Gail Sheehy’s latest passages

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Barbara Ruben

Gail Sheehy, best-selling author, journalist and popular lecturer, interviewed thousands of men and women over the past 50 years as she wrote 17 books exploring the issues facing all of us as we age — from her classic best-seller, Passages, to her book about menopause, The Silent Passage, to Sex and the Seasoned Woman, to her recent memoir, Daring: My Passages. Sheehy will speak about her life’s work, and the importance of courage and daring, at the Beacon’s 50+Expo on Oct. 25 at Ballston Mall in Arlington, Va.
Photo courtesy of Gail Sheehy

The phrase “Don’t you dare,” is anathema to Gail Sheehy. Daring defines her.

The best-selling author of Passages and more than a dozen other books built her career as an intrepid rule breaker, forsaking  the confines of an early position where she wrote for “the women’s pages” at the New York Herald Tribune to “march across enemy lines into the all-male testosterone preserve of the city room” to pitch a weightier story idea.

In her on-the-scene reporting, she came perilously close to being shot on what became known as Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland while writing about “the Troubles” for New York magazine.

Sheehy once plunged herself into an “electrical bath” zapped with a mild current to get a better handle on why Margaret Thatcher found the practice rejuvenating.

Most recently, she donned a leopard print mini skirt and drove an RV to the Burning Man festival in Nevada — a raucous annual event in which upwards of 70,000 people head to the remote desert, build a temporary city, and create dozens of art installations, which they ultimately tear down and burn.

Sheehy wrote about her experience in September in an article titled “Diary of a 70-Year-Old Burning Man Virgin,” for the Daily Beast — a news website that’s heavy on political and entertainment reporting.

A compelling memoir

Last year, Sheehy, who is actually 77, wrote her memoir, titled Daring: My Passages. [She will be speaking about the memoir and her life’s experiences at the Beacon’s 50+ expo on Sunday, October 25 at Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, Virginia.]

 “It took me three years to write the book, pulling apart my ribs and digging deep into the quicksand to find out what was the meaning of my life,” she said in an interview with the Beacon.

“From the title of my book, you might think I was born fearless. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Sheehy said. “In fact, I am a naturally fearful person. I’ve been known to have a panic attack. So I had to find a way to use my fear to compel me to act.”

And act she did. As a 12-year-old girl, she would sneak out of her New York City suburb and take the train 25 miles to Grand Central Station, telling the ticket seller she was off to a tap dance class. In reality, she would walk around and gawk at the city that would become her home for most of her adult life.

She became a “protégée” of anthropologist Margaret Mead while in graduate school at Columbia University after Sheehy won a fellowship to study there. Mead was both a neighbor and mentor to Sheehy, who said that, “It was when I came under [Mead’s] tutelage that my intellectual life began to take shape.”

Sheehy raised her daughter Maura alone in the 1960s after she was blindsided by her husband’s infidelity and divorced him.

Then, in the late 1970s, she wrote a story for the New York Times on the dire refugee crisis in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. While reporting in Cambodia and Vietnam, Sheehy met a 12-year-old orphaned girl she couldn’t get out of her mind. Maura had just left for college, and Sheehy felt a void in her life.

Sheehy worked for a year to bring the girl she renamed Mohm to the United States and adopt her. In what she calls a “daredevil exercise,” on the one day that a loophole opened in a law that had forbidden immigration of the refugees, she was able to get Mohm into the country.

The bedlam of New York with its sirens, neon and skyscrapers meant that the girl had to traverse a yawning cultural gap, but with the help of Sheehy, Mohm worked diligently, learned English, and soon adapted to their new life together.

Immersive reporting

Language has also been a cornerstone of Sheehy’s life. Beginning with her grandmother’s biography, which she wrote while still a child, Sheehy’s work has centered on the written word.

She has written about experiences such as flying with Bobby Kennedy on his campaign plane days before his assassination, to pulling on white go-go boots to better fit in with the call girls she wanted to interview as she reported about prostitution in New York.

Her immersive style of reporting propelled her to the upper echelons of what became known as New Journalism in the 1960s and ‘70s, along with such well-known writers as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

“The old journalism, with its who-what-when-where-why rigidity, was inadequate to convey the wild gyrations of gender and politics, music and mind-blowing drugs in that era. It would be like filming Woodstock in black and white,” she writes of the emerging style of journalism in Daring.

But in the intervening 50 years, writing has changed tremendously, she told the Beacon. Today, she worries about the compression of complex ideas into tweets and sound bites.

“In a Twitter and Facebook world, there is no room, no patience to read anything more than 140 characters or 200 words. There is no room to develop scenes and character and dialogue that make a great story,” Sheehy said.

“I find that most disturbing in terms of the decline of love of language. Language is what we are. It is what makes us human. To be required to use very abbreviated language or emojis to express things is dumbing down our capacity for expression.”

Decades of Passages

Despite the changing landscape for writers, Sheehy said she thinks books will always have a place.

Best known for her classic best-seller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Sheehy has written 16 other books on subjects ranging from caregiving to Hillary Clinton.

In Passages, Sheehy put together a roadmap for stages of adulthood. It was a new idea in 1976, when doctors and psychologists delineated the phases of childhood, but stopped after the teen years.

Sheehy, who wrote the book in her late 30s, picks up with what she calls the Trying 20s, move on to the Deadline Decade of the mid-30s to mid-40s, when people worry their lives are half over and they need to make their mark, and the Switch 40s, where men feel they are stagnating, while women feel more independent as their children grow up.

But the book ends abruptly at the half century mark. “I made a very clear decision to stop it at 50 because I could not imagine being at that stage of life,” said Sheehy.

“I think I made the right decision, and painted a very full vision of a mid-life passage. That was really what people needed to know.

“I posited a female adult life cycle...Until then, there was only the male life cycle, and women were expected to make do and dodge and weave around it. There was indeed a female life cycle, and it helped a lot of women see there was a new potential in their lives.”

As she grew older, Sheehy went on to write additional Passages books. In New Passages, 20 years later, she included the Flailing 50s and Surge 60s.

There was also Menopause: The Silent Passage, a subject that until then had been a taboo, she said, and Passages in Caregiving, drawn from caring for her husband Clay Felker, creator of New York magazine, whom she met when he was her editor at the Herald Tribune.

“I thinkPassages in Caregiving is one of the most helpful books I’ve written,” Sheehy said. “The most important message is, you can’t do this alone. No one can.”

Caregiving is “an overwhelming emotional, physical, intellectual task, because you end up running a business trying to deal with multiple doctors, insurance, getting the services your loved one in entitled to but you have to fight for. And all the while you have to keep some semblance of your own life going,” Sheehy said.

But she admitted that the life stages she has so carefully outlined in her past books may be blown to smithereens by the millennial generation, born between about 1980 and 2000. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as she’s learned from her three grandchildren.

“What’s interesting to me now is that the millennials don’t relate to the typical life stages. To them, there are no boundaries.

“Why should they have to wait until they’re 40 to be a big success, when they can try to copy [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg, who became a zillionaire before 30 and passed the octogenarian Warren Buffet as the primary philanthropist?

“They don’t see boundaries as to when they can marry, how late they can have children, or how early they can do a digital start up that grows and grows and allows them to change the world,” she said.

Share your daring moments

At the same time, Sheehy herself is working to make a difference in the lives of older women with her new Daring Project.

She has met and interviewed dozens of women who took a leap of faith and dared to plunge into the unknown, from feminist Gloria Steinem to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.

Now, she wants to hear the stories of your courageous moments. Sheehy invites women to submit a summary of their daring moments and where they led. She will then select women and interview them for stories on her website, http://sheehydaringproject.com.

So far, she has recounted how Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post,was “terribly ashamed” of her Greek accent, so she applied to become part of the Cambridge Debate Society. Sheehy said Helen Mirren still gets stage fright, but fakes being confident until she truly feels that way.

There are also stories of lesser-known women, like Kathryn Tucker, who dared in her teens to become a competitive white water kayaker.

Tucker grew up, attended Georgetown University Law School, and went on to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court asking that the injunction against Oregon’s law allowing assisted suicide for terminally ill patients be lifted. She won, and over the last 17 years she has gone to court to argue for other right-to-die laws.

Tucker credits yoga and meditation with keeping her calm — and her early risks with kayaking with helping her learn how courageous she is.

Sheehy looks at her Daring Project as a way to reframe “the concept of courage — which is usually thought of as a male physical attribute — as women’s ways of courage,” she said.

“It builds on itself. Once you have taken a daring step and then you try it again and sail forward into something new and wonderful, you can begin to develop a habit, which is what I did.”

Sheehy will be speaking about her life, answering questions, and autographing her books from 1 to 2 p.m. on the third level of Ballston Mall on Sunday, October 25, at the Beacon 50+Expo. Free.