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Gail Sheehy’s Books Helped Readers Define Their Lives


Gail Sheehy, a star journalist at New York magazine and a writer of creative nonfiction who examined cultural shifts and societal trends, in part by exploring the interior lives of public figures, died on Monday at 83. Her most famous book, “Passages” (1976), about the stages of a person’s development from early adulthood to midlife crisis and beyond, was just one of 17 books she wrote to give a reader a greater awareness of life, and his or her own place in it. Below are reviews of some of her most notable works.

“Books of popular psychology … are generally awful,” wrote our reviewer, Sara Sanborn. “Gail Sheehy’s new book is different. For one thing, it appears to have been written by an adult for other adults.” She went on to say that Sheehy “set out to do for adult life what Gesell and Spock had done for childhood,” adding, “I think she’s started a stimulating and worthwhile conversation.”

“Over the last few years, writing about Presidential candidates for Vanity Fair, Ms. Sheehy has broken out of the pack of political reporters who work the psychology beat, by dint of hard work, invulnerability to embarrassment and the strict use of a frame of reference (her own),” Nicholas Lemann wrote. “She looks first for some basic problem in the candidate’s character that was created in the course of his growing up and then for an adult crisis that tested his ability to overcome the problem.”

“Everyone loves passages, those mystical corridors that lead us from where we have been to where we are going; and if the destination is unknown — visiting a new country, surviving an illness, growing older — we are all grateful for a good map. Gail Sheehy’s book ‘Passages’ was hugely popular precisely because it offered such a chart,” our reviewer Carol Tavris wrote. “Ms. Sheehy now offers ‘New Passages,’ an optimistic analysis of adult development in pessimistic times. For those who are unmotivated and confused, worried about losing their jobs or afraid of aging and death, she brings good news about growing older and reassurances that even doubts and despair can be a normal passage to a reinvigorated life.”

“Men notoriously don’t like to ask directions, discuss their problems, ‘read books about their health or stop to re-examine where they have been in the journey of their lives,’” wrote our reviewer, Elaine Showalter. “I suspect they don’t want to be seen buying books about their passages either, and somehow I don’t think it’s an accident that I was invited to review this book instead of, say, Norman Mailer, Bob Dole or Stanley Fish.”

“In her new book, ‘Hillary’s Choice,’ Gail Sheehy puts the first lady on the shrink’s couch,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review. “In the course of the book Ms. Sheehy ends up sounding a lot like Dr. Joyce Brothers while her subject comes across as an Oprah guest: a woman who loves too much and plays Wendy to her husband’s Peter Pan.”

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