Sheehy, Gail

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Born 27 November 1937, Mamaroneck, New York

Daughter of Harold M. and Lillian Rainey Henion; married Albert F. Sheehy, 1960 (divorced 1967); children: one daughter

Gail Sheehy grew up and attended high school in Mamaroneck, New York. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1958, with a dual major in English and home economics, she worked for the J. C. Penney Company as a consumer representative and then as a filmstrip editor.

In 1960 Sheehy moved with her husband to Rochester, New York, where he entered medical school and she became fashion editor for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Her daughter was born a few months after she moved with her husband to New York City. The Sheehys were divorced in 1967.

In New York, Sheehy first wrote for the women's department of the Herald Tribune. After a few years she began to write freelance articles and soon became a contributing editor of New York magazine. She studied at Columbia University in 1969 and 1970, on a fellowship in interracial reporting, and again later, on an Alice Patterson Foundation fellowship.

Lovesounds (1970) uses alternating points of view—the wife as well as her husband—to relate the breakup of the marriage of a New York City couple of the 1960s. Although not successful as a novel, the book is of interest for its autobiographical elements and analysis of modern marriage.

Speed Is of the Essence (1971) is a collection of articles originally published in New York. The book offers case histories of the prophetic loudmouthed minority Sheehy calls the "speeders," those who first experiment with new life options. The title essay is about amphetamine addicts, but Sheehy's point in the collection is that speed is of the essence in our entire culture.

Panthermania: The Clash of Black Against Black in One American City (1971) is a result of what Sheehy calls an "experiment in interracial journalism." Accompanied by a young black photographer, David Parks, she spent nine months of 1970 in New Haven, Connecticut, investigating the black community's reactions to the trials of the Black Panthers accused of murdering Alex Rackley. Her next book, Hustling: Prostitution in Our Wide-Open Society (1973) brings together a series of articles Sheehy wrote about prostitution in New York City—from street hookers to high-society courtesans.

Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (1976) was written in response to Sheehy's personal midlife crisis. She shows there is a pattern of adult development that can be charted and described. She attempts to locate the individual's inner changes, to compare the developmental rhythms of men and women, and to examine the predictable crises for couples. The book is based on case histories of 115 educated middle-class people between the ages of 18 and 55. The enormous success of the book attested to the popular appeal of its theories.

Sheehy followed up her bestselling Passages with another popular success. Pathfinders (1981), a testament to the American public's need to fit their psyches into a schema, is rife with such generalizations as "What's wrong with me?" is the "archetypal female response." Nonetheless, the book demonstrates Sheehy's genuine concern for "the female psychology."

Pathfinders revives the "Sexual Diamond," of Passages, describing the gradual divergence of male and female character traits from 18 to 40 and the slow crossover each sex makes thereafter. Subsequently, Sheehy redirected her analysis of the human personality toward politics aiming at, in her words, an "X-ray of history." Character: America's Search for Leadership (1988) concerns the "character" of achievers: the cast includes Al Gore, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart, examined to substantiate her view on how achievers handle crises and develop. Character was followed by a long biography, The Man Who Changed the World: The Lives of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1990). Sheehy describes her journey to Gorbachev's hometown to talk to its residents, her time with the KGB, and her interviews with more than 100 people. The Man received almost universally negative reviews across the political spectrum, with several critics noting the inadequacy of her preparation and her popular psychology approach to the massiveness of her subject. To Sheehy's credit, however, she charged into a complicated issue and attempted a comprehensive account; her relatively uncritical fascination is what makes her good at what she does—American journalism.

Sheehy returned to the subject with which she seems most comfortable, female psychology, with The Silent Passage: Meno-pause (1992). The book immediately made the bestseller list although some women were critical in their reviews. Barbara Ehrenreich, in a review titled "All Aboard the Raging Hormone Express," claims Sheehy's description of menopause "drive[s] women to whimper, 'Won't I ever be me anymore?"' Fortunately, as Ehrenreich points out, Sheehy gives plenty of evidence within the book to refute this frightening image.

In 1995 Sheehy published what was originally intended as an update of her 1976 Passages but instead became an entirely new look at the progression of adulthood. Life in the past 20 years had changed drastically for many adults, Sheehy found, and in New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, she proposed a novel look at the stages of maturity. She suggested the years between 18 and 30 are a time of "provisional adulthood," while ages 30 to 45 are the "first adulthood," and from 45 up is the "second adulthood." Some critics hailed the book as a large improvement from the original, while others found it lacked maturity and depth. Either way, it drew upon Sheehy's strength of collecting stories and data from other sources and weaving it together with her own theories.

Sheehy's next work, Understanding Men's Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men's Lives (1998), examines the older, male subgroup of New Passages. Again through the use of interviews and other research, Sheehy chronicles the struggles and fears of men over 40 and offers suggestions for overcoming new challenges. Though she often employs what Kirkus Reviews calls an "overly and redundantly upbeat tone," the book has been well received as a readable, useful guide striking a good balance between hard psychology and popular psychology.

Despite some mixed reviews, Sheehy has received praise for her journalistic excellence; a March 1991 poll in the Washington Journalism Review gave her a high rating and she is widely published in newspapers and magazines. Her self-help books are among the most frequently read within an extremely popular genre, employing a blend of easy reading and easily accepted advice that has proven to be a lucrative combination.


Reference works:

CA (1975). CA Online (2 June 1999). CANR (1981, 1991). MTCW (1991).

Other references: (8 June 1999). Glamour (Dec. 1977). KR (1 May 1998). NR (28 Sept. 1987, 27 May 1991). National Review (11 Feb. 1991). Newsweek (4 Dec. 1972). NYTBR (5 Sept. 1971, 30 May 1976, 7 June 1992). PW (1 June 1992). SR (24 July 1971, 15 May 1976). Time (10 May 1976). Town & Country (Oct. 1978).