Skip to main content

The Oscars and the State of Hollywood.

Fresh Air film critic John Powers gives us his thoughts on the Oscar awards and the Oscar ceremony.


Other segments from the episode on March 22, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 1999: Interview with John Powers; Interview with Mary Pipher.


Date: MARCH 22, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032201np.217
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Oscars may not necessarily go to the most deserving films, but they do reveal what the movie industry thinks about itself. We called our film critic John Powers to get his thoughts on last night's ceremony and what it says about the state of Hollywood.

Now John, was it me or was this one of the more boring Oscar telecasts in recent history?

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: This was excruciating.

GROSS: Yeah.

POWERS: If -- from the opening half hour, where basically the ABC corporatized people walking in by doing the Geena Davis television show to the very end when nobody really said anything very exciting or controversial. And even the arrival of Elia Kazan was boring. This was one of the dullest ones I've ever seen.

GROSS: Whoopi Goldberg's jokes about people sleeping during the broadcast seemed more like journalism than comedy.

POWERS: They did. In fact, a lot of her jokes seemed to be something other than comedy.

GROSS: Yes, unfortunately that's true.

POWERS: And I -- perhaps it's a reflection of my age, but I found a lot of her jokes extraordinarily vulgar. It was as if rather than saying anything witty she just kept saying stuff that was vaguely dirty.

GROSS: There was no opening production number and no Billy Crystal parodying Academy Award nominated films.

POWERS: Yes. Well, I think I never like Billy Crystal more than when he's hosting the Oscars. And I probably never like Whoopi Goldberg much less then when she's hosting the Oscars. Somehow she doesn't have the kind of mind that is really great for such an occasion.

Whereas Crystal seems to really be excited and exciting at doing it. And although they're both good sports -- I mean, she was wearing all those ludicrous costumes -- somehow that didn't match up to Crystal being in each of the five Oscar nominated films.

GROSS: Right. Well, the real big event of the night was the award to Elia Kazan. You gave your point of view on that award in a commentary that we recently ran on the show. What were your thoughts on how the presentation actually played out?

POWERS: Well, I guess the most striking thing to me was how short the whole thing turned out to be. There -- when they introduced him very briefly. Robert DeNiro, wearing a very strange haircut as though they were going to make "Taxi Driver 2."

GROSS: Exactly, yeah. I was hoping -- gee, I hope that's for a role.

POWERS: I'm sure it's for a role. He came out, along with Martin Scorsese, and what was curious was that while Scorsese was there to support Kazan he also seemed to be slightly hiding. He stood behind Kazan and Kazan asked where he was.

And when -- and when Scorsese came up and sort of hugged him he looked extremely uncomfortable in doing it. He didn't seem to be a person exuberantly helping to give this award.

Meanwhile, out in the audience, it was kind of fun to see the various gradations of acceptance of the award to Kazan. Warren Beatty was one of the first to hop to his feet. Of course he had worked with Kazan when he was younger.

Then the kind of liberal contingent of Hollywood that hadn't worked with Kazan, like Steven Spielberg, applauded but sat. And then you had kind of method actor Hollywood in Ed Harris and Nick Nolte who made a point of actually not applauding.

It was very strange that probably the people in the audience who would have -- whose careers would in some large sense have been most affected by Kazan. Harris and Nolte were the people who weren't applauding.

GROSS: Yeah. Really, like Elia Kazan's style of directing gave way to the kind of acting that they do.

POWERS: Absolutely. I mean, I think that the curious thing is the very emotionalism of the kind of acting seems to have bred in them the kind of anger and intensity that would lead you not to applaud to somebody who had given names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

GROSS: I will say that that award was the subject of what I thought was the only funny joke during the whole broadcast which was when Robin Williams said, "as for the Kazan controversy, I say let Lainie sing."

POWERS: Yes, I thought that was funny. And it was strange to watch Chris Rock make a joke about Robert DeNiro hating a rat, which was a joke that didn't go over well.

GROSS: Wait. John, stop right there and explain the joke to me. I had no idea what the punchline meant.

POWERS: I didn't either. I thumbed through my mental rolodex looking for the line where Robert DeNiro had said something about hating rats.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

POWERS: And I couldn't think of anything. So I was wondering why he made the joke. Because it had the rhythm of the joke -- it simply didn't have the words of a joke.

GROSS: Well, let's look at some of the awards that went directly to movies. Can we please send Robert -- Roberto Benigni back to Italy?

POWERS: Yes, on the Concord. It's extraordinary to me how tiresome his act has become. And I should mention to American listeners that if he seems to you wonderfully joyous and irrepressible, that last year at Cannes he finished second with "Life Is Beautiful" and took maybe 10 or 15 minutes accepting his second place award when the winner took 30 seconds.

That he in fact did all the things he's been doing at the Oscars last year at Cannes which was in May. So he spent 10 months traveling around the world from country to country doing this same thing accepting awards, doing this mime show of irrepressibility and absolute joy.

And there's something that strikes me as almost demagogic about it. For instance, the way he keeps saying he doesn't speak English and then he will something like, "my body is in tumult." You know, "tumult" is not a word that a person who doesn't know English very well would say.

GROSS: You know what I think is almost tyrannical about it? The way -- his antic manners of joy make it clear that we're supposed to be sharing in his joy. That somehow his award should be my great pleasure too. And I'm not sharing in his pleasure at all, and I feel like he expects me too.

POWERS: Yes, he does. And in fact what I couldn't stand about his performance, and what I think perhaps every actor who voted for him could stand about his performance, is that in "Life Is Beautiful" he plays a person who is either in every shot of the movie or is the person who has just done something and in the next shot is somebody looking at him adoringly.

It's one of the most self-adoring performances that I've ever seen. I mean, he directed it himself and it really is him doing all sorts of cute stuff and then his real life wife, and wife in the film, looking at him as if he's the most wonderful person who ever lived.

It's very much to me -- that film was sort of "Holocaust Patch Adams."


But because it's in Italian -- somehow it was very well marketed -- people are thinking they are seeing something higher and more glorious than that.

GROSS: Well, last night the Best Director Award went to Steven Spielberg for "Saving Private Ryan," but the Best Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Actress Awards went to "Shakespeare In Love." What did that split say to you?

POWERS: Well, I think we can actually start with the fact that there was no actress who could have been in "Saving Private Ryan."


GROSS: That's a good point.

POWERS: Which is one reason why "Shakespeare In Love" won.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

POWERS: Because the largest group of voters for Best Picture are actors, and essentially half that group had no one to vote for in "Saving Private Ryan." I think the final reason that "Shakespeare In Love," in addition to an extraordinarily aggressive marketing campaign by Miramax, was that the Academy is so filled with actors they're by far the largest group.

And that "Shakespeare In Love" is a film that celebrates actors and acting, and was filled with juicy roles for both men and women. In fact both of the woman's acting categories had winners that came from "Shakespeare In Love."

So I think that's the real reason that it won. I think the secondary reason that it won is that Hollywood likes a story, and "Saving Private Ryan" came out, in a way, too early for the Oscars. And was the front runner for so long that people liked the shifting momentum of having something catch it at the very end which is what happened with "Shakespeare In Love."

I mean, friends of mine in the film industry who talked to actors, all said that the actors said that it wasn't even going to be close. That the actors didn't know anybody who had voted for "Saving Private Ryan." However, when you asked the directors vote and people in the craft they would then think well, Steven Spielberg is a much better director than John Madden which is why he would win.

Because they would all realize how extraordinarily difficult it is to stage things like the opening landing sequence. You know, there was nothing in "Shakespeare In Love" that was as demanding and technically difficult as that.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about last night's Academy Awards with FRESH AIR film critic John Powers.

There was this dominance of World War II themes last night between "Life Is Beautiful" and the documentary that got an Academy Award was about Holocaust survivors. Colin Powell made an appearance last night on stage.

POWERS: Yes. I was startled to see Powell come out, and I think he was too. He had a slightly stunned look of someone who has found himself in a place he really doesn't belong. And it was strange to me that he would be giving an award -- or introducing the award nominations for both "Saving Private Ryan" and "Thin Red Line."

I could see how he would be introducing it for "Saving Private Ryan," which is a very pro-American, pro-soldier film. But with "Thin Red Line" you had the ex-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff introducing a film who's gist was that the war in the Pacific was almost meaningless hell. And that ordinary soldiers were sent off to their death cavalierly by officers who in some cases simply wanted to be promoted. It's a very very weird thing to see Colin Powell introducing "Thin Red Line."

GROSS: Maybe he didn't see the movie.

POWERS: I suspect he might not have seen the movie.

GROSS: Well, let's look at Best Supporting Actress. Judi Dench got it for "Shakespeare In Love." Isn't eight minutes on camera in a film a little insufficient for an Academy Award? I mean, she was fine in the film, but she didn't really have to do very much.

POWERS: Yes, well, I think this is a case where the overwhelming success of the film carried her along with it. I mean, Judi Dench was perfectly fine in "Shakespeare In Love," and it was the kind of role that was very much of a showcase role because it punctuates the action. So it makes a big impression at the time that it's happening.

And I think that Academy voters have traditionally voted for those kinds of memorable short bits that they don't really expect to you to give a deep performance. I think in this case, also, Dench was helped along by the fact that she is a classy British actor.

And it's one of the dreams, I think, of lots of Hollywood actors to be a classy British actor, and that they love them. Over the years a disproportionate number of Brits have won. Even this year, for example, in the Best Actor Category Benigni won but all along people thought that the contest was going to be between Nick Nolte from "Affliction" and Ian McKellen from "Gods and Monsters."

And the smart money was always going to be on Ian McKellen because even though Nick Nolte I think gives a better performance than Ian McKellen, Ian McKellen was a classy British actor. And I think that's what happened here with Judi Dench.

Is that she's in a film that everyone liked. There was a huge push for the film by Miramax and then she was a person who is a big star on the London stage. So everybody knows she's really a good actress.

GROSS: James Coburn won an Oscar for his performance in "Affliction." That was a Best Supporting Actor Award. Did you think he deserved it?

POWERS: Well, James Coburn was very good in the film. I think that often the Supporting Actor category and Supporting Actress category are stronger than the Best Actor and Best Actress categories. He's kind of good and harrowing in it. It's nice to see one of these old guys who actually spent years slogging away win an award.

I mean, there's a very funny story about how when he was being hired for the film Paul Schrader convinced him to work hard because Coburn was an actor who didn't always work hard. More or less told Coburn that he would have to -- that Schrader would have to warn Coburn that Nick Nolte is very serious about his acting.

A that he wouldn't be able to protect Coburn if Nolte thought Coburn was strolling through the part the way he had in the past. And Coburn said, "you mean you want me to do some real acting?" And Shrader said, "yes." And Coburn said, "I can do that."

GROSS: Didn't you think that the performance was a little bit over the top? A little hammy?

POWERS: It actually is a little bit hammy. Yeah, it's curious because -- I mean, I think that the Nolte performance isn't hammy and over the top and was the better performance of the two of them. But I think that in this year's acting awards I kept looking at people and thinking how could they managed to win this?

And partly it's -- you start thinking that there is the Hollywood love of ham cannot be overestimated. I mean, the Roberto Benigni performance is quite hammy. The Judi Dench thing isn't hammy but it's the kind of thing where you don't have to have any depth. It has a lot of snap and it's kind of an obvious performance.

The Coburn performance is a good performance, but it's not a great performance. I think he was better in "Charade" many many years ago. And then the Gwyneth Paltrow performance was not the best performance, but it's a kind of showy performance because you play men and women and you put on costumes and the camera is loving you every second.

GROSS: Was there anyone or any movie that you were particularly rooting for that didn't win? Or did most of your picks never even make it into the Oscar nominee category?

POWERS: The truth of the matter was that most of the things that I really would've wanted to win didn't get nominated. And then among the ones that did get nominated, I think they never had a chance. So I spent the evening without much of rooting interest.

I think that -- somehow this has struck me as being a particularly dull year for Oscar nominees. I mean, I think the big surprise of the evening might have been when "Gods and Monsters" won Best Adapted Screenplay. Which makes it a not very exciting year when you're talking about the Best Adapted Screenplay as the real breakthrough exciting moment.

GROSS: Of the films that were in play last night, did you have a favorite that you would have liked to see win Best Picture or Best Director?

POWERS: If I were a person given the choices of those films I probably would have voted for "Thin Red Line" for a lot of the categories. I think it's a flawed film. There are many things I don't like about it. But I think in photographic terms it was probably the best shot film.

In directorial terms I think it's the most daring film. It's kind of avant-garde in its structure. I think that -- I also liked the way that it didn't play to the obvious emotion, where "Saving Private Ryan" really is sort of a rah rah World War II movie that pretended that it wasn't.

"Thin Red Line" actually was a kind of challenging film. So I guess it would be the one I would have voted for if I had been given those five films.

GROSS: Was there a moment of the Oscar ceremony last night that struck as the low point?

POWERS: I'm not sure I could find a low point of the Oscars. You know, there are always moments that make you either laugh loud or slap your forehead. I thought the tribute to Stanley Kubrick that Steven Spielberg presented was certainly well-deserved.

I mean, Kubrick would deserve a tribute. But somehow whoever wrote the lines for Spielberg had him say, of Kubrick's work, that it offered hope and wonder and grace and mystery. And then every clip that you saw was bleak, misanthropic and unhappy.


I couldn't imagine a filmmaker of whom one would talk about hope and wonder less. But that's the Oscar's.

GROSS: We should spend a minute or so talking about how everybody looked. And I thought for the most part people looked pretty bad last night. I think the lighting was bad. All the actor's faces were shinning much too much.

POWERS: Yes, I think the people looked bad. I think that their costumes were comparatively muted so that no one looked to be the great fashion disasters they sometimes had seemed to in the past.

People, I think, were much more austere. There is a kind of satiny (ph) going on in the men's -- on the men's tuxedos. I mean, there's a very distinct look this year with a kind of satin collar and the three button look. With the women, they just didn't look very beautiful. I think you're right about the lighting.

I don't know what it was. Also, that kind of bat cave set that they used didn't, I think, really show people off to good advantage. And then of course the musical numbers and the dance numbers which I'm constantly startled by.

I think Celine Dion must be mad. I mean, the absolute irresistible conviction with which she can bring her kind of melodramatic singing style to the theme from "Song from Camelot," or whatever it was, is simply overwhelming. It was very weird to watch another one of those "sub-Fame" choreography things by Debbi Allen.

I mean, when you're watching somebody do what looks like flamenco dancing to the theme from "Life Is Beautiful."

GROSS: As played by Bill Conti.

POWERS: As played by Bill Conti. You're saying, "what is going on?"

GROSS: Oh, yes.

POWERS: It's just so peculiar. And year after year you see the same kind of thing. Although it should be said for the dancers that probably as a group the most talented people who were on the stage at any level last time were probably those people.

GROSS: People are always hoping for a really dramatic thank you speech somewhere during the Academy Awards broadcast. And the only person who really delivered on that front was Gwyneth Paltrow who really seemed to almost be kind of breaking down with emotion as she was making her acceptance remarks.

POWERS: Yes, well I was startled at how exuberantly sobby and emotional Gwyneth Paltrow was. Not only was she sobbing and then sort of laughing, but she went on so long thanking people and naming people and then breaking into tears that there was a reaction shot of her mother, Blythe Danner, more or less suggesting, "Gwyneth, get off."

I mean, even her own mother, when she was thanked, sort of thought you've gone on too long. Please stop. Stop crying. Don't be so emotional. Leave the stage.

GROSS: Good. Yeah. I kind of read that the same way.


GROSS: Yeah.

POWERS: It's very strange when -- if you compare it -- actually it's funny if you compare to when Mira Sorvino won and Paul Sorvino was in the audience blubbering. Here you had Gwyneth Paltrow blubbering except she still managed to find the energy to name every person who ever worked with her in her entire life.

GROSS: Well John, I want to thank you for talking with us today.

POWERS: Sure thing.

GROSS: And for sticking it through to the end of the broadcast.

POWERS: Well, it's my job. What I don't understand is why people whose job it isn't would necessarily watch all the way through. At least I'm paid to do it.


GROSS: Well John, good to talk with you.

POWERS: Good to talk to you.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for "Vogue."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: John Powers
High: Fresh Air film critic John Powers gives us his thoughts on the Oscar Awards and the Oscar ceremony.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Academy Awards; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers

Date: MARCH 22, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032202NP.217
Head: Mary Pipher
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Adults have always worried about their sick and aging parents, but there are many ways in which our current situation is unique. Psychologist Mary Pipher writes about that territory in her new book, "Another Country."

Pipher, who is now in her early 50's, spends a lot of time caring for her mother during her mother's last year of life. Pipher says many of her friends and clients worry about their parent's doctors, their parent's driving, their finances and their living arrangements.

As part of the research for her new book, Pipher interviewed and saw in therapy many people in their 70's, 80's and 90's. One of her goals is to help the generations understand each other. Pipher is also the author of "Reviving Ophelia," the bestseller about adolescent girls and the problems they face.

I asked her what she thinks is unique about the situation faced by adult children and their aging sick parents today.

MARY PIPHER, AUTHOR, "ANOTHER COUNTRY: NAVIGATING THE EMOTIONAL TERRAIN OF OUR ELDERS": Well, up until very recently one of the major differences of course is there weren't nearly as many old people. Because people just died earlier and it was very uncommon for someone 50 years old to have two living parents as well as two living in-law parents. So there's more older people to take care of.

Another difference is we're geographically dispersed. So that it used to be, for example, very common for aging parents to move in with their children. Now oftentimes aging parents are a thousand miles away. The children live in condos. The wives are working as opposed to at home and available to be useful.

So one way to think about the baby boomer generation is that we may be the first generation that does not automatically assume that our aging parents will live with us.

GROSS: As you point out, we just don't seem to have many systems in place to deal with the new dilemmas that are being posed to us. What kind of structures do you think we lack that we need?

PIPHER: Well, I do think that there's nothing in our culture that makes aging easy. And I'm not an expert on things like the housing situation or the medical situation, but what I end up talking about mostly is the difficulties in just staying connected to older people.

I tell a story in the book about calling one of my aunts, and this aunt is a lovable person. She has so many family members and friends. She was getting ready to face a surgery, and I actually had trouble getting in to her because so many other people were calling or to say they loved her and wished her well and so on.

Finally, I got her. And she was very upset because she had been given an enema, and was worried she couldn't get to a bathroom by herself. The nurse wasn't answering her buzzer. And she tried to be polite to me as I told her I loved her and wished her luck. But I could tell that her mind was really very preoccupied with worries about getting to the bathroom.

And after I hung up from my conversation with my aunt I thought to myself, you know, she has a whole lot of people that love her and care for her, but she has nobody right beside her to get her to the bathroom at this moment. And it really got me thinking about the importance of just physically being with old people. There are so many things that really old people need that can't be hired.

GROSS: Now you had a mother who was very sick. Your mother has since passed. And when your mother was sick you lived about three hours away and you also had two teenage children at the time. And you write a little bit about some of the problems you faced. You said that you alternated between feeling very guilty and very angry. What did you feel guilty and angry about?

PIPHER: Well, first of all one experience I had -- my mother was unique in that she was in the hospital almost an entire year, which most people aren't able to talk hospitals into keeping them that long in the '90s. But because she had been a physician I think she had a little extra pull and was able to be hospitalized.

But at any rate, one of the problems I had that last year of her life was no matter where I was I felt guilty. If I was with my mother I was aware that I wasn't seeing my psychotherapy patients, that I wasn't dealing with teenage children that needed supervision and a parent.

If I was with my kids I was aware that for the most part my mother was alone in a hospital not very able to take care of herself. If I was with my therapy clients I was aware that both my mother and my children weren't getting the attention they needed.

So I did, I really felt like no matter how hard I worked and how fast I ran I could not be the places I needed to be every day. And I always kind of went to sleep feeling I should have done this, I should have done that.

The rage really had to do with the fact that my own mother was not a terribly practical person, particularly as she got older and was oxygen deprived and ill. Some of her decisions were pretty irrational. She hadn't done particularly good planning. So that sometimes I would be so upset with her for not making my life easier in a sense.

For coming up with ways to handle things that were very complicated for me. I felt a lot of anger at just the systems that I had to work with. The insurance system and the banking system. There were so many very complicated institutional problems that I had to deal with at the same time I was dealing with a very sick and ill mother.

So it's a very frustrating experience, and I think the way I put in the book, the only worse thing than having an aging parent is not having an aging parent. Because I felt very sorry for myself and very stressed that entire year that my mother was dying and then she died. And I had the grief of losing a mother.

GROSS: What were your mother's expectations of you and did you think that those expectations were fair and reasonable?

PIPHER: Well, my mother was like many Plains women that came of age during the years she came of age in the '20s and '30s. In other words, shows a tough cookie. She was not a complainer. I had tremendous respect for the way she handled her death. In that entire year when she went without, you know, fresh air on her face or a good meal or an opportunity to see a sunset or anything like that.

But the thing I learned from my mother's death and that I try to -- one of the reasons I wrote this book is to help readers who are facing, or will be facing, the illness and death of a parent. Have some ideas for how to make it as positive an experience, a painless an experience as possible.

I mean, of course, it won't be painless but some of the complications can be avoided if there is good planning and if there is conversation in advance. For example, in retrospect I really wished before my mother had gotten so ill we had sat down and gone over her finances. We'd gone over things like living wills. Her ideas about rest homes and so on and so on. None of that had really been worked out.

I also wished I had known the names of all the people she considered close friends so that I could have hooked more people in to helping me. I wished my siblings and I had really gotten organized and said, OK, let's each of us take one or two major tasks for dealing with our mother. And I think if we had gone into it with more planning and more conversation it would have been a better process. It would have gone better for me and for my mother.

GROSS: Now you talked a little bit about feeling guilt and anger when you were taking care of your mother. What advice do you give people about dealing with their guilt and anger?

PIPHER: Well, one of the things I think is really important is to say that the process of helping a beloved parent die is an intrinsically painful, frustrating, upsetting process. And it's better to have that expectation going into it. It's better to admit that everybody involved in the process is human. That people can't be heroic all the time.

It's important, for example, to pace oneself because it's not a sprint, it's a marathon in many cases. And it really is a big mistake to pull out all the stops and be heroic for the first two weeks of what's gonna end up being a seven month long process.

The main thing I want to tell people my age who are moving into this time in their lives is there's very important reasons to hang in there and help her parents. First of all, it's your last chance to grow up. It's a real opportunity to be a true adult. And if you say no, I think there's a part of you that stays forever an adolescent.

Another thing is it offers you an opportunity to do some healing in the parent-child relationship. Because your parent, as they age, is not a harsh authoritarian figure in most cases, but rather a kind of a sad older person that needs help. And it's a good time to work through a lot of the stuff that's piled up over the course of a lifetime.

It's a good time to hear family stories. Who else but parents are going to talk to you about what you were like in second grade. It's also a good time to teach your children this is the way we treat older relatives, because they will learn from you how to treat you when you are old. So it makes a lot of sense to show them a kind example.

GROSS: My guest is psychologist Mary Pipher, author of the new book "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Mary Pipher. She is a psychologist who is the author of the best-selling book "Reviving Ophelia," and a new book called "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders."

Now you point out that a lot of adult children who are taking care of their older adult parents still have a lot of unresolved conflicts between them. You know, things that were unsettled from 30 years ago or 40 years ago when the adult children were child children. What are some of the typical conflicts that you think are still unresolved and flare up as the adult children take care of their older parents?

PIPHER: Well, the things I tend to write about in this book are things like role reversal, you know, and the fact all of a sudden the son is taking the car keys from the father. Those are very difficult situations.

I also talk about what I call updating old pictures which is, perhaps for example, as a teenager the baby boomer was kind of irresponsible. Now they're 50, they're an investment banker, they're not the slightest bit irresponsible. But say the father, who is ill and dying, still has a lot of doubts because he is looking at pictures he has in his mind of his son as a 14-year-old.

So one of the things that's very important to do is encourage both the aging parents and the baby boomers to update their pictures of the people they're dealing with and not be looking at 30, 40 year old pictures. That's very important.

Another thing that may be a problem is something as simple as sibling rivalry. You know, most families have a pretty good healthy dose of that. And all of a sudden when a parent is aging sibling rivalry can rear its ugly head again. And there can be -- for example, one place you see this, Terry, is with wills. There can be a lot of disputes about something like who gets mom's feather pillow.

Well, it's obviously probably not really about this incredibly valueless feather pillow, it's about something else. It's about love or nurturance or who did mom love the most and so on.

GROSS: I think there are sometimes misunderstandings in communications between older parents and adult children. For example, you give a good one in your book that sometimes parents really want to protect their kids from worrying about them. So a parent might be very sick and not really communicate the full pain that they are feeling or the real prognosis that the doctor has given them.

And yet the kid feels that their biggest worry is that they're not finding out the real truth. They don't have the real picture and that worries them a lot more than the truth ever could.

PIPHER: That's a very good example from the book. And it sort of goes back to the two major differences I see between us and our parents generation. And one is this business of they grew up in a communal culture where behavior matters a great deal and where it's very important to be cooperative and a team player and well mannered. It's very important to be well mannered.

And also, they grew up pre-psychology. So that the two generations have very different ideas about how to process pain, how to handle adversity. And a lot of times there's cultural collisions between baby boomers and their parents as they have to deal with things like, for example, a diagnosis of cancer.

GROSS: Yeah, you know, speaking of psychology you say that you expected when you started this book that the biggest divide between elderly people and their adult children would be technology.

But you found the real divide was psychology that, say, the baby-boom generation grew up or had an understanding of psychology and their parents didn't grow up in that psychoanalysis era, and that they just have different ideas about expressing emotions and dealing with emotions and communicating.

PIPHER: You know, there are so many ways that psychology has entered the culture and changed the way people view good mental health. Just for example, our parents generation for the most part really believed in letting sleeping dogs lie.

That if there was bad news in the family, bad news in the community the politest thing to do was not talk about it. And on the other hand, our generation has been taught process process process. Share your feelings -- emote.

And so when we deal with things with our parents we sometimes see them as in denial, as secretive. And they, on the other hand, see us as sometimes as whiners as complainers, as spilling out family secrets. Sometimes it's a very comical situation. Sometimes it's very sad.

GROSS: Did you start seeing more clients as a psychotherapist who were dealing with ailing older adult parents when you were writing this book?

PIPHER: I -- over the years I've seen a lot of clients who dealt with older parents. And I've seen a lot recently because therapists tend to see people their own age. And of course people my age are the people who are dealing with aging parents.

The other -- I tried to lure as many old people into therapy as I could. And it was a tough go. I mean, I offered to see people free. I cut my rates way down. But one of the things that really got me thinking about this psychology business was how hard it was to get older people into therapy and how when they came into therapy their reactions to therapy were very different than the reactions of our therapized generation.

GROSS: How so?

PIPHER: So -- well, just -- I mean, funny things would happen like, for example, I had one client in therapy who spent almost an entire session explaining to me how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. And I told my husband later I don't want that to ever be played as great moments of psychotherapy with Dr. Mary Pipher.

But the fact of the matter is she came in before Thanksgiving. She was kind of a lonely woman. She'd always taking great pride in her cooking. She wouldn't be cooking a turkey. She asked me if I would be, and when I said sure she asked if I knew how.

And then when she ascertained that I really didn't know how from her point of view, to her that was the most important thing to talk about. And I would gently try to steer the conversation back to her feelings.

She thought, why waste time talking about my feelings when we have this import discussion of the Thanksgiving turkey. One of the things I learned seeing older people in therapy was that what I considered a therapeutic discussion might be very different from what they wanted to talk about.

And I ended up allowing them to set the agenda, and sometimes being a little embarrassed about what the agenda was. And yet realizing in the end that they knew what they needed to do. They knew just like younger people do what made sense for them and that it was wise to respect that.

GROSS: My guest is psychologist Mary Pipher, author of the new book "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Mary Pipher is my guest. She's the author of the best-seller "Reviving Ophelia." Her new book is called "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders."

I think one of the incredibly difficult decisions that a lot of adult children have to make about their parents if the parent is sick is will they invite the parent to live with them. Or will, if the parent lives far away, will the adult child move to be closer to the parent. Or will they try to put the parent in a home or in an assisted living situation.

And I'm wondering if you have come up with any advice for the people who you've worked with.

PIPHER: Well, I think you're absolutely right that this decision of where people live is incredibly important -- it's critically important. And it's about housing, but it's about a lot of other things too.

One thought I have about it is it's primarily a value's decision, because as you age and as you're thinking where do I want to be in my last year's? The main thing to think about is what's most important to me. Is it relationships? Is it beautiful places? Is it good health care.

Different people come up with different answers, although I think in the end most people decide relationships are the most important. I like Greg Brown's, the songwriter, line "you can't have a cup of coffee with the landscape." And I think many people decide to be near their parents.

I don't make recommendations to people of take your parent into your home or anything like that, because what I try to do is encourage people to think about the issues but make very particular decisions based on the quality of their relationship with their parents; their living situation; the different options they have available.

I do know that were I selecting an assisted living facility I would not pay as much attention, as most people do, to the architecture and the furniture. What I would be paying attention to is how are the old people enjoying themselves at meals. I'd go sit in on a dinner or two. Is there a lot of laughter and conversation? Is the food good?

I'd go to the activities that are listed on the bulletin board and see are a lot of people showing up and are they really having fun. I'd ask the staff how many of the people in this institution are on medications like sleeping pills and tranquilizers and sedatives? And depending on the percentage, I would stay from places where people were heavily medicated.

I think it's really important in evaluating a placement for an older person to be thinking about can the older person find friends? Will they be useful? Will they have a sense of purpose at this place? And how easy is it going to be for me to stay connected to them, to enjoy visiting them at this point place and so on.

GROSS: I think a real issue for adult children taking care of their older parents is how much of the adult child's life should they devote to taking care of the parent when the parent is ill enough that it can be a full-time job taking care of them.

How much of your personal life do you give up? How much of your working life do you give up? How much do you cheat on the job so that you can do better by your parent? How much do you cheat the time that your giving your children if you have children of your own? Or your spouse if you're married?

PIPHER: You know, I look back on that year that my mother was dying and I had teenagers, and I realize now I wish I had done more thinking about it in the context of my whole life, because I tried to do three things very well.

I tried to work. I tried to be a good mother. And I tried to be a good daughter. In retrospect, I wish I had put my work on hold. I wish I had just stopped taking clients, decided to cut back my therapy to a couple of days a week, which I know is not an option everyone has.

But in retrospect I wish I had just said this year is going to be about caring for an aging parent and getting my teenagers through the year. And other stuff will have to wait. I think if I had done that I would have been less crazy.

Now I'm not saying that's a decision other people make, but I'm saying that's a good process to think over the scope of my lifetime. Given this is a unique moment in time for me, and given I'm going to have a whole lifetime to reflect on the decisions I make about how I spend time this year.

What is it I'm going to want to tell myself 20 years from now about what I did well in 1999? And so I think that kind of sorting may be really good. You know, the other thing is we baby boomers have really been socialized to believe that the great joys in life have to do with treating ourselves, taking care of ourselves, having adventures, having time to ourselves and so on and so on.

And I certainly am a believer in time to oneself and great moments and being good to oneself, etcetera. However, one of the things we have not been socialized as much to believe is the great joy in being useful. And there is in fact a tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes from feeling needed, feeling that you've taken a very bad day and turned it into a good day for somebody who is in pain and ill.

And one of the things I did not anticipate in that last year of seeing my mother through her illness was the real satisfaction I started to have when I would show up in her hospital room and see her face light up. And realize how important my visits were to her. And that felt very good to me.

GROSS: For some people, you know, they have to make the choice about whether to move into or move the parent into an assisted living situation or a nursing home. And I think the assumption is that people are dragged away to those places kicking and screaming nobody wants to go. And I'm wondering if you find that to be true or if there are times when people actually appreciate the assistance in assisted living situations.

PIPHER: Well actually, many people -- most people do not want to go into a nursing home. And many people, once they're in nursing homes, hate them. That's one -- I mean, I've had people just look me in the eye and say I would rather die than be in this place any longer.

I mean, there's a real sadness in many people that they're in a nursing home. On the other hand, people sometimes love nursing homes. I tell a story in the book of an older woman, who was very isolated, who moved into a nursing home and for the first time in her adult life was going to card parties, was enjoying meals with her peers. She was having a wonderful time. Somebody was taking the trouble to bring her large print books so that she was reading again for the first time in years.

So they aren't always bad. Furthermore, there's things that children can do. Like one thing I write about it is some of the baby boomers write letters of introduction to the staff and tell the staff a lot about their father or mother. And that help makes the father or mother a person to the people. Also, it's great if, for example, your parent loves music. If you can go to the trouble to get a piano or a stereo system or whatever it is in the bedroom.

There's starting to be a real feeling of change in assisted living and rest home facilities. For example, here in Lincoln, more and more are allowing people to have pets. Children are coming in and working. So I think they're going to improve. For one thing, I think us baby boomers are going to demand better facilities for ourselves. We're pretty good at getting what we want too.

GROSS: Well Mary Pipher, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

PIPHER: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Mary Pipher's new book is called "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders." She's also the author of the best-seller "Reviving Ophelia," about adolescent girls.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Mary Pipher
High: Psychologist Mary Pipher is the author of the bestselling book "Reviving Ophelia," about the struggles of adolescent girls. She's now turned her attention to the process of getting older and entering old age and the relationship between adult children and their aging parents. Her new book is "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders."
Spec: Families; Elderly; Lifestyle; Culture; Mary Pipher

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Mary Pipher
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.


'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue