The Sheehy Treatment

Hillary’s Choice, Gail Sheehy’s latest study of political character, confirms her status as America’s leading village explainer–which, as Gertrude Stein once pointed out, “is fine if you’re a village. If not, not.” Sheehy is the journalist turned self-appointed psychologist who transformed the scary-sounding “crises” of academic adult-development theory (such as the mid-life crisis) into the user-friendly Passages, the name of her 1976 megabestseller. Sheehy’s diagnosis of the first lady-slash-senatorial candidate has the compelling obviousness of good local gossip, though with the upbeat ending you’d expect from an author whose message has consistently been, The more intense the suffering, the better the chance to grow.

Hillary, according to Sheehy, became the brilliant and driven woman she is today out of a desire to avoid becoming her mother, a withdrawn and frustrated housewife. But Hillary’s emotional life was stunted by an unloving, unavailable father who didn’t even attend his own daughter’s college graduation. His lack of supportiveness left her susceptible to the needy, seductive Bill Clinton, which led her to abandon her political dreams and take up his, which made her resentful, which caused her to push him even harder than his own considerable ambitions were already doing, whereupon he self-destructed, which left them both in a horrible mess, from which she has emerged in her early 50s a new woman, ready to break out of her chrysalis and fly.

This is a very American story, much more so than that of Daisy Buchanan, to whom Hillary has also been compared. Sheehy’s faith in change and redemption reflects an Oprah-esque optimism about human malleability, whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of an egotist whose selfishness wrecks her life and the lives of everyone around her reeks of dourness. That the newly hatched butterfly that is Hillary’s psyche seems to be fluttering straight into the flames of New York State politics and Rudolph Giuliani’s popularity does not conform to Sheehy’s triumphalist narrative, so although she discusses what Hillary’s candidacy means to Hillary, Sheehy doesn’t give us a single outside perspective on it. Sheehy is a therapist to the stars, not a political reporter. She tells us how our leaders feel, not what they stand for or what might become of them or even what we should think about the things they do.

The way we talk about the character of leaders has come a long way since Leo Tolstoy railed against Carlyle’s great-man theory of history 130 years ago in War and Peace: “To study the laws of history, we must entirely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements that influence the masses.” Since then, history has been through a host of determinisms–economic, demographic, biological, geographic, even meteorological–each meant to relegate the individual psychology of great men to the realm of the contingent. Sheehy’s innovation is to boldly cast all of that aside and bring us back to the pre-Tolstoy era. For her, the national stage exists as nothing more nor less than a setting for grand personalities.

Actually, Sheehy outdoes Carlyle, because the only thing that matters to her is personality; she doesn’t give a damn about the national stage. Reading Sheehy is like listening to a botany professor describe the inner life of plants. What she extracts from the public figures in whose private selves she traffics is how well they adhere to the rules of growth–preferably the ones she has sketched out. (Sheehy’s key works in this regard are Passages, which deals with life up until one’s 50s; The Silent Passage (1991), about menopause; New Passages (1995), about the second adulthood that begins in one’s 50s; and Understanding Men’s Passages (1998), about male menopause.) When she writes in Character, her 1988 study of the political temperament, that Michael Dukakis learned from his defeat for re-election as governor of Massachussetts to demonstrate some warmth, that’s good. Ronald Reagan has never transcended the patterns of denial common to the children of alcoholics, and that, she pronounces, is bad. Never mind how Dukakis’s and Reagan’s psychological idiosyncracies may have changed the nature of presidential campaigning, the presidency, or the country. To Sheehy, Dukakis and Reagan and Hillary Clinton are case studies, just like the ones laid out in Passages: Rosalyn, the Jewish-American princess and wife who had to flee to Marin County to find herself; Mia, who enslaved herself to a saintly philosopher and had to divorce him to find herself; Donald Babcock, the Hotchkiss and Yale graduate who unconsciously emulated his father in everything he did, and who, Sheehy implied, had damn well better go through a crisis in order to find himself, and soon. Each story she tells is a cautionary tale with the exact same moral: You have to pass through the stages of adult development or wither and die.

What are these stages to which Sheehy claims we are all subject, regardless of class, race, or creed? Each has its own clever nickname–the Trying Twenties, the Catch Thirties, the Forlorn Forties–and archetypal member: the Transient, the Wunderkind, the Caregiver, the Nurturer Who Defers Caregiving, the Caregiver Who Defers Nurturing. The important thing, says Sheehy, is not to skip a step: “One cannot jump from A to C, and the only path to D is through engaging the tasks of C; there are no alternative routes.” It’s not as if these steps are unusual or bizarre; on the contrary, they’re soothingly familiar. At one point, you’re supposed to break away from your parents and find your own way. At another, you have to commit to a “lifework” or risk drifting into stasis.

All this is so anodyne as to be completely unobjectionable. If you believe that personality trumps everything else, you might as well have an idea about how it works, no matter how banal. The disturbing part is that Sheehy uses her theories not just to explain decisions that have proved historically momentous, but to explain them away. In Passages, for instance, Black Panther co-founder Eldridge Cleaver’s role in the black nationalist movement is perceived as nothing more than an example of one man’s difficulty making a necessary passage: “Taken to the extreme,” she writes, “the unwillingness to commit leaves no quarter for expression of the merger self. If no school, organization, or love match can be trusted (or if, as in the case of Eldridge Cleaver, the only way the individual sees fit to redress the wrongs of society is to smash it or choose exile from it), the path leads to isolation.”

Banished in those two sentences is the entire world outside Cleaver’s pushing, expanding, developing self–any racism and poverty he may have endured, the ideas that inflamed him, the time in which he lived. Sheehy claims he became a revolutionary because he failed to grow properly, like a vine that has unhealthily abandoned its stick. That’s the strangest thing about Sheehy’s model of development: The self comes off as organic, context-less, and amoral, judged only in reference to the imperative to grow. Is Hillary’s decision to run for the Senate while still first lady good for anyone but her? Is it an opportunity to expand the oppressive limits of political wifery, or is it an abuse of her power? Should New York be glad or sad that she might become its next senator? About all this Sheehy has nothing to say.

It’s tempting to get up on one’s high horse and declare this a wrongheaded way to approach politicians, whose actions have an impact on the rest of us too. But that would be like denouncing the weather, because Sheehy’s view is now the journalistic norm. (These days, any effort to arrive at a deeper understanding of a candidate is referred to as “the Sheehy treatment.”) The question of whether and how a politician has grown in his or her adult years has become the master narrative of American politics. Consider George Bush, who is more or less running on a record of turning his life around after having done nothing until he was 40. Or Al Gore, who never stops rediscovering yet another inner child. Has Bush changed in a way that makes him better suited to govern? Do we really like Al Gore’s latest reincarnation? Who knows? Who cares? Sheehy’s Hillary longs to be given the same free pass–to have hers be yet another uplifting tale of growth in the face of personal suffering. Will New Yorkers buy it? Culturebox sure hopes not.

Photograph of Hillary Clinton on the Slate Table of Contents by Peter Morgan/Reuters.