Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
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 go with Woody Allen. For, while important, this book is too damn serious. It will scare the pants off a lot of people. For Sheehy has hit many of us where we live—or used to. Before, that is, we hit the “Dead-line Decade” of the mid-30s (for women) and early 40s (more typical of men). This is the time, according to Sheehy, when we seem to discover we are going in different directions. As the man's professional (Sheehy is concerned primarily with the middle class) aspirations begin to level off and perhaps even to seem fraudulent, the woman's are often just emerging. Couples long out of sync seem to discover this for the first time, and find their gears—most dramatically, their sexual ones—increasingly unable to mesh. As he becomes aware of his physical limitations, particularly his sexual performance (the common term speaks volumes), her sap is on the rise. And she begins to look beyond the bedroom—perhaps as far as the boardroom. The result: affairs, impotence, divorce, runaway wives. Or lives of quiet desperation: less bangs, more whimpers.
“A fine mess!” (Hardy to Laurel). How do we get ourselves into it? For personal and professional reasons, Sheehy—a fine investigative reporter whose study of the working girls and the men (pimps and property owners) who live off them first appeared in New York magazine and were pulled together in Hustling—was interested in finding out how much was known about what she terms the “mid-life transition.” She soon found out: not much. The best work is literary. Despite Erik Erikson's formulations in the 1950s, “stage theory” has never been very cordially received by social scientists. Most have accepted the conventional wisdom that identities are fixed rather early, with the rest of one's life spent acting out unresolved oedipal complexes or scripts. But Sheehy discovered the fairly recent work of such researchers and theorists as Levinson, Loevinger, Neugarten and Gould, and found it explained a lot of what was happening to her and those she was getting to know.
In the first half of the book, Sheehy rehearses the rather familiar saga of how “identity crises” are apparently solved in one's 20s. Men take on the expected characteristics of their vocational roles, women accept their lot as nurturers with derived status (and at least temporarily foreclosed identities). Sex role differences still prevail—indeed, predominate—a fact those of us who have spent some time with The Assertive Woman or The Male Machine tend to overlook—Susan Brownmiller notwithstanding. This is familiar ground. Anyone to the left of Marabel Morgan (The Total Woman) is aware of the pattern. But then come the 30s, and any woman who has not been totalled begins to have some doubts. For their own reasons, men also begin to see the dark at the end of the tunnel, and things—like marriages of seven years—begin to come unstuck. Crisis time.
The term should not be taken too literally. For Erikson—whose definition Sheehy accepts—“crisis” connotes not catastrophe, but a time of both increased vulnerability, and heightened potential for change. Unlike the common challenges of childhood and adolescence, adult “crises” are the result of situational changes that are sufficiently demanding as to upset equilibrium, but not so great as to produce regression to more comfortable (and limiting) behavior. We all have at least one time of crisis—Sheehy prefers “passage”—most of us more. And these are somewhat predictable, as to typical times and themes. Which does not mean we are clones. But, to the extent that middle-class men and women have been exposed to similar socializing influences, their “passages” are not significantly dissimilar. (Or have not been: Sheehy's 115 “subjects” grew up in the '50s; perhaps the adolescents of the '70s will find our crises hilarious if they come upon the book in their own mid-lives.)
One has to be a black humorist to find them so now. Most of us will find some familiar faces in the second half of the book, where Sheehy outlines the stages of mid-life, with generous chunks of case history. (Honorable is the person who will resist sending a marked-up copy to an ex-mate or former lover.) The chapter on the “Switch-40s” is particularly intriguing. Fitzgerald was wrong: there are (or can be) second acts in American lives. Couple contracts may have to be renegotiated; they are not the same people. He may become more “feminine,” and she more “masculine,” as each “gropes toward authenticity.”
Writing descriptive narrative, Sheehy is good. Her style is lively, if at times a shade cute (e.g., “… born with a set of glands that could sweat only in a herringbone pattern”). But this is about the depth of her sense of humor. Or of the absurd. She runs the risk her subjects do: taking themselves too seriously.
At the same time, Sheehy can be faulted for no taking her task seriously enough. What is missing is more than quick asides, usually references to Erikson, about what it is we might expect to become. We are assured that mid-life Sturm und Drang is common, that we can emerge around 50 reasonably whole. Some mention is made of achieving integrity, or Erikson's “generativity.” But the reader will be forgiven if she is puzzled as to how this is to come about. This is not a criticism of Sheehy's failure to produce a “how to do it” book. We have had enough popular mechanics. But she offers no vision of what a workable synthesis of creatively negotiated “passages” might look like. One gets a sense of the process by reading the case histories. But those chosen for the final chapters seem to have been picked for dramatic effect. Most of us do not want to solve our problems of identity diffusion in the ways illustrated. Perhaps Sheehy's vagueness here is grounded in her own conviction that we are, in the last analysis, “confronted with our own absolute separateness,” with Thurber's Embraceable Impasse. But it would not seem to be asking too much of Sheehy that she provide us with a little more to work with than a quotation from The Velveteen Rabbit.
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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 undergone a certain refinement. Exhortation has yielded to analysis, positive thinking to study of the laws of psychological development. The popularization of psychiatric jargon and concepts has created a half-knowledgeable readership that can no longer be satisfied with slogans and proverbs, formulas for winning friends and influencing people, injunctions to keep smiling.
The agreeable fiction that life begins at forty no longer invites a willing suspension of disbelief. We know too much about the “mid-life crisis” to find comfort in such pieties. Today we insist that our doctors tell us the worst; we find our chief comfort in the knowledge that others get the same diagnosis. Others share our fears, dread the prospect of aging as much as we do, and yet in some cases seem to have found means of psychic survival. We used to read about the rich and famous in order to learn and emulate the secrets of their success; now we also need to be reassured that they suffer the same anxieties, the same despair, the same fear of mirrors that afflict the lowly.
The principle that misery loves company—the more exalted the better—explains the current fascination with the “stages of life.” If life no longer begins at forty, at least a common fate awaits us all—a slow descent, the pains of which, according to the new psychological realism, cannot be eased by closing our eyes to the aging process. The only protection against the unpleasant facts of “development,” according to Gail Sheehy, is to look them squarely in the face. This is cold comfort compared to what used to be held out by the upholders of mind over matter, but it rests on better psychology and a more realistic understanding of human limitations.
Such at least is the reader's first impression of Passages, one to which the book owes much of its success. Yet the impression of psychological realism is deceptive. At heart, Gail Sheehy believes in the power of positive thinking. She has too much sense of her audience, however, to try to convince us that youthful thoughts will keep us young. Indeed she deplores the cult of youth. Her approach to the “predictable crises of adult life” nevertheless continues the tradition of Mary Baker Eddy, Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale.
The book consists of material derived in part—some say, appropriated—from developmental psychologists like Erik Erikson and Roger Gould, in part from the author's interviews with the affluent and educated. It offers the reader the knowledge that he is in the “good company,” as Sheehy puts it, of people with fictionalized names like Vanessa, Marabel, and Melissa—beautiful people who nevertheless experience the “trying twenties,” the “midlife passage,” the “deadline decade” in all their inescapable intensity. Their money and advantages do not protect these suburbanites against the predictable panic of middle age. Even our betters, it appears, adopt the usual self-defeating strategies for dealing with that panic—love affairs with younger partners, face lifts, hair transplants. Sheehy condemns not only the cult of youth but the illusion of individuality—the illusion that anyone escapes the “identity crisis” of early adulthood or the “crisis of authenticity” that comes with middle age. Not even Marabel and Melissa, in their well-appointed surroundings, escape. The question is not whether we will undergo these crises, according to Sheehy, but whether they come as a catastrophe or as an opportunity for further “growth.”
Sheehy wrote her book, she says, after experiencing a mid-life crisis of her own, and it is middle age, more than earlier “passages,” that especially interests her. She is now convinced that the way to make the best of middle age is to prepare for it and that the most important part of this preparation is knowing “what to expect.” It helps to know that fear of aging, dissatisfaction with your job, boredom with your life, rising marital tension, and a restless search for new experience are “perfectly natural at this stage.” For that matter, earlier crises are also “natural.” The self-questioning of early adulthood; the “couple puzzle” of the late twenties and early thirties, when the man is rising in his career while the woman stagnates at home; the male “climacteric”; the female menopause are “perfectly normal” events appropriate to a given stage of life, and their disruptive influence can be minimized, Sheehy thinks, by understanding this and by getting ready for trouble ahead of time.
Clearly the greatest appeal of this book, which has kept it at the top of nonfiction bestseller lists ever since its publication, lies not in its cute catch-words but in the stress on the predictability and regularity of crisis. As one reviewer has already pointed out, Sheehy does for adulthood what Spock did for childhood. Both assure the anxious reader that conduct he finds puzzling or disturbing, whether in his children, his spouse, or himself, can be seen as merely a normal phase of emotional development.
Reassurance of this sort can easily backfire, however. It may be comforting to know that a two-year-old child likes to contradict his parents and often refuses to obey them, but if the child's development fails to conform to the proper schedule, the parent will be alarmed and seek medical or psychiatric advice, which may stir up further fears. The application of developmental psychology to adult life will probably have the same effect. Measuring experience against a normative model set up by doctors, people will be as troubled by departures from the norm as they are troubled by the “predictable crises” themselves, against which medical norms are intended to provide reassurance. The spirit of Sheehy's book—like that of Spock's famous manual on child-care—is generous and humane, but it rests on medical definitions of reality that remain highly suspect, not least because they make it so difficult for us to get through life without the constant attention of doctors, psychiatrists, and faith-healers. Sheehy brings to the subject of aging, which needs to be approached from a moral and philosophical perspective, a therapeutic sensibility incapable of transcending its own limitations. She understands that there is something wrong—not merely wasteful but ethically indecent—about the way our society approaches the problems of aging, but the psychiatric perspective she has adopted, far from clarifying or helping to alleviate those problems, in many ways makes them worse.
The normative concept of developmental stages inevitably promotes a view of life as an obstacle course, in which the aim of life is simply to get through the course with a minimum of trouble and pain. When existence has no meaning beyond itself, survival becomes the only object. Survival techniques—the ability to manipulate what Sheehy refers to, using a medical metaphor, as “life-support systems”—represent the highest form of wisdom: the knowledge that gets us through without “panic.” Those who master Sheehy's “no-panic approach to aging” will be able to say, in the words of one of her subjects, “I know I can survive … I don't panic any more.” This is hardly an exalted form of satisfaction, however. “The current ideology,” Sheehy writes, “seems a mix of personal survivalism, revivalism, and cynicism”; but her own book does not challenge this ideology, merely restates it in more “humanistic” form.
Sheehy recognizes that wisdom is one of the few comforts of age, but she does not see that to think of wisdom purely as a consolation divests it of any larger meaning or value. The real value of the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime is that it can be handed on to future generations. Our society, however, has lost this conception of wisdom and knowledge. It holds an instrumental view of knowledge, according to which technological change constantly renders knowledge obsolete and therefore nontransferable. The older generation has nothing to teach the younger, according to this kind of reasoning, except to equip it with the emotional and intellectual resources to make its own choices and to deal with “unstructured” situations for which there are no reliable precedents or precepts. It is taken for granted that children will quickly learn to find their parents' ideas old-fashioned and out of date, and parents themselves tend to accept the social definition of their own superfluity.
Having raised their children to the age at which they enter college or the work force, people in their forties and fifties find that they have nothing left to do as parents. This discovery coincides with another, that business and industry no longer need them either. The superfluity of the middle-aged and elderly originates in the severence of the sense of historical continuity. The older generation no longer thinks of itself as living on in the next; it no longer achieves a vicarious immortality in posterity. Under these conditions, the old find it difficult to give way gracefully to the young. They cling to the illusion of youth until it can no longer be maintained, at which point they must either accept their superfluous status or sink into dull despair. Neither solution makes it easy to sustain much interest in life.
Sheehy appears to acquiesce in the devaluation of parenthood, for she has almost nothing to say about it. Nor does she criticize the social pressures that push people out of their jobs into increasingly early retirement. Indeed she accepts this trend as desirable. “A surprisingly large number of workers are choosing to accept early retirement,” she says brightly, “provided it will not mean a drastic drop in income.” Her solution to the mid-life crisis is to find new interests, new ways of keeping busy. She equates growth with keeping on the move. She urges her readers to discover “the thrill of learning something new after 45.” Take up skiing, golf, or hiking. Learn to play the piano. You won't make much progress, “but so what! … The point is to defeat the entropy that says slow down, give it up, watch TV, and to open up another pathway that can enliven all the senses, including the sense that one is not just an old dog.”
Under a veneer of psychological realism, Sheehy extols the power of positive thinking. “More than anything else, it is our own view of ourselves that determines the richness or paucity of the middle years.” In effect, she urges people to prepare for the “mid-life crisis” so that they can be phased out without making a fuss. Under existing arrangements, this may be the best we can expect, but it should not be disguised as “renewal” and growth. At best, it enables us to get through the days.
The psychology of growth, development, and “self-actualization,” which gives to Sheehy's book a spurious air of objectivity and realism, rests on deception. It presents survival as spiritual progress, resignation as renewal. In a society in which most people find it difficult to store up experience, knowledge, and even money against old age, or to pass on accumulated experience to their descendants, the growth experts compound the problem by urging the middle-aged to cut their ties to the past, embark on new careers and new marriages (“creative divorce”), take up new hobbies, travel light, and keep moving.
This is a recipe not for growth but for planned obsolescence. It is no wonder that American industry has embraced “sensitivity training” as an essential part of personnel management. The new therapy provides for personnel what the annual model-change provides for its products: rapid retirement from active use. Corporate planners have much to learn from Gail Sheehy's popularization of humanistic psychology, which provides techniques by means of which people can phase themselves out of active life, often prematurely, painlessly, and without “panic.”
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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 Southeast Asia just as she has completed a cross-country book tour and is about to suffer what she calls “writer's paralysis,” she goes along with the idea.
Over breakfast after an amorous first night in the Oriental Hotel of Bangkok, she reads on the veranda a newspaper story that begins, “Thousands of children, most of them under twelve, orphaned by the genocide in Cambodia, have been existing in holding centers in Thailand for over two years. … They have scant hope of being adopted or resettled in third countries.”
Sheehy goes to a refugee camp [in Spirit of Survival]. She meets a beautiful young girl, and eventually the girl arrives in New York and becomes Sheehy's daughter. She also becomes the subject of this book insofar as it is possible for Sheehy ever to get herself out of the way.
The new daughter, Mohm, is a young woman who also lived through what Szymusiak experienced. Their stories, like the stories of all Khmer Rouge survivors, conform to a single pattern.
There is no food. There is starvation. Parents die. Heads are cut off. Piles of heads must be walked over. Open sores and no reason and no future and no hope—these are the only reality. However grisly, these stories are well worth the telling.
But the story Sheehy tells in Spirit of Survival loses much impact because it consists of snatches of her own loves and life, snatches of Mohm's life in Kampuchea, snatches of their lives together and, as if that were not enough, a magazine piece about the nature of survivors.
What Sheehy says she is trying to do, “given the gift of Mohm in my life,” is to “choose to search for the universal truths in the particular.” Unfortunately, what Sheehy seems to accomplish in her book is only to dilute the story of Mohm by letting us all know a bit too well how she and her love life are coming along, informing us as to the nature of survivors in general and exposing us both to her journalistic encounters with Cambodia and the depth of her newfound motherhood.
Each one of those ideas would have been enough for a book. As it is, a sense of adulteration runs through the work.
Of the early days of Mohm in the United States, Sheehy ruminates, “So far, so good. She had survived for months on the run in the Cambodian jungle, but would she survive the first months on her own hook in the jungle of New York City?”
There really is no comparison, and this is the central problem with Spirit of Survival as a serious book. There is no comparison between the life of a well-to-do white woman over 40 and the life of a young woman under the Khmer Rouge.
Sheehy is indiscriminate in the text. She is fond of sweeping generalizations and a certain dogmatism born of pop sociology. “Once again I marveled at her (Mohm's) ability to turn away instantaneously from the bitter to the blitheful. That is why children are natural survivors,” she says.
That may be one reason children are natural survivors, but one suspects that it is not the only reason. Sheehy, however, lives in her world; and although there is obviously much that is worthwhile in it, little of the mystery, little of the transforming nature of spirit comes through in her rather overworked text.
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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 backslider.” It seems Hart could “be very intense … but once the passion was consumed, the fantasy fulfilled, and the specter of the start of a relationship reared its head,” he would “shrink back” and the “inner steel door between his two selves would slam shut.” He'd promise to “get together very soon.” And then he didn't call! (They never do.) This, Sheehy speculates, was because he had a “compulsion rooted not in seeking illicit sex but in proving he was so utterly worthy that he could break all the rules.” Yet “he could never believe he was worthy enough.”
Psst, Gail. I have an alternative hypothesis: men don't have sex with women like Donna Rice to prove they are worthy, or unworthy, or because they're scared of their mommas, or whatever. Men have sex with women like Donna Rice because men like to have sex with women like Donna Rice. Next Sheehy will offer us a pop-psychological explanation of why salmon swim upstream. I'm not saying Hart isn't odd. But what's odd about him is not his philandering. It's more his tendency to lie repeatedly about it, and other things, often with a testy, put-upon arrogance. Sheehy's women's-mag perspective (What's wrong with these men? Why can't they have “a warm, close, friendly relationship with a woman?”) means she overexplains what hardly needs explaining, and doesn't quite get to the bottom of Hart's real weirdness. For example, she alarmingly describes Hart's '84 campaign as “free of structure,” filled with “chaos” and “bickering.” Has Sheehy ever been in a presidential campaign? As proof of Hart's Gatsby theory of “self-reinvention,” she cites a speech he gave to high school seniors telling them, “You can be anything you want to be.” Pretty scary.
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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 accidents of life; and her last book, Spirit of Survival, is her account of her adopted daughter's survival of the Cambodian genocide.
This singleminded passion of Sheehy's has recently culminated in another examination of character titled, appropriately enough, Character: America's Search for Leadership. She has spent the last two years flying around the country, interviewing present and now former presidential candidates (George Bush, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore Jr., Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson) and their friends, families and colleagues for a series of revealing psychological profiles for Vanity Fair which have been collected and substantially expanded in Character, her eighth book. About half the material in the book is new, and it includes a rather frightening portrait of President Reagan.
It is the morning after the New York primary, and Sheehy by all rights should be exhausted; she has spent most of the last few weeks covering the campaigns of Dukakis, Jackson and Gore for more articles for Vanity Fair on the presidential race. But Sheehy is ready for action. She is dressed immaculately in a blue-and-white suit, having already been interviewed by Canadian television prior to our arrival. And as soon as we leave, she'll race to the airport, bound for Washington, D.C. to continue her coverage of the Bush campaign.
Sheehy sits calmly at the breakfast table in the spectacular New York City apartment she shares with her husband, Clay Felker, editor-in-chief of Manhattan Inc, and their adopted daughter Mohm. (Sheehy's older daughter Maura does not live at home.) She is discussing why she decided to write Character. “I'm interested in human behavior and human growth,” she explains. “I'm very hopeful about long-term maturing of civilized people, so I'm always fascinated by tracking how it happens in individuals. And when you track it in people who present themselves to be our national leaders, it has a double-whammy. It's not only fascinating to see how they become these almost superhuman beings that they have to be to survive the process, but how they express the fondest fantasies and wishes of those they lead. I think leaders do that, so we so often elect people who are less than the best because at that period in our history they represent what we think we are missing.”
She chose to focus on the characters of the candidates because in this presidential race character has become more important than the issues. “The people want to know the character behind that image they see on television before that person is able to dominate and control their lives. We've had this cavalcade of charlatans, from Ivan Boesky to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and people are now aware that television can be used by people who are smart and have a dramatic flair to mask the worst sorts of character flaws,” she notes.
Sheehy also says that the character issue has become a two-way street. “The candidates found out very quickly that the character issue might play for them. So did their campaign managers,” she observes. For example, when she first interviewed George Bush, she got him to talk about his nearly fatal World War II experiences. “When the piece came out, his advisors extracted the hero stuff and said, ‘This is how we're going to defeat the wimp factor.’”
Sheehy defines character as “the inner engraving of those imprints of temperament, people and events that left the strongest, deepest impression on the individual as they grew up. It continues on into adult life at each of those junctures where they had to confront that need to change and move on to the next phase—how they handled that leaves another important engraving.”
Her profiles look at the candidates through several prisms: How do their subcultures play into their characters? What were the significant crises and passages of their lives so far? What are their “step-styles,” which Sheehy defines as, “How do they confront, deny or elude those major life passages which demand that one change and move on”?
She sought to do this by interviewing each of the candidates and their immediate families, which gave her a lot of material and insights. But political figures and their coteries tend to stick to whatever approved and sanitized story has been given out by public relations people and campaign managers. To separate fact from mythology, she also spent time in each of the candidates' hometowns and other significant stopping points, interviewing their friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, preachers—anyone with time to talk and a story to tell.
She found that if she judiciously chose when to approach people, they were more likely to deviate from the standard party line. “For instance, the optimum moment for catching people to tell you the unvarnished truth about Gary Hart was two weeks after he dropped out. The townspeople were all reexamining their own manufactured stories, because now suddenly this character makes them appear foolish.”
Sheehy aided her interpretation by bringing to bear her psychological and anthropological training. She studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont ('58), and then anthropology under Margaret Mead on a fellowship at Columbia University ('70). She's been writing psychological profiles for 25 years; Anwar Sadat and Corazon Aquino were among her subjects.
She realizes that some people might accuse her of “psychobabble,” as she calls it, but her answer is that what she does is really “all based on shoe leather journalism—running around the country, visiting the stops the character has made along the way that figured in shaping his life, and putting together the pieces to come up with some insights about his behavior that show recurring patterns.
“Nobody has the whole picture usually,” she continues. “But I do get nuggets of experience that are repetitive from one stage to another. Things that a candidate did, for example, in his 50s can often find their antecedent back in his teens.”
Her anthropology studies come into play when Sheehy looks at the candidates' subcultures, which, she feels, “give them a set against which they play the rest of their lives.” To illustrate, she points out that Jesse Jackson came from a Southern black segregated society. In that world at that time, the community would choose the most promising children and set them aside to be “saved.” Since they knew only a few of them could make it, they would surround the most likely with love, opportunity and protection. “Jackson is still operating in that mode,” she notes. “He is assured that kind of boost from his supporters in black communities. It is what keeps reinfusing him with confidence and a sense of acceptance that he is trying so desperately to get from the white culture.”
As Sheehy began to dig into the candidates' lives, she found she was forced to reassess any preconceived notions she had of them. For example, she thought Al Gore would be a “lightweight. He was very pleasant,” she recalls, “but very young. I found that he was much deeper, more serious, intelligent, funnier and multi-layered, and that he was a Southerner, truly, wrapped in a Northern-educated package. But he is a young man and he has never failed, so he came to New York City and walked right up to Ed Koch and asked for his endorsement like Jonah to the mouth of the whale—and Ed Koch just swallowed him.”
Jackson is the candidate who did the biggest turnaround in Sheehy's eyes. “I don't think that I started off with a negative impression of him,” she says, “but as I got into the reporting I found a lot of unpleasant baggage. There were several dark corners in his life. But my impression is that he has matured a great deal over this campaign. I think that he truly does understand that he now represents something so much larger than himself and that, to fill his own shoes, he must be a healer. He knows he must express love and forgiveness to his enemies and teach his flock to do the same, which is what he is doing.”
Sheehy's investigations underline the current question of how far the press should go in revealing candidates' private lives. Was it right to reveal Gary Hart's indiscretions? To jump on Joe Biden's fabrications? Not surprisingly, Sheehy believes press scrutiny is extremely important. Since the primary process has dispensed with political bosses who would choose the nominees in back rooms, “anybody can choose himself or herself as a presidential candidate and then package him or herself up so that he or she looks like an attractive product. The only people who are between the television commercial and the voting booth are investigative journalists and, later, editorial writers,” she explains. “Somebody has to go in there and find out who these people are, what drives them, what they've really done in the past as opposed to what they say they've done, what are their repetitive patterns of behavior and how those translate into what their public behavior would be.”
One wonders what the candidates' responses have been to these not-always-flattering profiles. She heard that the Jackson people were happy with their candidate's portrait, but Hart's camp responded with such statements as, “I cry for all the trees that have been cut down for the articles Gail Sheehy writes.” Al Gore Sr. telephoned Sheehy to offer his thanks after his son's profile ran and said: “Miz Sheehy—may I call you Gail?—that was a magnificent story by a magnificent writer on a magnificent subject.”
Since the author now has this wealth of information on the candidates of such a perplexing race, the interviewer can't resist asking who she will be voting for. Sheehy declines to answer. She also won't hazard a guess as to whom she thinks will win if it comes down to frontrunners Dukakis and Bush. “It's completely wide open,” she says. “It's going to be driven by events and mistakes. Will Bush defeat Bush before Dukakis defeats Dukakis?”
Sheehy hopes that readers will discover something about themselves as well as the candidates in Character. “I hope readers will learn about their own characters, what goes into forming them, how they can change the edges, emphasize strengths, minimize weaknesses,” she says. “By learning through your own process, identifying your own step-style, you become more sensitive to your family, your associates and to your political candidates. I think that if we get to know our political candidates more as human beings and we can identify the same kind of struggles in them that we have in ourselves, we can be more discerning and measured in our expectations of them.”
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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 is?
Character is a reassuringly old-fashioned-sounding word implying ethical judgments. From classical times to the neoclassical 18th century, character studies were portraits of moral fiber—or its lack. But with Rousseau's Confessions (1767), the ethical notion of character was subverted by the emergence of a more elaborate psychological model that explored the shadowy areas between deed and desire. In our century, psychology has become the dominant mode of explaining character. Critics may question the true value of psychology, but psychologizing has become so “natural” to most of us that few readers will be surprised that a book like Gail Sheehy's Character is—like her previous best sellers, Passages (1976) and Pathfinders (1981)—an exercise in pop psychology.
Fortunately, it is more than that. At a time when not only television, but also much of the print media, have focused on sensational campaign “moments”—George Bush's run-in with Dan Rather, Jesse Jackson's reaction to Michael Dukakis's choice of Lloyd Bentsen—at the expense of the profound issues, Sheehy's portraits of seven presidential hopefuls, past and present, provide some of the missing background and depth. While it would be an overstatement to claim that her sharp, vivid, sometimes glib character sketches help us see their subjects steadily and whole, they do offer a more complete sense of what these men are like than can be gleaned from other sources.
Character is based on articles Sheehy wrote for Vanity Fair. Beginning with her devastating piece on Gary Hart, “The Road to Bimini,” and concluding with a blistering, less than fair, but still valuable look at Ronald Reagan, “Who Was That Masked Man?,” it also contains chapters on Jackson, Bob Dole, Bush, Albert Gore Jr., and Dukakis.
Sheehy ties all seven portraits together by analyzing each man's ability to make constructive adjustments to a changing reality. Dukakis, she believes, made a genuine change in the face of his 1978 loss of the Massachusetts governorship. Hart and Jackson appear as practitioners of “false change,” constantly reinventing their own histories, but never quite coming to terms with their pasts. Gore is presented—with perhaps too little skepticism on Sheehy's part—as an “accelerated” changer, working extra hard to prove he is not just coasting on the coattails of his famous father. Dole and Bush form a neatly contrasting pair: Dole, an “inner directed” man who learned self-reliance in the wake of a life-altering accident; Bush, an “outer directed” man who has tended to make himself over to please authority figures.
While Sheehy is prepared to take off the gloves in portraying the two men whose presidential ambitions are in the past—Hart and Reagan, she tries to keep an open mind about the five who may still have more of a future. She investigates, she probes, but she also tries to remain as objective as she can.
The fascinating material that Sheehy the reporter uncovers has a far more powerful impact than her efforts as a political analyst and a political “psychologist” to shape and interpret it. Even her attempt to bend over backward to be fair—even sympathetic—to Jesse Jackson does not vitiate the chilling portrait she delivers of a relentless manipulator.
Although Sheehy is a flashy journalist who knows just how to capture and hold the reader's attention, she also demonstrates in this book a serious concern for the quality of America's leadership. Attuned as she is to the image-riddled media world, she is all the more sensitive to the crucial distinction between image and character. And so, oddly enough, it is in her book that one finds something all too rare in this year's campaign coverage: a genuine solicitude for the fate of the republic.
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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 full-throated arrogance of this paltry effort [The Man Who Changed the World] is summarized by Sheehy's boast that “this book is an X-ray of history—some of which I witnessed up close.” This from a writer with no knowledge of local languages, barely aware of regional history and who, after a few month-long visits, always accompanied by translators and government-supplied guides, considers herself a regular John Reed in the stormy streets of Petrograd.
What Sheehy has going for her is the strength of her naiveté and a commercial hook in recycling the angle of her bestselling Passages. “I have been undertaking character studies of American and world leaders for many years,” she writes. But to know the stages in Gorbachev's life, one has to know something about his country's political history, of which Sheehy is abysmally ignorant.
As a result, the book exudes a breathy, frenetic tone as Sheehy follows one lead after another in her effort to get close to the subject. She never does. Despite (as she reveals in an unnecessary catalogue of her own work habits) getting up before 6 each morning to make calls to the Soviet Union and making frequent dashes after new leads on people who might have known the man himself, she apparently was never in his presence.
But she certainly tried, as she complains over and over. There was even a desperate plane ride back from Moscow to attend a dinner party with wealthy Mort Zuckerman during which she could meet what was to be her key high-placed Soviet contact “pooh-bah,” Nikolai Shishlin, a Communist Party Central Committee functionary.
She thinks Shishlin has promised her a Gorbachev interview. Welcome to the club. The list of journalists who think they were promised a Gorbachev interview by Shishlin just in the coffee shop of Washington's Madison Hotel alone now runs in the hundreds. But none of the others have turned that failure of journalistic enterprise into a “character portrait” of Gorbachev.
The search for a journalistic coup then turns desperate. “I was the first print journalist to be taken to the actual site of Gorbachev's childhood home,” Sheehy writes. But she doesn't mean the first to visit the village where he grew up. There have been scores of other print and many more television-documentary accounts of this village and interviews with its inhabitants. Sheehy's claimed coup is that she was the “first print reporter” to visit the “white hump of matted mud, dung and straw, with two or three little rooms inside” where Gorbachev was born. The only problem is that she never saw the hut because it's been replaced by a hay field. Once again the exclusive experience is merely a shallow embellishment of journalistic failure.
The danger in this obsession is that information becomes misinformation because too much must be made of each anecdote or historical detail that comes to her attention. Gorbachev, too young to serve in the army, was left behind in an area overrun by the invading Nazis. This well-known fact is rendered as a dark secret by Sheehy to serve the purposes of a character passage: “Even today, members of his own ruling circle were stunned to learn that Gorbachev lived in an area occupied by the German forces.” Why stunned? Are members of his ruling circle incapable of reading a map and locating the much-publicized place of his childhood behind the well-marked line of the German advance? This is just silly.
The tour of Gorbachev's life proceeds from the village to Moscow University and back to the village. Sheehy is apparently unaware that she herself was on a well-trodden tour. The Moscow University years once again are seen through the eyes of the group around Gorbachev who have by now told their stories to dozens of visitors, including this one. The stories have been told once too often, and the quotes are just a bit too polished. And Sheehy is biased in deciding which of those quotes to use.
It is important for Sheehy's character portrait that Gorbachev be viewed early on as a tormented apparatchik torn between his need to get ahead and his awareness of the harshness of Stalin's policies in his native region. But the two men who knew Gorbachev best back then, though only briefly quoted here, have gone on record with a different perspective. Vladimir Lieberman, a Jew, and Zdenek Mlynar, a Czech, both of whom suffered for their “foreign” origins, nonetheless recall the postwar formative years of Gorbachev as a time of idealism. Stalin, after all, had won the great patriotic war, the purges seemed to be of the ever-distant past and life was getting better materially, politically and culturally, at least in the eyes of the Moscow University elite.
Then came the “doctors' plot” and the reappearance of virulent official anti-Semitism. Sheehy apparently is unaware that Mlynar (a Czech national tainted by the Prague purges) and Lieberman both were in trouble and both were defended by Gorbachev. This early resistance to Stalinism provided a basis for Gorbachev's openness to Khrushchev and subsequent reform impulses. That at least is the view of his friends as reported in this newspaper and elsewhere.
But Lieberman and Mlynar are too serious for Sheehy's purposes. In the end, she relies more on the chaotic, self-promoting Nadezhda Mikhailova who, I can attest from my own interviews with her, is eager to confirm any of a reporter's prior impressions of Gorbachev as long as Nadezhda appears in the account. Nadezhda's friends in the old-college-mate club are very quick to warn visitors about her tendency to self-aggrandizement. To mold the limited memories of this woman into the reflections of a central observer of Gorbachev's life, as Sheehy does, is to make a mockery of reporting.
Invention is employed to substitute for genuine access or insight. The commonplace becomes mysterious and, in the throes of her enthnocentrism, her personal travails become a metaphor for a society with which she has had only the scantiest connection. How can any reporter visiting Moscow in March of this year write: “On a stopover in Frankfurt I scrambled to purchase a shortwave radio, in hopes of keeping in touch with the outside world. It felt like I was ‘going under.’” Why didn't she purchase the International Herald Tribune, Time or Newsweek at her hotel, or get the excellent daily Los Angeles Times fax edition, or wander over to one of the news organizations to read their wires? For ＄25 a month, she could have joined the San Francisco-Moscow computer link-up and used their office in Moscow to send E-Mail, as scores of American business people and writers now do? Nor was it necessary to “scramble” in Frankfurt to buy a short-wave radio as if it were an illicit item in the Soviet Union, where such sets are present in the tens of millions. The purpose of her sentence is obviously to impart a sense of foreign intrigue to the mundane.
The last half of the book, after Sheehy runs out of anecdotes, reads like a computerized database search outlined with dinner-type one-liners. Yegor Ligachev and Boris Yeltsin appear as invented props for Gorbachev's manipulation as if they did not represent real forces in the society. And the discussion of Gorbachev's foreign policy degenerates into a romance novel revolving around his relationship with Margaret Thatcher, which is juiceless gossip. It all reads like filler. One does not need Gail Sheehy to write about arms control or SDI, and yet that is what she insists on doing without benefit of detectable knowledge or wisdom. What is all this doing here if not to pad an otherwise very thin account of Gorbachev the man?
The book doesn't so much end as peter out with gloomy musings about the “Mafia cloud over Gorbachev,” which is a reference to the black market and the usual tales of how he goes abroad to recharge his spirits. She never does get her interview with Gorbachev, but “At the end of May, Alexander Yakovlev, his alter ego and closest adviser, made time to see me for a rare one-on-one interview.” Problem is, Yakovlev “had not once mentioned the name Gorbachev,” refusing pointedly to gossip about his colleague. As for a “rare” interview, Yakovlev has been interviewed, frequently, including twice by this paper and by New Perspective Quarterly, an L.A.-based journal of less than 1٪ of the circulation of Sheehy's Vanity Fair.
Despite Sheehy's negative spin, replete with dark references to the intense glare of his eyes and his messianic ability to lock in on people, this book still leaves one with a sense that Gorbachev is a helluva guy.
For example, we are treated to a full-blown exploration of the corrupt Brezhnev years, adorned with dancing ladies, Gypsy violinists and general alcoholic debauchery. But Sheehy in no way ties Gorbachev, the regional party boss, to any of that. On the contrary, Gorbachev is repeatedly exonerated of such behavior by the people who knew him.
Not satisfied, Sheehy writes: “Corrupt or not, the first secretary of a territory never had to worry about money,” a reference to available perks. But the issue was precisely “corrupt or not,” and if the evidence is that Gorbachev managed to retain his integrity in an enormous sea of corruption, isn't that all the more impressive?
“By the standards of his world,” Sheehy nevertheless concedes, “Gorbachev seems to have been an honest apparatchik” who “went to some lengths to demonstrate that he was clean.” She recounts how he waited for a car for years on the same long list as everyone else, and even threw someone out of his office who offered a black-market one. Nor would he break even small rules to benefit his relatives and friends.
To resist the corruption that Sheehy describes as rampant would seem to demonstrate exemplary fortitude, and yet a disclaimer is supplied: “Gorbachev may have resisted taking bribes because he was playing an infinitely more sophisticated game where the stake was not money but power.” What a muddle, when she has just gone on so long about how money was power in the Brezhnev kingdom.
The disappointing thing about this book—for those who are looking for revealing deformities of character—is that Gorbachev emerges as an amazingly balanced and healthy product of a sick system. How that ever happened is a subject requiring the elucidation of an informed talent, which hopefully will be supplied in some other, more serious work.
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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 will never be quite the same.”
They're forever “gleaming with adventure,” those eyes, even as the voice remains “a steady, reassuring center in the maelstrom of events”—the sum effect being, quite simply, “dazzling” and “electrifying.” Even a reluctant George Bush finally came around to admitting that, yes, “some strange chemical reaction seemed to have taken place between him and the Soviet president.” It was as if, writes Mrs. Sheehy in her concluding paragraph, “with the intensity of his belief Mikhail Gorbachev had burned his image of a new world onto the retina of the President of the United States. The old Gorbachev magic was still in evidence.” The dustjacket should perhaps carry an editor's note warning us to read the book through dark glasses, such is the danger this luminous being poses to our retinas.
And yet despite its breathless title and amorous preoccupation with physical detail, the book takes some startling turns. Between these romantic rhetorical interludes, our Man Who Changed the World is variously described as a hypocrite, a chameleon, a liar, an opportunist who groveled and pandered his way to power, and a heavyhanded Party hack unwilling to part with his own luxuries, which include five dachas or so and a limitless budget to keep Raisa, the “trained Marxist philosopher,” in furs, Parisian finery, and a comfy Zil limousine of her very own.
“All the waiting,” Mrs. Sheehy writes of Gorbachev's ascent to power, “all the years in ‘Warm Siberia’ [Stavropol], all the flattery and hypocrisy and doublethink had made this moment possible. Mikhail Gorbachev would at last have his day.”
But somehow, in this otherwise sharp portrait, it doesn't occur to Mrs. Sheehy to ask how such a man can also be a “visionary” burning the retinas of lesser statesmen with his “intensity of belief.” If the man is ultimately a self-seeker and a fraud—though preferable to the alternatives—is it morally relevant that he is also “charming,” “witty,” “warm,” and “engaging”? And what are we to make of a biographer who, having catalogued his treacheries with wifely familiarity, is nevertheless uncontrollably “dazzled” or “enthralled” in his presence?
Her confusion seems to lie in mistaking complexity of character for depth. All his life, Mrs. Sheehy tells us—drawing from first-ever interviews with his boyhood friends in Privolnoye, Ukraine—Mikhail Sergeyevich has labored under feelings of guilt and shame over the fate of his father's parents. One night in 1937, Grandfather Gorbachev was ushered away by the secret police while “the baby Misha” (as Mrs. Sheehy gratingly calls him throughout the early chapters) looked on. Despite a nine-year sentence in the Gulag, he turned up at home in the early Forties having somehow gained appointment to a local Communist Party post. On his mother's side, Grandfather Gopkalo, the patriarch, meanwhile proved more cooperative, rising to become the local “organizer of collective farms”—a job which surviving Privolnoyans say he performed ruthlessly.
“So,” writes Mrs. Sheehy, “Mikhail Gorbachev learned two opposing life lessons: One said to preserve the pride of one's independence at all costs. … The other taught that survival entailed compromise—compromise with whoever was in power.”
Whether the formation of any man's character can be reconstructed so neatly is debatable. At all events, the baby Misha seems to have taken the second of these life lessons more seriously. “He worked like a demon,” writes Mrs. Sheehy, “and waited for the Party to notice,” cultivating through the years “a talent for pleasing the right people.” Duly pleased, the right people guided him along the path to power until at last he came to the attention of Yuri Andropov, who just before his own final reward gave Gorbachev the big push upward.
All along, though, this same inner complexity was evident in the ambitious “chameleon.” In “law school” we find him rising in class to dispute the propriety of forced confessions: “‘It's wrong, just plain wrong,’” Gorbachev would insist. And yet about the same time we find Gorbachev one night inviting a classmate, who also was a competitor for a Party job, to a local bar; it was drinks all around, on Misha's tab, until finally the fellow acted up and got himself arrested for “hooliganism,” only to be denounced at the next morning's Komsomol meeting by his generous drinking buddy.
Reading of such inspiring acts of friendship, one is reminded that, born into that same miserable system, we too might have found ourselves ratting on friends, and sniveling and groveling without preserving even the scrap of integrity one detects today in Gorbachev. Still, the most charitable sifting of the evidence presented here does not leave the impression of a morally rich personality. None of Mrs. Sheehy's labored psychological analysis (there are supposedly various “lives” through which he has passed, acts of heroic “self-transformation” and so on) can make of her subject “a Russian King Lear” slowly groping toward humbling self-knowledge. The railing and accusation and self-flattery are all there, but little in the way of true repentance. “It was more than Misha could bear,” Mrs. Sheehy writes of an injustice he witnessed in his early years. But even if by some pragmatic standard his life of calculated compromise is defensible, the hard truth remains that it was not more than Misha could bear. For he obviously did bear that injustice and many more afterward, painfully chronicled by Mrs. Sheehy herself. And is it ungrateful to point out that despite his political achievements—people no longer “disappear,” as someone put it to the author—many continue to bear injustice at his own hands?
If Mrs. Sheehy were to apply her considerable psychological tools to introspection, one suspects she would find herself engaged reluctantly in the modern journalist's perpetual and illusory search for the Charismatic Leader. For all its sophistication, underlying the book is that same strange compulsion that, when our dazzling Soviet friend has stopped his motorcade on visits to American cities, led others to rush out to shake hands, shout their praise, or touch his garment, when a polite, respectful wave would have sufficed. It is not his goodness or badness that captivates, but, as with other Men Who Changed the World from Napoleon to Kennedy, his sheer celebrity. To be near him is to be near the center of excitement and drama. “Only up close,” she writes in a particularly pathetic passage, “did one notice the purplish folds of fatigue drooping like curtains over the bright stage of his eyes; only when I stood right beside him did I glimpse the raw dents on either side of the nose, where glasses had worked into the flesh.”
Still, if we must write odes to Men Who Changed the World, then on her own terms Mrs. Sheehy has been searching in the wrong place. A political “chameleon” changing shades may make for fascinating spectacle. But such creatures cannot “change the world” except in response to exterior influences; they're agents of change, but not the cause.
A hint as to just how the captivating chameleon came to change colors appears in an exchange he had at Camp David in 1987, a little detail Mrs. Sheehy records without seeming to grasp its significance: “‘By the way,’ his host gently advised him, ‘it's in your interest [to change Soviet society], because successful societies are open societies.’ If the Soviet leader wanted to belong to the club of Atlantic nations, the price would be ‘a different kind of society.’” Gorbachev didn't take well to Ronald Reagan's “Uncle Sam pep talks,” Mrs. Sheehy writes. At another summit, she reveals, Gorbachev tried to buffalo the U.S. on some important detail in arms negotiations just moments before the joint statement was to be released—only to be told simply, “‘Well, I don't think we agreed to that.’” Annoyed at this last-minute hitch, she writes, the Soviet team nevertheless regrouped and promptly withdrew its new demand.
If the world truly changed, it happened not at some melodramatic meeting of the Supreme Soviet or through a tortured process of “self-transformation,” but at moments such as these when the opportunist first encountered a man he couldn't flatter or browbeat. And that story begins not in Privolnoye, Ukraine, but in Dixon, Illinois.
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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] went to press—his performance may have become even more baffling, as the once universally hailed democratic savior of the East is observed creeping back into the clammy embrace of the Army, the KGB, and the Party apparatus.
Both Hedrick Smith and Gail Sheehy rightly imply that, whatever the immediate future of the Soviet Union, there can be little doubt now that Gorbachev deserves to be seen as one of the great leaders of the century, although perhaps a transitional one. The transition for which he has been the catalyst, and maybe even the prime mover, is so momentous that the entire world must forever be in his debt. Even if the hard right—we must, it seems, accept the strange convention whereby the antidemocratic centralizers are referred to as right-wing and free-market democrats left-wing—now takes back the reins of power, with or without Gorbachev as the titular leader of a withering state, the forces of freedom already released are so great that a return to the status quo seems inconceivable. Even if a period of repression comes, it would probably be only the prelude, lasting not more than a few years, to a more thorough-going revolution which would lead to the social and political arrangements to which the former East European satellites of the Soviet Union now aspire. Whether he meant the consequences or not, Gorbachev is, as Sheehy's title claims, “The Man Who Changed The World.”
The question we have all found extraordinarily hard to answer is not so much what Gorbachev has done as what he meant, and still means, to do. Is he merely a brilliant improviser, flying by the seat of his pants but with no clear vision of where he wants Russia or the Soviet Union to go? Or has he a master plan which, for tactical reasons, he can confide to nobody, knowing that he has to please a variety of conflicting interests in order to survive? Has he secretly left Marxism-Leninsim behind although he has never publicly disavowed it? Or is he still a conspiratorial Leninist for whom perestroika is much the same as the New Economic Policy—an unleashing of entrepreneurial initiative to be closely watched by a Communist party still dictating an overall central plan? Does he believe the Russian empire can and should be held together by force? Or is his brutality toward the Baltic states a tactical ruse for slowing down, to make more orderly, the process of imperial dismemberment which he knows to be inevitable? Or is he a Russian nationalist for whom the final loss of empire, already humiliating in Eastern Europe, is too shameful to contemplate?
Does he believe, paradoxically, that democracy in the Soviet Union is so frail that a benevolent despot—namely, himself—is justified in overseeing its survival by curtailing freedom, to preserve a necessary modicum of order? Or will he, in the end, prove democratic enough to allow the Communist party—and himself—to be swept away in a popular ballot, if that is what the people want? Or was he never a true democrat at all, just a charming and slippery Party pragmatist who believed that the moribund state of the Soviet Union needed an injection of energizing debate within an enduring framework of Party control? Could the fall of Gorbachev save the future for democracy or would it precipitate something worse? Has he been corrupted into believing he is indispensable? Should we want him to bow out now, or not?
Both Gail Sheehy and Hedrick Smith set out to address these riddles and ambiguities and to explain how Gorbachev has fostered a completely new Soviet Union. They are both, maybe rightly, loath to predict the future.
Sheehy's book is an elaboration of a remarkable article published in the February 1990 issue of the magazine Vanity Fair, in which she managed to pull off an enjoyable scoop by becoming the first American writer to describe Gorbachev's tiny native mud-laned village of Privolnoye in the rolling nowhereland of the remote southern Russian steppes, not far from the Caucasus Mountains. Hedrick Smith, with a television crew in tow, may have beaten Sheehy to the village, but the results of his travels were not offered to the public, on Boston's WGBH-TV, until later. I, and many others, were forbidden to go there, though the provincial city of Stavropol, where Gorbachev clambered rapidly up the Party tree for some two decades before he was propelled to high office in Moscow in 1978, has long been “open.” It is quite easy for a resourceful journalist to witness the still primitive conditions of rural life nearby, in villages just like the one where Gorbachev, amid terror and famine, was raised. But Sheehy, to give her her due, saw the real thing and published it first.
Speaking to anyone in or around Privolnoye who would talk about Gorbachev, she vividly pieced together a picture—admittedly, much of it speculative but generally plausible—of a childhood and youth that went beyond what most Westerners, and certainly nearly all Russians, then knew about Gorbachev, She described the grimness of his childhood in a region where up to a third of the peasantry may have perished in the terror and famine of 1932-1933, the backwardness of the place, as well as the strain of Cossack independence that is still to be observed among those southern free-booters' descendants—Gorbachev included—who were never serfs. She discovered that one grandparent had been sent to the gulag, but survived, under Stalin. “The shame,” Sheehy wrote, “had to have seeped through to the sensitive boy, but it would be years before he could breathe a word of the family secret.”
In addition, tracking down some of Gorbachev's Moscow University classmates, also undetected by the rest of us, she presented a plausible if overblown thesis that Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, has influenced his political, cultural, and emotional development and crucially helped his rise to the top. Especially in view of the continuing horror of Soviet bureaucracy, logistics, and secrecy (even today, no foreign journalist may travel more than twenty-five miles from the Kremlin without permission, except to the monastery of Zagorsk; and there are still no public telephone directories), Sheehy produced a fascinating piece of impressionistic, foot-in-the-door, journalism, evidently buttressed by a small army of assiduous researchers, translators, and high-powered analysts, whose insights were well processed into her computer.
The article's metamorphosis into a book is less happy. For a start, Sheehy's scant knowledge of Soviet society or Russian history may have added to the fun of the Vanity Fair piece—in which the dogged, wily ingénue pursues the most glamorous and imposing political figure in the world—but it becomes a severe liability in the book, which is littered with slips, misspellings, and oversimplifications. Most comical, perhaps, is her reference to Catherine the Great's favorite, Grigori Potemkin, as an “architect”—the designer, presumably, of those charming, state-of-the-art riverine villages built to fool the empress into believing that her subjects lived in paradise. Among several misleading clichés about Russian history we find: “The Russian peasant moved from czarist serfdom to enforced collectivization with barely time to learn the difference.” Apparently the intervening seven decades between the emancipation of the serfs and Stalin's terror-famine did not count, while the Tatar yoke (1240-1380) lasted “five hundred years.”
For all her flair in finding people to interview and luring them into spilling a bean or two, it is not surprising that Sheehy's limited Russian and her consequent need to rely on sources in the Party and in the Soviet press as well as her own interpreters and translators may occasionally have led her astray. Take one disturbing little oddity. In the Vanity Fair article we learn that Gorbachev's maternal grandfather, who had become founding chairman of the village's farm after collectivization, had been “arrested and deported in 1937.” Yet, by the time the article had been turned into a book, an unexplained switch took place. The maternal grandfather, we are now told, was the driving influence on Gorbachev's career; and, through his (surmised) Party connections to such unsalubrious southern bigwigs as Mikhail Suslov, he gave the boy his first big chance to move upward—to Moscow University, for example. No mention of arrest. The gulag victim, we learn in the book, was not Gorbachev's mother's father but his paternal grandfather. Given the stress Sheehy lays on the psychological effects of Gorbachev's childhood and youth, one wonders about her earlier misidentification.
Another, more reliable, analyst of Gorbachev, Michel Tatu, tells us that Raisa's father, too, was dispatched for some years to the gulag, but that does not seem to have been picked up by Sheehy's researchers.1 Relentless as Sheehy is in laying her subjects on the psychiatrist's couch, such muddles and omissions are troubling, to say the least. And as the information about Gorbachev's village background almost all appears to have come from one day's grilling of interviewees, one wonders how reliable the translation was on other occasions.
Indeed, much of Sheehy's information and speculation needs to be taken with some skepticism. For a start, the old-timers from Privolnoye, the teachers from the nearby town where Gorbachev went to high school, and the former Moscow University classmates would certainly all have been primed in what to say before such interviews. His mother, it seems, could not be persuaded to chat. Nor, of course, could Gorbachev or his wife.2 The most talkative of the sources, both in the Gorbachev homeland and from his student days, were, one suspects, Party members and hacks—a retired state prosecutor, an old district Party boss, a senior newspaper editor, a TV news producer, the head of an academic institute, and so on—who would know, as all such Russians do, precisely what a foreigner should hear (and not hear) about their esteemed leader. The most garrulous of Sheehy's informants, in fact, is Gorbachev's first girlfriend—a remarkable gossip, it would seem, who certainly provides many new details with a ring of authenticity. Nadezhda Mikhailova, the former paramour, while still admiring Gorbachev, recalls intriguing flashes of vanity and careerist ambition. She says he was bitterly disappointed when he failed to become an assistant prosecutor in Moscow after graduating and was instead sent back to the sticks. She also remembers him smugly noting that “Brezhnev likes me. Better than the others.”
Some of the secondary and tertiary sources, fastidiously acknowledged in the footnotes, are no less worrisome, because Sheehy repeatedly culls often unverifiable reports and conjecture from the books of others (with attribution) and grafts them onto her own thesis as fact. In the first half of the book, there are, for instance, no fewer than twenty-four references to details, often anecdotal, in the biography of Gorbachev by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson.3 Take one example: Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev's alleged trip around France in a hired Renault in 1966. Doder and Branson offer no source for this interesting episode from Gorbachev's early life, although the ability to travel abroad unchaperoned was then almost unheard of, even for Party functionaries. Doder and Branson's account echoes that in Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography, by a group of Time magazine reporters,4 who in turn cite a brief exchange between Le Monde's Michel Tatu and Gorbachev in Paris in 1985. All fine, but by that time it has reached Sheehy fourth-hand, and the facts of Gorbachev's tour of France remain murky.
Her choice of sources, in any case, is extraordinarily promiscuous. Alongside learned references to turgid journals of the Communist party, we read footnotes acknowledging such authorities as The New York Post and a newspaper of a cranky Swedish Communist party splinter group, Norshenflammen, whose correspondent is several times cited as a source on Raisa. In one footnote, meant to validate a misleadingly high figure for the number of Soviet deaths in the Second World War, we discover that the source is that well-known Sovietologist “George Bush … as reported by Jack Nelson and James Gerstenzang in the Los Angeles Times.”
Also questionable is Sheehy's treatment of Gorbachev's alleged longtime links with the KGB, although she is right to stress the pervasiveness of that agency in every walk of life.
It is not possible to say for certain that Gorbachev was an informer for the KGB at university. That question must be raised, however, given his accelerated rise in Party positions during the early 1950s: How could he not have agreed to be an informer?
Several pages later, we hear that the Gorbachevs' wedding was “a surprisingly affluent bash … Assistance may have come from the KGB.” Soon we hear from a researcher at Radio Liberty in Munich:
The Party [after Beria's fall as head of the KGB] didn't want Beria-linked functionaries. That's why Gorbachev lost his position as Komsomol leader and why he was sent back to Stavropol [after graduating].
Thereafter the formerly uncertain KGB link takes on a life of its own. He was, quite simply, “a recruiter for the KGB.” The KGB “may have had a hand” in one of his early promotions. And so on. Near the end of the book, we are told by one Tatyana Koryagina, “a respected social economist” and expert on the “shadow economy,” that Gorbachev, as the Party boss for Stavropol Territory, may have had links with the Soviet criminal mafia. Or perhaps he was being framed by his enemies. Or not. It is all grist for the Sheehy rumor-as-history mill.
Certainly the early patronage of Suslov and Yuri Andropov, both locals who had made good, and both with longstanding KGB links, was important to Gorbachev's rise. Certainly Gorbachev had to pander to the members of the crooked Brezhnevite mafia who often visited the spa towns, like Mineralnye Vody, that were within the territory he was administering as a Party functionary. It is all plausible. Recent events may suggest the renewal of an old alliance with “the committee” as Russians delicately call the dreaded outfit. But Gorbachev's past links with the KGB remain a matter of conjecture—presented by Sheehy as virtual fact.
Still, despite these shortcomings in scholarship, Sheehy traces Gorbachev's political acrobatics with some dexterity. She is right that since mid-1989 Gorbachev has been “proselytizing, temporizing and improvising” and that his entire political upbringing, starting as an enthusiastic young disciple of Stalin, has given him a capacity for disguising his motives that has never totally left him.
But the last quarter of the biography—after Gorbachev has persuaded the new, partly popularly elected Congress of People's Deputies to make him executive president—becomes a breathless and increasingly farfetched attempt to construct out of other writer's clippings a case to fit her theory that he “chameleon-like” Gorbachev's has had “at least five lives,” each one giving way to some kind of new persona. True, it is hard to assess how much Gorbachev is a power-monger, how much an idealist. But such a duality of motives characterizes many, perhaps most, great men. Sheehy can be lively and revealing when she describes her own difficulties in trying to deal with ordinary Soviet life; but her theory, developed in her earlier book Passages, that great men pass through a series of virtual character changes, seems, in the case of Gorbachev, unconvincing, if not specious.
Michel Tatu, L'URSS va-t-elle changer? (Le Centurion/Le Monde, 1987).
We are told that Raisa Gorbacheva has “never consented to an interview.” Perhaps not, in the formal sense. But she chatted amiably with me for nearly an hour while we toured Hemingway's house in Cuba during Gorbachev's visit there in 1989.
Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin (Viking, 1990), a lively mix of Kremlinology and street wisdom.
Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography, by the editors of Time magazine, published by Time Inc., in 1988: a competent round-up of most of what was known at the time.
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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 classmates in his native Stavropol region and his fellow students in law school. She also had good research assistance with published materials in addition to interviewing some fifty journalists, officials, and academics in the West.
To those who know some of her earlier writings, it is not a surprise to find that she is persistent and sensitive and has a good eye for vivid detail and an ear for a well-turned phrase. Her indefatigable enthusiasm appears to have led her to dig up all sorts of previously unrecorded trivia about the lives and times of MSG. “Lives” indeed is not a misprint here: the subtitle gives the clue to the special angle she wishes to explore. She writes: “The theory in my book Passages is that each of us develops through adulthood by stages. Between each stage are points of decision between progress and regression where we are challenged to shed a protective structure, and when we do, we are left exposed and vulnerable, capable of stretching in ways we had not known before. … And those leaps of inner psychological development ultimately become the catalyst for a transformation of the society out of which [we] come” (p. 25). Whether one considers this theory interesting or banal, it is regrettable to have to report that the book—whatever its other qualities—hardly lives up to this billing. Of course, Gorbachev grows and changes over time, as she seeks to show and as other biographers have done. But at least this reader failed to learn what she calls “the secret of a leader,” namely, “the tests he has faced over the whole course of his life and the habit of action he develops in meeting these tests” (p. 26).
The young Gorbachev emerges from her pages as an earnest, ambitious conformist, self-conscious as an uncouth “provincial,” unusual in lacking the typical greediness for material things and the widespread intimacy with alcohol. Sheehy attributes a considerable influence on him to Raisa, perhaps exaggerating her role. He comes to power with a vision but without a plan. Gorbachev is impressed by events such as the Chernobyl tragedy and Repentance, the first film to come to grips with Stalinist terror. If much in this account—for instance, the trips abroad—is familiar, it is fair, readable, and—while at times chatty—generally quite accurate.
Sheehy correctly sees his tragedy in his inability to complete his revolution, caught between admiration abroad and his loss of support at home and the recognition of his failures and shortcomings. But recent events seem to have compelled the author to change the tone of her account from “the man who changed the world” to a “falling red star,” leaving the reader a bit uncertain of her judgment.
There is the usual quota of boners and oversimplifications. The Soviet people, we are told, “have always been conditioned to look upon their leader as God” (p. 4); the Ukrainian language “by official decree” no longer existed (p. 32); the circumstances of Aleksandr Yakovlev's exile as ambassador to Canada are incorrectly reported (p. 98); occasionally names are mixed up—for example, Cherbonov for Churbanov (p. 109)—and Imenikirovna Sanatorium is the Kirov sanatorium (pp. 121, 141). It is unlikely that Misha was a “quarrelsome Ukrainian boy” or a “country Cossack.” She has no evidence to support the suspicion: at law school how could Gorbachev not have been a KGB informer? It may have been more plausible when she wrote it than it seems today to report: “My Moscow connections continually stressed that the army is irrelevant in the Soviet political power structure” (p. 181).
The book has a few novel insights and a few quotable nuggets. It scarcely helps us answer the great questions about Mikhail Gorbachev.
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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, her bluejeaned knees drawn up like a teenager's. Both were grinning at some inanity on the tube, and Greer looked, in the words of Gary Trudeau's “Doonesbury” characters, like she was truly Having It All.
Now I gaze at the author on the back of her latest contribution to feminist thought, The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause, and I do a double take. Staring from the jacket photo is a face set in grim decision: hair brittle and frizzed with gray, skin taut and drawn, deep lines tracing the brow and mouth, dark circles underscoring the eyes—which are lucid with tragic anger. Her gaze stops and holds the viewer with its thunderous challenge: “This is the stand I make, arrived at directly from Hell. Take it, or stuff it.” Yet it is a gaze that reflects piercing clarity, calm, and if you look long enough, the subtlest tenderness.
The book's prose exactly reflects the message in her face. In an electrifying introduction Greer bursts upon us like a psyched-up boxer, delivering a rain of dead-center blows with the queer calm that comes with cold fury. There can be no ambiguity about her premises, fired off with thrilling power; a walloping, mega-faceted J'accuse: Menopause (or “the climacteric,” as she alternately terms it) is a real and crucial transition in a woman's life, for which no—repeat, no—reliable information, clear role models, rites of passage, historic or cultural sanctions exist as they do for comparable transitions: birth, the onset of menarche, marriage, childbirth, and death. Much of the excoriating self-doubt and invisibility women suffer in this period of their lives is effected by western cultures rife with something she calls anophobia, the fear (and trivialization) of old women. (Third World cultures fare somewhat better, but data is paltry, Greer concedes, as they are mainly taken up with struggling to survive.) The time of reaching fertility's end, and the myriad problems that can accompany it, Greer tells us, is overrun with misguided or greed-driven white male medicos who have erected around it a powerful, multinational machinery of ongoing lab and drug industry profit, whose “urge to help” translates in Greer's lexicon as the “urge to depreciate:” “Even at menopause, woman is to most medical writers nothing but a reproductive machine on stilts.” Greer's unflinching report seldom strays from this tone.
Nothing about menopause can be predicted, no risk factors can be isolated, no preventive measures suggested. Every year adds new symptoms to climacteric syndrome, and every year takes some off. At all levels and in all therapies placebo response is high, sometimes dominant. All experimental results are compromised by the multiplicity of symptoms and by the self-limiting nature of the phenomenon.
Compounding the physical ordeal of it, Greer claims, most women realize at menopause how enslaved they have been by their sexually-designated circumstances (typically, nursing husbands and rearing families), experiencing a sickening sense of social “free-fall,” of being no longer needed and thereby spat out by society. To this Greer snaps the brisk instructive: “To be unwanted is also to be free.” Greer has nothing but contempt for platitudes offered women dealing with their own turbulent sexuality (“vanished,” “accelerated,” “erratic,” etc.) during menopause years. She despises the implied and overt “reverence for sexual congress as duty from the altar to the grave, like flossing or keeping your bowels open.” (Her steely face-off with the facts of sex for women of middle-age, “Sex and the Single Crone,” will make the strong shudder.)
She enjoins women to drop-kick the rampant folk and medical lore that suggests women's menopausal and post-menopausal suffering is in large part their own fault—or their own imagining—and to gird themselves for the most knock-down, drag-out self-investigation and self-reinvention of their lives.
Many women only realize during the climacteric the extent to which their lives have been a matter of capitulation and how little of what has happened to them has actually been in their interest. Women discovering for the first time that they are poor, dependent, insecure and lonely don't need to be burdened with a weight of guilt as well. … The object of facing up squarely to the fact of the climacteric is to acquire serenity and power. Calm and poise do not simply happen to the post-menopausal woman; she has to fight for them.
Unlike Gloria Steinem, whose much-touted Revolution from Within shrugs off the entire topic in a few mild paragraphs, concluding “it is [important to move] closer to the true self, regardless of age,” Greer proposes to cleave open every euphemism surrounding the subject, and peer at its wriggling guts—in chapters like “The Aged Wife,” “The Old Witch,” and (funniest) “The Hardy Perennials” (looking past the floodlights at Liz Taylor, Joan Collins, and Jane Fonda).
It is rocking good news to hear menopause called the supreme opportunity for a woman to take her own life in hand. To hear distinction made between the responses of misery, which Greer deems useless, and grief, which she declares “wholesome, if difficult, and bear[ing] recognition.” To learn how wise women writers have negotiated the experience (Isak Dinesen, Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth Bishop, Collette). But if the objective of navigating the Change is “to acquire serenity and power,” Greer's voice here does not always do itself service. Her power is unquestionably scalding, but the bulk of these arguments often read like a bitter personal vendetta, and as such may damage their own brave purpose.
Payoff does come, appropriately, in Greer's riveting final chapter, when she at last articulates the tenderness and harsh wisdom visible in her book-jacket photo. She describes the transcendent peace and compassion that arrive with clear-eyed acceptance of age, with relinquishing youth's “fever and fret, snatch and grab”—yes, themes redolent of a yogi, guru, or spiritual master. The Change takes a sudden turn, at its close, into an Eastern philosophy lesson.
“What about me?” [the young self] screams. “Where do I fit in?” It is not possible to answer, “But this is not about you”. … As you grow older, and are pushed to the margin, you begin to realize that everything is not about you, and that is the beginning of freedom. … You begin to understand that beauty [is] to be found … in those things that exist beyond desire, that cannot be subordinated to any use that human beings can make of them.
By comparison, after Gail Sheehy's The Silent Passage: Menopause, we wind up wanting to run, not walk, back to the seacliff's edge to breathe in the cold clean wind of Greer's rage and clarity. Sheehy, who has been doing brisk publishing business since her chatty chronicle Passages, hopes to attain Taboo-Bashing Chic by confronting the bogeyperson of menopause—“the big M,” she sneers—in first person. Even had its opening pages not announced that a chapter first appeared in Vanity Fair, there'd be no mistaking this book's target audience. She leads with an account of a high-powered television producer getting her first hot flash at a dinner party.
She was feeling particularly confident and pretty in her new black designer suit with its flattering white satin collar, when out of the blue a droplet of something hit her collar. Then another drop. What the—was the help dribbling wine? … “Oh, no,” said her eyes, “not me!” as the moisture began … slipping off her chin—plop—onto her pearly satin collar. … Frantic, she began dabbing at her face … smiling and mopping … she wanted nothing more … than to disappear into the kitchen and tear off her clothes and open the freezer door. …
In the wake of Greer's fiery Moses—fresh down from the mountain, brandishing tablets at the partying heathen—the shock of encountering Sheehy's breathy, clucking, cooing, gushing, Cosmo-Girl, we're-gonna-wash-that-Big-M-right out-of-our-hair, you-can-have-it-all-and-still-look-like-Candice Bergen language is so stark, it's funny. There is something actually poignant about Sheehy's crisp and sisterly efforts to take our hand (we boomer generation sisters teetering at the menopausal moment) and help us come to terms with this distasteful stuff. Picture Miss Manners narrating a film sponsored by the Kotex company, to seventh-graders.
Menopause is arbitrarily defined … as if it were a single point in time when the switch is turned off on those fabulous egg-ripening machines, the ovaries. … [A]s we get close to the bottom of the egg basket, ovulation doesn't always take place … part of that mysterious process called aging. … My own younger sister started missing periods when she was forty-three. One month her “little friend” would come, then not again for another two or three. … Over the next few years the boardrooms of America are going to light up with hot flashes. … This is not a time to find one can't … shake the blues, or lacks the old zip. …
Little friend? Shake the blues? Old zip? This is a fifty-some-year-old, mother of two adult children speaking. In the spirit of fearless research, Sheehy throws a little luncheon for a few of her Beverly Hills friends—high-profile women steering bigtime careers, heavy on the actresses and screenwriters, including the mayor of Beverly Hills herself. Sheehy has brought along a savvy female gynecologist to answer, or at least assuage, their technical questions—a sort of a “Big M” Tupperware party. The women share their dearest fears about losing their looks and smarts, tell bawdy jokes, trade acupuncturist and caterer lists, and emerge much heartened.
It was agreed that the vestigial attitude surrounding menopause—“I'm no good anymore”—would be changed by the way women like themselves handled it. I suggested. … “If every woman in menopause told five people in the next week, those five people would have an entirely different view of it. This dish is in menopause? Well, maybe it isn't so terrible.”
You get the picture. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it. Where the women Greer addresses seem to span all social strata—clerks to washer women to professors like herself—Sheehy's women are Candice Bergens, Marlo Thomases. Sexy, sprightly, canny and wry, quintessentially modern, fragrant and flagrant successes all, “balancing … careers, husbands, children, car pools, social and spiritual lives, too busy to worry much about menopause, but [as a result of earnest little luncheons like these] better prepared for the future. Laughter and forgetting … two of the best gifts women of any age can share. …” Yes, indeed. Laughter and forgetting. Sheehy's women, she is brightly confident, “will redefine [menopause], and live it, as a midlife experience of minor importance in the scheme of a long and lushly various life.” To be fair, Sheehy struggles mightily to present operative reality, without losing her Vanity Fair cool. She tries to interview women in working classes, women of color, women without money—but sandwiched between her more familiar terrains of Park Avenue and Hollywood, these instances seem rare, awkward and inconclusive. She tries to collate and make sense of all the available “wisdom” about hormone replacement therapy (HRT)—in fact a swampy backwash of conflicting and perpetually-mutating information. And by printing up the latest grisly menu of its costs/benefits, she inadvertently spotlights the tragi-comedy of what women may look forward to:
The risks of HRT: Possible increased risk of cancer of uterus; unknown associations with breast cancer; continued menstruation possible; breast swelling or pain; and premenstrual-like syndrome on progesterone.
The benefits of HRT: Decreases heart attacks; prevents osteoporosis; no hot flashes; restores sexual interest and comfort; and decreases insomnia.
Sheehy does spit in the eye of medical patriarchy when she tells of her own real suffering, bouncing pinball-like from one to another experimental, dangerous, misery-making does of HRT.
Is it even conceivable that millions of men over fifty—those at the highest levels of the power structure—would be herded by physicians toward chemical dependence on powerful hormones at suspicion for causing testicular cancer? “It's the largest uncontrolled clinical trial in the history of medicine,” charges public health expert Dr. Lewis Kuller.
Sheehy ties off the whole lumpy duffle-bag by recounting her own meditative retreat to the mountains, having apparently threaded her way through the midlife maze to “the consciousness of the wisewoman … a new companionship between mind and body. … It was as if the hourglass had been turned over and the crystals of creative energy were flowing in reverse—from womb to mind.” I don't seem to remember exactly how she got there. Likely neither does she.
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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 conceded the implacability of the Nixon-haters. Alger Hiss's 1950 perjury convictions have been vindicated by recent revelations about links to the Soviets first suggested by Congressman Nixon in 1948. The Cambodian incursion in 1970 and the December bombing in 1972 that provoked massive protests are now seen as having saved many American and South Vietnamese lives. Yet few Nixon critics have made a practice of apologizing for being wrong about these errors, or anything else (although recent biographers Herb Parmet, Jonathan Aitken, and Joan Hoff have weighed his life on its merits).
In fifteen years working for him, many spent handling his press relations, I learned that the old man was right: By and large, the liberal press do hate to admit they're wrong, especially about him. And whether or not they were wrong was often irrelevant since, even if it was established that Nixon had not done what he was accused of, he had to have been guilty of something just as heinous. Watergate validated every previous charge, no matter how indisputably it had been debunked. The main thing Richard Nixon did wrong, in the eyes of his critics, was simply being Richard Nixon.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Nixon began to take an aggressive stance toward errors made about him in the press. We assembled a small file of hard-won letters to the editor and—even more prized—editors' notes, in which newspapers and magazines actually took it upon themselves to plead mea culpa. These generally required many letters and phone calls and sometimes a not-so-veiled threat of a libel action by the former president's personal attorney.
This counter-journalism was always hard work. In his 1987 Waltzing with a Dictator, former New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner accused Nixon of having personally authorized Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in 1972. The charge received wide publicity when the Times published an article about it without giving President Nixon a chance to respond.
Even the Times, in a 1972 editorial, had praised Marcos for acting as he had in the face of Communist-inspired unrest. President Nixon would not have disavowed such an action had it occurred. But in fact, the president had neither talked to Marcos nor sent him a message of any kind, and through his staff he called Bonner on it. We pointed out that the White House logs, which listed every telephone conversation he'd had while in office, showed no calls to or from Marcos during the period in question. There was no documentary evidence of such contacts, either. Bonner or his publisher immediately dispatched a pair of researchers to the National Archives to study the Nixon logs.
Our many letters resulted only in a footnote in the paperback edition, acknowledging that the logs did not show the phone calls—but also implying that they had been altered! (Bonner did not speculate as to why Nixon's alleged Secret Log Erasers had deleted conversations with Marcos that no one cared about, while leaving evidence of every meeting or phone call the President had with Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Chuck Colson, and John Dean.) Vindication finally came two years later when Stanley Karnow, in a pointed reference to Bonner in In Our Image, wrote that there was no evidence in the logs of a Nixon-Marcos conversation, and that Marcos had told him in an interview that he had not talked to the president at the time.
Two months after the president's funeral last spring, Business Week's Los Angeles bureau chief, Ron Grover, in an item about a hi-tech trade show at the nearby Reagan Library that drew 2,400 visitors over three days, wrote that “crowds [were] absent” at the Nixon Library, which he called a “snore.” Grover had called us to ask about our exhibit schedule, but he didn't ask what our attendance had been, nor did he visit Yorba Linda himself. In fact, although we had no hi-tech trade show, we had 1,723 visitors during the same three days. When I wrote to Business Week to complain, the section of my letter pointing out that Grover had not visited the Library or asked us for our attendance figures was removed by his editors before they printed it.
But that was nothing compared to the license taken by Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair's archivist of celebrity foibles. In an article about California gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown, Sheehy described a valentine 60 Minutes did to the Brown family in January, and said that a “fuming” Nixon had called me the next morning. She wrote, “‘Can you believe that!’ the ex-President reportedly sputtered to … Taylor … ‘Can you believe that! They still treat the Browns like royalty.’” (I hadn't talked to Sheehy, because she had not called me.)
President Nixon had indeed called me in January, after, on consecutive days, 60 Minutes and Anthony Lewis of the New York Times had done favorable Brown pieces. Chuckling about this exquisite twofer, he said, “How do you think she pulled that off?” He neither fumed and sputtered nor said a single word that Sheehy put in his mouth. At 81, he did not take the Brown family's fortunes that seriously, particularly because he had long before realized that if he had been elected governor of California in 1962, when he was defeated by Kathleen Brown's father Pat, he might never have been elected president. He had spoken and written to the former governor on several occasions and applauded our having had him to the Library two years ago for a discussion about the 1962 election.
The day the president called, I had had lunch with Richard Reeves, who was considering writing a Nixon book. I told him what Nixon had said that morning. After the Sheehy piece appeared, I called Reeves, who said he remembered the story precisely as I did. He quickly said he had repeated it, without the anti-Nixon spin, to journalist Clay Felker over dinner. Felker, of course, is married to Sheehy. “The fuming and sputtering are new to me,” Reeves said. “It's totally my fault. I had no idea Gail was doing a piece. I'm very sorry.”
Her source had squealed, and as a counter-journalist I had a direct hit. As I wrote to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, “That [Reeves] spoke so readily of being the source makes me wonder why [Sheehy] did not attribute the story to him in the piece, but that is between you and her. Maybe she thought ‘reportedly’ sounded better than ‘as Richard Reeves told my husband over dinner.’”
But Vanity Fair refused to print my letter unless I agreed to the deletion of this sentence: “If Ms. Sheehy had called me directly and asked about this rather than relying, as she apparently did, on hearsay, I would have gladly told her what President Nixon really said.” Vanity Fair's attorney wrote to the Library's attorney (whom I had called in after Carter ignored my own letters), and said that since I had rejected the magazine's “edited version,” it would do nothing to redress its snipe at President Nixon. Without that sentence, of course, my letter would have seemed a classic example of a source attempting to clean up after a reckless remark made to a reporter.
Journalists specialize in urging politicians to admit their mistakes, but seldom admit their own. “You are very deft at exposing the idiosyncrasies of public people, their exercises in pride and hubris,” I wrote to Sheehy. “And yet when it comes to admitting a small dereliction of your own, your apparatus closes ranks as tightly as Senator Kennedy's press office.”
Would Sheehy's reputation have withstood the revelation that she had printed her husband's dinner-table gossip? Undoubtedly. Still, she didn't even bother to write back. Evidently, she felt she didn't have to.
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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 may view as taking old clichés and making new clichés of them.
Further, New Passages is predicated on the notion that life has changed considerably since the appearance of the old Passages, a fortuitous circumstance for Sheehy, not to mention for us. “People today” she writes, “are leaving childhood sooner, but they are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die. … True adulthood doesn't begin until thirty. … Fifty is now what 40 used to be.”
Elsewhere she notes, “The old demarcation points we may still carry around—an adulthood that begins at 21 and ends at 65—are hopelessly out-of-date. Many of us feel a little lost. We need some new markers.”
Which is where Sheehy comes in, predictably enough, given that her most significant successes (Passages and The Silent Passage) derive from that traditional American merchandising technique, “Find a need and fill it.”
New Passages is dedicated primarily to exploring what Sheehy calls Second Adulthood, and which she defines as the years from 45 to, as she puts it “85+”.
“How do we find our way to this exciting Second Adulthood?” she asks. “I see a brand-new passage in the forties, when the transition from the end of First Adulthood to the beginning of Second Adulthood begins.” Likewise, the reader may see, at this stage, the precise juncture at which pop psychology merges with the reading of a crystal ball. For while it is pretty to think that life can be plotted this easily, if it could be, there would be no need for the sort of books Sheehy offers the reading public.
As Sheehy sees it, the stages of a life, characterized with the pop phrasing that will be familiar to readers of her other work, are given as the Flaming Fifties, the Serene Sixties, the Sage Seventies. This absolutist approach to something as individual as life is, depending on your point of view, comforting, deadening or just plain absurd. For myself, these characterizations have a perverse way of putting me in mind of the many men and women I encounter in these age groups who are neither flaming, serene or sage.
To facilitate understanding of these new passages, Sheehy presents a graphic. Life, as she ultimately appears to perceive it, can be plotted and presented as if it were a board game. Thus, on her chart, the passages to what she calls the Age of Mastery and the Age of Integrity are designated by a bridge, arrows and a mountain path.
Though Sheehy defines midlife as the “metaphysical point where we recognize the end of unlimited promise and the fact that we cannot control many of the bad things that happen to us” (the italics are hers), the very notion of mapping one's life across time implies that she is equally convinced that control is just out of reach. Clearly, this book will attract the many who crave the reassurance that comes from absolute order. And Sheehy is ever-ready to provide what she apparently believes most people seek: “theory, labels and explanations that would bring some order to the variousness of their experience.” To do so, she conducted hundreds of interviews with psychologists and people in midlife, read widely in the literature and initiated surveys of her own. The research is prodigious.
The problem is that in her schema, all of life, all of art, tend to be shaped by her own cookie-cutter. Her world is like the Steinberg drawing of New York City, where a looming 9th Avenue becomes My Theories.
For example, of the 1967 film The Graduate, she writes, “Much of the symbolism in this Mike Nichols film is a classic expression of Pulling Up Roots.” Later, Hillary Clinton's speech on what the First Lady termed “the crisis of meaning” serves as “the first hint that Hillary Rodham Clinton was caught up in the crisis of middlescence.”
This is not a book to be read for style. In Sheehy's idiom, the young Frank Sinatra is “a skinny crooner from Hoboken,” the Beatles are “a foursome of cocky young Liverpudlians,” while a 46-year-old auto-worker arriving for an interview “looked a little green around the gills, but eager to get some things off his chest.”
At her best, Sheehy clearly states ideas about life that have never before been as clearly stated. The notion of a Second Adulthood is one such idea. Another is the speculation that men and women, having similar personalities for the first 10 years of life, become respectively more aggressive and more nurturing, and finally take on each other's characteristics, as men in mid-life and later life become more nurturing while women become more focused.
At her worst, she is glib, offering up New Age style answers that have been stated often and better by others. Are we to take seriously her notion that one of the things required by a woman who spends time visiting her husband, who has been hospitalized with prostate cancer, are “comedy tapes for the car”?
The books ends as Sheehy quotes the guru Deepak Chopra, who urges that everyone should learn “… to accept your life … as a path of awakening.” With the facile optimism that characterizes this book in its entirety, she then concludes, “If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old. You will just keep growing.” But this promise is both cheap and empty. For as most people who have reached midlife can tell you, every day is not an awakening, nor would anyone have the psychic time or energy for this, not even in the most well-lived life.
Sheehy does not write as well or think as clearly as, for example, M. Scott Peck, who has the grace to allow that many of life's essentials are unexplainable and unexaminable. Still, in her certainty, Sheehy has arrived at an overall view bound to have mass appeal, a view that, for better or worse, is one that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in another context, “sounds like money.”
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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: “One task alone remained for the old man: to tread his solitary way, already more than half forgotten, to the grave. He has had his day, and the world has nothing more to give him or to hope from him.”
Such harsh images of sinful decay came to be moderated by a Romantic view of aging, in which, as Cole writes, “death was fast becoming a kindly nurse who put old people to bed when their life's work was done.” Closely linked to ideals about personal hygiene, the active life and good character, such visions of innocent senescence and sweet death may have sounded pleasant, but they were, if anything, even more contemptuous of the elderly than the Revivalist messages that they replaced. For the romance of aging implied that the old, like everyone else in a market society, were responsible for their fate. And as the idea percolated through society that good health and long life were available to all, their approaching death seemed that much more an offense to the living.
Aging is one biological process which is unquestionably “socially constructed.” Cole's fascinating journey through sermons, self-help manuals, paintings, autobiographies and other cultural artifacts reveals a society never able to make up its mind about the elderly. We have created, Cole argues, a “psychologically primitive” dichotomy of good and bad aging, shifting back and forth from its horrors to its promises. He is right to emphasize the dichotomy, though it is also true that no society has ever quite figured out what to do with people who are dependent and experienced at the same time.
If Americans in the last century worried about being old in a young society, today we fear being young in an old one. Preoccupied with economic stagnation, environmental damage and the costs of Social Security, we could learn about the reality of limits from the inevitability of death. Instead, denying what is most obvious about the elderly—their physical decline and their need for others—we praise them for being just like everyone else or we condemn them for their greed. A spate of recent books foreshadows a new round of elderly-bashing disguised as an admiration of aging. In these books, we do not hear the Revivalist message that the old are a useless drain on the energies of the young. The contemporary attack takes the Romantic form, insisting that the elderly are just like everyone else, and maybe they are better.
With friends such as these writers, the old have no need of enemies. The new mood was first sniffed by Betty Friedan, whose book The Fountain of Age, which appeared in 1993, found many of the nation's elderly living vibrant, creative lives, in jolly indifference to biological and gerontological wisdom about the inevitability of their decline. Exposing our collective “denial” of aging, Friedan denounced the American obsession with youth and beauty and praised the search of the elderly for lives of dignity. Guided through the issues by Robert Butler, the former director of the National Institute of Aging and the man who introduced “ageism” into our language, Friedan concluded that the elderly had every right to retain their “autonomy, independence, and real opportunity to continue to participate fully in life.” For her, this meant not only defending and expanding all aspects of the welfare state which seek to help the old, but also calling for the recognition from the rest of us that aging can be as much about adventure and discovery as about death and decline.
But nobody has more ebulliently taken up the task of dooming the elderly with excessive praise than Gail Sheehy. “Surprise!” she gushes, [in New Passages], “The second half of life is not the stagnant, depressing downward slide we have always assumed it to be.” Those unhappy 40-year-olds who confessed their despair of midlife have turned into productive, energetic 60-year-olds. A revolution in the life-cycle has created something that no generation has ever before experienced: a second adulthood. Just when we think that we are being put out to pasture, we discover the real person buried inside us. What lies ahead is not Alzheimer's or poverty or fear, but a passage to the age of integrity, after which we can experience the Serene Sixties, the Sage Seventies, the Uninhibited Eighties, the Nobility of the Nineties and even the Celebratory Centenarians.
Men and women enjoy their second adulthood in different ways, according to Sheehy, but both are wonderful because each becomes more like the other. Men, the silent gender, learn how to talk. They express their emotions. Reflecting back on their careers, they begin to live by what is right, not by what others expect. War-like politicians become peacemakers. Hard-nosed businessmen melt into pussycats. Men in their 60s rekindle old romances or imitate Clint Eastwood and have late babies. Their impotence disappears. They can even recover from cancer spontaneously when given up for lost.
But none of this is as impressive as the second adulthood of women. Women in their 60s and 70s lived before the feminist revolution, but now they are its biggest beneficiaries. They start new careers. They become the strong partner. Released from the only man they ever slept with, they seduce a series of (mostly younger) men and learn the joys of uninhibited sexual pleasure. They are, Sheehy writes, the wisewomen. “I have thirty years of total freedom ahead of me now, to make all sorts of choices,” a women named Elise tells Sheehy. “The idea of putting limits on myself, when for the first time I'm without limits, is abhorrent to me.” “Let's don't even call it aging anymore,” Sheehy exclaims. “The very word carries pejorative baggage. Let's refer to successful aging as saging—the process by which men and women accumulate wisdom and grow into the culture's sages.”
The peculiar thing is that Sheehy says all these things as if she thinks that she is doing the elderly a favor. Her naïveté, if that is what it is, is astounding. Growing old is hard enough. To grow old feeling that you are not one of the beautiful people would be devastating. “Will your personal life story in Second Adulthood be conceived as a progress story or a decline story? To a large degree, You have the power of mind to make that choice.” Sheehy seems unaware that, if you have the choice, you pay the price. For nobody needs to take care of the elderly if they are taking care of themselves. By imagining the elderly as independent, Sheehy undercuts the case for interdependence. What happens when the elderly discover that their sense of mastery was an illusion, that they need the support and the love of those they spurned in their quest to make themselves over? A younger generation wanting to renounce its obligations to its parents could devise no better strategy than to picture them as leading lives of bliss. Armed with her book, they need never again think their elders in need of their support.
Liberalism has not handled well the less than self-reliant. But rarely was this a problem, at least for too long. The young, after all, would reach maturity; all we had to do was wait. And the old, at least in the days when liberalism was young, would die off before their dependency became a cause for concern. But now out political system is caught between the fears of the young and the needs of the old. As the desire of the one to expand government weakens, the reliance of the other on government expands. This clash between generational interests is the most serious social collision that we face. (The controversy over Medicare is just the beginning.) No one knows how to avoid it. One thing that will increase the damage, however, is a gospel of selfishness. And calling it a gospel of self-discovery doesn't change a thing. …
No society in human history has ever had to think about how to support a significant part of its population for three or more decades after they have stopped working. The challenge of this irreversible demographic fact cries out for compassion. “Deliver me from compassion,” Betty Friedan thought as she listened to experts discuss the problems faced by the elderly; and there are fewer words more out of favor with the new celebrants of the last years than “gratitude,” “caring” and “indebtedness.” But a society that forbids the young from expressing their thanks to the old is a cold society. The old created the world in which we were raised; and as much as we might blame them for its imperfections, we are indebted to them for its existence. If they want to work past the age of 65, we ought to recognize the amazingly large number of years they have left and let them do so. They are entitled to a regular income and decent medical care, and it matters not a whit that they have not quite paid their full share, even if they believe that they have. The notion that our obligation to provide future generations a balanced budget overrides our debt to those who suffered through a depression and won a world war is not morally defensible.
It is precisely because we have such strong obligations to the elderly that we must approach them with another thing that is disdained by the new enthusiasts of aging: realism. We must not accept the claim that any acknowledgment of their declining powers is a form of “ageism.” (About this I agree with Posner.) There are always new wonders to experience and new capacities to develop, and yet we must discourage the elderly from pursuing an illusory course of self-reliance, a course that is foolhardy even for the young. And we are right to resist their efforts to use their political power to protect their group advantages: a game of playing one generation off against another generation is a game that every generation will lose. For better or worse, the old are as dependent on us for their future as we are dependent on them for their past.
We do not seem to possess the language that is appropriate for the strengthening of interdependence across generations. Gail Sheehy's retreat to the power of positive thinking, Richard Posner's tortuous efforts to deny the reality of dependence (and his surreal use of economics to describe matters of the human heart) and Thomas Cole's suggestion that we are experiencing “the emergence of a postmodern course of life, in which individual needs and abilities are no longer entirely subordinated to chronological boundaries and bureaucratic mechanisms” are all the wrong ways to go. We do not owe our elders a narcissistic reflection of ourselves. We owe them the courage to acknowledge their dependence on us. Only then will we be able, when we are like them, to ask for help.
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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 itself, therefore, is perhaps rather doubtful, in this country at least. However, the rise and fall of the Clintons, as high tragicomedy or as a great American bestiary, is such an extraordinary spectacle that it is worth reading any account of it that makes such ambitious claims as this one. Years of observation, thousands of hours of taped interviews and a huge research team have, according to the author, revealed the real, the unknown Hillary Clinton.
I doubt whether that is true, but the book makes very good light, sensational reading, with plenty of sharp, plausible insights. The story of a dumpy, frumpy girl from a miserable home in suburban Chicago rising to the dizzy heights on which she now so alarmingly teeters is quite remarkable. Even as a child, according to the hours of taped interviews, huge research team etc, Hillary had outstanding drive and self-possession, though very little tact, humour or charm. Against formidable odds, she invented herself, got herself to Wellesley, shone academically, became a famous student politician and speaker. Then she accosted Bill Clinton in the Harvard Law School Library, and the rest is farce. Gail Sheehy has unearthed some interesting new information; for instance she tracked down Hillary's darkly handsome first boyfriend, dumped, apparently, because he wasn't ambitious enough; she also discovered a man with a collection of Hillary's undergraduate letters and was the first to talk to Hillary's mother. If this biography has faults, they are not due to lack of zeal.
About half way into this book I found I had forgotten what Hillary's choice was supposed to be. Was it the choice to believe her husband when she knew she couldn't? Was it the choice to pretend to believe her husband when she knew she shouldn't? Was it the choice to lie about her financial and legal dealings in Arkansas, when she considered herself a devout Methodist? Was it her choice to abandon her own high ideals and ambitions in the pursuit of power by proxy? Or was it the choice to dye her hair blonde and stand by her monstrous man? In a distinctly flamboyant sense, Hillary Clinton seems to have been rather spoiled for choice. Clearly the book should have been called Hillary's choices, in the plural, or perhaps, as she put it in her priggish letters to her pen-pal, ‘quandaric’ problems.
By any account, there is something heroic about Hillary Clinton. The ability to put herself in such extraordinary quandaric situations, together with her own outstanding intelligence and courage and unusually bad judgment, do make her something of a tragic heroine. The question is whether Gail Sheehy is a reliable narrator. Her many previous books include Passages, The Silent Passage, New Passages and Passages in Men's Lives, works of popular psychology about life stages, which give one a faintly depressing idea of her approach. Her prose can be even more depressing. ‘She preferred’, she writes of the undergraduate Hillary ‘to gaze at Life in the Future through a kaleidoscope of different and endlessly possible patterns, never choosing for fear the next creation might be even more beautiful’.
This isn't simply bad writing. It is an authorial intrusion, an assumption of omniscience, which isn't justified. Either the author is quoting from a letter or an interview, in which case she should say so, or she is making it up. There is the same assumption of omniscience in the direct quotations with which the narrative is peppered. Sheehy reports conversations as if she had been there and heard them; in fact she is constructing dialogue from other people's memory of it. It is misleading: ‘I don't care what comes out, this is going to be bad for Hillary and Chelsea she [Clinton's chief of staff] shouted. Clinton finally put his tail between his legs and sulked.’ No doubt the purpose of this device is to make the narrative more immediate; it also makes the writer seem more authoritative than she is. It is typical of that disregard for reality which seems to pervade public discourse, and of course, political life like the Clintons'.
On the other hand, Sheehy seems to have a true reporter's gift for extracting revelations from even the Clintons' closest associates. Hillary loves Bill, and Bill loves Bill. It gives them something in common, according to Dick Morris, their close confidant and longest-running political strategist. Even more surprising is the indiscretion of Hillary's pastor in Little Rock, Ed Matthews, who somehow felt free to discuss her private life with Sheehy, including her relationship with Chelsea. One can only say that the Clintons' American bestiary produces ever more astonishing creatures, the more one reads about it. Here is a spiritual confidant, a pastor, discussing Hillary's problems with a writer. As Sheehy says rather coolly in her introduction, ‘Reverend Ed Matthews was a revelation.’ Indeed.
It is not surprising that American public life is so dirty, so full of betrayal and mistrust, when even one's vicar cannot be relied on for discretion. Nor is it surprising that Hillary Clinton is notoriously obsessive about guarding her own privacy, as Sheehy puts it, and disinclined to talk about herself. My impression is that she has somehow managed, despite so much humiliation and so many hours of taped interview, to guard her secret self very well.
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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 merely the cat's-paw of urban liberals; the appearance before a power-broking Orthodox Jewish group to pledge fealty to Israel, even though there's no chance in hell that said group's members will vote Democratic. And she has subjected herself to one ritual most candidates don't have to submit to—moving here. The stage furniture, then, is set in place; the next nine months will bring character development, action, climax, coda.
Hillary's Choice, Gail Sheehy's new psychobiography of Hillary Clinton, was evidently intended by its author as an important piece of that stage furniture. It has not, of course, been received in quite so generous a spirit. You've probably read by now some of the sport the media have been making of the inaccuracies found within it. “The Reliable Source,” the gossip column in the Washington Post, kept a running tally for a time. The most famous of these errors sits down there on the bottom of page 209, where Sheehy writes that Al Haig sought to reassure America that he was “in charge” not after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, when he actually did it, but after the successful resignation of Nixon.
Before we push ahead, let's note another mistake, one The Nation, of all journals, would have done poorly to miss. On May Day 1970, it seems, Yale students—Hillary Rodham would have been in her first year of law school; that much is accurate—held a huge rally on campus in support of the Black Panthers, where “ripe-bosomed coeds” (?) dished up “a soul picnic” (??) for the “incoming Bedouins of the Woodstock nation.” (???) Nine Panthers, Bobby Seale among them, were in jail in Connecticut, facing kidnapping charges. Jessica Mitford and husband Robert Truehaft came to town. So did 4,000 reservists from North Carolina, a presence made all the more ominous, Sheehy writes, by the fact that “the country had already witnessed unarmed college students being shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State University.” Hmmm. Unless those ripe-bosomed nymphs and invading Bedouins moved May Day, not possible. Kent State happened on May 4.
Let's not make more of this error than we should. It symbolizes nothing and means only that the author doesn't know either when May Day is or when the Kent State shootings occurred and, if ignorant of either or both, didn't bother to look them up. These things happen, presumably even to the Washington Post's “Reliable Source” column from time to time. (Of course, to Sheehy, a lot of them seem to happen.)
I will say this, though: Factual particulars aside, the main arc of Sheehy's story, and much of her conjecture about The Relationship, reads to me as though it's pretty much spot-on. Hillary's decision to move down to Arkansas to be with Bill—the synecdochic “choice,” it turns out, around which HRC's other choices and the book itself are all framed—is described by Sheehy, either explicitly or implicitly, as a function of three things: first, Hillary's ambition, and her belief that Bill would someday be the President of the United States, which she secretly wanted to be herself but knew, as a woman, she would not be; second, a rarely expressed desire on the part of the young-adult Hillary, finally out from under the control of her officious and right-wing father, to shock and dismay and do the unexpected, which she had so rarely had the courage to do; and third—hey, she loved the guy. This actually seemed to be true. And still seems to be.
Much is made, in the book and in reviews, of the possible life that awaited a hot young female Ivy League law school grad such as HRC, which the book's narrative thread virtually forces us to envision: After her Watergate committee work, a job at a white-shoe Manhattan firm. Service on various boards. Groundbreaking legal scholarship of some sort or another. Books. One foot in reform politics. Maybe the city's first female—what, comptroller or something?—with her hardheaded common sense. With any luck, this would happen during the fiscal crisis, when she would have won praise for being the sort of liberal who's not afraid to make “the tough decisions” that the Times loves to adulate. And then, who knows, maybe a run for the Senate someday.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The “reality” is touchingly described by Sheehy on pages 109-10, where Hillary's Watergate committee chum Sara Ehrman drives her from Washington to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Bill is teaching at the law school, so Hillary can be with him (but not, alas, live with him; local mores, don't you know).
“He's just a country lawyer,” Sheehy says Ehrman said. “Why are you doing this?” Hillary sat mute all the way, staring silently ahead. Finally, Fayetteville. A Saturday. Air filled “with the high-pitched sound of pigs in heat,” which “the initiated” recognize as the rallying cry of the Arkansas Razorbacks (“Woo, pig, Suey!”—I happen to know), who were that very day playing archrival Texas. This distillation of the beer-spittled life that awaited her dear friend was a little much for Ehrman, who began to cry. Funny thing, though; when Ehrman and Hillary left Washington, it was a “steamy … August evening” in 1974, just after Nixon's resignation. Nine paragraphs later, two football archrivals are playing each other. That striking me as an autumn ritual, I checked. In 1974 Arkansas played Texas on October 19. Long drive. And oh, yeah—they must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, too, because the game was played at Texas.
I also bought—call me naïve—Sheehy's conjecture about why Bill would do it, in the nonconjugal sense, with Monica. Sheehy describes three episodes—needless to say, she has to gussy them up by calling them three “major personal marker events”—that may have made old Bill feel … well, old. His mother's (i.e., the most important woman in any man's life) death. His tumble, toward the end of the affair, down a flight of stairs at golfer Greg Norman's house and subsequent dependence on the “accoutrements of decay”—cane, wheelchair, “flaccid [hmmm!] muscles.” Third, and most crucially, Chelsea's future departure for college. I've never really thought about this before, but it makes sense to me. It's not hard to picture frustrated middle-aged men across America doing the same thing—watching the apples of their eyes (daughters) roll pretty far away from the tree and then acquiring a sexual surrogate as a way to keep dealing with the repressed father-daughter sexual tension that's always floating around in the libidinal penumbra somewhere. This isn't the sort of thing we talk about much, and it's certainly not suitable for Meet the Press—one can imagine the New York Post headline—Shrinks: Bill Wanted Sex with Chelsea!—but it strikes me as a plausible guess about contributing factors.
So you see, reading Hillary's Choice is not a waste of time. You won't find much about politics in it that's interesting, though, if that's your bag. I suppose from a Nation reader's (and reviewer's) perspective, the book's aha! moment turns out to be the part where Dick Morris (good old Dick!) tells the author, apropos the early days in Arkansas, that Hillary “was more conservative than Clinton was … she was always pulling him back to the right.” (Sheehy leans quite heavily on Morris, who has been using his New York Post column to cuff his former client about the ears in every way he can imagine. Ditto Nancy Pietrefesa, the one old friend who's been willing to dish some dirt.) Perspective is added by Don Jones, Hillary's youth minister, the man who opened her eyes to the world beyond the fragrant azaleas and scraped Girl Scout knees of her childhood suburb. He took her to meet Martin Luther King Jr., took her into Chicago's South Side to meet her poor, black coevals, strummed protest songs (inevitably!) on his guitar. Jones: “She definitely has a conservative streak … particularly on abortion, homosexuality, and capital punishment. Surely, she is for gay rights, there's no question about that. But I think both she and Bill still think of heterosexuality as normative.” And so on.
This commences a discussion by Sheehy about teacher testing, a cause HRC took up with her usual earnest ardor, which had her reading the curriculums of pretty much every school in the state and which led one school librarian to call her “lower than a snake's belly” (that's how they talk down there in Arkansas, see?). Teacher testing is anathema to liberals. So it was an awkward moment, at Hillary's pre-announcement announcement of her Senate candidacy, which was held in November at the Manhattan offices of the United Federation of Teachers, when someone from the press corps had the bad form to ask her about her old Arkansas enthusiasm for this bane of teachers' unions everywhere. Hillary ducked, muttering something about circumstances being different then. Which of course is true: Then, she didn't need the massive phone-bank operation of one of the most politically influential unions in New York to beat back a popular and well-financed conservative opponent. Now she does!
I don't know what to make of all this. Whom to feel sorry for, which side to take. Hillary's? Ideologically, no; and yet, on the nonpolitical front, I do feel for her. She's been held to standards that the media wouldn't dare hold a man to and, from the right wing especially, has been the target of some unfair, not to say utterly insane, criticism. That's one thing about both Clintons that anyone with an eye for the offbeat has to admire, or at least admit: They send all their opponents into such a lurid state of dementia that no matter how cheesy or corner-cutting they are, they somehow end up looking better than their attackers. And yet, as soon as I write that, I think: Yes, but they've brought so much on themselves.
As has Sheehy. And yet, exactly why the viciousness of the attacks on her? In the immediate wake of the book's publication Sheehy blamed the White House spin machine. She charged that Hillary's spokespersons, Marsha Berry in the White House and Howard Wolfson on the campaign trail, purposely did not return her calls so that her fact-checkers couldn't verify information, which would then result in inaccuracies that the First Lady's henchpersons could blast. This is clever; a line that Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News Channel would gladly parrot and Washington would in general terms accept prima facie.
But I doubt it's true; one mistake Clinton haters have always made is to underestimate the White House's disorganization. I imagine Sheehy's fact-checkers' calls weren't returned because no one worked up the gumption to deal with the questions and Hillary's reputed wrath or, even more simply, because each side thought the other side was taking care of the problem.
But the blame-the-spin-machine defense doesn't account for the merciless reviews of the book virtually everywhere. The literary and political worlds were predetermined to hate Hillary's Choice and to judge it harshly. I think, and I hope you'll agree, that we can rule out defense of the Clintons as a motive. The political world surely is no collective defender of the Clintons, and the literary world, though more liberal than the political world, finds them a bit déclassé. Besides, Hillary's Choice is not an attack piece. Neither is it a panegyric, but any traffic in psychological explanation tends toward empathy, so the book is more sympathetic than not to its subject. (It was interesting to browse through readers' reviews of the book on Amazon.com—the favorable reviews mostly came from the pro-Hillary community, while the one-stars were mainly delivered by Hillary haters who seemed to want evidence of outright pelf or the college lesbian affair they are convinced that she and surely all sixties Wellesley girls had.)
I suspect the reaction to the book has little to do with the Clintons and far more to do with what I've found to be one of the most important, and I'd say distressing, or at least confusing, literary—or more precisely, polemical—developments of the Clinton era. In a word: motive. That is to say, we've had intense partisan battles in the recent past over Nixon, over Reagan, over civil rights, what have you. Naturally, in the course of carrying out those arguments we—left and right; society, if you will—have constantly questioned one another's arguments, facts, assumptions and sometimes intentions. But I don't recall people ever questioning others' motives quite the way we do now. If you defend Clinton, you must be hustling invites to the Lincoln Bedroom, trying to wire a gas-pipeline deal for Turkmenistan, seeking soft treatment from the White House or at the very least angling for a regular cable television slot. If you hate Clinton, you're a right-wing nutcase, a left-wing loser who can't stand actually winning elections for a change, lining up a fat book deal or something. It's become commonplace, in other words, to pick apart not just a person's position but the motives the person has for taking that position.
What's Sheehy's motive? I don't know. To make money, I guess, for starters. (I'm sure she made quite a lot, though I'm not so sure Random House did: It costs a lot of dough to sign a Gail Sheehy book, and Hillary's Choice made the Times bestseller list for one week only.) To be kinder, Sheehy may indeed find Hillary one of the most fascinating women of our time. And speaking of motive, we might reasonably inquire about Hillary's. For the Senate race, that is. Sheehy quotes HRC pal Harold Ickes as saying it's about “redemption,” a characterization neither new (Ickes has been quoted previously, by me among others, saying the same thing) nor terribly interesting. Nor is it likely to prove terribly useful on the campaign trail. Can redemption get a candidate on a shaky little airplane to go up to Plattsburg on a snowy February Friday to attend a town hall meeting? Beating Rudy Giuliani will require a deeper, not to say more public-spirited, motive than redemption. But I shouldn't play this game, having put myself on record denouncing it. I suppose it's to be expected, in a world in which postmodern irony reigns alongside overwhelming hucksterism, that nothing anybody says can be accepted straightforwardly anymore. This is certainly true in the realms of politics and political commentary, where most people are indeed either lying, speaking on the basis of the wisdom shown them by the latest poll or saying what they believe will get them on television. And—here's another problem with Clinton-era political analysis—it's not just politics. Pundits love to write about the Clintons as if the collapse of public trust is entirely a function of their double talk. Meanwhile, here come Time Warner (where some of those very pundits hold forth) and AOL to tell us how wonderful their merger will be for all us, which you don't have to have left politics to know is just a screenful of e-shit. This is the proper context, I think, in which to think of Hillary's Choice. A book like this is exactly the sort of white noise, like interactive chat rooms and cable talk shows, to which the current Information Age has given birth: It's alternately annoying and engaging; it's, every once in a while, insightful; it's far from all true; it's undemanding; it's of the moment, i.e., synergy-friendly; it's quickly disposable; and it's fundamentally without purpose. And that pretty much describes where we find ourselves these days.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1724
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, “you'd be pumping gas and he'd be the President of the United States.” My own version of this involves imagining what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had remained the way she was in her early life: a stern Goldwater Republican from an affluent white suburb. It is easy to imagine her as a conservative Senator or even First Lady, starched and coiffed, standing up for family values and traditional decencies, and tireless in her committee work. As a girl, she seems to have been prissy and preachy and over-achieving, probably in an effort to please her cold and austere yet demanding father. Gail Sheehy's expertise lies in the charting of rites of passage; her portrayal of life du côté de chez Rodham shows us that Daddy is, and always has been, the problem. From the loosening hold of such a reactionary patriarch to the embrace of a juvenile delinquent is no great stretch.
On the day of their first inaugural in 1993, the day that should have been the most triumphantly pleasurable of their lives, the Clintons were seen and heard screeching obscenities at one another, and were shamefully late for what turned out to be an oath-breaking ceremony. Since then, there have been cut lips and black eyes and the noises of splintering crockery and furniture; a trailer-park family in the Executive Mansion. (Though “trailer-park”, nastily enough, is the epithet used by Clinton and Rodham apologists to describe the young women who have been bold enough to complain about the boss's attentions.) Under this regime, the Oval Office became a massage parlour, while Mr Lincoln's bedroom became a hot-sheet motel for fat-cat donors. The First Lady was complicit only in the second of these depredations and tried to be tight-lipped about the first. There was not, and never had been, any possibility of admitting her error and going home to Mother and Father.
Because she crankishly described the entirely truthful massage-parlour allegations as the fruit of “a vast right-wing conspiracy” against her man, Mrs Clinton is now the most hated (and feared) woman since Eleanor Roosevelt on the American Right. Conservatives across the nation who find it hard to enthuse about Governor Bush or Senator McCain are eagerly raising money for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York. And at least partly for this reason—and for these enemies—she is regarded by many liberals as the glass of fashion and the mould of form; the epitome of the “strong woman” and a living instance of the strides made by the emancipated 1960s generation.
Eleanor Roosevelt, interestingly enough, is the “role model” specifically cited by the First Lady herself, who in a moment of personal insecurity and New Age fatuity actually engaged a “counsellor” to help her “channel” the departed. We know from Gore Vidal that Mrs Roosevelt rather despised the seance mentality (“since we're going to be dead such a long time anyway, it's rather a waste of time chatting with all of them before we get there”). But, as he phrased her relationship with FDR: “Certainly, he hurt her mortally in their private relationship; worse, he often let her down in their public partnership. Yet she respected his cunning even when she deplored his tactics.” The comparison, in other words, may be a suggestive if not an accurate one. Like Mrs Roosevelt, Mrs Clinton when younger had to educate herself out of certain commonplace prejudices, including racial ones. (Sheehy tells us much about the Revd Don Jones, a Wesleyan minister who introduced the sheltered girl to “the social gospel” and Dr Martin Luther King.) Like Mrs Roosevelt, Mrs Clinton has had to struggle against a certain dowdiness which borders at times on the frumpish. There, though, most resemblances end. Mrs Roosevelt strove all the time to humanize her husband's policies, and to engage him in causes—such as anti-fascism or the abolition of Jim Crow—which were not politically popular. There is no hint of evidence that Mrs Clinton has ever attempted any such thing. Indeed, with the help of her sometime friend Dick Morris, evil genius of the black arts of polling and manipulation, she has most often reinforced her spouse's calculated and calibrated centrism.
It was Mrs Clinton who briskly broke off old friendships, with Lani Guinier when her nomination was foundering and with the Edelman family when the Children's Defense Fund was no longer politically convenient. It was Mrs Clinton, also, who acted as chief enforcer of loyalty around the White House, firing professional staff to make way for time-servers, hiring private detectives to control potentially inconvenient witnesses and helping amass secret files on political enemies. Finally, it was she who involved the couple in certain ambitious financial schemes back in Arkansas, which, lacking in acumen and perhaps in probity, unleashed the series of convoluted and frustrating investigations that confirmed her in her paranoia. Only in the matter of her husband's yobbish libido did her aptitude for control completely desert her. Even here, though, she has managed to convey the impression that it is no fault of his. In a recent interview with Tina Brown's Talk magazine, she laid the blame for a career of rude lunges, trashy liaisons and credible allegations of harassment and even rape on the bad blood that existed between “Bill's” mother and grandmother. When the President was put to the indignity of paying ＄850,000 to settle a sexual-harassment suit, the money had to be drawn from Mrs Clinton's personal rainy-day trust fund. He has since been fined ＄90,000 by a federal judge for deliberately lying in her court; I have the impression he'll have to find that money himself.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy”, wrote Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Gail Sheehy has been studying her subject, including whatever it is that keeps them together, for a considerable time. (It was to her that Mrs Clinton made the spiteful suggestion, in 1992, that she look into rumours about a George Bush mistress. “I hear he has a Jennifer, too”, she said, having brazenly denied that Clinton had a Gennifer at all.) She betrays a certain lenience by her very decision to refer to the subject as “Hillary” and her husband as “Bill”. Thus, for example, we can tell from a sentence like: “Her marriage may actually be strengthened by the change of polarities as Hillary becomes more independent and Bill becomes more nurturing to her” that this is not what they call a very judgmental book.
An odd episode is recounted in many published accounts of Mrs Clinton's life, and appears in this one, too. In the early 1970s, on summer leave from Yale Law School and having just teamed up with her husband-to-be, she went to work for Jessica Mitford and Robert Treuhaft. At the time, they were helping to run the most radical law firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, with special emphasis on the beleaguered and bellicose Black Panther Party. Right-wing biographers have made the most of this, seeing a “hidden agenda” of cultural as well as political subversiveness, and George Bush's sleuths had the facts in 1992, but sat on them, once private polling had found that attacks on Clinton's wife struck the electorate as ungallant. I may be the only person who has interviewed both women on the subject.
Jessica Mitford recalled the rather intense young intern very well. (And we are speaking of a time which many California leftists have made strenuous efforts to forget.) She turned up, as many “concerned” young legal activists did in those days, and then she went back East. But not many years later, the dauntless “Decca” Mitford was involved in a Death Row case where the defendant had been extradited from California to Arkansas. “Now, didn't that nice Miss Rodham marry the governor of that state?” Mitford entrained for Little Rock, begged an invitation to tea at the gubernatorial mansion on the strength of an old friendship, and made her pitch. No dice. She was informed without sentiment that real-world and hardball rules now prevailed, and there would be no reprieve. “Pretty ghastly if you ask me”, was Decca Mitford's general verdict.
Back in Washington, I met the First Lady at a dinner party and did no more than say that I had run into an old mutual friend. Even in a roomful of liberals, she couldn't disown the connection swiftly enough. “Oh yes, I did work there once for a very short time.” Then a practised and joyless gleam of dentition and a change of subject. That was then. This is now. The conservatives who execrate her are as deluded as the liberals who think they have a friend in high places.
Mrs Clinton is none other than Mrs Lightfoot Lee, of the opening staves of Henry Adams's great Washington satirical pastiche Democracy:
In her own mind, however, she frowned on the idea of seeking for men. What she wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society, at work. What she wanted was POWER.
The capitals are Adams's. The authoritarian interest in “the political process” as a machine is drawn from life and observation. Mrs Clinton's nemesis of a father no longer, perhaps, needs to be appeased. She and her fans, however, might bear in mind that for Mrs Lightfoot Lee to get really started, she had to become a widow.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496
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, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, and numerous other organs of the Fourth Estate.
There were many reasons to pay the story no mind. For starters, there was the flimsy supporting evidence: a quote from the former head of the Maryland branch of the International Dyslexia Association (who made no claims to have met Bush); Bush's idealization of Winston Churchill, who was likely dyslexic; and the author's observation that “dyslexics are sometimes the loudmouths in school. At Andover, Bush was nicknamed ‘the Lip.’” But there was an even better reason to ignore the story—the author herself, Vanity Fair correspondent Gail Sheehy, a journalist with a world-class reputation for getting it wrong.
It's not hard to understand why a glossy like Vanity Fair would publish Sheehy's work: She delivers buzz. But the willingness of the higher-minded reporters at the Times and elsewhere to pick up her assertions and run with them reflects a broader trend: Her brand of journalism has gone mainstream. Over the past decade, the prestige newspapers have borrowed heavily from the psychobiographical approach she pioneered, interpreting the candidates through their childhood traumas, midlife crises, and pathologies. In 1993, David Maraniss of The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for his biography of Bill Clinton, which unabashedly peered inside the president's mind to study the impact of his bawdy mother. This election cycle has produced more of the same, with the Times and the Post apparently in competition to see who can devote more column inches to Bush's past drinking problem and Gore's paralyzing relationship with his father. Of course, good reporters like Maraniss and the Times' Nicholas Kristof carefully refrain from recklessly diagnosing psychological maladies. But once the papers have legitimized Sheehy's style, they can't easily shun the sensational tidbits she uses it to find.
Sheehy first gained national prominence in the 1970s as a reporter for New York magazine (whose editor at the time, Clay Felker, she later married). In 1971, Sheehy's five-part series “Redpants and Sugarman,” which detailed the travails of a Lexington Avenue prostitute and her pimp, won raves. Newsweek declared her the “hooker's Boswell.” But Sheehy was soon forced to admit that there was no “Redpants.” Her subject, she explained, was a “composite”—a fact never acknowledged in any of her published stories.
For a time, the controversy dogged Sheehy. But in 1976 she published a book of pop psychology called Passages, and its wild success—three years on The New York Times' best-seller list—gave her career a powerful boost. The thesis of Passages—that adulthood is a series of “critical turning points along the life cycle when one's vulnerability is exaggerated but one's opportunity for growth is also heightened”—became Sheehy's totalizing theory of character.
After being recruited to profile presidential contenders for Vanity Fair in 1983, Sheehy began applying the formula to political figures. For years, she bolstered the pop psychoanalysis with delicious reportorial scoops—Michael Dukakis's mentally unstable brother, Gary Hart's love of New Age hokum. But, over time, the scoops became scarcer and the psychologizing more forced. In her 1990 biography of Mikhail Gorbachev, The Man Who Changed the World, Sheehy notoriously suggested that the collapse of communism was caused by the Soviet leader's own confrontations with adversity: “For exceptional individuals, like Gorbachev,” she wrote, “such passages assume the dimensions of deep personal transformation—they become in some ways different people.” Worse than its ridiculous thesis, the book suffered from a slew of telling errors. Sheehy described organized crime as nonexistent in post-Soviet life—just as it was asserting itself as a dominant force. She argued that diabetes would be “widespread in a closed ethnic society such as Russia where people marry and reproduce, for the most part, with other Russians”—never mind that there is, genetically speaking, no such thing as a Russian. The errors were both picayune and grand: suggesting Potemkin was an actual architect; miscalculating the length of Mongol rule over Russia by at least 100 years; badly botching the names of scientific journals, artistic movements, and political figures. Reviewing Sheehy's book in these pages, Tatyana Tolstaya concluded, “The number of illiterate mistakes in this book is beyond counting.”
By the time Sheehy wrote her 1999 biography of Hillary Clinton, Hillary's Choice, 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. (A sampling: Garry Wills, Harold Ickes, Betsy Wright.) To be fair, the mistakes were not all earth-shattering. (Does it really matter that Sheehy wrongly asserted that Mack McLarty had divorced his wife or incorrectly described the columnist Gene Lyons as a novelist?) At least one of her goofs, however, seriously undermined her argument—the claim that Hillary Clinton suffered irreparable psychological damage when her father skipped her college graduation speech. (“It should have been the peak of pride for her father,” Sheehy wrote. “But Hillary's father was competitive with his gifted daughter.”) When Hillary's press secretary aggressively asserted that her father had indeed attended her graduation, Sheehy swiftly back-pedaled. In the paperback version of Hillary's Choice, she minimized the anecdote: “Hugh Rodham was not seen hugging or congratulating his daughter.” Asked by Tim Russert whether she stood by her original contention that Hugh Rodham was not there at all, she replied, “We don't know.”
How do such mistakes happen? In part, it's simply impossible to verify Sheehy's work: Her suggestion that Bill Clinton's adultery results from “dissociative identities,” for instance, is, on its face, unfalsifiable. But talk to her past Vanity Fair fact-checkers—I spoke with three—and they provide other explanations for Sheehy's lapses. “She'll just misconstrue the whole context of what someone is trying to say, or she'll flip words around to advance her argument that this person has a particular psychological problem,” one told me. “She has very little regard for her sources,” said another. All admit that Sheehy tried to ignore their objections—telling one, “You're just a fucking fact-checker. Don't tell me what to do.” (Sheehy disputes the phrasing—“I don't usually use that language,” she told me—but not the sentiment. “I might have said, ‘You're just a fact-checker, you're not the writer, don't tell me what to do.’ That would be perfectly in order.”)
Sheehy's best-known disagreement with Vanity Fair's fact-checkers, however, was over her 1992 profile of Hillary Clinton. In the piece, Sheehy quoted the soon-to-be first lady complaining that, for all the coverage of her husband's alleged affairs, President Bush had himself been “carrying on” his own illicit tryst, “which is apparently well-known in Washington.” When Hillary claimed the quote was “a garbled version of a private conversation,” no one believed her. (“I don't think you tell a journalist about a private conversation if you don't want to have it printed,” replied Sheehy.) But Clinton was in the right. Last December, Cynthia Cotts, who had been a Vanity Fair fact-checker in 1992, revealed that, according to Sheehy's transcript, Hillary had unambiguously declared her remarks off the record. But when Cotts (now The Village Voice's media critic) recommended to editors that Sheehy cut the quote, she was rebuffed.
Ironically, as Sheehy's psychobabble has grown ever flimsier, more and more journalists have adopted her style themselves. George W. Bush alone has been the subject of three full-scale campaign biographies that dwell almost entirely on matters characterological. Even Kristof's profiles in The New York Times, running under the New Agey title “Governor Bush's Journey,” peddle their share of dime-store psych: “[O]ne theme runs through each stage of his life: hero worship of his father, leading to an instinct to follow his father's trail.” As Slate's Judith Shulevitz puts it, “The question of whether and how a politician has grown in his or her adult years has become the master narrative of American politics.”
But if the trend toward journalism as amateur psychology makes it easier for Sheehy to get her nuggets picked up in the mainstream press, it also makes her life harder. In fact, one reason for Sheehy's increasing sensationalism may be the competition: With so many reporters now on her turf, her discoveries have to be more and more outrageous to stand out. Unfortunately, she keeps descending to the challenge.
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