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Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Very Successful Women

by Ellen Daniell

Every Other Thursday by Ellen Daniell is published by Yale University Press, 2006.
This excerpt is reproduced with permission of the publisher.

June 2007


Editor’s note: A friend sent me the book Every Other Thursday and I wanted to share it with
STATUS readers. At first, the idea of a “consciousness- raising group” seemed very 70s. I
then began to realize that the Group that Ellen Daniell describes is a really wonderful thing—
perhaps not for everyone—but invaluable for some. If this introductory chapter appeals to
you, then I recommend picking up this fabulous little book.

It’s a Thursday evening in November and my turn to host Group! I leave work in time
to stop at a deli on the way home. I wish I had time to cook, the way Helen does, but she’s
retired and I’m not … yet … so the deli it is. I lay a fire; that at least is a homey touch. I try to slow
down a little, to think about what I want to talk about this evening, wishing I had reserved a few
minutes to write some thoughts in my notebook. I have resolved to do advance preparation for my
Group work, but I don’t stick to my resolve as often as I’d like.

In addition to the pleasure of entertaining these women, I relish having Group at my house
because of the luxury of not having to drive home afterward. The meetings often run until
midnight, and I always feel a conflict between the dread of being exhausted the next day and
my enjoyment of the discussion and laughter.

I put water to boil and get out tea and coffee. Do I need regular coffee for anyone? No, even the last holdouts have turned to decaffeinated beverages in the evening. The doorbell rings at 7:30, and Suzanne is on the doorstep, tall, red-haired, and elegant. “Hi. I allowed extra time in case traffic was bad, but it wasn’t!” These
moments before the meeting begins are a time to catch up on news with the early arrivers, before
the structured work begins. I pull her into the kitchen while I continue to organize. “How are
you? How is the family?” As usual, Suzanne’s face lights up as she talks about her husband and
children. “Maria is applying to colleges in the East, and I’m already thinking about how much
I’m going to miss her.” Maria is the youngest among the children of Group members, the
last Group kid at home. The news continues.“Kit’s fine. He just sent a wonderful e-mail from
Mongolia, but I worry about him anyway. Arthur and Nancy are having a rough time looking for
two academic jobs in the same place.”

Christine arrives next. I hadn’t been sure she was coming. She’s missed several recent
meetings owing to a complicated travel schedule, so I’m especially delighted to see her. I also
crave reassurance that she is well, because it has been only a few months since she completed
chemotherapy for breast cancer. I give her an enthusiastic hug. The doorbell rings again; Judith,
Helen, and Mimi have carpooled from Berkeley.

Mimi’s waist-length hair is damp; she has squeezed in a run with a colleague after work. “I’m
impressed,” I say; “you’re doing the important things to take care of your body.” “How was
your trip?” asks Helen, always the best at keepingtrack of what we’re all doing. “The time with my
mother was great,” I answer, adding a few less enthusiastic words about the business part of
the trip. I’m trying to talk to everyone at once, pouting with Judith that we haven’t managed to
schedule a walk together in a month of trying. “We’ll do it after Thanksgiving,” she promises.

Only Carol is missing, but she had called earlier to say she might he late. I’m facilitator as
well as host, so it’s my responsibility to get the meeting started at eight. I start pouring coffee as
a signal to begin. Everyone chooses a seat, paying attention to their back needs. Helen sits on the
floor. Judith chooses the sofa. Christine joins her, then thinks better of it and takes the antique
wooden rocker. I bring straight-backed chairs from the dining room for Suzanne and me. People
get out their notebooks. There is preliminary chatter: “Do you have some paper’~ I forgot my
notebook.” “I need a pen or pencil.” “Who wants tea, who wants coffee?” “It is decaf isn’t it?”

“Let’s get started.” I take my notebook out and call us to order. “Does anyone have any feelings
they’d like to share?” Suzanne responds, “I’m exhausted and glad I made it.” Mimi confesses,
“I want to sleep.” I offer, “Shall we go straight to strokes and food?” Then I say seriously, “I’m so
happy that everyone is here.”

“Who would like to work?” I ask. Each person in the circle states how much time she would
like. I make notations: Mimi, fifteen minutes; Christine, ten minutes; etc. Tonight everyone
asks for ten or fifteen minutes, suggesting that we all have issues to work on, but perhaps not terribly
heavy ones. Probably everyone is recognizing the time constraints suggested by having a full
Group. When fewer members attend, we miss the wisdom of those who are absent, but we can be
more relaxed about time without fear of running too late. Tonight, as facilitator, I’ll have to pay
particular attention to letting each person know when her requested time is up.

Carol arrives at 8:05. “I’m sorry. I had a student committee that didn’t end until seven.”
She sinks into the remaining spot on the sofa with a sigh. “We’ve just finished saying how
much time we want. Do you want to work?” She shrugs, “Oh, I don’t know. I guess ten minutes.”
By the time Carol joined Group, the rest of us had been together over ten years and had gotten
a little lax about keeping to time, so she never has developed the habit of trying to estimate her
time. She is also the only one who doesn’t keep a notebook to record thoughts and contracts.

I look around the room and get a rush of appreciation. I feel better about myself in the
presence of these women, and I expect that in the course of the evening I will feel more in charge
of my life and will gain clarity about the issues I plan to raise. We have been meeting for twenty
years, yet every meeting is an adventure. I’ll learn something new about life, or myself, or a facet of
someone’s character, or all of the above.

Next I ask, “Who wants to work first?” I try to catch someone’s eye and chuckle as people
suddenly begin to study their feet or gaze into the fire to avoid starting. But tonight Suzanne
says, “I can go first.” Everyone sits up a little and looks at her. “I’m having the winter blues. 1 am
worried about all things. I’m actually very happy in the lab, and good things are happening, but the
soft money problem is really bothering me. I feel like I’m up for tenure every year forever.” (As an
investigator in a “soft money” institution, Suzanne has to write grant requests to cover her own salary,
in contrast to university faculty, who have nine months of their salary paid by the institution.)

With this background about her general state of mind, Suzanne moves on to a specific
issue. A message from her former postdoctoral adviser telling her that she is “one of the best
of her generation of scientists” in their field has produced anger instead of the delight that
seems to be the expected response to such a compliment. “Why did he never give me
encouragement when I was young, struggling, and in much greater need of it?” We all understand
the dilemma, because Suzanne has worked on her complicated professional relationship with
this man before. Someone validates her response, saying it’s appropriate to be angry with a mentor
who withholds deserved praise. “Now that he has come through, you realize how much he has
been with-holding.” Several people suggest ways Suzanne might respond; she decides she’d like to
tell him, “It would have helped me enormously if you had said that earlier.” Glancing at my watch,
I realize I’ve been so engrossed in the discussion that we’ve gone over the fifteen minutes Suzanne
requested. “Your time is up; would you like more time?” Suzanne thinks and shakes her head, “No,
this has been helpful, and I’m done.” Instead of moving on, I say one more thing. “While you’re
dealing with these reactions, don’t forget to take some pride and pleasure in the fact that he feels
that way.” She agrees, but without enthusiasm. She may appreciate his compliment in the future,
when she has dealt with her resentment, but not yet. Judith and Helen have another item, in
response to Suzanne’s blues, which she’s suffered from in other years. They have read of indoor
lamps that are supposed to combat depression arising from insufficient daylight. She agrees to
look into the product.

“I’ll go next, before I get too tired,” Mimi says. “I have one more lecture to go in my big
Every Other Thursday continued from page course. After that I can work on my minicontract
from last time to get down to choosing anti-stress strategies.” In the previous meeting
she had told us about attending a workshop on dealing with stress, and someone had suggested
the affirmation “Life’s events happen. How we feel about it is up to us.” Mimi goes on: “I feel
incompetent because I’m so unable to cope, unable to keep up with all the demands that are
made on me day after day. I’m focusing only on the people and things that are mad at me, so I’m
surprised when someone isn’t. Yesterday someone did something nice to help me out and I burst
into tears.” She ends her work by reaffirming the contract about strategies to reduce stress, and
adds, referring to her upcoming sabbatical, “I’m hanging on until we go away in January.”

Judith, connecting with Mimi’s work on stress and overload, asks to go next. “I have been saying
no to invitations and requests, creating space in my life. Now I’m compulsively filling up the
space, dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I’m falling back on old habits. My need to be somebody is tied up
in work, and work feels empty.” She sees younger scientists going through the anxiety and pressure
to produce that she once experienced, and she feels exhausted, somehow still caught up in those
pressures, even though she thought she had gone beyond them. Moving on to other difficult work,
she says, “I often feel like my feelings are frozen. I have so many ways of avoiding getting through
to my feelings.” She makes a list: “raging, going numb, working insanely hard.” Then she
exclaims, “I’m stuck. Stuck in Group, stuck in life, stuck, stuck, stuck!” There’s a pause. No one
is sure how to help. Mimi breaks the ice with,“I’m depressed, Suzanne’s frantic, and Judith’s
STUCK.” The laughter feels good, and Judith gets unstuck enough to proceed. “I’m frantic
about filling the gaps I’ve created.” For the short term she proposes, “I will do nothing for an hour
a day and watch what comes up.” She articulates a more long-term contract, too: “I will honor my
battle.” Helen adds a suggestion: “Learn to love your gaps.”

I look at Carol, Christine, and Helen to see who’s interested in going next, and Christine
speaks up. “I’m in meltdown. I’ve been trying to work on my organizational skills and my therapist
said, ‘You don’t need any more organizational skills, you need time to organize.’ I have plenty
of help [in the lab, in her home]. I need to take time to tell them what to do.” I think what a
wonderful raconteur Christine is, as she describes a scene from her life as a metaphor. “John and I
figured out a schedule for our lives over the next six months. We figured out how to do it
on the computer, we finally got it done, and the computer crashed and erased it all. I feel like I’ve
surrendered to a higher power.” Getting down to specifics, she makes a contract to make time
for necessary discussions with staff and students. Looking at her watch before I check mine,
she says she’s finished and adds with dramatic portent, “But this work will continue.”

Carol says, “I want to talk about some emotional issues, and I’m amused that I’m not talking
about all the lab problems. I meant to, but I figured out the most critical answers as I was planning
how to tell you about them.” She talks a little about family issues. Her mother, Mollie, aged eightyfive,
moved in with her in the early summer, and they are getting used to each other. “Mom has to
have things a certain way, and she has to organize everyone to help it be that way. I, in contrast, will
never organize other people.” Carol, reflecting on how Mollie’s style differed from that of Carol’s
husband, muses, “He also wanted things just so, but he would do them himself, not in a compulsive
way, and it became fun to do them together.” Carol doesn’t really want feedback on this. She’s
using Group to voice explanations and emotions she’s working out for herself.

Carol turns to the specter of the upcoming lectures she will have to give as part of “BioReg”
(Biological Regulatory Mechanisms), a legendary course at the University of California at San
Francisco taught by a team of high-powered faculty. “I still feel like the new kid on the block.
This course demands perfection that I can’t deliver.” Christine, for whom poor teaching evaluations
in that course were a major source of angst and depression in the past, is approaching
the course in a different way. “I’m using it to think about science broadly and my science in
particular. It’s a totally different attitude, not terror.” For Carol, it helps just to hear how hard
it was for Christine and how lecturing, once difficult for all of us, had become easier with
time. Also, she tells us later, describing her fears helped her organize in her mind what she needs
to do to prepare.

Helen reports that she has new hearing aids.“They are wonderful, and Health Net Senior
Services paid for it all. I’m already hearing the difference.” We all feel relieved, knowing
that the old devices had been uncomfortable and that Helen had feared the higher cost of
new technology. She has been thinking about her fears. “I spend time being fearful, but also
time being fearless. Sometimes I don’t speak out because of being fearful, but at other times
because it feels right to be in the background.” Encouraged by Group to define the fears, she
listed “fear of saying something inappropriate, fear of not having enough money (but I have also
taken risks with regard to money), fear of not marrying again [she pauses to question whether
that is really a fear], fear of Death.” Then she listed the brave things she had done: “adopting
children, leaving my husband, buying a house alone, quitting my job.” She’s been enjoying her
first grandchild, and her face becomes even more animated as she tells us about Salina. “She’s
learned to talk now and loves to sing. Yesterday I listened to her belt out a song, and with a little
difficulty figured out it was ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ It’s from Lion King. She probably
doesn’t have any idea what the words mean, but she has the video and she can sing it! I laughed
and laughed.”

I go last, as the facilitator usually does, asking that someone else keep track of my time. I am
planning to quit my job, which has created a problem. “Now that I know I’m going to leave
Roche, I’ve become extremely impatient with its shortcomings.” Letting loose the feelings I have
been suppressing, I rant about “idiotic decisions and choices.” I’m concerned that my irritation
will show and prevent me from accomplishing what I want to before I leave. Most of my
work involves patient compromise with managers in other parts of the company and skillful
negotiation with outsiders. I’m good at it because I usually stay calm and laugh a little. “I think
I’m losing it.” Everyone agrees that my response to the situation is natural. “You now have the
luxury of being pissed. You can’t let yourself be that pissed off at a place until you know you are
not going to stay there.” Someone adds, “You’re evolving—or maybe revolving—out the revolving
door.” I go on to talk about other sources of preretirement anxiety, admitting that I feared not
having external approval for my achievements. More immediately, I am worried about telling my
terrific boss that I’m retiring. I’m not planning to do it for several months, but I’m already anxious.
Group advises that I dedicate time to the details, considering the best and worst things that could
happen. My contract is, “I will write the ‘quitting’ scene as a play and imagine it exactly as I would
like it to go.” This kind of role playing has been useful in the past.

Judith says, “Your time is up.” I nod, return to my facilitator role, and ask, “Time for strokes
and wine?” Everyone pitches in to slice bread, open wine, pour water. We are easy with one
another in the kitchen, and this preparation is the transition into the less formal part of the evening.
I have set the table with heirloom china that my mother has recently given me, reminding Group
of its special significance. We sit down, talking about this and that, filling our plates and glasses.
After ten minutes, Judith says, “I have a stroke for Suzanne.” Everyone quiets down. Suzanne looks
attentively at Judith, preparing to accept the stroke. “You confronted the complicated feelings
that compliment aroused in you instead of feeling guilty that you weren’t just proud and pleased.”
Suzanne says simply, “Thank you.” This is the best way to respond to a stroke, although we may
sometimes add a few words, as long as they are positive. Helen has a stroke for Mimi, “about
recognizing and appreciating the helpfulness of others in the midst of your stress.” Mimi looks
surprised, and I wonder if she’s thinking of protesting, but she follows good-stroke etiquette
and does not demur. I give Christine a stroke “for the way you tell a story and make us laugh while
getting right to the heart of things.” Suzanne says, “I have a stroke for Carol, for the care and
attention you are giving to establishing your life with your mother.” Christine follows up on
that: “I have a corollary stroke. That you are taking care of yourself and considering your own
feelings as well as Mollie’s.” Carol beams and nods, absorbing the appreciation. Judith says, “A
stroke for Helen for her feedback about learning to love my gaps,” and then, with a mischievous
look, “and a visual stroke for Ellen.” I sit up straight and try not to preen. “For how you look
tonight. Those earrings are gorgeous with your hair, and you look elegant and comfortable.”
I thank her and reflect on how good everyone looks to me. Lots of gray hair in varying styles,
laugh lines intensifying by the year, and a sense of forthrightness. Stroke etiquette prohibits a
response in the vein of, “Oh but not as beautiful as everyone else,” and I focus silently on my sense
of pleasure and comfort.

We slip back to general talk about our lives, families, and mutual friends, punctuated with
an occasional remembered stroke. Mimi gives me one about a walk we took recently, “busting
ass” on steep trails as I asked her questions about her research. She beat me to the punch with that
stroke; it was a wonderful walk, and I respond that I was astonished and impressed how clearly
she explained unfamiliar science to me. And so on. Judith says regretfully, “I’ve really got to go.
Tomorrow morning is looking awfully close.” “Ouch,” says Christine. “Me too.” Everyone
checks her watch and sighs. There is great attention to hugs all around and a few promises
to call with information or to set up a date for a lunch or a walk. Carol and Suzanne get into a
conversation while we’re clearing the table and stay a little longer than the others. I load the
dishwasher, turn off the porch lights when the last car has pulled out, and sit for a moment with
the last of my wine. I’m rejuvenated, full of new ideas, more confident, and weary.

Group Is...

  • Women who came together to discuss professional concerns and have become confidantes and friends, continuing to meet for more than twenty years.
  • Commitment to cooperative action in a competitive world.
  • A forum for professional problem solving.
  • A sounding board, a reference point, a source of perspective and challenge to comfortably held views. “’What would Group say?”
  • A meeting every other week, a session to be scheduled, a calendar priority. “Are you going to Group Thursday?”
  • A source of personal enrichment, acknowledgment and enhancement of personal power, an arena in which to recognize and renew our authentic selves.
  • A celebration of life, letting it all in. “I can hardly wait to tell Group.”
  • Solace, a lifeline, a place where we can expect any fear or weakness to be met with compassion and where we are committed to compassion for others.
  • A chance to help one another, to offer opinions and share experiences.
  • Twenty-four years of history, influenced by former members who have contributed to its conception, organization, and evolution.
  • Hard work … hearty laughter … welcome home.

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