Gail Sheehy Essay - Critical Essays

Sheehy, Gail


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.

Principal Works

Lovesounds (novel) 1970

Panthermania: The Clash of Black against Black in One American City (journalism) 1971

Speed Is of the Essence (journalism) 1971

Hustling: Prostitution in Our Wide Open Society (journalism) 1973

Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (nonfiction) 1976

Pathfinders (nonfiction) 1981

Spirit of Survival (journalism) 1986

Character: America's Search for Leadership (nonfiction and biography) 1988

The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (biography) 1991

The Silent Passage: Menopause (nonfiction) 1992; revised and expanded, 1998

New Passages: Mapping Your Life across Time (nonfiction) 1995

Understanding Men's Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men's Lives (nonfiction) 1998

Hillary's Choice (biography) 1999


Robert Hassenger (review date 18 September 1976)

SOURCE: Hassenger, Robert. Review of Passages, by Gail Sheehy. New Republic 175, no. 12 (18 September 1976): 30-1.

[In the following review, Hassenger observes that Sheehy addresses several important issues in Passages, but fails to offer workable ideas about how individuals may successfully negotiate the “passages” through adulthood.]

This book [Passages] is getting a lot of attention. The personality theorists from whom journalist Sheehy has learned—some allege stolen—are dismissing it as pop psychology. Paperback rights have already been sold for a quarter million. Can Truffaut and the Maysles be far behind?

I'd have to...

(The entire section is 1124 words.)

Christopher Lasch (review date 28 October 1976)

SOURCE: Lasch, Christopher. “Planned Obsolescence.” New York Review of Books 23, no. 17 (28 October 1976): 7, 10.

[In the following review, Lasch offers a mixed assessment of Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, commenting that the work “rests on medical definitions of reality that remain highly suspect.”]

Psychiatric self-help, the twentieth century's equivalent of “self-culture,” commends itself as the shortest road to health and happiness, at least for those who can't afford regular visits to a psychiatrist. The market for books of psychiatric advice and consolation appears inexhaustible. The style of these manuals, however, has recently...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)

Lynne Bundesen (review date 6 July 1986)

SOURCE: Bundesen, Lynne. Review of Spirit of Survival, by Gail Sheehy. Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 July 1986): 5.

[In the following excerpt, Bundesen asserts that Sheehy's subject matter in Spirit of Survival is important, but that the focus of the book is too diffuse, the discussion is weakened by overgeneralizations, and the narrative is overly concerned with Sheehy herself.]

Gail Sheehy is probably best known in this country as the author of Passages. Her work is in the genre usually referred to as “pop sociology.” Sheehy describes herself fearing loneliness and middle age, and when “the man in her life” urges her to join him in...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Mickey Kaus (review date 28 September 1987)

SOURCE: Kaus, Mickey. “Not Tonight, Dear.” New Republic 197, no. 3793 (28 September 1987): 43.

[In the following excerpt, Kaus criticizes Sheehy's article on Senator Gary Hart published in the September 1987 issue of Vanity Fair.]

In her widely publicized article on Gary Hart in the September issue of Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy spends 12,000 words trying to explain why a 50-year-old man would want to have sex with a succession of gorgeous models. She seems to think this is a great mystery. Maybe it was his mother. He “grew up in a severely restricted manner.” Part of him “could not believe he deserved to be successful, because he was a sinner and a...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Gail Sheehy and Beth Levine (interview date 20 May 1988)

SOURCE: Sheehy, Gail, and Beth Levine. “Gail Sheehy.” Publishers Weekly 233, no. 20 (20 May 1988): 65-6.

[In the following interview, Sheehy discusses her research methods and writing process for Character: America's Search for Leadership.]

Character. Crisis. Survival. Growth. These are the words that have fascinated Gail Sheehy throughout her long writing career. How is one's character shaped by crisis? How does the survival of devastating circumstances afford opportunity for growth? Passages, Sheehy's landmark bestseller of the 1970s, studied predictable adult life crises; Pathfinders profiled people who have emerged victorious from crises or...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 5 August 1988)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Portraits of Six Men Who Would Be President—and One Who Is.” Christian Science Monitor (5 August 1988): 18.

[In the following review, Rubin comments that Sheehy provides a more complete portrait of the political candidates she covers in Character: America's Search for Leadership than is available from other sources, concluding that Sheehy expresses a genuine concern for “the quality of America's leadership” and the future of the nation.]

Surveys show that voters care more about a candidate's character than his politics. But what, in fact, is character, and how, in this age of image consultants, do we get to see it as it really...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Robert Scheer (review date 16 December 1990)

SOURCE: Scheer, Robert. “How the Other Half Lives.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 December 1990): 1, 11.

[In the following review, Scheer criticizes The Man Who Changed the World, finding fault with the “full-throated arrogance” of the work.]

Mikhail Gorbachev arguably has changed the world more dramatically and with less bloodshed then any leader since Christ, and he certainly deserves something better than Gail Sheehy as a biographer. Hers is a pop-psychology genre of journalism in which the journalist's own odyssey becomes the dominant subject and the historically important figure is reduced to reader bait for the purpose of sales.


(The entire section is 1838 words.)

Matthew Scully (review date 11 February 1991)

SOURCE: Scully, Matthew. “A Soviet Life.” National Review 43, no. 2 (11 February 1991): 48, 50-1.

[In the following review, Scully comments that Sheehy seems overawed by Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's celebrity status in The Man Who Changed the World, arguing that Sheehy mistakes complexity for depth of character.]

The opening sentences of The Man Who Changed the World do not augur well for those wanting a sober, level-headed study of Mikhail Gorbachev: “The eyes. Everyone is struck by the gleam that blazes behind his dark eyes … as if with the intensity of his belief he had burned his image of a new world into their own retinas and they...

(The entire section is 1469 words.)

Xan Smiley (review date 11 April 1991)

SOURCE: Smiley, Xan. “Mystery Man.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 7 (11 April 1991): 35-8.

[In the following excerpt, Smiley discusses Sheehy's analysis of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's character in The Man Who Changed the World, asserting that Sheehy unconvincingly applies psychological theories from her earlier book Passages to her examination of Gorbachev.]

For all the millions of words consigned to the unwrapping of the Gorbachev enigma, the real man remains a riddle. Indeed, over the past six months—since the two books under review [The Man Who Changed the World, by Gail Sheehy, and The New Russians, by Hendrick Smith]...

(The entire section is 2735 words.)

Alexander Dallin (review date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Dallin, Alexander. Review of The Man Who Changed the World, by Gail Sheehy. Political Science Quarterly 106, no. 3 (fall 1991): 512-13.

[In the following review, Dallin observes that The Man Who Changed the World is fair, readable, and generally accurate, but notes several factual errors in the book.]

Gail Sheehy, a seasoned, polished, and enterprising writer, turns out to have a special fascination with Russia, which she put to good stead in producing this biography of Gorbachev [The Man Who Changed the World]. She spent time in the Soviet Union, interviewing over one hundred people, from Central Committee staffers to Misha's former...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Joan Frank (review date January 1992)

SOURCE: Frank, Joan. “Germaine, Gail and Gloria: Gladiatrix Redux.” San Francisco Review of Books 17, no. 1 (January 1992): 6-8.

[In the following review, Frank compares Sheehy's Silent Passage to two other books on menopause by prominent feminist authors—The Change, by Germaine Greer and Revolution from Within, by Gloria Steinem.]

The last photo I remember seeing some years ago of feminist writer Germaine Greer showed her watching television with her lover. It was in profile: he relaxed in an armchair, she at his feet, her lanky frame backed up cozily between his knees, her mop of dark hair framing eyes that flashed easy, mocking brilliance,...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)

John H. Taylor (essay date January 1995)

SOURCE: Taylor, John H. “Nixon and Sheehy.” American Spectator 28, no. 1 (January 1995): 54-5.

[In the following essay, Taylor, director of the Richard Nixon Library, criticizes an article by Sheehy in Vanity Fair in which he alleges Sheehy reported misinformation about Nixon.]

Two tenets of Richard Nixon's Weltanschauung were that liberals hated to be proved wrong—and that they hated Nixon because he had proved them wrong so often. In his view, it had been his enemies' anger that magnified the spark of Watergate into the wildfire that consumed him.

Even those who believed that Nixon's us-against-them attitude was regrettable...

(The entire section is 1376 words.)

Elizabeth Kaye (review date 23 July 1995)

SOURCE: Kaye, Elizabeth. “A Passage through Middlescence.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 July 1995): 13.

[In the following review, Kaye asserts that although Sheehy offers some interesting insights in New Passages, several of her ideas are unoriginal and poorly written.]

I cannot say it surprised me to read in Gail Sheehy's New Passages that the syndrome she termed “Catch-30 for Couples” in Passages, her best-selling book published in 1970, could now be termed “Catch-40 for Couples.” Sheehy has long been established, after all, as a writer with a facility for what some might describe as beaming light on a murky path and what others...

(The entire section is 1094 words.)

Alan Wolfe (review date 20 November 1995)

SOURCE: Wolfe, Alan. “The Age of Anxiety.” New Republic 213, no. 21 (20 November 1995): 33-9.

[In the following excerpt, Wolfe discusses New Passages in the context of current societal attitudes about aging.]

Being old in a young country was never easy. Nineteenth-century America—forward-looking, pressed for time, anxious for efficiency, proudly mobile—had little patience with the frail. Homage may have been paid to their wisdom, but contempt defined their treatment. The old, as Thomas Cole reminds us in his cultural history of aging in America, constituted an implicit rebuke to Victorian morality. Albert Barnes, a New School Presbyterian, said it best:...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

Minette Marrin (review date 25 December 1999)

SOURCE: Marrin, Minette. “Spoiled for Choice.” Spectator 283, nos. 8941-8942 (25 December 1999): 57-8.

[In the following review, Marrin asserts that Sheehy offers some interesting and insightful observations in Hillary's Choice, but faults Sheehy for unreliable narration based on unfounded psychological analysis.]

There must be many people who feel that they have long since heard more than enough about Hillary Clinton and her preposterous husband. There must be others whose slight remaining interest has been sated by recent newspaper extracts from Gail Sheehy's new biography, Hillary's Choice, which printed all the best bits. The need for the book...

(The entire section is 978 words.)

Michael Tomasky (review date 7 February 2000)

SOURCE: Tomasky, Michael. “The Woman Who Would Be Senator.” Nation 270, no. 5 (7 February 2000): 25.

[In the following review, Tomasky points out several factual errors in Sheehy's reporting in Hillary's Choice, but observes that Sheehy does offer some plausible and convincing psychological insights.]

As you may have heard once or twice, we have a little Senate race going here in New York. The candidate on the Democratic side, by the middle of January, had subjected herself to many of the self-abasing rituals Democrats seeking statewide office in New York must submit to: The call on Al Sharpton; the obligatory trips upstate to prove that the aspirant is not...

(The entire section is 2700 words.)

Christopher Hitchens (review date 17 March 2000)

SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “What She Wanted.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5059 (17 March 2000): 13.

[In the following review, Hitchens offers a positive assessment of Hillary's Choice, noting Sheehy's “expertise.”]

The old joke goes like this, and appears on page 270 of Gail Sheehy's book, Hillary's Choice. The Clintons are motoring through Illinois and stop at a wayside gas station. The pump attendant recognizes Mrs Clinton as an old high-school date, and they chat briefly. As the couple drive on, Bill Clinton says: “Imagine if you'd married him. You could have been pumping gas.” “If I'd married him”, she replies glacially,...

(The entire section is 1724 words.)

Franklin Foer (review date 9 October 2000)

SOURCE: Foer, Franklin. “Analyze This.” New Republic 223, no. 15 (9 October 2000): 12, 14.

[In the following review, Foer criticizes Sheehy's factual errors and sensational reporting in Hillary's Choice.]

For two days this month, the media fixed its attention on George W. Bush's ability to read. On at least three separate occasions, the Texas governor was asked point-blank if he suffers from dyslexia, as an article in Vanity Fair had suggested. And, on three separate occasions, he denied it. But his denials didn't stem the speculation, which found its way into The New York Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune,...

(The entire section is 1496 words.)

Further Reading


Acocella, Joan. “Shrink to Fit: A New Biography Puts Hillary Clinton on the Couch.” New Yorker 75, no. 38 (13 December 1999): 98-100.

Acocella evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Hillary's Choice.

Douglas, Claire. “Shrink-Wrapped.” Washington Post Book World (2 January 2000): 3.

Douglas asserts that Sheehy fails to offer a rational, consistent, or original point of view in Hillary's Choice, but notes that Sheehy does provide some interesting new information about Hillary Clinton's college and law school years.

Tolstaya, Tatyana. “President Potemkin.” New...

(The entire section is 142 words.)