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When Men Are Left Alone

by Scott Campbell and Phyllis R. Silverman
Book review Copyright © 1997 by J. Steven Svoboda


Scott Campbell and Phyllis R. Silverman, Widower: When Men Are Left Alone (Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishng Company, Inc. 1996) (Death, Value, and Meaning Series). Order on-line

Book cover
Widower: When Men Are Left Alone
by Scott Campbell and Phyllis R. Silverman
Order on-line

Campbell and Silverman delve into the psyches of men who have had to withstand the death of a spouse. Men, the book makes clear, mourn differently than women. They are less expressive, often very reticent, and this submerging of emotions can be harmful, physically as well as psychologically. The oral histories of 20 men who have lost their wives are not presented here as a curative but to show how these men have successfully dealt with the shock and devastation of suddenly being without the person they loved. Their emotions range from despair and rage, to a hollow sense of having no purpose, to incredulity over the inappropriate condolences offered by friends and family. After each history, an insightful commentary is provided by Silverman, a practicing psychologist. Written to aid the widower but equally useful for anyone with a friend or relative dealing with such a terrible loss.
Copyrightę 1996, American Library Association. All rights reserved

At last a book on the long-neglected subject of widowers has been written. While addressing itself to an anticipated readership of men who have lost spouses through death, this book constitutes valuable reading for any man who has lost a spouse or partner for any reason, or for anyone who cares about such a man. After an introduction discussing some gender-specific issues faced by men who lose partners, and a short opening chapter on "what happens to men when their mates die," the balance of the book consists of a series of chapters all following the same format: a brief summary of background events in a man's life prior to his spouse's death, followed by a transcription of the oral history which Campbell conducted with each man, concluding with commentary by Campbell and Silverman.

I have never been married and yet found myself quite absorbed by the detailed stories of twenty different widowers. Campbell proves himself an extremely capable and sensitive interviewer, in whose hands men of all backgrounds seemingly feel comfortable sharing their stories.

The book fills a different niche from many men's books I have written. Although the authors do have some level of awareness of the special problems confronting men facing a catastrophic loss of a life partner, they are not as aware as they might be of broader men's issues. One example: A footnote attempts to explain the puzzle that although two men suffer the death of a spouse for every three women who suffer such a loss, the ratio of widows to widowers is five to one. The proffered explanation is that widowers remarry more quickly. But surely at least as important is the much greater lifespan of women as compared to men, a tragic situation which I dare say is of some concern to virtually all men's rights activists.

Despite my own personal political orientation toward men's issues, though, I believe the lack of agenda on the part of the authors of "Widower: When Men Are Left Alone" carries some benefits too. I found the analysis of each widower which accompanies his story in the book to be highly perceptive, nuanced, and sensitive. Each man is treated as a valuable and complex individual, unique and worthy of understanding. Over the course of the book, I actually found this continued interest in and even respect for the value and wonder of each man's life and reaction to widowerhood to be quite moving. The authors excellently avoid the potential danger of a book of this type, which could easily reduce itself to a shapeless series of episodic, random stories. Helping them to avoid this is the web of commentary they weave into each chapter.

We learn through the stories and the authors' commentary that many widowers quickly remarry. Nor is this necessarily a mistake, according to the authors; it depends on the situation and on the man's level of awareness and success at working through his feelings about his spouse's death. Campbell and Silverman thus do not allow themselves to trot out any easy answers. They see each of their subjects as an individual. While failing to connect the dots of these men's individual portraits to some larger men's issues, they easily acknowledge certain truths: "As a culture we don't give men the right to be natural" and "men have as hard a time with bereavement as women do, and often for as long or longer." One of the features of their analysis that I appreciated the most was their continual awareness that although men express feelings differently from how women do, our way of doing it is just as valuable.

Campbell and Silverman have written a book which is accessible enough that most men's mother or father or wife or partner could read it and profit from it. Their book is at the same time a great affirmation of men's diversity and our ability to "do feelings" in our own way. Three cheers!

Steven Svoboda is a 38-year-old attorney who has reorganized his work life to devote the majority of his time to men's work. He is founder and director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, an organization devoted to developing legal approaches to stopping circumcision. He cofounded and serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Northern California Chapter of the Coalition of Free Men, as well as Archivist and Board Member for the national parent organization. He is writing a book as well as regular articles and letters about men's issues, writing and performing solo theater pieces illustrating men's issues, and doing legal and human rights work on behalf of men.

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