In conversation: Jane Fonda - Macleans.ca

In conversation: Jane Fonda

On getting older and enjoying life more, why sex fascinates her, and her fear of intimacy

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Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Jane Fonda—Oscar and Emmy winner, political activist, workout guru, bestselling author, and philanthropist dedicated to preventing teen pregnancy—has a new cause: revolutionizing the way we view aging. In Prime Time, she explains how and why life’s “third act” is (or could be) better than ever.

Q: Why do you call life post-60 “prime time”?

A: Most of the time, contrary to popular opinion, it’s happier, less stressful, you have fewer hostile emotions. That’s been the case with me, and studies show this is true for most people, whether they’re rich or poor—though rich helps!—men, women, married, single.

Q: In the past, you’ve written about your strained relationship with your father, actor Henry Fonda. What was his third act like?

A: He was fortunate in that he worked up until the end, just about. But he also had hobbies. He was an excellent painter, and he spent more and more time painting as he got older. And he had a very loving wife who took good care of him, so his old age was pretty good. I think he had regrets, however, and he never did learn how to address them. The regrets were the same ones I have, like not being as good a parent as you wanted to be. I do make an effort now to be a better parent.

Q: At 73, how do you do that?

A: When you’re with your children, you really show up, you’re present. You’re really interested. You try to find ways to make their lives easier, and ways you can do things together that will make you all happy.

Q: As an actor, an activist, a philanthropist, you seem to take your responsibilities very seriously. So it’s interesting that you didn’t do that as a parent.

A: There were a couple of things going on: I was not happy, I was working, and I’d never had the model of a parent who comes home from work, puts everything aside, and is rolling around on the floor playing, or helping with homework. And then I became an activist, and I didn’t know to bring my daughter with me when I travelled. But what I’m learning is that it’s not too late, you can make up for it. And fortunately my children have resilience so they can bounce back.

Q: When did you start bouncing back from your own childhood?

A: In my 50s, when I went into therapy for the first time and was able to revisit the hard times. Learning about my parents, what had happened to them and how they were raised, helped me understand that they’d done the best they could.

Q: Why didn’t you try therapy in the sixties or seventies, when psychoanalysis was booming?

A: In my 20s and early 30s I was living in France and married to a man [director Roger Vadim] who would definitely have left if I’d gone into therapy.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, the French aren’t big on that. He didn’t believe in therapy, in pharmaceuticals. But I think also he might have been afraid that I’d ask him to come with me! In the second chunk of my life there was no time, between the activism and campaigns. Then with Ted [Turner], I left acting and was really trying to make that marriage work. I felt the way to do it was to give up everything but him, so then I had time for therapy. And there were issues in the marriage, so initially we went into therapy as a couple—he was perfectly willing to do that, bless his heart—then I realized I had my own issues to work on, so I stayed. I learned, among other things, how to drill down into your life to find the things you need to find. Do a life review, essentially.

Q: Which you say in Prime Time is necessary to be happy in old age. When is the optimal time to begin reviewing your life?

A: The optimal time would be when the key people, parents and grandparents, are still alive. Unfortunately, mine were dead when I started, so I had to rely on aunts, uncles, cousins. My advice is to interview [couples] separately—get the husband and wife together and it’s going to be the same old scenario that everybody’s bought into. I also recommend you use a tape recorder and take notes, and be prepared to really spend time and tease out, compassionately, things that may have been difficult. A lot of people believe their parents were the most brilliant and fabulous parents in the whole wide world. I know Katharine Hepburn felt that way, despite the fact that her father made all the children take baths in ice every morning before they went to school. A child can’t say, “There’s really something the matter with my parents.” Instead you say, “It’s my fault.” There were things I found out doing my own life review that really changed how I saw my parents. My mother, for example, was sexually abused at the age of eight. And my father was of a certain generation, and from Nebraska, where you didn’t say, “Aw honey, what’s the matter? Tell me what you need.” That was all anathema to him. The point of a life review is to begin to paint a picture of who your parents really were as people, the context in which they grew up. And you begin to realize, “Oh, it had nothing to do with me, it wasn’t my fault.”

Q: How did you avoid the regret that comes with knowing you can’t change the relationships now, because your parents are dead?

A: I did feel regret. And I felt terrible sadness for my mother because of the effect sexual abuse had on her whole life. Everything about her makes sense to me now: the promiscuity, the obsessive plastic surgery—which is the equivalent of cutting, only you have the money to get someone else to do it. I felt sad that I couldn’t give her what she needed, but I also felt forgiving of both her and me. She was not a bad person, she was just dealt a really bad hand. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who spent many years in a concentration camp during the Second World War, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that everything in life can be taken from you except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to a situation. I think what determines your quality of life is how you relate to the realities of your life. If you choose a way that’s stressful and angry, it creates neural pathways in your brain that become hard-wired. If you choose—through meditation, through cognitive therapy, through doing a life review—to alter the way you view those events, it changes the way your brain is hard-wired.

Q: When did you realize, “I can change the way I think about my life”?

A: I began to become wiser about myself as I was approaching my 60th birthday. The sadness is that I couldn’t get the man I loved to move along that trajectory with me. So I chose to go it alone.

Q: When your marriage to Ted Turner was ending, did you think, “That’s it, I’ll never meet another man”?

A: I was more like, “Oh my God, this is fantastic! I’m standing here in the middle of the room all by myself, with no man in my life, and I am just fine.”

Q: But you’re now in a happy relationship, right?

A: It’s okay. It’s all right. Is it perfect? No. But now I know what I want out of a relationship and what I really need, so it doesn’t have to be perfect. I know I don’t need a man to define me—I used to think I did. I don’t need a man to save me—I used to think I did. I need kindness, no hidden agenda, and I need someone who’s not afraid of intimacy.

Q: Judging from what you’ve written in the past, though, you were often afraid of intimacy in your prior relationships.

A: Yes, I was, but I chose partners who were, also. I sometimes wonder if the perfect man crossed my path at some point, but he was someone who said, “Come on Fonda, show up, bring yourself to the table,” and I fled.

Q: What was so frightening?

A: It was foreign. In my family, growing up, everybody did the opposite of showing up.

Q: But on the screen and on stage, you lay yourself bare.

A: Playing a character. My father used to say that acting provided him a mask. He could do things behind the mask of the character that he couldn’t do in real life. It’s real life where it’s hard to do some of those things. I made a movie [On Golden Pond, which co-starred Henry Fonda] where I said to my father, “I want to be your friend.” I could never have said that to him in real life.

Q: Speaking of things that are hard to talk about, why is late-life sex such a focus of your new book?

A: Because I’m fascinated by it. I know it’s not part of some people’s third acts, but it’s part of mine, and I wanted to know why things are different and what you do about it. Plus, we live in the era of Viagra and Cialis—what does that mean for a relationship? And why is it that so many men don’t renew their prescriptions? The other reason I wanted to write about it is that I know that a lot of people my age and older are getting it on, but nobody talks about it —it’s yucky to a lot of people.

Q: When it comes to sex, how important are looks in your 70s and 80s, as opposed to, say, in your 30s and 40s?

A: Then it was, “You have to be perfect.” Well, that’s gone!

Q: Do you feel more comfortable with your body now than you did when you were younger?

A: Yeah. Conditioned as I was in the ’50s, I can’t say I’m 100 per cent cured but I’m 88 per cent there.

Q: So you look at yourself in the mirror and think, “I look good”?

A: Well… if I’m backlit! Nobody expects you to look good when you’re older, so if you do look good, it’s all upside.