I did a lot of research, needless to say. Actually, I’ve probably written most of the histories of art therapy. I don’t think anybody else much has. But I’m interested in history and how everything got started and how everything went along.
MAX – And I went to see the archives of the American Art Therapy Association. They were then, literally, in a cardboard box in a dusty corner at Managers in Topeka, Kansas. And I can remember sitting on the floor then, going through all the stuff that was in that one cardboard box. And in the early days, I had heard of this and was disgusted by it, actually, there was a lot of conflict between, you know about six women about whether there should even be an Art Therapy Association at all. So they were writing letters, usually nasty, back and forth, and Myra’s letters – and she was one of these women who was very much FOR doing it – her letters were so nice and generous, and logical and persistent, that I came out of that experience feeling she was the hero of it all.
MAX – And so I looked her up and tried to get to know her and all kinds of things, and I also noticed that she had opinions. Well, I think that’s a good thing.
JANA – I do, too.
MAX – A lot of people don’t. And, you know, she and I don’t always agree, needless to say, but she has opinions. And I think that’s just fine. For example, the one we didn’t agree on was, was the American Art Therapy, a feminist organization or even a female organization? And she said, No, and what would it matter if it was? And clearly it was, whether they knew it or not, and I’ve written about that, but I’m about the only one that does. So I knew that when we started writing to each other, that we would have opinionated opinions, and lots of them. It was going to work that way.
MAX – And for me, the themes of the book are, I don’t think aging and our generation in particular since we are the first ones to get that old – nobody thought we would get there – it’s not understood, even with the best of intentions, until one gets there. It really isn’t. Like I have these fabulous children who are really trying. I don’t think they get it at all. They really don’t.
JANA – What are they missing?
MAX – Well, their intentions are to take care of people. But there’s so much in the ageism department that says people that get older, or old, do nothing but look back. Now, my kids don’t necessarily believe that. But there’s nothing written yet about anybody doing anything else. When I got into the psychotherapy biz, and art therapy biz in the 70s, if you wanted to give a presentation on life development, human development, it sort of fell off about age 50. But the last developmental phase was called life review, which is what we’re all supposed to be sitting here doing on the porch.
JANA – Right, sitting back, rocking in that chair.
MAX – Thinking about the past.
JANA – Right. You know, I mean, I guess that works for some people.
MAX -Sure it does.
JANA – But certainly not for everyone.
MAX – Well, it’s not just some of us. It’s a lot of us. That’s the thing. As long as we have our marbles, and that, of course makes a difference. I don’t know what the answer to not having your marbles is. I don’t know that. Thankfully, I haven’t been there.
MAX – But the other thing is, I’m getting ready to look at some senior communities. And I think the structure of most of them encourages passivity. And I’ve heard said, and I don’t know how true it is, or who can tell, that, Oh, she went downhill once she got in that place. I have no idea exactly what that means. But I think the tendency to have everything done for you, as if you have done everything but it’s over now, is one thing.
MAX – And interestingly, I have found a different model to look at, that will work better for me probably, of senior community, which is the Rudolf Steiner community near Nyack, New York. They are set up to take care of so-called elders. They call them members, but they also call them the word elders. But they also have lots of things for them to do work at, as long as they can, and as appropriately as they can. There’s a working farm and there’s a weaving shop, and there’s a book publisher and stuff like that. And people who live there are expected to do the work that they can.
JANA – Yeah, it sounds more like a colony than an institution, which is what so many of these retirement communities quote unquote, are. They’re institutionalized settings.
MAX – Right.
JANA – So the structure of the institution itself does not really lend itself to spontaneous activity, but it’s the way that we do retirement communities in this country. But you touched on looking into retirement homes. I know that you wrote about this. You looked into retirement homes a while back, when you thought you’d have to sell your house because you were running out of money. You wrote the retirement community format was not for me as of now, anyhow.
MAX – I didn’t think so. It may not be at this point either.
JANA – Uh-huh. Well, how close did you come to selling the house? And what other options do you have? Would you move in with either of your kids?
MAX – I don’t think so. I don’t think I would move in, because like Myra, I want to have my own life. And I think that’s worthwhile. My son did invite me to move in with him, and I said, Oh, Ben, you don’t want your mother living in the back room. You don’t even have a back room. So I honestly don’t know. But the fact of the matter is, I can’t stay here too much longer because I don’t have much money. I’m running out of money. I’m outliving my money. I didn’t think I’d lived this long, and I’m already running out of money. And I could stay here, living alone. There’s a new organization for people living alone, and they do various things for you. So that could happen. But I would be pretty isolated in the house, because eventually I would stop driving. I’ve stopped driving at night, as you know. And eventually I would stop driving during the day. And I don’t have a whole lot of interest in making food for myself. So it would be a pretty isolated kind of thing. And I’m not ready for it yet. So I think I don’t want to live alone forever.
JANA – Yeah, you wrote that you envied Myra as quote, ready-made group of friends. But your son lives in New York, in upstate New York?
MAX – Yeah, he lives in the Hudson River Valley. He teaches anthropology at SUNY New Paltz.
JANA – So Nyack would be relatively close by.
MAX – Yeah, he actually lives in Beacon, in a cute little house.
JANA – Oh – so there is a backroom. Don’t out-rule it!
MAX – No. Well, he has a back room, but it’s his office. I’d hate to take over his office, for heaven sakes. Aside from the money part of it, I don’t want to lean on him, or any of them, in that way if I don’t have to. I don’t think that’s a good idea in terms of keeping a good relationship. But I’d like to be close.
JANA – Yeah, I mean, I don’t blame you. You wrote one of the necessities of growing older is learning to be vulnerable, even dependent at times, and being and being able to ask for help.
MAX – Mm hmm. I know a lot of people who can’t do that, either.
JANA – Is that a cultural thing? Are we so individualized and value the independent spirit that, God forbid, we should need to ask for help?
MAX – Yeah, I think it’s exactly what you’re talking about. And some have it worse than others. I trained myself to – look as a therapist, you are in control. The therapist, somebody who’s going into learning to be any kind of therapist, is someone who has a control thing. Not a bad one necessarily, but the dyad say, between a therapist and a client – guess who’s got the control?
JANA – The therapist.
MAX – So – sure, and most people who go into it are kind of naturally that way. And I was certainly, and I had to learn to ask for help, to be vulnerable. It’s not that you’re not. You are. It’s that you know how to handle it, and you cover it up. It’s very, very hard to ask for help for me, still, when I do it.
MAX – I know one person here who’s 88, and she has a lot of land and a lot of house and a lot of health problems. And she’s needed help for a long time, just to manage it. And it’s very, very hard for her. I think even now, she doesn’t have the help she needs, but it’s better than it was. Like getting assistance, getting gardeners, things like that. I mean, somebody has to do them. And the trade-off is a senior community like Myra’s, or anything, form like that, has rules, right? Whether they state them all the time or not. There’s certain rules. And if you make a big fuss and don’t abide by them in some way or another, then you have real troubles with the environment and the staff. They don’t want you to be like that. They want you to be agreeable, of course. Why not?
JANA – Yeah. Well, you were vulnerable in a very significant way when you had your left hip replaced, right? Can you talk about that experience, and your experience of the rehab facility?
MAX – Well, I was sent there actually, because the place I was going on Whidbey was closed because of the flu. There’s only one. So the social worker came in and asked me did I want to go to this place or that place, and I said, Send me anywhere, I don’t know. So they put me in an ambulance about a day after I had the hip operation, maybe two, and sent me to the place on what we call the mainland USA, whatever, over on the ferry.
JANA – America.
MAX – America. And the ambulance ride was very bumpy and difficult. And I got in about – late at night, you know, like 10, late at night, or 11. And they put me into bed and I made a joke. I said, Well, at least I’m not too late to see Downton Abbey. And nobody laughed. And I thought, Uh-oh. And I had a bed in the place, and it was an old hospital that had been turned into part rehab. One section was rehab, one section was skilled nursing. One section was, I don’t know – I don’t even know what. It wasn’t any longer a functioning hospital.
MAX – So I get into bed 10:30 at night, and get to sleep for the first time. Next morning at six in the morning, an aide comes in – and they don’t pay them anything, and they don’t know very much – and she says to me, and I’m opening one eye, she says, Now you’ll want to get up and put your clothes on come to breakfast. And I said, You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, seriously, I could barely move, physically. Well, this is an example of bad training, and someone didn’t tell her or whatever it is. But that’s how places are. They have staff who are not trained. They have procedures, but they’re not humanly-oriented. They’re oriented to the system.
MAX – Anyway, I turned over and went back to sleep, and complained about her and I hope she didn’t lose her job because I’m sure she got paid about three cents an hour. But most of the senior communities, they treat older people like children. They want to keep them safe, and that’s a worthy endeavor, but they don’t think a whole lot about the other stuff. You know, they all provide – I’ve been looking at all those shiny advertisements they have – they all provide meals and they act as if, you know, if the food is wonderful, that’s a great thing.
MAX – Now a lot of older people can’t taste food anymore, or smell it. You know, they eat for all kinds of reasons and they need to eat, as well as to keep alive, but they don’t necessarily care a lot about the food. But these places all make a lot about the food. And they all have – many of them have – four million activities you can go to, including playing bridge, which I have never learned and never intend to learn. But it’s all like, it’s there for you and your part is to pay money, be part of it, and don’t make too much trouble.
JANA – Well, the cost of running these facilities is incredible. My mom was in a retirement home – a very posh one here in West Palm Beach – for a while, and we took her out because it was just exorbitant. But it’s interesting that you mentioned that about the food because one of the directors who spoke very frankly with me, and told me, you know, some things that maybe she shouldn’t have, about how the place was run, made a point of saying that this is how they stay competitive – by offering really good food.
MAX sure want to say you got it.
JANA (laughter) – Right.
MAX – I mean, I don’t want to go to a place that doesn’t have food.
JANA – So you wrote, “I feel somewhat differently about death than I did at a younger age.” I want to know how, and if you could talk a little bit about your perspective as an artist – in terms of how that informs your views on aging. And this was really fascinating, that you wrote about death being “a powerful force within life and the impetus for creativity.”
MAX – There’s a whole school of thought, as you may know, that Rollo May, in particular, says that the impetus for creativity is warding off death.
JANA – Warding off death, uh-huh. And who’s that – who’s that name that you mentioned?
MAX – Rollo May. R-O-L-L-A, M-A-Y.
JANA – Rollo May. Okay. So how do you feel differently about death than you did at a younger age?
MAX – Well, I always remember that I didn’t see my mother cry much about losing people. And I didn’t know how she could stand it. Because by God at that age, if I lost anybody, if somebody died on me, and it didn’t happen very often – it doesn’t happen very often when you’re young, unless you’re in a certain situation – I was virtually devastated. And I think it’s one of the questions, as you know, from the book, that I really still ask: how can places and senior communities work more with this issue, and more with loss period?
MAX – I feel now the death of others is a little further from me in my emotions. Like, a dear friend of mine in art therapy, died a couple of weeks ago. And although I’m very, very sad about that, and she was very good to me, and she was a good friend. I mean, not just an acquaintance, a good friend. And I feel very, very bad about it, but I’m not stopped by it. And I think my own death, which I probably have been planning since I was a kid – I’m odd that way – I mean, I could figure out some reasons for that, but I’m one of those people, and the idea of pain scares me, but the idea of death doesn’t. You know, I’ll take care of it when I get there kinda stuff.
MAX – And my doctor recently asked me, did I want to have this test or that test or whatever, and I said, No, I’m not going to have those anymore. And there’s a certain freedom in that.
JANA – Yeah. I think you wrote that you’re probably one of those people who consider death a part of your life because the potential had always been a part of you, since you were quite young when your father died. Is that right?
MAX – Right. That’s right. I didn’t think I was young, though, then. When you’re in it, I thought I was pretty old by that time. I had two kids.
JANA – You were 30, and you had kids.
MAX – 30. Mm hmm. Older than God, I used to say.
JANA – That’s good. Well, it’s not a topic that most of us really want to discuss. What are your views on why? Is it because we’re so youth obsessed?
MAX – Well, that’s one of them. And I think that it’s, somehow or another we live in a culture – and it’s become more so – of putting aside and moving on. You know, for a long time there was – the English writer who, who talked about death in America and how nobody paid any attention to it. And for a while people paid attention to it and brought their kids to funerals and things like that for the first time. I think we are still doing some of those rituals, like bringing kids to funerals, or having them ourselves or whatever. But death is still a pretty taboo subject.
MAX – See, I think, probably, if you’re my age, you might want to talk about it with other people. I’ve tried talking about it as a matter of course with my kids. It just makes them nervous. So I stopped. You know, they don’t want to hear any of my thoughts about that. And I had a friend up here that I have known for about 100 years, and had worked with and he’s about my age, and he came up for a weekend. And one of the things we talked about was death. And it was a relief. It was a relief to be able to openly discuss these things.
JANA – There’s another thing I want to ask you. You wrote, “I wouldn’t want to be young again for anything.” I like that. What’s good about getting older for you?
MAX – Getting older means you don’t care very much. I never cared a lot. Well, that’s not true. I acted in my own way, and very often that was not the way of the – you’ll excuse the expression – herd. And that is painful, to do that.
JANA – It sure is.
MAX – I’m not sure if it isn’t painful to be part of the herd, if you will. I think it’s been hard for women. I’m not talking that it hasn’t been hard for other people, but I know it’s been hard for women. So you get to a certain point, and I’m not sure what the point is, and you don’t give a damn anymore. I heard from somebody who said, If you’re older and weird and have money, you’re called eccentric. If you’re not, you’re just called weird. Well, I think that’s true. But most people, I was gonna say, most people I know don’t care. But that’s really not so. A lot of people up here, for whatever reason, care a lot. They still do, in a way that is, in my mind, not very healthy for them.
JANA – Older people care about, what? The perception-
MAX -what other people think. If I do this and so, how is somebody going to react to that? Now, I don’t care about much of that at all.
JANA – You probably never really did, though, right? I mean, did you?
MAX – Well, I did less. But again, when you’re young, and you do that – something different – you suffer some, about it. Being different. Now, I don’t care.
JANA – I know that you gave up mirrors.
MAX – Yes.
JANA – Let’s talk about that. Now this, from an artist perspective I thought this was really interesting, that you say you have a list of things that you don’t want to see. When you were younger you wanted to see everything, and now you have a list of things “I don’t want to see.” What don’t you want to see now, besides – and tell us why you gave up mirrors?
MAX – Well, I gave up mirrors because the image I saw looking back at me looked like my mother, and looked very old. And inside, I felt 12 at the time. I’ve gone up to 15 now. So the outside image, which, for me has never been – I’ve avoided photographs most of my life because the photographs don’t represent that I see. And I think I’m not photogenic. But the image I see of me is not who I am. And to remove mirrors, or to consciously not look in them, or reflections, is helpful in terms of I feel a lot younger. I feel 15. I feel me. I feel whatever it is I’m feeling. But I don’t have something to contradict that. Like, uh-oh, look at her face. She’s got wrinkles. I had another experience, which is, I had the good old cataract operation. What happened was, all of a sudden I could see the wrinkles in people’s faces, and the dirt around the edges of my house and other places. And I didn’t like it very much. I liked it a little fuzzier. But what must have been fuzzier, quite different. And even now when I put on – I do have, I think I mentioned, a mirror over my sink in the morning and I brush my teeth, and comb my hair and stuff like that, and put on some makeup. And when I put on my makeup, I don’t have glasses on. So it looks a lot better, I’m sure, than if I have glasses on. It’s seeing too much. And the seeing, for me, influences how I feel.
JANA – Well, you’re taking a lot in. I think some people really look. They really see when they look.
MAX – Yeah, I think that’s true.
JANA – Not everyone does. So what do you want, is the question that Myra was finally asked after visiting many retirement communities. She finally found one that she liked because they asked what she wanted. So my question to you is, what do you want, now? What do you want?
MAX – Well, I’m not sure. I will know more after I visit a few places in May, in the Hudson River Valley. But I’m sure that whatever it is, I will have to – I don’t know about more, but I will have to keep my mouth shut some and work with what there is, because that’s what one has to do. What’s the choice here? It’s living alone, which I’ve talked to you about, that I would be more and more isolated, aside from the money piece, or living with others and having to put up with that. And what do I want? I don’t know. I want to keep doing as long as I can, what I want to do – whatever that is. I’m working on this other book that I’ve really been writing for 30 years, and I have a deadline and I want to finish it. And I’ve said it’s the last. And my son has told me, he says, I’ve heard that one before. So… (laughter) But, you know, I might mess around and have not too much to do. That that might work. Or I might get bored.
JANA – Is that the mass murder paintings and drawings?
MAX – Yeah, the mass murders.
JANA – That sounds fascinating and frightening. Talking about that.
MAX – In the days when I was an art therapist, I was very interested, always – I’ve been my whole life, probably – in the creative process, obviously. And also how human personality and sometimes violence, and the creative process may go together. And I did a lot of therapy in the old days. And when I got up here, I started painting it, drawing it – drawing mass murderers. And I did that for 15 years. The later ones are drawings. And the last one I did was the Pulse nightclub one, just a little tiny one I couldn’t resist. And I had evolved a book. And I’ve got a publisher who will let me do more or less what I want to do and doesn’t mess with my prose, so that’s nice, and had proposed something to him a couple of years ago. And he thought that was a great idea and sent me a contract and I will finish it. I’ll tell you one little tidbit that I learned this week. And it’s this kind of thing, the sort of, doing the research, exploring the ideas, thinking about them, that are so fascinating to me. That’s why I write. I want to see what I said. And it changes. I mean, I did a lot of thinking during the “Dear Myra, Dear Max” book. I thought a lot about things. And some of them are written down, and some of them are not. But this week I want to put in a little tiny piece about serial killers, into the mass murders book. And I called someone I know who’s an art therapist, whose specialty is serial killers and their art. And he reminded me of Hitler. How about that for – now, one could argue whether he fits into being a serial killer, the definition of or not. But anyway, he was certainly somebody who made art and wanted to be an artist. So it’s just – that’s a whole nother book, which I’m probably not going to write. But it’s an interesting idea that really captured me.
JANA – So that’s a book that’s coming out what 2019? Next year?
MAX – I don’t know. I like to write ’em and then send them off. And that’s it.
JANA – Uh huh. Well, will you write a follow up to “Dear Myra, Dear Max,” so those of us who are younger can get educated? Both to better understand older people, the older people in our lives, and help prepare us for when we get old?
MAX – Well, I probably will not write it. I think there are lots of follow ups that I think would be interesting to do. If some younger person wants to do something, great. I mean, I think for example, a volume two about the stories of older people would be fascinating, because they never get asked, and they’re eager to talk once you get them talking.
JANA – Yeah, I know. That’s been my experience.
MAX – Well, we all have lived a long time. I mean, that’s sort of dumb to say, but it’s true.
JANA – You’ve got so much history in your head and in your hearts. Max, tell us about your kids. I mean, how often do you see them, and what do they think about what might be the next stage of your life? Do you talk about that with him?
MAX – Yes, I do. And so far they’ve been very, very respectful about it all. Like, what do I want to do? Which is a good way to approach me. Sometimes I feel a little managed, right? And probably am.
JANA – So how often do you see them?
MAX – Oh, I see them about every six months or so, usually. But there isn’t necessarily a rhythm to it, too much. Like, Ben has had a National Science Foundation grant for research in Brazil for three years now. And so he takes off to Brazil every chance he gets. I told him it was ruining my life. And he said-
JANA – Spoken like a true mother.
MAX – See, I can say anything to Ben because he pays no attention whatsoever, and never has. I couldn’t say that to my daughter. She would pay attention. And Ben said, when I said that, he said, But you were so supportive. I said, Yeah, but it’s ruining my life.
JANA – Uh-huh. That’s so funny. We covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that was in the book that we didn’t talk about? Or anything?
MAX – I did want to say to you that my father used to say that the older you get, the more like yourself you become, which I think is true. And the other thing, I wanted to tell you the story about how I got into art because I think it’s funny and good, and has all kinds of messages in it. I was always interested in art as a kid and all that kind of stuff. But I got to the new Junior High, that’s what they called them then – Junior High’s. And they were so advanced, they had just opened and they were tracking. So we all got a big test, and I got put in the dumb class. And it wasn’t called the dumb class, but I knew it and everybody else knew it. And those were the days when parents weren’t paid much attention to in schools, you know, so my mother came and tried to get them to move me and they wouldn’t it and so on and so on. So I’m still in the dumb class. Anyway, I pretty much stopped going to school because it was so painful. Every morning I’d get up and I’d say, Oh, I have- and I wasn’t fooling, I would really have a stomach ache or whatever. So clearly we had a problem. And my smart mother, instead of taking me to a shrink about it – here I’m 12 years old – took me to a fabulous and unusual art teacher who changed my life. And her name was Eula Long, and she taught at the Khan Institute of Art on Melrose, then, in LA next to where the very old Academy used to be. It isn’t – hasn’t been for years, but on Melrose. And this connects to art therapy. But it wasn’t called art therapy, of course. There wasn’t such a thing. And she believed that you should support kids’ art and not criticize it, that you don’t teach technique. So she would have these Saturday classes, and I would go and all ages – kids, but all ages of kids – and we’d sit there and draw or whatever. And she would encourage. And she was also interested in, herself in, Gestalt psychology, which I learned a lot about at age 12, just because she was interested. I watched my art flourish and just change considerably, because what she did was encourage whatever it was that I wanted to do – not criticize. And that message is a big one for teaching anybody, anything to tell you the truth. We’re all tender little flowers, whether we show it or not.
JANA – That’s right. Yeah, it’s so interesting, because as you were speaking about that, I was thinking about how that same message can be applied to folks who work with dementia patients. My mom has dementia, and one of the things that I’ve really had to train myself to do is to not tell her there’s a right way to do something. And that has been a real learning curve for me. You know, it’s also learning as you get older a little bit about restraint.
MAX – The way I hear what you’re saying about learning to be more restrained, is that you’re letting your mother teach you about how to be with her. And that’s a big point in the book, that people ought to do more. It’s not like they have to create a senior community and give what they think we need. It’s that why don’t they listen or ask, or like the great question from Myra, you know, What do you want, seems obvious, seems common sense, but it’s not.
JANA – We’ve been speaking with Dr. Maxine Borowsky Junge, co-author of the book, “Dear Myra, Dear Max: A Conversation About Aging.” It’s a frank, insightful window into the minds of two brilliant, accomplished women who are facing aging the same way they’ve always face life: head on, and hearts firm. Max, thank you so much for your time. I know you value it, so I appreciate your taking the time. Thanks for being on the show. It’s been really great chatting with you.
MAX – Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.