Chesler Chronicles

An Elegy For My Friend "Babz," aka Barbara Seaman (1935-2008)

She was so “Broadway,” so “Babz,” she knew everyone in town, she was the one we all went to when we needed to get an obituary into the New York Times, (she never failed), or when someone needed a trustworthy physician, politician, publisher, publicist –or the proverbial shoulder to cry on. Either “Babz” was related to them by blood, by marriage, or through her own work. Or she’d read their work, contacted them, and behold, she could find them for you.

Although I knew her for nearly forty years, I rarely called her “Babz.” Well, maybe I did once or twice, trying it on for size, but I backed down, retreated into something less familial, more respectful. I am writing this hasty elegy to honor Barbara as someone who was especially dear to me. It is a personal reflection and not a formal or historic obituary.

I did not tell her that I loved her. Friends do not always use such language. I should have told her so. Since we go back to 1970-1971, I should have known that something momentous was up. In the last seven months, I noticed that Barbara was not herself. Suddenly, she was very calm and more philosophical than usual. She had a thoughtful, almost stately reserve about her. I should have asked: “What’s going on? Why are you so…weird? ”

Most of all, I should have told her how much her support sustained and blessed me.

Barbara died at 4am today, surrounded by those who loved her. There will be many obituaries for her which will extoll her many books and crusades–she, who has been called “The Ralph Nader of the Birth Control Pill.” Were she here today, we would no doubt laugh, groan, and despair over the fact that what used to be seen as a high compliment might really not be one at all.

Barbara was the most generous feminist I have ever known. Despite countless personal tragedies, including an intermittent childhood “career” in foster care which she rarely mentioned but which appears in a number of biographical sketches which she herself vetted; two painful marriages and divorces (about which I know too much); and despite being censored and therefore economically “fined” due to her heroic and visionary exposure of the pharmaceutical industry, Barbara was unfailingly kind to everyone. She had the wisdom and the temperament to continually mentor younger feminists. More: She remained kind and even supportive to other feminists with whom she may have disagreed.

For this alone, she deserves a posthumous Nobel Prize!

Barbara shared whatever she had. She led other writers to reviewers and to literary agents. (This is quite rare). Barbara was never petty. She envied no one. She was never really angry at anyone. Actually, there are some important exceptions but I will save these stories for another time.

Often, people who know each other for a long time aren’t always sure of where they first met. I believe Barbara and I might have seen each other around town in the late sixties, but we really “met” in 1971 in Washington, D.C. when she waited to speak to me after my lecture about women and psychiatry. Whispering, she said: “Everything you’ve said about how women are used in state asylums as personal maids by the staff is true. I know. My husband is a psychiatrist.”

From that moment on, Barbara supported my work in the area of “women and madness,” which was also the title of my first book. Her personal, political, and informational support was absolutely invaluable. She stood by me when I was attacked for “exaggerating” or even “imagining” the phenomenon of therapist-patient sex and when I was accused of being a “man hater,” even “crazy,” for daring to suggest that bias against women and other biases characterized most psychotherapeutic, psychiatric, and psycho-analytic practice.

It was Barbara who asked me to join her in co-founding the National Women’s Health Network (1974-1975) and due to her beneficent influence, that organization is still up and running. Alas, with her death, only three of the five co-founders remain alive.

Over the years, Barbara and I discussed and sometimes worked on many issues together: rape, health care, battered women, racism, divorce and custody battles, the various meanings of censorship, women’s health, including our reproductive and psychological health–but we also went to the opera, to movies, and to dinner together. She invited me to her conferences and parties and she came to mine.

Three months ago, Barbara attended my beloved son Ariel’s wedding. She was unusually quiet but managed to convey to me her pleasure at this profoundly happy event. (Barbara also chose some of Ariel’s writing for one of her anthologies; you can only imagine how pleased I was by her choice of authors).

Five years ago, Barbara quietly, privately came to my side when I was purged from a feminist listserv group to which we both belonged (I write about this in my book, The Death of Feminism). She told me that she did not want me to feel “cut off, isolated,” that she did not “understand why they kept attacking me.” These attacks pained her. “You are saying the most important things about women under Islam and you are telling the truth about anti-Semitism and Israel.”

In retrospect, I believe that Barbara recognized the high cost of telling the truth (or of telling an unpopular and threatening truth) since she, too had been shut out of many women’s magazines due to the ads that drug companies take in such venues.

She stood alone too–but she also felt nurtured by the huge women’s health movement that she helped to create. She would say: “Phyllis, don’t you think that the feminist health movement is the healthiest wing of feminism?” I would often agree.

Barbara/Babz/Baby: I will miss you every single day. Ordinarily, we would have been on the phone, talking about who had taken ill, and who had just died. But now it’s you, dear one, and I can no longer talk to you in the same way.

Although you were a proud Jew and supported the Jewish state, I know that you were not particularly religious. Thus, please forgive me if I offend you but surely, you deserve to be in Paradise (Gan Eden), as much as you deserve to be re-united with all the women whom we have both loved and lost to death in our own lifetimes.

I don’t think that you’re already organizing a protest movement in Heaven, as was once said right after Bella Abzug died. I think you are already gently advising and supporting others in Heaven; yes, that’s just the sort of thing you’d be doing.

May you rest in peace, may your soul be bound up with The Divine, and may your family and all those who loved you be comforted.

PLEASE NOTE: Barbara Seaman’s Memorial Service will take place on Thursday March 6th, 2008 at the Riverside Memorial Chapel. 180 West 76th St NYC at 5:30pm.