Gail Sheehy Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Gail Sheehy 1937-

American nonfiction writer, journalist, biographer, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sheehy's career through 2000.

Sheehy is best known for her popular series of books that examine the psychology of aging and the major stages of transition in adult life. She established her writing credentials with the best-selling Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1976), in which she argues that adults pass through four distinct phases during their lifelong maturation. Subsequent books in the Passages series explore such topics as menopause, male aging, and changing social perceptions of the aging process. Sheehy has also attracted attention for her biographies and character studies of major twentieth-century politicians and political candidates, such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1991) and U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton in Hillary's Choice (1999).

Biographical Information

Sheehy was born on November 15, 1937, in Mamaroneck, New York, to Harold and Lillian Merritt. She graduated from the University of Vermont in 1958, earning her bachelor's degree. In 1960 she married Albert Sheehy, whom she divorced in 1968. She later married Clay Felker, a journalist. Sheehy has two children, one daughter from her first marriage and a second adopted daughter from Cambodia. She received a fellowship to attend graduate school at Columbia University in 1970, where she studied under noted anthropologist Margaret Mead. Sheehy began working as a journalist and freelance writer during the early 1960s, serving as fashion editor for Democrat and Chronicle from 1961 to 1963, feature writer for the New York Herald Tribune from 1963 to 1966, and contributing editor to New York Magazine from 1968 to 1977. Sheehy additionally worked as a contributing political editor to Vanity Fair and contributed articles to such magazines as Cosmopolitan, McCall's, Glamour, London Sunday Telegraph, Paris Match, and New York Times Magazine. She has won several awards and accolades, including the National Magazine Award for reporting excellence in 1972, the Penny-Missouri Journalism Award in 1986, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Spirit of Survival (1986). She is also a seven-time recipient of the New York Newswomen's Club Front Page Award for distinguished journalism.

Major Works

Passages is the first in Sheehy's series of commercially successful nonfiction works that trace the psychology of the various stages of development in adult life. Sheehy draws on the theories of psychologist Erik Erikson to chart four separate periods of crisis in adulthood, marking transition points between each distinct stage of development. She terms these stages “pulling up roots,” “the trying twenties,” “passage to the thirties,” and “the deadline decade.” By identifying the major emotional and social changes that men and women typically encounter as they enter middle age, Sheehy argues that individuals need to confront these milestones and persevere past them to grow as human beings. Passages uses several case studies to illuminate its central argument and also incorporates research studies from a range of experts, including Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, U.C.L.A. psychiatrist Roger Gould, and Margaret Mead. In The Silent Passage: Menopause (1992) Sheehy focuses on the effect of menopause on the lives of middle-aged women. Sheehy asserts that menopause is one of the few remaining taboos in modern society and that women need to demystify its onset and approach the change positively. New Passages: Mapping Your Life across Time (1995) revisits many of Sheehy's conclusions from Passages in an effort to revise and update her ideas based on the social and cultural changes that took place during the two decades since the work's initial publication. Sheehy renames her stages of adult development, referring to them now as “provisional adulthood” (from age eighteen to thirty), “first adulthood” (from thirty to forty-five), “second adulthood” (from forty-five to seventy-five), and “third adulthood” (from seventy-five on). New Passages also coins the term “middlescence” to describe what Sheehy refers to as the second adolescence, during which adults find themselves reevaluating their lives and redefining their priorities. Understanding Men's Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men's Lives (1998) offers a discussion of the special challenges that men face during the aging process. Sheehy addresses the major changes that are often associated with the male aging process such as hair loss and decline in sexual potency.

Though Sheehy is best known for her Passages series, she has also written several notable works of fiction, journalism, and biography. Lovesounds (1970), Sheehy's first published and only fictional book, is a psychological novel that deals with the dissolution of a marriage. In an attempt to portray the reality of modern marriages, neither the husband nor the wife are notably flawed or insensitive people. They both love their children and pursue rewarding careers, but nevertheless, the couple loses their emotional bond and decides to separate. During the 1970s, Sheehy released several books of journalism, including Panthermania: The Clash of Black against Black in One American City (1971), which follows the murder trial of activist and Black Panther founder Bobby Seale, and Hustling: Prostitution in Our Wide Open Society (1973), which explores the prostitution industry in New York City. However, many consider Spirit of Survival to be Sheehy's most personal journalistic work. In 1981 Sheehy traveled to Thailand to research a story on Cambodian refugees. She met an eleven-year-old girl named Mohm, whose family had been killed by the Pol Pot regime. Sheehy formed a relationship with Mohm and eventually brought her to America and adopted Mohm as her daughter. The work also recounts many of Mohm's experiences in Cambodia before she was able to escape the country. Sheehy has also received notice for her biographical character studies of modern politicians and political candidates. In Character: America's Search for Leadership (1988) Sheehy examines the integrity of a variety of American political figures, including President George Bush, Sr., Senator Bob Dole, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Gary Hart, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and President Ronald Reagan. The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev creates a biographical portrait of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, using many of Sheehy's theories of adult development to assess Gorbachev's evolution as a politician and leader. Hillary's Choice explores the life of former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sheehy addresses questions regarding Hillary Clinton's past, her ability to balance her family and career, and her personal relationship with her husband President Bill Clinton.

Critical Reception

Sheehy's Passages series has enjoyed considerable popular success, with Passages remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for over three years. However, critical response to the Passages series has been widely divided and, at times, controversial. Several scholars and researchers whom Sheehy interviewed for Passages have claimed that she used their statements out of context or did not sufficiently credit them for providing some of her central ideas. Although several reviewers have commended Sheehy for bringing a positive perspective to the aging process, many have argued that her works indulge too heavily in “pop psychology” and self-help cliches. Sheehy's biographical portraits have also received a mixed response from critical audiences, with reviewers routinely criticizing Sheehy's application of psychological analyses to her subjects without sufficient information or qualification to do so. While some commentators have argued that Character offers little insight on Sheehy's subjects, others have asserted that the book provides a fresh and intriguing examination of modern politicians. Critics of The Man Who Changed the World have charged that the work is filled with factual and conceptual errors, mostly due to Sheehy's insufficient knowledge and understanding of Soviet history, culture, and politics. Russian critic Tatyana Tolstaya has asserted that, “the number of illiterate mistakes in this book is beyond counting.” Hillary's Choice has been faulted by some critics for offering an insignificant amount of new information on a topic that has already been overworked by the mass media. Minette Marrin has disagreed with this assessment, noting that Hillary's Choice “makes very good light, sensational reading, with plenty of sharp, plausible insights.” After the publication of Hillary's Choice, several critics have become increasingly vocal about Sheehy's habit of putting forth factual errors and inaccurate reportage in her books and magazine articles. Franklin Foer has commented that, “[b]y the time Sheehy wrote her 1999 biography of Hillary Clinton … finding her errors had become a kind of journalistic game. The Washington Post's ‘Reliable Source’ column kept a running tab, called ‘Gail's Goofs Corner.’ Pieces in the New York Observer and The Nation, uncovering a slew of other slipups, piled on. And a list of eminences came forward to claim that Sheehy had either invented quotes or twisted them out of context.” Despite these accusations about the validity of her research, Sheehy's books have continued to attract a wide commercial audience.