Daring: My Passages: A Memoir
If the name Gail Sheehy doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Sheehy was --- and still is --- one of the most intrepid journalists of our time. Over the course of 50 years, she has contributed to New York, Vanity Fair and the New York Times, among other publications. She has interviewed countless politicians, from Robert Kennedy to Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher, and has written hundreds of cutting-edge exposés on everything from menopause to prostitution to frontline reports from Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland. She has also published 16 previous books, including the groundbreaking bestseller PASSAGES, which documented the predictable stages of adult life punctuated by marker events, and PATHFINDERS, about overcoming crises. Now in her seventh decade, she turns the gaze on herself in a memoir titled DARING: MY PASSAGES.
The title of Sheehy’s latest book couldn’t be more appropriate. Since her early years as a young journalist in the 1960s, Sheehy has both embraced and challenged the status quo. As a fledgling reporter for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and then for New York’s Herald-Tribune, she insisted on bolstering mandatory fluff pieces about fashion and high society courtships with grittier, more substantial fare. In an already-much-circulated anecdote, she shares how she got her first big break at the Trib by sneaking down the building’s back stairwell that connected the Women’s Department to the male-dominated city room to pitch a story about bikini-clad beachcombers hired by men to attract party-goers on Fire Island to Clay Felker, the then-editor of the Sunday supplement.
"...an exhilarating and frenetic, glorious and messy portrait of a life fully lived. And as always, Sheehy inspires us to understand our communities and the world by first looking inward."
“Why couldn’t a woman write about the worlds that men wrote about?” Sheehy figured at the time. The move turned out to be fortuitous. Sheehy’s daring landed her a feature. Then another. Soon she became an integral part of Felker’s core staff for what would later become New York magazine.
As one might imagine during the boon years of experimental journalism when liquid lunches at the Algonquin or Michael’s were commonplace and long-form feature articles were treasured and bankrolled by editorial boards untarnished by corporate interest, Sheehy’s years at New York and, later, as a contributor to Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair and their ilk were frothy with truth-seeking adventures. Churning out investigative stories on feminism and its backlash, abortion rings and race riots, alongside legendary pen-wielding icons such as Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem and Helen Gurley Brown, Sheehy both shaped the way news was delivered to the masses and shed light on controversial topics that otherwise might have gone unreported.
But DARING isn’t all namedropping of publishing industry muckety-mucks, nor is it solely a laundry list of accomplishments from Sheehy’s impressive curriculum vitae. Though much of the book focuses on chronicling the evolution of journalism from the ’60s to the present and highlighting her legacy as part of that movement, Sheehy also devotes significant page time to analyzing her relationships, not only as a lover and wife, but also as a fiercely independent, mostly single mother. Though she enjoyed a short first marriage in her early 20s, a few glorious affairs, and a long-standing on-again/off-again dalliance with Clay Felker that later culminated in a second marriage when she was 47, Sheehy raised her eldest daughter while mostly alone. (A second daughter adopted from Cambodia when the girl was 12 was later introduced around the time Felker and Sheehy were married.) Throughout all of it, balancing work and motherhood was difficult, especially during a time when gender roles were firmly entrenched, and many men --- and women --- thought a mother’s place was in the home, not behind a desk.
To her credit, Sheehy avoids the pitfalls of some memoirs by avoiding regret and refusing to lament her past choices in order to elicit sympathy from readers. For her, mostly single motherhood was a strength, not a weakness. In PASSAGES, first published in 1976 when she was in her early 30s, she wrote, “Women can have it all, but not all at once.” In DARING, the same sentiment holds true: “Young women, like young men in their twenties, need time to extend their education, try out different partners and career paths, survive failure and build resilience, before they are ready to balance the competing demands and delights of marriage, family, and career.” Among bra-burning feminists and those women opting for full-time motherhood in place of a career, Sheehy seems to have fallen squarely in the middle.
Given its emphasis on gender issues, should DARING be dubbed “a women’s book”? Not by a long shot. Though her Sex and the Seasoned Woman (which explored sex and love for women over 50) and some of the other books in her Passages series appealed more to the farer sex because of their self-help style (to be fair, UNDERSTANDING MEN’S PASSAGES affords men their due attention), there’s more than enough in her memoir to attract readers across the spectrum. From the newsroom to the bedroom, Sheehy touches on it all, including a few raw and revealing chapters dedicated to her alcohol-fueled years caring for Felker as he was dying of cancer.
Sheehy’s prose does need a bit of finessing. At times, the storytelling jerks and starts, flitting from topic to topic with nary a transition sentence to ground it chronologically. But the effect is nonetheless fitting. One gets the sense that Sheehy has so much on her mind that she almost doesn’t have time to --- or isn’t interested in --- holding our hand as we plow through her life’s bumps and hurdles.
In the end, what we are left with is an exhilarating and frenetic, glorious and messy portrait of a life fully lived. And as always, Sheehy inspires us to understand our communities and the world by first looking inward. To ask ourselves probing questions in order to draw conclusions and facilitate change. Have we dared to move out of our comfort zones? Is our self-doubt, fear of the unknown, or lack of balance holding us back? How can we improve our lives and the world by taking chances? “Daring is action. It changes the conditions… It’s a crapshoot, but it can be the catalyst to empowering oneself,” she writes. “When we come to a dead end, if we dare to make a major life change, we will grow from it. When one door closes, that makes room for another door to open.”
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on September 5, 2014