A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Gail Sheehy’s 1976 book “Passages” had an exciting idea at its core: adulthood is dotted with predictable turning points. Now, after more than 45 years interviewing women and men about their lives, the journalist and best-selling author has turned the lens on herself. Her new memoir reflects on her career as a trailblazing female journalist in the ’60s, a mother determined to balance work and family and a caregiver to an ailing husband. It was through this look back at her own passages that Sheehy came to realize what the theme of her life has been: “daring.” Gail Sheehy on life’s passages, and the daring that’s gotten her through them.
- Gail Sheehy literary journalist and author of seventeen books, including the 1976 best-seller “Passages."
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Starting at 11/10c, watch Gail Sheehy talk about her life and career in studio.
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From the book DARING: MY PASSAGES by Gail Sheehy. Copyright (c) 2014 by G Merritt Corp. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Gail Sheehy's bestselling book, "Passages," gave people a new way to understand the crisis and stages that punctuate adulthood. In her new memoir, the journalist and author reflects on her own life's passages from the moment she first faced her own mortality to the years spent caring for her dying husband. Her new memoir is titled, "Daring: My Passages." And Gail Sheehy joins me in the studio throughout the hour.
MS. DIANE REHMI'll invite you to reflect on your own life's passages. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Gail, it's so good to see you again.
MS. GAIL SHEEHYI'm thrilled to be with you, as always. My favorite interviewer in the world.
REHMOh, Gail. You're sweet. I want to talk with you about what finally made you decide to look at your own passages.
SHEEHYDiane, I think I -- it's only fair. I've been interviewing thousands of men and women and examining their lives and collaborating with them on putting together the story of how they grew. And I thought, when I passed into my 70s, it was time to turn the lens on my own life. And see how did I make my choices? You know, what was my pattern? What did my life add up to? That's a tough question to ask yourself, but the 70s is the time to do it.
SHEEHYAnd I would encourage your listeners to do it in their 60s or their 70s, even if it's only for their grandchildren.
REHMIndeed. You talk early in the book about your mother and dad.
REHMTell us about them.
SHEEHYWell, they did the best they could. My mother was a woman of her generation. She had tremendous ability as a potential opera singer, as a businesswoman. She wasn't able to accomplish either of those because of the deprivations that women suffered when they came of age in the 30s and the 40s. So, she became an alcoholic, unbeknownst to me during childhood. She just would kind of disappear like a cloud. And she'd come and go. She was wonderful when she was there, very sunny presence. She was the one who made my ballet costumes and gave me acting lessons, but she wasn't really very supportive.
REHMYou describe a scene in the book where she is upstairs in the bedroom, hidden away. I think you're about six.
REHMAnd you say you go in there, and it smells like some kind of medicine or mouthwash. And yet, you know now it was alcohol.
SHEEHYExactly. And she used to have what she called sinus attacks. So, she'd make a wonderful meal, serve it. There'd be the three of us at the table until my baby sister was born, nine years later. And then she'd disappear and say, I have a sinus attack. Because she had been drinking while she was making dinner.
REHMBut meanwhile, your father was downstairs with other women.
SHEEHYWith other women. His golf partners, so to speak.
REHMIs that what he called them?
SHEEHYYes. And I would often see them through the banister, upstairs. And see them wrestling on the ground, as if they were just horsing around. And sometimes I would call my mother and say, you know, daddy's playing with his golf partner. I want you to come. You know, or daddy's on the phone with, you know, his golf partner. And mom wouldn't come. She would be drinking to escape the reality that she did not know how to fight.
REHMAnd pretty soon, they were sleeping separately. You were dealing with each of them separately.
SHEEHYSeparately, yes. And my father, at that time, was training me to be a competitor, which was very useful, later in life. He was the man behind my swimming suit, with the gun, the starter's gun, having me race in meets, national and -- I mean, county meets. And, most often, I won. And as long as I won for him, everything was great. If I didn't win, he wasn't so happy. And sometimes he would switch my legs with forsythia branches, so I really learned that you had to be a winner.
REHMHow long did they stay together?
SHEEHYReally, not until I was 21 and I had -- 23. I had married, I would come to New York on fashion week as a reporter for Rochester Newspaper. It was the most exciting outside, you know, story I'd had. And I had a deadline every day and I really wanted to make it. And my father appeared and insisted upon coming to have lunch. I said, I don't have time daddy. I'm on a deadline. He came anyway, and he dropped the news that he was marrying one of his golf partners, who was younger than I, and going off to California to start a new life. But...
REHMAnd your mother?
SHEEHYOh, by the way, my mother wasn't going to be going with him. So it was an enormous shock to me.
REHMAnd by then, you were already married.
SHEEHYI was married. Thank goodness I had a foothold in an independent life. But the biggest problem was, and I had to beg him, and actually insist that he continue to put my sister, my much younger sister through college. She was only in her first year and struggling to pay the bills, because he really wasn't paying much attention. He promised he would, but I knew, by the end of our conversation, that was not going to happen.
REHMIt was not going to happen. So did you have to help your sister get through college?
SHEEHYNot only have to, I wanted to. I -- so, I actually, within a couple of years, had two surrogates. One natural child when I was 25. And my sister, who was kind of my surrogate child, and fell into the drug culture. You know, having had her life blown up and the drug culture, on the lower east side, which was where we lived, was just wild. And amphetamine was the drug of choice. And she got mixed up with a man who said he was running the grand magic vitamin experiment, and bringing in all kinds of children to be his slaves, so to speak.
SHEEHYAnd she finally got caught, passing false credit cards and was put into a women's house of detention, a notorious prison at that time. And was released in my custody. So now I had a second child and had to find a babysitter for my first one. The funny -- one of the funniest chapters in the book, Diane, is called, you know, Woodstock. Because I had to escape this maniac who was -- had power over my sister, who came to find me in order to find her, and tried to kill me.
SHEEHYAnd I, the only thing I could think to do was to just get out of town. And I went and got my -- picked up my sister at the drug program where I'd installed her. We drove up to this big gathering, up in some farm in upstate New York, and I knew there would be thousands and thousands of people. Nobody could ever find us there. And it turns out to be Woodstock, the biggest drug fest in the history of the world. And we were the only ones who didn't even have a puff.
REHMYou were at the time supporting your husband who was going through medical school.
SHEEHYThat's right. I was. He -- it was called PHT. Putting hubby through. That was one of the common assignments of young women in their -- married in their -- in the 1960s.
REHMHow long did that marriage last?
SHEEHYIt really only lasted five years. And he was now in residency. Didn't need the support anymore. Found another lady. So it was kind of a repeat of what had happened with my father. And thank goodness I didn't get embittered against men, but I did have to struggle as a single mother. And struggle against the feeling that maybe I was unlovable. But fortunately, very soon after that, I met the man who became the Pygmalion in my life.
SHEEHYClay Felker, who had started New York Magazine in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, where I was working as a journalist in the women's department. Which was where we were put.
REHMBut boy, did you make a bold gesture, and that's why I love the book's title. "Daring." You went to speak to Clay Felker without your editor's permission.
SHEEHYAbsolutely. If she had known I was taking my best story to the man who was putting out a Sunday supplement, she would have gotten rid of me. But, you know, I had been watching and reading Tom Wolf, who was the, you know, the god of the Times. And Jimmy Breslin, who was a, you know, roughneck, and, you know, would work with bail bondsmen and knee cappers and then get drunk and go across the street and insult everybody.
SHEEHYSo these guys were just blowing up journalism, writing a whole new way. We called it the new journalism. I met Tom in the elevator one day and I said, what's it like to work for Clay Felker? And he said, well, the Herald Tribune is the main Tijuana bull ring for male competitive riders, but you have to be brave.
REHMAnd you were.
SHEEHYWell, I said, you know, I'm little, but I like to think I'm brave. And why should men be the only ones who write like that? So, I got my best story, and I crossed the city room. I called it the testosterone zone. And I got to the door of Clay Felker's little cubbyhole. He's on the phone. He has a huge voice, Diane. I'm hearing him say, what do you mean you don't have my reservation? Three people in the pool room, my usual table at the Four Seasons. Wow. I'm standing there thinking, who am I? I'm just a little, you know, somebody, one boyfriend called me a skinny, brainy chick. And he didn't mean it as a compliment.
REHMAll right. Save that, the rest of that story, until we take a short break. Gail Sheehy is with me. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Gail Sheehy is with me. She, of course, is the New York Times Best-Selling author of "Passages." And now she's written a memoir about her own passages. It's titled "Daring." And indeed that is what Gail Sheehy can claim to have been for most of her adult life. Now, finish that story about making your way to Clay Felker's office, hearing him on the phone.
SHEEHYWell, he was larger than life and his voice was -- could make glasses jump off the table. So I'm hearing him say on the phone, what do you mean you don't have my reservation? Clay Felker, the pool room, my usual table. I have three people coming tonight. My wife is opening on Broadway. I thinking, my god, this man has everything. I'm just this little, you know, nobody. And then he looks up and he says, where'd you come from? I said, the Estrogen Zone, meaning the women's department.
SHEEHYI got a laugh out of him. And then he said, what have you got for me? Well, I knew I had 30 seconds to hold his attention, and of course I garbled my story at first and then he said, well, what are you trying to say? So I finally spit it out. I said, well, it's a story about loser men who were inviting beautiful women to come to specimen-viewing parties because he wants to -- they want to offer them free rent so they'll sit on their beach blanket and attract other beautiful girls. So they have to pick the best specimens.
SHEEHYHe said, did you go to one of these specimen-viewing parties? I said, yes, of course. He said, then write it -- write that scene just like you described it. We'll call it the flypaper people. And so I said, write a scene as journalism? I've never heard of such a thing. He was telling me to jump off the edge.
SHEEHYThat was the beginning of the new journalism.
REHMIsn't that marvelous? Now, he was in the process of getting a divorce at the time.
SHEEHYAnd as was I. And actually one of the chapters I call seduction at the Algonquin. And he was seducing me to write for him but it also turned into a kind of an interview -- a joint interview about our pain at losing our marriages. And so we kind of connected on an intimate emotional level very early, even though for many years we had a creative intimacy before we ever had a physical intimacy.
REHMNow here's our first email from Laurie who says, "How did you come up with the idea to name your book and your thesis on adult life "Passages?"
SHEEHYWell, that's a long story, Diane, but I'm going to tell it by telling you about the -- one of the most daring and frightening episodes in my life. I insisted that Clay send me to Northern Ireland during the peak of the troubles in 1972. The British army was at the throats of the Irish Catholics. And being half Irish myself, I was fascinated.
SHEEHYAnd Clay said, well, what does that have to do with New York? And I said, well, you know, half the population of New York is Irish, isn't it? But that's not the story. The story is the women. The women are fighting the battle because the men are mostly in prison. And the women are even shooting British soldiers. And he said, that's a story worth telling. So I go over and it all happened so fast, Diane.
SHEEHYWe were -- I was following a peaceful civil rights march, beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. We did all the things that you're supposed to do. We met the soldiers at the barricade. They threw their tear gas. We vomited it back and we were dragging people dented by rubber bullets back to a square. People were greeting their neighborhoods. And I crawled up in an outdoor staircase in order to get a better view.
SHEEHYI'm standing next to a young boy and I'm asking him, how do the power troopers fire their gas canisters so far? And this young boy is saying to me, well, see them jamming their rifle, boots on the ground? And all of a sudden a bullet just smashes right into his face.
REHMOh, my gosh.
SHEEHYAnd it was so shocking. I bent over him. I wanted to put him back together because I was young enough, I was only 32, I thought everything could be put back together. And this was my first experience of how brutal the world can be. And before I had a chance to do anything, a man fell in on me and said, move, crossfire. And there were IRA sharpshooters on the roof. British power troopers were, you know, just plunging into the crowd shooting, jumping out with black guerilla masks and high-velocity rifles.
SHEEHYSomebody had to crawl out in the crossfire to get us taken in. And I wasn't about to volunteer until a bullet just passed a few feet in front of my nose. And I watched it as if it was in midair just suspended.
SHEEHYAnd then I did bang on a door. We were taken in. And 13 people were massacred including people being, you know, protected by a priest with a white flag. I got down on the ground afterwards and an IRA commander came over and said, I'm sorry, Lass, I'll have to confiscate your film. And I said, but you're not going to take my tape recorder, because it was open the whole time. And he said, good Lass, I'm going to have somebody take you up to a safe house.
SHEEHYSo I got protection but I got to a safe house up in the Bogside, the Catholic ghetto. The British army was making house-to-house searches, kicking in the doors to find IRA. This woman in her own house was playing the prison song at the top decibel on her Victrola to be defiant. And I said, well, what are you going to do if the soldiers come in here firing? She said, lie on me (sic) stomach. So I asked if I could make a phone call. She said, yes one. And I called Clay. He's in New York in bed at night.
SHEEHYI said -- you know, he said, how's the story coming? And I said, well, you know, it's -- 12 people were murdered here today. And he said, well, how did that happen? And I said, they're calling it -- but he said, well, I'm watching it on CBS News right now. And I said, Clay, it's really bad. He said, honey, just stay out of trouble. You don't have to be in the frontlines. Just stay with the women. It's a women story, right? Ah. That was a first time clay didn't get it. And I just felt alone.
SHEEHYI went back and got on my stomach until I could drive across the fields in a car to get to the Republic in the morning. And I thought, you know, there's no one with me. There's no one who can always keep me safe. And that was an insight. That was the end of childhood, the end of adolescence and the beginning of an adult recognition of how chaotic, how random and how brutal the world can be.
SHEEHYBut where that led to, my idea for "Passages" was, I went back and I read a lot of interviews that I had been doing for a book called "The Private Lives of Couples." And a lot of the people were in their 30's, in their early 40's. And they often had a kind of a mortality -- a sense of mortality, time running out, need to change this equilibrium. And they hadn't had a traumatic event like that external one. It was coming from inside. It was something that happens in the late 30's and the early 40's. That was my insight.
SHEEHYSo I began examining adult development and talking to the scholars who were looking at it, just a few of them. And that led to the most important book that I ever wrote, "Passages."
SHEEHYBut when I told the editor finally in our last meeting before he had to go to print, and he said, what's the name? What's the name? I closed my eyes and this name just suddenly appeared to me and I said, "Passages." And he said, they'll think it means excerpts. And I said, not when they read the book.
REHMExactly. And boy, what a book. Just so insightful for all of us. No matter where we came from, no matter what our growing up, no matter what our background, somehow we could all connect through that book.
SHEEHYI was thrilled that so many men were impacted...
REHMAbsolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
SHEEHY...by that book that just because a woman wrote it didn't mean that it was for women.
REHMSo now taking a good look at yourself, would you describe your "Passages" as being sort of clear delineations or did you find yourself looking back and putting them into clear delineations?
SHEEHYWell, I did have to -- you have to wait until you get through a passage before you know it for what it was...
SHEEHY...because when you're going through it, you just feel a sense of disequilibrium, dissatisfaction with something of the course that you had been previously following, which may have been the perfect course for that time. But now the fit feels different. There's something left out. You develop more self awareness. You develop more compassion for others. And you -- these passages, when you are moving from one stage of growth to another, you have a chance to make a real leap of growth, a real -- or a leap of creativity or productivity. But you also may drop back. You know, some people regress and don't come out of, you know, post adolescence until they're 50's.
REHMYou talk in the book about the arithmetic of life. What do you mean?
SHEEHYWell, when I had my mortality crisis at 32 and wrote the book at 35, I had this inner voice. It was saying to me, what about the -- you know, you've lived half your life, because at that time 70 seemed old. And, you know, what about the part of you that wants a second child and a home? Well, that wasn't going to be possible with Clay but he was the man I was in love with because he wasn't ready to have a child. And what about the part of you that wants to make a change in the world, you know, demonstrations and, you know, some articles? That's not enough. So I was challenged to take a leap of growth and that's what I tried to do.
REHMAnd you did.
SHEEHYWell, I did it at 35 when the book "Passages" was published. But that puts you into another whole orbit, the whole kind of disequilibrium of suddenly being a known person. I had thought that it would sink without a trace, Diane. That was why I even let a psychiatrist who was competitive with me and tried to poke at my biggest doubt, which was no one will take you seriously because you're just a journalist. He wanted me to be -- he wanted to be my collaborator. And I said, I don't really need a collaborator. You can write your own book and I'll write mine. So he sued me to try to enjoin publication of the book.
REHMOh, my gosh. I hadn't realized that.
SHEEHYAnd of course it was -- there was no basis for it whatsoever. It was a ridiculous nuisance suit. But I wouldn't have been able to proceed on finishing writing. I had run out of money. I had to finish this book just to get my measly little last advance. So I said, well, just give him 10 percent of my royalties. It's not going to mean anything anyway. And that was the price that I paid to finish the book.
REHMWow. That's quite a price in order to put him out of your life.
SHEEHYWell, it was a pretty daring move but if I had written the book with him, it would've been an academic book. It wouldn't have been accessible.
REHMGail Sheehy and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Speaking of psychiatrists, here's an email from Kathy who said, "I read Ms. Sheehy's books since "Passages." I've loved and used her insights. When I," says Kathy, "was an active psychotherapist, I recommended that book to many, many people and often received back their gratitude. I also especially valued her book "The Silent Passage" about menopause. So glad she's still writing.
SHEEHYYou know, that was one of my proudest books because at that time -- and this was 1990 for heaven's sake.
REHMPeople still didn't want to talk about it.
SHEEHYNobody -- even mothers didn't talk to daughters. Girlfriends didn't talk to girlfriends. I remember when I went on the road to talk about "The Silent Passage" and men would usually be sitting where you were, the new news. And suddenly they'd be presented with this woman who's going to talk about what? And one man said to me, you know, said, well, menopause. Is that like impotence? And I stopped for a moment and said no.
SHEEHYI said, but let's see, baldness. Is that like Alzheimer's? And it made him laugh and he realized that he was way off the beam. And we were able to talk about something that affects every woman. And, you know, here's another little daring thing I did. I followed Hillary Clinton into the lady's room at Renaissance weekend one time. Would've seemed pretty rude but she was ready to let down her hair. She was being blamed for the Democrats defeat in the '94 political bi-election. And she said, I just don't know what to do anymore. Everything I do seems to go wrong.
SHEEHYAnd then she confided that she was in menopause. And she thanked me for "The Silent Passage." And that started me on following her and Bill Clinton for ten years for Vanity Fair and writing a biography of her, "Hillary's Choice." So it actually turned out to be a very good dared.
REHMAre you still in touch with her?
SHEEHYWell, she is not in touch with any journalist. She's come to really abhor the press, as many presidents and presidential contenders do. But she is so carefully guarded. It's very, very difficult to get through.
REHMDo you regard her as a possible presidential candidate or not?
SHEEHYOh, yes. I think she's very conflicted but I think she will ultimately go.
SHEEHYWell, you know, if you listen to her interviews, she often says, when they ask, you know, how will you make the choice? And she'll say, well, you know, I have a very nice life now. She does. She's a jillionaire . She can -- she has a bully pulpit wherever she wants to go in the world. She -- any cause that she would put her finger to, people would follow her. She doesn't have to go through the slime that she will have to go through as a presidential candidate, which will take down her very high level esteem around the world for some time. She will have to go through that again, as would any presidential candidate.
REHMAnd how do you see Bill in that scenario, as an asset or something else?
SHEEHYOh, I think he's a tremendous asset. I mean, I think they are well beyond the difficulties that they had. They're just not -- you know, they've put that form of their relationship to rest. They have always been one another's most valued confidant. They've always talked multiple times a day. Bill Clinton knows a great deal about the world. So does Hillary Clinton. And he's always her -- if not her first, one of her most important sounding boards. So we, again, get two for the price of one.
REHMWhich was his theme...
REHM...way back when.
SHEEHYBut I think this time the American public would see more value in it because he's a man.
REHMSo you think she will run?
SHEEHYI do think she'll run. I'm not sure she has the fire in the belly that we want to feel from someone who is running for president at the age of 68 given what she's been through.
REHMGail Sheehy. Her new book is titled "Daring: My Passages." Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.
SHEEHYWe are recovering, to some degree, from the economic disaster of 2008, but jobs are still really tough, especially for young people. And so the natural instinct is to try to grab onto something safe, be set, get into the corporate world, take something secure. Although, there's not much that is secure, even in corporate life. I want to encourage young women to be daring. That's really the default position now, because with the digital age, people do experiments, they try something, it fails. Only after it fails two or three times are they able to actually get something that works.
REHMAnd how do you want them to be daring?
SHEEHYWell, let me just give you -- I'll give you a couple of stories. One young woman was at her freshman year at college. Her best friend wanted to go to Cape Town, South Africa as a dare. But her friend was killed in an automobile accident, tragically. So the young woman left college, told her parents that she wanted to go to Cape Town, South Africa to live it out for her friend. She did, and she dared herself to learn how to surf. She'd never been interested in surfing, but she wanted to see, you know, could she master this?
SHEEHYAnd she'd always been able to get A's and do very well. She tried like the Dickens. She wasn't able to master it. She was able to do it and did it for six months. Lived with girls from around the world, having a wonderful experience of independence. But she found out she didn't die from failing to accomplish something and get an A. And that was the biggest growth spurt in her life. She came back, finished college as an Art major, came out and said, you know what, I really like to write. So she dared to go into writing. She's now in the middle of writing her first novel.
REHMGreat. How will people get involved in this project?
SHEEHYWell, I have a website called sheehydaringproject.com. It's very colorful. It invites women to send in a capsule of the most daring moment in their lives. It doesn't have to be even such a big thing. Like, you know, getting a nose ring when your mother tells you, absolutely it's a no-no. And standing your ground and taking your first independent step.
REHMAnd it'll be on our website connecting to yours.
REHMI do want to remind our listeners we are video streaming this segment so you can see Gail Sheehy as well as hear her. Go to firstname.lastname@example.org. All right, let's open the phones here. Let's go to Rochester, New York. Simian, you're on the air.
SIMIANGood morning. And thank you for taking my call.
SIMIANSo, this week and last will be remembered by thousands of 18-year-olds as the passage time in their life when they begin college. But tragically, at the same time, for other 18-year-olds, it will be looked upon later as, you know, the beginnings, or the continuation of a period of life when, for various reasons, especially for males, they were incarcerated and enmeshed in the criminal justice system. So, I'm wondering, do you account for, in your theory about passages, the difference in the passages people experience because of socio-economic and other factors? Or do you see passages as sort of being similar across cultural lines?
SHEEHYWell, they certainly are experienced differently, depending on one's socio-economic statuses. And you know, I'm very, very concerned about young men today. You've mentioned one group of them, who, instead of being able to pull up roots, which is what that adolescent passage is about, to take your first independent steps. And those who have the opportunity to go to college kind of boomerang back and forth between being very independent at college and then coming back home to feel the safety and security of being attached to mom and dad.
SHEEHYAnd then go out and take another bigger step. The young men incarcerated, if they're in, you know, a decent prison, and they learn a trade, if they're able to grasp something that they wouldn't have gotten on the outside, they have a chance when they get out to make an independent life, but it has to be -- we need vast improvements in our prison system to make possible for so many young people.
REHMAnd let's go to Fairfax, Virginia. Manny, you're on the air.
MANNYThank you. I -- Miss Sheehy, I just wanted to really -- I can't thank you enough for your work and the insight that it's given. I kind of quote you all the time.
MANNYI'm now approaching 80. I've been in a men's support group for a long time. And just the whole concept of the changes we've gone through I've found so valuable. And again, I kind of quote you all the time. And the challenges change before, during working, what did I accomplish there? And then one retires, and you do your life's work. And the things that pick me now are hitting me are I guess three issues. One is loss of loved ones. We go through our parents dying.
MANNYMy spouse is also aging. Coming to terms with my own death. A role versus adult children, how that's gonna change.
MANNYAnd I also -- I volunteer in a nursing home as an ombudsman and I really kind of see that the difference it makes, and even the concern, will I be in that shape, and will I be able to accept it with great grace? And one thing that ties into all of this is something I read the other day in an article. It's (unintelligible) on Jackie Robinson's tombstone. It says a life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.
SHEEHYWell, that I certainly would endorse. I know both Diane and myself have lost our husbands. And that is one of the greatest passages in life. I was fortunate in that my husband took 17 years to wrestle with cancer four different times. And in between, we had victories that made us feel almost invulnerable. But it gave us a new lease on life, a much deeper relationship, much more empathetic, much more tender. And for me, in many ways, it was a gift. My husband, Clay Felker, had been my mentor, even in some ways, my Pygmalion.
SHEEHYAnd then when he began to decline, physically, and as a result, his career went into decline, I was able to give him kind of a gift of a bonus life. We moved to California. We helped each other find a new niche for him. He was able to start a magazine writing and making program at the University of California Berkeley, which gave him the opportunity to bring to life new talent and train some of those who are the new journalists of the next generation.
REHMHow did his dying process change you and your work?
SHEEHYWell, I was amazed to write, when I was doing the memoir, to find that, in the last 10 years of his life, I wrote five books. How did I do that? I don't know, but it was...
REHMBy putting yourself down in that chair and forcing yourself to write.
SHEEHYForcing myself to do that. Because I knew, what I knew and what I tried to say in my book "Passages and Caregiving" was you will only have the role of caregiver for some time. You will not follow your loved one into death, unless you give up your own life and your identity. And too many caregivers do. You have to survive so that there is an identity, there is a purpose to life after you lose the role of caregiver. And it took me the most Herculean effort to follow that through.
SHEEHYBut once I did, and actually, it came about by the doctor saying to me, Hillary Clinton has asked you to go follow her campaign in 2008. Why don't you go? And I said, how can I possibly leave Clay?
SHEEHYAnd he said, we'll have a meeting at his bedside and get his blessing, and we did.
REHMAnd you went.
SHEEHYAnd I went. And it was the best thing I could have done.
REHMAbsolutely. Let's go to Padamay in Jacksonville, Florida. You're on the air.
PADAMAYHappy Wednesday, Diane. And happy Wednesday, Gail. Just what a pleasure to talk to two of my favorite people.
PADAMAYMine is just a very, very simple sort of -- its almost just a rumination of mine. Just Gail, from your perspective, with your thesis of "Passages" and now with "Daring," where does introspection, the idea of letting go and sort of embracing the big picture, how does that interface in all of your thinking and the delineation of passages?
SHEEHYWell, letting go is actually the act that one has to allow in order to let a passage happen. Letting go of what you've been hanging on to. The channel that you've been in. Maybe the marriage that has turned sour or has been empty for a long time. The career that may have been something that you were -- you felt you should do, but now you find out you're 35 and you don't really want to be a lawyer. Or you don't really like living the corporate life. So, the idea of letting go of what has kind of died for you, going through a little death and coming out the other side with vroom and excitement about the new, the new possibilities for yourself. That's the whole process.
REHMAnd of course, that leads me to wondering what's next for you, having finally written about yourself and your own passages.
SHEEHYWell Diane, as I'm traveling around the country, I'm asking people to give me their daring moments and their daring stories and I think that will probably produce a book of its own, because they're coming in all different shapes and sizes. The other day, I had a petite woman with gray hair who was asking me to sign her book and it turns out, she was a Command Sergeant Major in Afghanistan who'd made 100 drops.
SHEEHYAnd here she is, this little tiny thing.
SHEEHYAnd I thought, wow, there's a daring dame if I ever saw one.
REHMI should say.
SHEEHYI wanted to know more about her story. So, that's one thing. But I want to get back to journalism. I never want to leave it. I, you know, have, I would love to write about Vladimir Putin. I don't think I'd like to be killed for it, the way a couple of women who have written about him seem to have met that fate. But I think he's the most fascinating and the most terrifying of the actors on our stage today.
REHMSo you would like to interview him personally.
SHEEHYIt's a dream. But you never know.
REHMYou never know.
SHEEHYAnd actually, I never got to interview Gorbachev himself, but I interviewed everybody around him, including his propaganda chief. And I certainly learned enough about him to write a pretty extreme story. Because at that time, nobody knew anything about Russian leaders. They've never known anything about their personal life or their character or what they really though. And at that time, Gorbachev actually thought he was being driven crazy on purpose by his antagonists. And I learned that from his propaganda…
REHMSo, have you asked for the interview with Putin yet?
SHEEHYNo. Not yet.
REHMYou have not?
SHEEHYWell, I'm involved in something else right now, but I will.
REHMI would think it would take some time.
SHEEHYIt will take a couple -- some years.
REHMYeah. Indeed. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Rona. Please ask Gail to give us some advice on the meaning of life after 70.
SHEEHYAfter 70. Well, you know, I've kind of given these simple little phrases for different stages. Like the tryout 20s, when we're really trying ourselves out in relationships. And I think of it as the thrilling 30s, because we have no sense of an end to life. We think that everything is ahead, and it is. And then, I call it the flourishing 40s, but it can also be the forlorn 40s. Because we do have the first intimations that there is a place where it ends. And if we haven't succeeded in our original dream, we may feel like failures, but that's the beginning of the next thing. Of letting go and finding the next thing.
SHEEHYI call 50s the flaming 50s, because I think of women, you know, jumping out in, with post-menopausal zest. Doing things, very often, entering politics, starting their own business, you know, doing something totally new. Because they're quite free at that time. I call the 60s the selective 60s, because we have to really select what's most important in our lives. We can't do everything. And we have to make some hard choices, which is why I think Hillary Clinton called her book, "Hard Choices."
SHEEHYAnd the 70s, I call the sage 70s. I think we really know as much as we are going to know about ourselves and about the world at that time. We have a great deal to give back in whatever way. I meet so many people in their 70s who are writing poetry, who are writing their first book, who are writing a memoir, who are giving talks, who are giving workshops, who are life coaches. In many ways, finding the way to give back from their own experience.
REHMI want to add to what you've said, and say directly to Rona, my late mother-in-law, who died at 92, called the 80s the best years of her life.
SHEEHYIsn't that wonderful?
REHMIsn't that something?
REHMI mean, she just kept on going and enjoying art galleries and being with people and moving around and in the 90s, it became a little more difficult. And that was that. But looking back on the 80s, she truly enjoyed them.
SHEEHYWell, it can be the exhilarating 80s. And it sounds like...
REHMYou've already thought of it. I think that's just great. Well, I have the feeling that when people have an opportunity to read about your own life and the passages that you have gone through to come to this point in your life, where you're ready to be pretty open about your life.
SHEEHYYeah. It's very frank. And I talk about some very daring -- dumb dares that I did. I even talked about eloping from college three weeks after I started. I called on the way home with my both, and to tell my mother I was eloping with a surgeon. And she said, is that McCarthy? I said, well yes. And she said, he's a tree surgeon. And I said, I know mom. But anyway, can I talk to dad? And she said, well, your dad can't come to the phone right now. He's looking for his shotgun.
SHEEHYI did get accepted back to college. And as a result, I was so grateful for the education that I got. Then I became a born again virgin.
REHMGood for you. Gail Sheehy. Her latest book is titled, "Daring: My Passages." And it is indeed a memoir. Congratulations, Gail.
SHEEHYThank you. I love being with you, and I hope people will go to the Sheehy Daring Project and contribute their stories so that we can dare other women to take daring choices.
REHMIndeed. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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