Review: Gray Is The New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance by Dorothy Rice

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plain black cover with only the title and author name Throughout 2018, stories began appearing about the newfound popularity of not only allowing one’s hair go grey, but actually dyeing one’s hair grey…on purpose. Online magazine and journal posts appeared in Allure and Cosmopolitan, and even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal published online articles about this burgeoning trend.

But Dorothy Rice did it in 2017, and she shares this profound moment in her new memoir, Gray Is The New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019). Allowing her hair to go grey is only the beginning of Rice’s quest for self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. In Gray Is The New Black, she shares with her readers her deepest secrets and struggles, both mentally and physically. Now in her 60s, she wants to confront her feelings of inadequacy and believing she’s not deserving of love by facing her prior mistakes.

Her story begins with a current scene in a restaurant between Rice and her husband, Bob, her two sisters, and one of her sister’s new boyfriends. Rice’s sister poses the question to the women about growing their hair out in their natural gray color. (The women are near 60 and in their 60s.) The younger sister is not ready to do this, but the other two agree. Soon enough, her older sister backs out, so Rice is left to do it alone. This is where the reader gets to know these women. Rice’s descriptive writing and dialogue depict their personalities and relationships to one another, and we begin to see how Rice feels about herself.

At 60, Rice earned her MFA in creative writing. She had retired from a long career and wanted to take charge of her life; she was stuck in a rut and noticed it. Her inner voice was critical and she needed to confront her own worst enemy—herself. About her husband, she says, “I’ve been pushing him away for years, willing him to just get on with it and leave me, so I can stop feeling bad about being such an awful wife, such a gluttonous pig woman.” Her husband Bob doesn’t seem to be philosophical, whereas Rice thinks, “So much of who I am lurks beneath the surface, deepening, complicating, tormenting, enriching. I can’t imagine life without my hidden icebergs. I love and hate them. I learn more about myself and the world around me by reflecting on where I’ve been.” She doesn’t ask him outright to elaborate on how he feels or what he’s thinking. She thinks he either keeps his thoughts to himself, or he simply lets everything go. He can’t possibly know what she is thinking, so she imagines the worst.

So she embarks on a year of change, by vowing to lose weight, and also write a complete manuscript through a year-long writing class. The class meets six times, once every two months, where the members talk about and read their writing for feedback. The manuscript she has written is this memoir. It is arranged in three parts. In Part 1, we get to know her, how she perceives herself and how she imagines others see her. Part 2 contains her revelations and desires to change her life, consisting of losing weight and writing a book. Over the course of the year, she faces reality in Part 3.

Rice’s immensely personal memoir shares her deepest, darkest memories with her readers. She uses these moments in her past to examine the possible reasons as to why she feels so shameful. She says, “We carry some memories around for so long they become subliminal snowballs, gathering weight with time’s passing, becoming anchors to the spirit without our even knowing.” Moments from her younger self come to life on the page. We see her as a teenager and her experiences with sexuality, scenes that were difficult for her to revisit, but written with raw honesty. They are not depicted to encourage pity; rather, they are portrayed to reveal how a young woman can easily be duped into a sexual relationship without really wanting to. And many women reading this will be able to relate…they become moments of awareness not known during youth, but emerging in adulthood.

But she also sprinkles in some sarcastic humor, lightening the mood. When she is staying at a camp with her daughters, she says, “Much of the desert is beautiful, even gorgeous, provided you don’t succumb to heat stroke and become carrion.” In another scene having a conversation with a weight-loss program sales rep, her humor shines through. The sales rep said to her: “The daily smoothie is the key. It resets your metabolism, which is what’s been preventing you from losing the weight.” Rice said to herself, “I’d thought it was couch-sitting and binging on crap, like an entire sack of Halloween candy. But I prefer her explanation.”

I respect that Rice admits her memories “may be as fictional as any film. Or [it] may have happened just like this.” This is true for all memoirists recalling memories. While it’s difficult to know what was said verbatim, we re-imagine the conversation as we recall it. Recreating these scenes from our memories are our truths. She states, “There is a curated group of life events that have made it onto my emotional ‘hit parade.’ Like the set buttons on a car radio, these are the ones I push the most. I’ve replayed some of them so many times, they haven’t been allowed to fade.”

Her scenes are so well written and poignant that this is the type of reading one cannot put down, because the narrative flows so smoothly. She shares her writing process: “Unlike binge eating, binge writing isn’t something that happens to me every day. …Dredging up the past, turning all those slimy rocks over, is like…eating an entire sack of Halloween candy.” And she offers advice on revision from her writing class. “One is the suggestion that a good test for whether your writing is too abstract (code for boring) is to ask the question, ‘Can you pour chocolate sauce on it?’”

Rice reflects, “When you’re young, you can make yourself believe that when you fantasize and daydream, you are projecting the future. It’s all out there, still possible.” And then she discloses, “What I didn’t know back then was that the magic day when conditions were perfect for writing, or fulfilling any dream, would never arrive. It would only become harder, more complicated. LIFE DOESN’T STOP HAPPENING SO THAT YOU CAN PURSUE YOUR DREAMS.”

Going grey is a natural process; accepting oneself with love and kindness and forgiving oneself of prior bad decisions should also become a natural process. With this memoir, Rice achieved one of her dreams, and while it’s possible to succeed during episodes of failure, the overall message is to remain positive and hopeful.

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