What does it mean to be strong?
Does it mean having the strength to keep a painful secret in order to shield someone you love? Does it mean being able to overcome tragedy, only to emerge more centered and capable than before? Does it mean having the guts, fortitude, and intellectual power to succeed in the face of those who would hold you back?
On Sunday, March 21, three authors will offer very different answers to those questions at the Kaplen JCC’s Sunday of Strong Women. Now in its seventh year, the event — this year being held online — is one of the center’s most popular programs. Kathy Graff, the JCC’s director of new initiatives and the program’s coordinator, describes the authors as “audacious and tenacious, with unique stories to tell.”
In “The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World,” — after pointing out that 90 percent of Americans generally associate the word genius with men — New York Times best-selling author Janice Kaplan “explores the powerful forces that have rigged the system … and celebrates the women geniuses past and present who have triumphed anyway.”
Ms. Kaplan, author of two earlier books — “The Gratitude Diaries” and “I’ll See you Again” — and co-author of more than a dozen others, is former editor of Parade magazine and has worked as a television producer, writer, and journalist. “I’ve written about women’s issues for much of my career,” she said. This book focuses on those who, despite every obstacle, “managed to achieve so much.”
Once she started looking for these women, they were not hard to find, since “there are so many doing amazing work.” People who heard about her project called her with an overwhelming number of names — many of whom, necessarily, she had to leave out. “Women’s issues have been in the forefront for many years,” she said. She wrote a book in 1979, the year she graduated from college. “I remember thinking, this will be dated by the time it comes out,” since the issues would no longer exist. (Spoiler alert: They do.)
According to Ms. Kaplan, most definitions of the word genius “are pretty meaningless.” Rather than looking at definitions, she said, at least part of the issue “is about recognition and someone recognizing the work you do. As more women come into power, the definition will change.” Her use of the term, she said, is metaphoric. Her interest is in talent.
Women often are not identified as geniuses because of “an implicit bias, expectations of what people can do.” If you expect less of someone, you narrow their expectations. This often results in a reluctance to put yourself forward, so “one technique in a sexist society is to be self-deprecating, something women need to stop doing. Be nice, support each other, but you don’t have to pretend.”
Ms. Kaplan said she learned a lot from writing the book, throughout which she asked questions, talked to people, “and took the readers along as I tried to figure out” how some women succeeded despite the obstacles they faced. While she interviewed many people, “it’s not a collection of profiles.”
She pointed out that women excel in fields “across the board,” whether in artificial intelligence, chemistry, physics, the arts, or theater. “There are no fields specific to women or men. We have to stop thinking of people as ‘women doctors.’ They’re just doctors.”
For the most part, the women she interviewed had spouses, as well as children of different ages. Those who were married “talked about the importance of a 50/50 partnership, not just nominal,” she said. “Society is not set up to support families. You need someone who sees two careers as mattering equally.” Her own husband, Ron, whom she described as “a handsome doctor,” is “extraordinarily supportive.” The couple have two sons, both married.
“It’s a wonderfully important subject,” she said of her topic. “And not just for women, but for men as well. We’re caught up in expectations of what society expects us to be [and we] lose talents and abilities because of that. Hopefully, this will serve as an inspiration,” helping women see the ways in which they are being held back and preventing those obstacles from holding their children back as well.
In “Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy,” author Eilene Zimmerman tells the story of a woman who saw her ex-husband’s drug use literally destroy his life. That woman — the author — learned many things in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
In brief, “Smacked” tells Eilene’s story, her husband Peter’s story, and — because Peter was a senior partner at a prominent law firm — the larger story of the ways white-collar competition and ambition foster addiction and unhappiness.
Eilene Zimmerman grew up Jewish in a largely Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, one of just a few Jews in her public school and subject to anti-Semitic taunts. As a result, “later in life she lacked the confidence to question Peter, to push back, and instead watched him ostensibly killing himself in plain sight” she said. But “you can regain confidence you don’t have because of past experiences.”
“The book starts off with Peter dead on the bathroom floor,” Ms. Zimmerman said, explaining that she had gone to her former husband’s home to take him to the hospital. “How could this have happened?” she asked herself. “Why didn’t I see it?”
“I decided as a journalist to write a story,” she said. Ms. Zimmerman, a columnist for The New York Times Sunday Business section for six years and a regular contributor to that newspaper since 2004, said that the story ran in the Sunday business section. While generally it is the Sunday Style section that has the most reads, her piece, about the lawyer/addict, “had 2 million shares. It was the most read story of 2017.”
After its publication, Ms. Zimmerman got a lot of emails from lawyers, spouses of lawyers, children of lawyers, and other professionals. It was then that she decided to write a book. “I felt alone and ashamed,” she said. “It was wonderful to have people reaching out with similar stories. I wrote about what happened to our family, but the Times article showed there was enough interest to do a book.”
As drug deaths increase, she said, her book is increasingly relevant. And during the pandemic, she noted, drug use has gone up tremendously.
The couple were married for 20 years before their divorce. “He was not an intravenous drug addict when we married,” she said. “He always had back pain and took Vicodin and Percocet. He was not a huge drinker, but he liked cocaine; he liked to trip.” She, on the other hand, is “very straight. I don’t like getting high,” especially when there were children in the house. “I didn’t want to enable him,” she said. “When we split, he hung out with younger associates.”
Ms. Zimmerman learned a good deal from writing the book. “The biggest thing I learned is that there is a lot of suffering in the professional world,” she said. “Lawyers have it particularly bad. They tend to have a negative mindset, scanning the horizon for things that are wrong. It’s a tough profession.” But the stress level is also high for other white-collar professionals, whether in finance, technology, or science. “They feel enormous pressure. They drink and take drugs quite a bit.”
In her research with younger people, she found “an openness to new substances that make them perform better. Cocaine use is up for the first time in 10 years and is rising. A lot of drugs are making a comeback. Many people are not addicted, but are dependent. They rely on these substances.”
The reason for drug use differs, she said. Some jobs, “especially in technology, can be tedious. Cannabis mellows them out.” Ritalin is used in professions requiring long hours and high productivity, she said; she has heard from doctors who take opioids and fentanyl that they “know how to dose themselves.” But since her husband also was a chemist, she said, he should have had that knowledge as well.
Ms. Zimmerman, who has a daughter and a son, both adults, began social work training in 2017 and now is a licensed social worker. Her mother, 88, has Parkinson’s disease. Because of covid, “I haven’t hugged her in a year, but I try to be as demonstrative as I can,” she said. If she has managed to stay strong, it was mainly for her children, she added. “I couldn’t break down,” she said. “They were looking to me to be OK.
“I grew up in the ’40s and ’e450s. My parents said I was lucky to get Peter. Our family was in service to his career.” She was a freelance writer, and her husband would say things like, “Someone has to pay the mortgage.” He had a lot of power. He also was an avid consumer. “There was so much stuff in his house.” Still, she said, “It didn’t fill the hole he was trying to fill.
“He could have been a chemist,” she said. “He could have gone in-house and worked for a company where you didn’t have to bill every six minutes of your time. But he perceived it as not having power and prestige. I begged him to leave, but he was more ambitious than I thought. The money was good, and his identity was wrapped up in it.”
Now, after much self-reflection, Ms. Zimmerman “sees the ways in which you cut yourself down, the negative self-talk.” She’s much more aware of that, and of the fact that we wouldn’t speak to a friend in the harsh ways we often speak to ourselves.
Her husband’s death was the tipping point that led her to a career in social work. She had always been a social activist and volunteer, “and as a journalist I tried to do stories about social issues.” After writing about technology start-ups for 10 years, “I said, I can’t do this anymore.”
Now, she sees about 10 clients a day, describing it as “fulfilling and intense.” She’s still trying to learn, she said, and she is still writing.
Author Rachel Beanland grew up hearing stories about her great-great-grandmother — in family lore, an exceptionally strong woman — and her daughter, Florence (not her real name), who drowned training to swim the English Channel. It is that story that forms the basis of Ms. Beanland’s new novel, “Florence Adler Swims Forever.”
Based in Atlantic City in the 1930s, the story is about keeping secrets. The debate it engenders consumes the author, as it will the readers. Was it right to withhold news of Florence’s death from her pregnant sister? What is more harmful — the truth, or the ramifications of falsehood?
Ms. Beanland, an MFA candidate in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and the mother of three children, began writing with the idea that she would prove her own point of view.
“My mom and I were on different sides of the fence over whether Esther” — her great-great-grandmother, again, this was not her real name — “made the right decision. I was young and veered more toward transparency. No one would want information withheld. We couldn’t agree on the best move for Esther, and it made me think a lot about moral ambiguity.
“I was interested in the idea of keeping secrets from other people.”
But her views started to shift as she wrote. “When I started, I thought part of this would be getting a chance to prove my mother wrong, that transparency was the better approach for all involved. But the more I wrote, in rotating points of view, I couldn’t write from a mother’s perspective and not feel a great deal of empathy.”
Yes, she acknowledged, being a mother plays a role in changing perspective and understanding how Esther came to her decision. “I have no idea what I would do,” Ms. Beanland said. “We’re all capable of actions we would never have thought ourselves capable of.” Here, Esther chose to pretend everything was fine, when, in fact, she had just lost a daughter.
Florence was 19 when she died (although the book says she was 20). “I grew up hearing about it,” Ms. Beanland said. “The way the story came to me decades later wasn’t just about how she died tragically, but more about what a strong woman her mother must have been.”
With Florence’s sister, Fannie, in the hospital on bed rest — she had lost a baby the summer before — the family made the decision not to tell her of her sister’s death. They broke the news only after the baby was born.
In her book, “I took quite a few liberties,” Ms. Beanland said. “My job was to write the best novel I could.” Another goal was to pay tribute to the women in the story.
“Esther was a strong woman — strong to a fault, at all costs. She put so much into pretending that Florence was still alive, keeping her from grieving her death, freezing time.” Her own grandmother was a little girl on the beach when Florence drowned and actually saw what happened, Ms. Beanland added.
Was her whole family so stoic? “I heard they were extremely strong, not big talkers, not gossips. They were deeply committed to their families, and once they made a decision, they went with it. My great-great-grandmother never talked about it again. She put that away. She was deeply affected but it was a subject you didn’t talk about. You do something and move on.”
The author did research on grief “to get a handle on how to write a woman grieving in 1934.” She found more of a similarity to European customs than to American practices. “They had gone through the Victorian era, when women grieved outwardly; but when World War I happened, it required a huge sacrifice. There were so many young men dying, it was not appropriate to draw a lot of attention to yourself when everyone was grieving.
“That had a lot to do with the way we changed outward displays of grief. If you were a woman after the war, you had a stiff upper lip.”
How do we learn the proper way to grieve? “We mirror what we see,” Ms. Beanland said. “I was deeply inspired by my own father’s death and how the family grieved his loss.” There is also a natural instinct to protect those we love from something that would hurt them. But can someone be too protective? Can it backfire? Those are the issues addressed in the book.
“There’s beauty in grief and in seeing families come together to face challenges,” Ms. Beanland said. “This is not an easy subject to write or read about. It’s an impossible question, and we can talk about it from every angle, analyzing Esther’s decision and the reaction to it. But at the end of the day, it’s impossible to know what to say.” While, indeed, the questions are deep, “I intentionally tried to write with a lot of joy,” Ms. Beanland said. “Many people will be pleasantly surprised.”
Who: The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
What: Presents a Sunday of Strong Women
When: Sunday March 21, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Cost: $25 for members/$30 for nonmembers