Pamela Druckerman’s article in The Atlantic of May 29, 2018 begins:
“The midlife crisis was invented in London in 1957. That’s when a 40-year-old Canadian named Elliott Jaques stood before a meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society and read aloud from a paper he’d written.
Addressing about a hundred attendees, Jaques claimed that people in their mid-30s typically experience a depressive period lasting several years. Jaques (pronounced “Jacks”)—a physician and psychoanalyst—said he’d identified this phenomenon by studying the lives of great artists, in whom it takes an extreme form. In ordinary people symptoms could include religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” and “compulsive attempts” to remain young.
This period is sparked by the realization that their lives are halfway over, and that death isn’t just something that happens to someone else: It will happen to them, too.
He described a depressed 36-year-old patient who told his therapist, “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away, it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”
Jaques didn’t claim to be the first to detect this midlife change. He pointed out that, in the 14th century, Dante Alighieri’s protagonist in The Divine Comedy—who scholars say is 35—famously declares at the beginning of the book, “*Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
But Jaques offered a modern, clinical explanation, and—crucially—he gave the experience a name: the “mid life crisis.”
As he addressed the meeting in London, Jaques was nervous. Many of the leading psychoanalysts of the day were sitting in the audience, including the society’s president, Donald Winnicott, renowned for his theory of transitional objects, and Jaques’ own mentor, the famed child psychologist Melanie Klein.
It was an acrimonious group, which had split into competing factions. Attendees were known to pounce on presenters during the questioning period. And Jaques wasn’t just presenting an abstract theory: He later told an interviewer that the depressed 36-year-old patient he described in the paper was himself.
When he finished reading the paper, titled “The Mid Life Crisis,” Jaques paused and waited to be attacked. Instead, after a very brief discussion, “there was dead silence,” he recalled later. “Which was very, very embarrassing, nobody got up to speak. This was new, this is absolutely rare.” The next day, Melanie Klein tried to cheer him up, saying, “If there’s one thing the Psychoanalytic Society cannot cope with, it’s the theme of death.”
Chastened, Jaques put “The Mid Life Crisis” aside. He went on to write about far less personal topics, including a theory of time and work. “I was certainly utterly convinced that the paper was a complete failure,” he recalled.
But he didn’t forget how it felt to be that troubled man standing on the crest of the hill. About six years later, he submitted the paper to The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, which published it in its October 1965 issue under the title “Death and the Mid-life Crisis.”
This time, instead of silence, there was an enormous appetite for Jaques’ theory. The midlife crisis was now aligned with the zeitgeist…”