7 UP

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

David’s blog got me started. Thinking of that “evil” little boy at the mercy of all those repressed nuns and priests. “When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP! I mean, Jesus, like that’s not going to have some kind of negative effect on the REST OF HIS LIFE.

It ain’t right, I tell ya.

His blog came to mind again last night when I was clicking through options on Netflix and came across a documentary called “49 UP.”

Do you know the “UP” series? It began as “7 UP” back in 1964, the year I was born. It had a simple premise – “Give me the seven year old and I’ll give you the man.” (Maybe they should have said, “…and I’ll give you the adult,” since half of the kids interviewed were girls. But, hey, this was 1964 and people weren’t particularly PC at the time.)

The idea was to interview fourteen seven year olds (half from lower, working class backgrounds and half from the privileged class) and ask them about their beliefs and dreams for the future. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the socio-economic backgrounds of the kids, with the assumption that each child’s social class would determine what he might or might not be able to achieve in life.

So, the kids were interviewed when they were seven and then seven years later they were interviewed again.

The series has been a life-long project for film director Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorky Park,” “Gorillas in the Midst,” “Nell”), who has been the interviewer and organizer since the kids were interviewed at fourteen. No matter what’s happening in his career, Apted always returns to “UP.”

I was introduced to the series when it was “21 UP.” I was riveted, watching each interview juxtaposed to the next, seven and fourteen years apart. For the most part, the kids held to their dreams, but their socio-economic backgrounds did in fact determine the level of difficulty involved in accomplishing their goals.

Another seven years, and another set of interviews. “28 UP.” Another seven years and the kids were 35. Then 42.

I watched them last night turning 49. It didn’t occur to me until this very moment that a new installment is about to be released, and that the participants are now 56.

I find this hard to digest. It’s both beautiful and horrifying. The participants seem to feel the same and some have stopped participating in the project altogether. The ones that remain are aware of the social import of this life-long examination, but they remain troubled by the fact that their lives are ripped apart every seven years and presented to the general public to devour and judge.

It freaks me out to see the progression of their lives. I remember when I was in college I saw a copy of Life Magazine with pictures of people growing from babies into senior citizens.  One picture to the next, each taken approximately five years apart.  I was fascinated, I couldn’t put the magazine down. But it was also like watching a horror film–you want to turn away, but you’re glued to every frame. I just can’t get over the fact that it’s happening to all of us. That it’s happening to me.

As difficult as it must be to be a participant in the series, I wish I’d had the opportunity. I’m an incredibly nostalgic person — I make every effort to document even the most difficult and personal experiences of my life. I remember making tape recordings of my teenage years, recording my feelings about life, my political views, my dreams and my sorrows. I told myself I did this for the children I would some day have; to show them that their father had the same fears and concerns that they themselves might have. But I really did it for myself. So that I can look back at my teenage years as an adult and map the way my life evolved.

It would have been hard, I know, but I would have endured it. I imagine what Michael Apted’s camera might have seen…

Age 7. Deciding to become a vegetarian after my older sister visits a meat-packing plant on a sixth-grade field trip. My mother thinks I’ll last two weeks. Who knew it was a life-long decision? I’m sure I’ll become a veterinarian. I carry around a little, black doctor’s bag filled with gauze, band aids and surgical instruments. Ready for the next run-over dog. My mind is set.

Age 14. I wake up and join my mother for breakfast. She is tired, her eyes puffy. She tells me my father has left, he’s gone to live with another woman. Other children. I am pissed, I say the joke isn’t funny. I run from the table. She calls after me, “I’m not joking! Your father is gone!”

Age 21. Bouncing around different bars in San Francisco with a girl I met in Santa Cruz. Celebrating the fact that I can drink. My father killed himself the year before. I am confused, depressed, angry. I just finished writing my first screenplay and a couple short stories. Everything is influenced by the loss of my father. And I’m headed to Hollywood.

Age 28. “Out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent.” The Beatles remain a huge force in my life. Been with the same girl now for three years. I’m working in the international marketing department at Disney Studios, as an assistant. I’m still trying to finish the 35mm film I made with my friends. I’d shot the thing on cash-advanced credit cards, loans and donations from people who wanted to see me succeed. Chuck Connors had a role in the film, donating his time. He used to say, “Schwartz, are you going to finish this film before I die?” And then he died.

Age 35. Married now with one little boy and another on the way. Working for film director Wolfgang Petersen. It all seems great except it isn’t. I haven’t become the big screenwriter or film director I dreamt I’d be, and it’s becoming clear it won’t happen as long as I remain where I am. There just isn’t any room for more than one story-teller, and Wolfgang is it. Meanwhile, I’m living a secret life; gentle father and husband by day, street-cruising sex addict by night. I wonder if Michael Apted’s lens captures the chromatic duplicity.

Age 42. Two beautiful boys and a marriage barely saved. The cameras see me attending twelve step meetings and sitting in counseling sessions with my wife. They missed the total chaos that unraveled just a few years before. My wife and I are struggling to work things out, and we’re growing closer in the process. I started writing something new and it helps keep me sane. I call it “Boulevard.”

Age 49 hasn’t come, but it’s just around the corner. If the camera was here it would capture a man content with his life, at last, after finding success as an author. Creativity setting him free.

One thing I noticed after watching those kids turn 49 was that the Sturm und Drang of their lives had subsided. They seemed to have settled into themselves, content with where their lives had led them. Many had not realized the dreams they had at seven, fourteen and twenty-one. They found other dreams to pursue and pursued them.

At 47 I’m no longer the angry young man. I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’m pretty happy where I am. I’ve been through a lot and the worst of it wasn’t that bad. I appreciate the good fortune I’ve had. And I’ve made good friends along the way. Which, I’ve learned, is the crux of it all.

My voyage to this point looks a lot like the ones I observed in the “UP” series. It makes me wonder if we’re all destined to follow the same path. Maybe it’s the human condition, universal.

I used to think that growing old meant I’d lose my passion for life. I treasured my anger because it showed that I cared, deeply, about being alive. I realize now that the anger was mostly wasted energy. Too many years spent gnawed by anxiety. What did my anger provide? Maybe it lit the fire that wrote my books. There was anger in my books.

Perhaps I don’t have to live the anger to write it.

I’m ready to be content, like the forty-nine year olds I saw on TV.

And Corbett seems to have turned out all right, despite the attack on his spirit by the fathers and nuns.

Still, I haven’t seen “56 UP” yet.  Maybe things fall apart and it’s Mahler all over again. Maybe there’s a post-midlife crisis I haven’t considered. 

I guess I’ll stay tuned to find out.

30 thoughts on “7 UP

  1. Thomas Pluck

    The 7 UP series is a true treasure and should be required viewing in high school.
    Our lives seem to have mirrored up until age 21, Steven. My 30's had their own soul searching disasters, but I married later and things are on a steady upward trajectory, for which I am very grateful.

    I used to believe anger was a gift. Fuel for writing, and many other activities. Instead, it is self-directed abuse. Oh, I still get angry. As a kid I wanted to be the Hulk. Anger is a part of me, and has driven many positive goals, like the Lost Children anthology, all sales of which go to fight child abuse. But I've learned to quell the flame early, and think. Rage does not need to be the boiler of an out of control locomotive. All you need is a spark, and a fire can grow from there if you tend it calmly, from a safe distance.

  2. Sarah W

    I have mixed feelings about growing older . . . It's not precisely a hoot and a half, but I still plan to continue doing so for as long as humanly possible and then some. Figure I'll hit my mid-life crisis around 80 — medical technology had better keep up.

    But while it seems totally unfair and backwards that I have the body of a forty-cough year old and the skin of a sixteen year old, I do feel more *grounded* (no gravity jokes, please), more willing to tackle the tough stuff just because tough stuff needs to be tackled (parenting will do that), and a lot less willing to judge myself by others' standards (apart from the writing, for now).

    It's not a bad place to be . . .

  3. Alaina

    …I'm 22, graduating college in two weeks and a day, and have never heard of this series before. And now I really want to go look it up. But I think I have to wait a few weeks.

  4. David Corbett

    Stephen: Well, if I in any way triggered this marvelous post, I’m grateful. Thanks for the moving, thought-provoking, read.

    I know of this series but have never seen any of the films. I do know, however, over another such project, much more long-term, and more “scientific.”

    For 72 years, researchers at Harvard tracked the lives of 268 subjects—healthy young men from the college’s 1942-1944 graduating classes—including JFK (whose records are, understandably, now sealed) and Ben Bradlee, the former editor for the Washington Post.

    The study’s principle analyst for 42 years, George Vaillant, wrote two books on the insights he gained from the study, Adaptation to Life (1977) and Aging Well (2002).

    What he discovered was that the greatest single factor in determining whether a subject led a happy, successful life was rooted in how he responded to the stress of failure and life’s inevitable setbacks.

    Vaillant drew on the research of Anna Freud concerning what she called “adaptations” or “defense mechanisms”—organic, unconscious thoughts and behaviors each of us uses in response to pain, stress, loss, conflict, disappointment, uncertainty, even betrayal.

    These adaptations normally change as we mature, becoming more socially functional as we proceed from infancy to adolescence to adulthood. Some of us, however, never outgrow certain adaptations, clinging to them unhealthily, and these inhibit how we interact with others and the way we manage the turbulence of life.

    Vaillant, again relying on Anna Freud, developed a four-tier hierarchy for these adaptations, from least to most adaptive:

    Psychotic adaptations: paranoia, hallucination, megalomania

    Immature adaptations: passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, fantasy

    Neurotic adaptations:
    Intellectualization (turning feelings and sensations into thoughts)
    Disassociation (brief but intense removal from one’s feelings)
    Repression (inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, denial, ignoring physical stimuli)

    Mature adaptations: altruism, humor, anticipation and:
    Suppression (postponing attention to the problem in order to
    address it at another time)
    Sublimation (finding “acceptable” outlets for feelings/passions—
    e.g., sports or career for aggression, courtship for lust)

    Despite the somewhat garish terminology, not even the more primitive defense mechanisms are inherently dysfunctional. Toddlers commonly employ psychotic adaptations, for example, just as adolescents routinely exhibit immature ones. Despite the unfortunate label “neurotic,” the adaptations in this category define how most “normal” people respond to stress.

    If you’re wondering why I have all this so tidily organized, it’s part of the book on character I just completed. How a character responds to stress is one of the key elements in his make-up. Zoë once noted, and I think correctly, that it may be one of the most crucial elements.

    So in fiction, so in life.

    I think the comments about how to constructively use anger from you and Tom show the growth into mature adaptations. I could talk at length on that one, but I’m already overstaying my welcome, and you and Tom have already said it quite well.

    As for Sarah’s 16-year-old skin: Am I the only one who wants pictures?

    Oh, and thanks for the gracious opinion that I’ve turned out okay. Believe me, the churning stew of insecurity and anxiety remains. I’ve just learned that, every now and then, it doesn’t hurt to give myself some credit. (I did, after all, get an A in Conduct and Effort.)

    Great post, brother. Have a grand 49.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    "What he discovered was that the greatest single factor in determining whether a subject led a happy, successful life was rooted in how he responded to the stress of failure and life’s inevitable setbacks."

    Hmm, I wonder what would be the greatest single factor in determining whether a woman will lead a happy life?

    I guess it wasn't important to find out, but I'D still like to know.

  6. David Corbett

    Alex: Yes, the subjects were all male, and it was 1942, so yes, there was a bias in the data. What do you think of his conclusion, though? Do women possess such a decidedly different emotional and psychological make-up that overcoming the stresses of failure and defeat are irrelevant to success, or less important than other factors? Or does this research perhaps, despite its limitations, point to a noteworthy finding about us all?

  7. Sarah W

    David, let me answer your question on behalf of everyone here: Yes. Yes, you are.

    But I suppose I could rummage it out of the basement, shake off the earwigs, and schlep it over to Bouchercon, if you think the TSA will let it through. I need something to wear to the banquet, anyway . . .

    Alex: I'd imagine it's the same for us, but with a bit more common sense, introspection, and chocolate.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, David, the summary you posted doesn't say if any other races were represented besides white, but I would highly suspect they were underrepresented, if represented at all. And if unrepresented, then I would say it's impossible to generalize the findings about white men to members of societal classes who are institutionally and legally oppressed. It's one thing to have a healthy attitude about failure, but it's a whole other matter to constantly have to fight institutionalized discrimination.

  9. David Corbett

    Alex: As I noted, these were students of Harvard in 1942: So yes, the data sample was comprised entirely of white males. Harvard was not integrated with respect to race or sex until more than two decades later.

    But as I noted, Vaillant's work built on the work of Anna Freud, and the insights into the role of adaptations in emotional and psychological health is not limited to this study. There's in fact a great deal of work on the topic. I brought this particular work up because it is a longitudinal study, like the seven-year tracking documentary Stephen discussed.

    Vallaint and his work was the subject of an Atlantic article in June 2009 titled, "What Makes Us Happy?" It can be found online. I just tried to add a link but Captcha went batty.

    I found the article fascinating, but then again, I'm a white male, with all the humbling limitations that come with the breed.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Damn, I love when a post creates a dialectic among my peers!

    Thomas – It's great that your Lost Children proceeds went to fighting child abuse. I can think of few causes more worthy.

    Alaina – ah, twenty-two…to be twenty-two again. Although I think I'd prefer twenty-six, just to give me a couple more years of experience under my belt. I could be twenty-six forever.

    Sarah – I really haven't faced the real tough parenting days yet. My boys are still rather young. I expect life will get very interesting (and very challenging) before too long.

    David – David, David, David…thank you for putting that together and really jump-starting the dialogue. I think the study, despite its limitations, is illuminating. I think I've spent most of my life carrying out neurotic adaptations. And it seems like mature adaptations occur after you're too tired to fight. I guess that's what I meant when I said I don't need the anger anymore. Angry responses lead to rash, immature decisions, and they eat away at the soul. Although the postponement and suppression adaptations seem to hint a bit at disassociation. I've spent way too much of my life lost in that.

    Alex – I wonder if there's an updated study currently running, which takes into account the different gender and race issues facing Americans today? Of course, since this is supposed to be a life-time study, sensitivity issues will always lag behind – who knows what we should expect to consider seventy years from now?

  11. David Corbett

    Stephen: The distinction between disassociation and sublimation or suppression is the consciousness and intentionality of the decision to "table that" for now. There is an awareness of the psychological and emotional pull of the stimulus, but a deliberate deferral of gratification. Disassociation implies an unconscious denial or walling off of the emotion. Basically, the more mature adaptations are ones that involve conscious engagement and some strategy for coping.

  12. Sarah W

    The thing about neurotic adaptations is that they can be extremely useful — even vital — to the survival of the individual, as long as that individual remains in that specific system and is not forced to interact with others who are not an original part of that system.

    Unfortunately, the sole purpose of these coping mechanisms are to protect the individual from harm, not the community. And this is where things get dicey . . . and really, really interesting.

    Or I could just be intellectualizing . . .

  13. lil Gluckstern

    I think there are always challenges, and I don't know if those people who are content are exempt from them. For me, it how we deal with challenges that defines us and helps us to continue to grow. challenges-as in children or just life-keep us sharp and we not always want them, but they do keep our creative juices flowing, and that seems to keep us younger.

  14. Reine

    Stephen, this is very moving. I don't know how it is that I was never aware of this film study. I am glad and relieved that I never saw it. I am certain it would have discouraged me. I would have given up before I knew I had any opportunity. I don't care how poignant it is. Poignancy speaks to suffering and failure. I am grateful I was blind to that growing up.

  15. Tammy Cravit

    Stephen, thank you for this terrific post. I'd also never heard about this documentary series before, but I'll be adding it to my Netflix queue.

    I suppose the thing that I feel curious about is the sense of contentment or peace the participants felt with where in their lives they were. This is a subject I've been pondering lately anyway, with something of a milestone birthday not that far away (I'll turn 39 in October, and next year I'll hit the big 4-0 the same year my daughter turns 18). Looking back on my life to date, I can see how even the most painful, traumatic, dreadful parts brought me to where i am today, to a place where I'm doing things I enjoy (writing and otherwise) and indeed feeling mostly content with where life's journey has taken me. But I wonder sometimes how much of that seemingly coherent narrative of "Tammy's Life" is real coherence, and how much is just a retroactive attempt at meaning-making to stave off the looming darkness.

  16. Reine

    Tammy, I think you have a good handle on the meaning-making aspect of development. I would only add reconciliation.

    David, the most intriguing thing I've noticed about Prof. Vaillant is his preference for pronouncing his name, valliant.
    Conversation between student and psychology professor in our doctoral program:
    Professor: Vaillant says…
    Stupid Doctoral Student: Excuse me, professor. That is pronounced vay on'.
    Professor: It's pronounced it val' yant.
    Stupid Doctoral Student: It is French. In French it is pronounced vay on'.
    Professor: He is my best friend. And he pronounces it val' yant.

  17. David Corbett

    Reine: Bret Favre pronounces his name "Farv." My dad worked with a man named Jim Huguet and he pronounced his named Huggit. I went to school with a C.J. Pettiti who pronounced his name "petite." My buddy went to school with a girl named Dianne Blome, who pronounced it "Bloom." (The boys, of course, pronounced it "Blow Me.")

    And yet Molly Medaglia never wavered from correcting people who tried to call her Molly Me-DAG-lia. It was Me-DAL-ya. Nice Italian girl, with an Irish first name.

  18. Reine

    David… good one. Love "Blow Me."

    With Vaillant's family history, I love that he pronounces his name "Valiant!"

  19. David Corbett

    I don't know Vaillant's family history, but I did catch this on the web, again regarding almost perverse mispronunciations embraced by the Americans and even the English:

    And where spellings have remained unchanged, pronunciations have been frequently modified. This is particularly noticeable in the South: Callowhill, down there, is commonly pronounced Carrol; Crenshawe is Granger; Hawthorne, Horton; Heyward, Howard; Norsworthy, Nazary; Ironmonger, Munger; Farinholt, Fernall; Camp, Kemp; Buchanan, Bohannan; Drewry, Droit; Enroughty, Darby; and Taliaferro, Tolliver.

    To match such American prodigies as Darby for Enroughty, the English themselves have Hools for Howells, Sillinger for St. Leger, Sinjin for St. John, Weems for Wemyss, Luson-Gore for Leveson-Gower, Stubbs for St. Aubyn, Vane for Veheyne, Kerduggen for Cadogen, Moboro or Mobrer for Marlborough, Key for Caius, March-banks for Marjoribanks, Beecham for Beauchamp, Chumley for Cholmondeley, Trosley for Trotterscliffe, and Darby for Derby.

  20. Reine

    Stephen, you are so much fun!

    David, I love that Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his from Hathorne, because his grandfather was Judge John Hathorne of the Salem witch trials. My 8th(?) great-grandfather was Robert Paine, foreman of the jury. His grandson went to Québec and called himself Jean Pain, then Jean L'anglois, then John English. It stayed that way until the family moved back to Salem.

  21. Marina Sofia

    I've seen a couple of episodes (repeats) of 7UP and its follow-ups. I found them fascinating. It didn't even occur to me that they might be depressing. But I was younger back then, I wonder if I might feel differently about them now that I fall in the 40+ category. I just had this revelation the other day: people always tell me I don't look as old as I really am. But I wonder if they know that I am not as old as I usually feel!

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Marina – I don't really find the series to be depressing. If anything, it's life-affirming. At 49 the subjects of the film are finally at ease and comfortable in their own skin. What's kind of depressing is seeing their youth pass before your eyes, and then to look in the mirror and remember your own youthful face, and wonder where it went. That's the freaky part.

  23. Burl Barer

    I was born in August of 1947, and my elementary school years were spent at Green Park School in Walla Walla, Washington. One day on the playground, my friends and I talked about how interesting it would be to film kids talking about their lives every year, or every few years, sitting at the same table, until they were old, but you would have to start when you were almost the same age as the kids or you might die before the movie was over. We talked about it all recess. "My mom has a movie camera," I said. "but it doesn't have sound." By the time recess was over we faced reality — no one we knew would go along with us on this project. After all, the only reason we were able to have the conversation in the first place was that nobody wanted us on their team at recess. Whenever someone mentions 7 UP I remember that recess on the playground at Green Park School in Walla Walla, Washington. The weather was perfect.

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Burl – what a great story. I think it's really interesting that Michael Apted has been able to do the series for forty years now. It gives the thing a sense of continuity. And he's earned the trust of the people being interviewed. It doesn't hurt that he's a well-respected film maker. Unfortunately, he's a lot older than the subjects of the documentary – he's something like 72 years old, while they are all 56. So, at some point someone is going to have to take over. And it won't be the same after that.
    Your idea of the film maker being the same age as the subjects was ahead of its time. I'm hoping Apted lives to be 112.

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