I first heard of Sheila Nevins maybe 8 or so years ago. I was working at my first job, in the marketing department of an indie film distribution company. We would occasionally luck out and get the rights to HBO documentaries. My then-boss told me that when it came time for the Emmys and Oscars to listen for Nevins’ name. She was always thanked by the winners—I read that she had sent Joe Berlinger an article about the West Memphis 3 which resulted in Paradise Lost. What a boss.
I wouldn’t realize for some time, though I might have suspected, that Sheila Nevins was a “Barnard gal,” as I lovingly refer to them. To us–Barnard was my alma mater (or “Baaaahnerd,” if you’re using the fake Transatlantic accent I put on when I make statements like that). So imagine my delight when an alumnae email goes out, inviting us all to an on-campus reading by Sheila Nevins (‘BC 60) of her new book of essays. Reader, I attended the fuck out of that event.
Her essay writing is reminiscent of that of many women I admired (and a great deal of them are thanked in the acknowledgments)—Fran Lebowitz, Dorothy Parker, Wendy Wasserstein, Carrie Fisher, Joan Rivers, Nora Ephron. But she is not these women, and I mean that in the most loving way possible. I was taken with the first passage from the book that I heard Nevins read, wherein she makes the transition from “Cosmo to Ms.,” gets woke, so to speak, and begins reading Gloria Steinem and protesting for the Equal Rights Amendment. I was crying when I heard her read it aloud to us, in the lecture hall I had sat in when I first decided to study Film. That essay alone packs more of a punch than the entirety of Season 1 of Mad Men. Trust. She is not the writer these women are, but she is every bit the role model and heroine. She’s the President of a division of HBO and this book of essays is her side hustle.
I will admit that that event was months ago and the intervening stories of her book I felt unraveling each time I tried to get back into them. A great deal of them grapple with topics that seem glib or less relatable in comparison, but that’s what life is. You grow up, you try to stay true to yourself and your passions even as you evolve to fit in with the Manhattanites around you. I love that she didn’t lie to her colleagues about her facelift. I love her candor, her self-awareness. There are moments of pure brilliance, in particular her relationship with aging and death:
“So that’s the secret. I’m angry that it’s almost over, just when I understand I’ve just begun”
She has expressions that take my breath away (including the quote I took this review’s title from). As a reader, I call these “Wuthering Heights” moments. Some struggle to get there, but a beautiful final takeaway supersedes it all. In a poem about a college boyfriend whose mother doesn’t approve of her being Jewish:
“I knew I would never see him again.
He would follow the family game plan,
His mother’s ditto-boy.
Gilbert Stuart long dead, had painted his portrait a hundred years before he was born.
I was a Polaroid then.”
I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the luminaries listed above and would advise that they stick with it. Do not be fooled by the subject matter herein–Nevins is a bulwark when it comes to championing the downtrodden and the few final essays bring it all home:
“People talk of moments that make you change. That determine who you are. This moment was mine. I would realize that I understood people and their suffering, and somewhere, in defending their difference, was a place for me. I had failed once and I wouldn’t fail again.”
I’m left with the impression that one would be excessively lucky to have Nevins in their corner. Go, Woman, go.