Married Michael Segell; children: five.
Home—New York, NY; Long Eddy, NY.
Author, science writer, editor, and journalist. American Health, psychology editor.
The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1993.
I.D.: How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.
Working on God, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Spiritual Genius: The Mastery of Life's Meaning, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.
It's in the Bag: What Purses Reveal—and Conceal, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
House Thinking: A Room-by-room Look at How We Live, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone.
Winifred Gallagher, a freelance journalist, science writer, and editor who has specialized mainly in the behavioral sciences, produces books about complex subjects for nonspecialist readers. In her first work, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions, Gallagher explores in depth how people's interaction with their environment and surroundings, from the comfort and safety of the womb to the busiest of city streets, affect behavior and emotional well-being in profound ways, both positive and negative. "Evidence strongly suggests, for instance, that while a slum can trigger an addict's perceived need for opiates, that same slum when marked with signs of territoriality—fresh paint and window boxes full of flowers—may actually have less street crime," commented Karal Ann Marling in New York Times Book Review. Persons suffering from the form of depression called seasonal affective disorder improve markedly when exposure to sunlight, or even just ultraviolet light as found in sunshine, is increased. Memories, impressions, and perceptions—whether conscious or not—all influence reactions, psychological and emotional state, and behavior.
Marling remarked that "Gallagher's special strength is her ability to make the link between environment and emotion" and called The Power of Place "engrossing." A Kirkus Reviews critic wrote that the book has a "richly textured quality" and that it provides an "intriguing examination of an elusive topic." In the Washington Post Book World, Jonathan Yardley found The Power of Place lacking in the "poetic sensibility" of Eudora Welty's essay "Place in Fiction" but noted that "what Gallagher has written is a tour d'horizon … of current scientific thinking about how place … and behavior interact."
Gallagher's I.D.: How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are also uses current scientific research to explain, in layman's terms, the delicate balance between heredity and environment in shaping personality. Begin- ning with the ancient theories of Hippocrates outlining the four "humors," Gallagher amasses a great amount of evidence regarding the ways in which genetic predispositions and environmental influences work upon each other. According to Gallagher, the "nature vs. nurture" argument is a specious one since the true picture of how human beings develop is much more complex than the influence of one set of conditions over another, exclusive of each other. She uses as a continuing thread in her narrative the story of Monica, a woman both genetically flawed and nearly totally neglected as a child. Through her appealing personality, Monica was able to win over the hospital workers who cared for her; eventually, she grew into a happy, productive person. In this case, Gallagher emphasizes how inborn traits can actually work on one's environment to make change that some might think impossible.
A Kirkus Reviews critic was not impressed with the way Gallagher organizes her material, calling I.D. "an unwieldy assemblance of information" that "lacks a strong framework or point of view." Other reviewers, however, found the book to be a valuable contribution to the discussion of what makes up the human personality. Martha Manning, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "Gallagher's fascinating book has broadened our capacity to wonder." Beryl Lieff Benderly commented in the Washington Post Book World that Gallagher's style is "overly elliptical" and that she is "casual" about the way she cites reference sources; however, Benderly also remarked that the author "has taken a difficult, contentious, and often poorly reported body of research materials and rendered it intriguing and understandable."
Gallagher's book Working on God, published in 1999, departs from the behavioral science field and embarks on a pilgrimage to determine the role of religion in the life of America, as well as in the author's own life. The group of people that Gallagher examines is "that growing but hard-to-categorize group of highly educated, well-connected, and skeptical people who had not quite given upon the idea that there might be some kind of metaphysical something-or-other out there," explained Don Lattin in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The result is an honest and sometimes poignant appraisal of a religious revolution afoot in this country," remarked Diego Ribadeneira in Boston Globe. Drawing on copiously collected research materials, Gallagher describes her experiences in such venues as a Zen monastery, an African American mosque, a nuns' cloister, and a New Age commune. Emphasizing Christian, Jewish, and Zen Buddhist ways of seeing the world, Gallagher, who calls herself "neoagnostic," concludes that people are returning to a more mystical way of thinking.
Donna Seaman, in Booklist, called Working on God "a cogent, balanced, and unexpectedly moving overview of the state of American religion." A Kirkus Reviews critic, while noting that the "the casual style" of the book "breeds some errors," called the work "occasionally successful" in its attempt to delineate the varieties of religious experience in modern America. In the New York Times Book Review, Nathaniel Tripp found the book "refreshing" in that Gallagher approaches her subject "as a journalist who has been working the science beat for years." Tripp asserted that Working on God is "uniquely American" and "a keenly intelligent book that opened doors long kept closed." Ribadeneira deemed the work "an outstanding piece of writing that shows the strength and beauty of America's beating religious heart."
Gallagher returns to religious themes in Spiritual Genius: The Mastery of Life's Meaning. She defines spiritual genius as the human ability to search out life's meaning and to ask the larger questions of why one exists and what one's purpose is in life. Gallagher seeks out and profiles ten individuals who have developed their spiritual genius to the point that it is always in use—their spiritual genius becomes their reason for living. She introduces the reader to a diverse selection of practitioners from a variety of religions, including Sister Bette Edl, a Franciscan hermit whose home is a yurt in Maine; Mata Amritanandamayi, known as India's "hugging saint," who has taken her spiritual message to the physical plane and embraces the millions of faithful who come to visit; Tenzin Palmo, who spent a three-year solitary retreat in a cave high in the Himalayan mountains; Riffat Hasan, a Muslim feminist scholar intent on teaching Islamic women their worth as human beings as it is explained in the Koran; James Kimpton, an English Christian Brother who works tirelessly to reach the poorest and most neglected in India's most poverty-ravaged states; and Huston Smith, a pioneer in the study of comparative religion in America. All share three critical elements of spiritual genius, commented William A. Barry in America: "holiness, or intense awareness of transcendent reality; goodness, or compassion for others; and charisma, or the ability to inspire others."
"This is an astonishing, engrossing introduction to ten human beings who seem to live with one foot in another plane," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Gal- lagher is to be commended for her deft and respectful treatment of so many traditions," noted Lauren F. Winner in the New York Times Book Review, adding: "With her gentle guidance, religious people of all stripes will find that they have much to learn." Barry called Spiritual Genius "an important book for our age, an age in which religious fault lines seem to imperil world peace, yet where religion may point the way forward." As an author, "Gallagher understands the awkwardness of presenting a gallery of mystics and healers at the very moment when we have been reminded that spiritual fervor has its dark side, but she suggests that each person in her book has something important to teach us," noted Jonathan Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times. "Above all," Kirsch added, "she insists that the answer to religious fanaticism is to be found in religious diversity."
In It's in the Bag: What Purses Reveal—and Conceal, "a concise, witty look at the handbag's social journey," according to January Magazine Web site contributor Tracy Quan, Gallagher traces the history of the utilitarian fashion accessory. The author notes that although purses were invented during the nineteenth century, they did not become commonplace until the 1920s, when women achieved a degree of financial independence and needed a portable storage device for their wallets, cosmetics, and other belongings. "The history of the handbag parallels that of the women's movement," remarked Newsweek critic Jerry Adler. During the latter half of the twentieth century, handbags gained in importance as luxury items, often costing thousands of dollars. For some women, wrote Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times Book Review, "the choice of handbag is fraught these days, sending signals of status, taste and identity that others instantly interpret." Through interviews with sociologists and historians, as well as handbag designers and owners, Gallagher examines the lure of such expensive accessories, which function as an extension of the purse-carrier's personality. "So why are many women paying as much for handbags as some people pay for cars?" Schillinger asked. "Ms. Gallagher offers a psychological explanation: overworked, emotionally starved and unlucky in love, they seek the ‘security blanket’ of the perfect leather sidekick." Quan similarly observed, "Gallagher gets us thinking about why we can't just leave all our stuff behind and venture forth, bagless and free. She compares our handbags to homes, referring to ‘silent partners’ and ‘security blankets’ to prove her point."
Gallagher explores how our homes affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions in House Thinking: A Room-by-room Look at How We Live. In the work, Gallagher proposes that simple changes to one's living space can produce significant psychological benefits. As the author told Sarah Goldstein on the Salon.com Web site, "I believe that the environment, and not just the social environment but also the physical environment, has a big impact on behavior." The author continued, "Our culture doesn't look at the effects of the environment on behavior. We talk about social relationships and neurochemistry. But it's not just my opinion that environment affects behavior. There's real solid research from environmental psychology, from psychiatry, from design, architecture, cultural history."
In House Thinking Gallagher examines noteworthy aspects of several famous sites, including the entry hall at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the kitchen in Abigail Adams's colonial home, and the bedroom of Edith Wharton. "I think you can make a good case that Mount Vernon is the archetypal American home, a dream home," she remarked to Goldstein. "It was the Washington family farmhouse, a modest one and a half story farmhouse that he turned into a prototypical McMansion. He glorified it and gussied it up so that it looked fancy but was basically a farmhouse—which studies show is still America's favorite type of home." The author also recounts her own home improvement projects, which included changes to her bedroom, dining room, and living room. "I don't think I spent more than one hundred dollars on anything," she told Eils Lotozo in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I mostly cleared things out and moved stuff around. But the house is so much nicer now." According to Goldstein, "House Thinking is neither a how-to book nor a treatise in behavioral science, but instead tells the story of the American home through historical anecdotes, personal narrative and sociological studies. In it Gallagher … draws from the expanding field of environmental psychology to explore how home design can bring out our ‘best selves.’" In the words of Detroit Free Press reviewer Marta Salij, House Thinking "is that rare book about homes and houses that dispenses with how houses look in favor of how houses feel—and how they make us behave."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America, March 4, 2002, William A. Barry, review of Spiritual Genius: The Mastery of Life's Meaning, p. 26.
Architectural Record, September, 2006, Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, review of House Thinking: A Room-by-room Look at How We Live, p. 69.
Booklist, March 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of I.D.: How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, p. 1221; February 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Working on God, p. 943; review of Spiritual Genius, p. 780; February 15, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of House Thinking, p. 37.
Boston Globe, March 8, 1999, Diego Ribadeneira, review of Working on God, p. C10.
California Bookwatch, April, 2006, review of House Thinking.
Detroit Free Press, April 2, 2006, Marta Salij, review of House Thinking.
Journal Star (Peoria, IL), June 15, 1993, Sue Brown, review of The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions p. A6.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1996, review of I.D., p. 193; December 15, 2005, review of House Thinking, p. 1309.
Library Journal, March 15, 1996, Lucille Boone, review of I.D., p. 88; February 1, 1999, Carolyn M. Craft, review of Working on God, p. 94; March 1, 2002, Joyce Smothers, review of Spiritual Genius, p. 107.
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1999, Zachary Karabell, review of Working on God, p. B2; February 2, 2002, Jonathan Kirsch, review of Spiritual Genius, p. B16.
Newsweek, November 20, 2006, Jerry Adler, "Handbags: Pocket History," review of It's in the Bag: What Purses Reveal—and Conceal, p. 19.
New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1993, Karal Ann Marling, review of The Power of Place, p. 8; June 9, 1996, Martha Manning, review of I.D., p. 31; May 23, 1999, Nathaniel Tripp, review of Working on God, p. 24; April 7, 2002, Lauren F. Winner, review of Spiritual Genius, p. 20; November 19, 2006, Liesl Schillinger, "If You Can't Speak Softly, Carry a Big Bag," review of It's in the Bag.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 17, 2006, Eils Lotozo, "Our Inner Rooms: The Look of Your Home Reflects, and Affects, Who You Are Inside, Says Cultural Critic Winifred Gallagher."
Publishers Weekly, January 25, 1993, review of The Power of Place, p. 69; February 19, 1996, review of I.D., p. 196; January 28, 2002, review of Spiritual Genius, p. 286; January 2, 2006, review of House Thinking, p. 51.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1999, Don Lattin, review of Working on God, p. Z1.
Sierra, July-August, 1993, Kathleen Courrier, review of The Power of Place, p. 89.
Washington Post Book World, March 14, 1993, Jonathan Yardley, review of The Power of Place, p. 3; April 28, 1996, Beryl Lieff Benderly, review of I.D., p. 7; March 28, 1999, Jonathan Yardley, review of Working on God, p. X2.
January,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (February 28, 2008), Tracy Quan, "A Whole New Bag," review of It's in the Bag.
Public Broadcasting Service Web site,http://www.pbs.org/ (May 14, 1996), David Gergen, transcript of NewsHour interview with Winifred Gallagher.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (February 24, 2006), Sarah Goldstein, "Our House: Journalist Winifred Gallagher Talks about the Urge to Nest, Suburban Sprawl, and Whether George Washington Owned the First Mcmansion."
Líteratí.net Web site,http://literati.net/ (February 1, 2008).