I met with the authors in a small conference room at Conari Press in San Francisco. Small turkey sandwiches and drinks were brought in shortly after we arrived, and later cake was served in honor of Deborah Stephens birthday. The women were richly dressed in suits and heels yet exuded warmth and authenticity. The conversation quickly became easy, sincere and intimate.
Each author has endured extreme challenges of tragic loss of loved ones, professional maltreatment, financial upheaval and, for one, egregious abuse. Each has prevailed over adversity and credits the support found in their commitment and bond with each other.
Each grew up in a less than wealthy and under-educated family. Some parents did not have the opportunity to graduate high school. Living paycheck to paycheck was the norm. Speier, Stephens, Yanehiro and Risley have built companies, lost companies and sold companies. "We've known more wealth than our parents could ever imagine, and we've lost more money than they ever made," they say.
The co-authors have raised babies and teenagers on a bare budget; cared for an ill or dying husband; endured widowhood; miscarriage; a failed adoption; and foster parenthood. Their rise to personal, professional and social success inspires and motivates. "The phrase 'survive and thrive' became a perfect descriptor of our journeys as friends. Together we would navigate through some tricky times," Yanehiro says.
Though Jackie Speier's survival of the Jonestown massacre is renowned, few know the intimate details as she describes them in the book. In her own words, the story becomes real and personal rather a superficial news story. Physical scars left by the experience remain but how Speier emerged psychologically has been strongly enhanced by her support system. Her recount takes on new meaning as Speier came full circle in her November 2008 full-term election. Congresswoman Jackie Speier now fills the seat once occupied by Congressman Leo Ryan.
In 1978, as legal counsel, Jackie Speier joined Congressman Ryan, journalists, cameramen and aides on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports that people were being held against their will in a religious community founded by Reverend Jim Jones in a jungle hideaway in Guyana, South America.
With strong ominous feelings about the operation, Speier put Congressman Ryan's Will and Last Testament and other essential papers in the top drawer of her desk. She got her own affairs in meticulous order and prepared for a trip she felt she may not return from.
When I asked "Why did you go with such a sense of foreboding?"
Speier replied, "To not go would set women back a hundred years." Jackie Speier had worked too hard to rise up within the ranks to follow her own instincts to save her life and throw away the precedent she had established for the American woman.
In the book, Speier fills in details. Upon arrival in Guyana, though Speier was impressed by the appearance of the settlement, she felt uneasy. "I remember looking into the eyes of Jim Jones. I saw madness there. He was no longer the charismatic leader who had lured more than 900 people to a remote commune; he was a man possessed."
After interviews with randomly selected people, NBC news correspondent Don Harris walked off alone to smoke a cigarette. In the darkness, two people approached and slipped notes into his hand indicating that they were being held against their will. The next morning, several more detainees came forward. An additional plane was ordered to return them with the liberators.
Mayhem followed with anger from devotees. Families disintegrated as one parent tried to grab their children to flee the People's Temple while the other demanded they stay. Jones became enraged. One of Jones' aficionados joined those set for departure. Again Jackie sensed foreboding. A journalist patted down the suspect but did not find the gun hidden under his poncho.
As the group approached the airplanes, shots rang out. Some people fled into the bushes. Speier writes: "I dropped to the ground and curled up around the wheel of the plane, pretending to be dead. I heard footsteps. I felt my body twitch as someone pumped bullets into me at point blank range. I was shot five times." When the melee ended, Congressman Ryan, four journalists, a cameraman and others lay dead; some lay wounded.
Twenty-eight year old Jackie Speier lay with ants crawling in the blood in her hair for 22 hours before she was Medivaced to Georgetown, Guyana. One paramedic said Speier was 3 minutes from death when they reached her.
Over 900 men, women and children died in the murder-suicide ordered by Jim Jones.
While Speier lay on the tarmac, she swore that if she survived, she would dedicate her life to public service. Speier has kept that promise. She served 18 years in the California State Legislature rising to Assistant Pro Tem of the State Senate and chair of two committees. April 8, 2008, Speier took office after a special election to determine who would fill the 12th Congressional District seat left vacant by the passing of U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos. Congresswoman Speier took Congressman Ryan's old seat in the House of Representatives. Speier pulled up the chair for a full term with 77 percent of the vote in the November 4th election.
Destiny does not defer to fairness and Guyana was not the last challenge for Speier. She has had wonderful events and opportunities and she has had other tragedies. On her journey to healing Speier connected with the select group of women, and like coffee klatches of generations past, they met to save their sanity and sometimes lives.
The secret to thriving the authors most want revealed is that reality is not always kind, yet we can rise above misfortune, and the task is made easier with compassionate listening and encouragement from women you trust and respect.
"This is Not the Life I Ordered" provides a manual for setting parameters and with formulas for strengthening yourself through the creation of your own network. "Do it today, not someday!" They advise.
"In the book, we cited the statistics from UCLA that women live longer when they participate in a group, and when they don't participate it's dangerous to their health," says Stephens.
Deborah Collins Stephens, cofounder and managing partner of the Center for Innovative Leadership, has authored six books, three of which have been best-sellers: "Maslow on Management, One Size Fits One", and "Revisiting the Human Side of Enterprise."
Stephens credits her ability to break out of the mold set by male counterparts to her grandmother, the blue-haired lady. "Her wealth came in the form of deep religious beliefs and unconditional kindness. She also possessed the tenacity of a bulldog, as she never let the word 'no' stand in her way." Her grandmother believed in Deborah and demanded the best, including a college loan from the local bank without collateral.
Stephens second defining moment came in 1996 when her healthy, stocky and robust husband of 25 years was struck by pain after playing a round of golf. "There were days when his fingers and toes ached so badly that he would dunk them into buckets of ice water to numb the pain."
"After 6 months of medical detective work, Mike was diagnosed with "pulmonary fibrosis, caused by dermatomyositis and polymyositis—words I could neither pronounce nor understand." Doctors advised a lung transplant.
Stephens sat in the doctor's office with tears rolling down her face and wondered "Why can’t I just have a normal life?" Her cell phone ringing interrupted her thoughts. Her daughter's kindergarten teacher wanted to know, "Could I please come and pick up my daughter? She and fifteen of her classmates had head lice."
Mike has outlived the median life expectancy of 5.5 years by 6 years. Deborah Stephens has gleaned lessons from the 11 plus year journey in love, faith, courage, optimism and hope. "The experience has also taught me much about the role of patience and the mysteries in life. Plus, pushing and striving to make things happen as quickly and succinctly as possible."
I commented to the authors that I like the action focus of the wisdom they offer.
Stephens replied, "I don't think I would have been that action-oriented if I didn't have to face these 3 women. There were times when my husband was really ill that I didn't want to do anything. But they would come and get me if I didn't show up and if I didn't move forward."
"I have to tell you a story: So my husband was quite ill. Jan is dropping me off at the trains. She pulls into the bus pad and the buses are coming in and they're honking at her. They look in and see it's Jan Yanehiro and say, oh, it's her and wave hello. She says, that's okay, this is important. They can wait."
Yanehiro: "We sat in the car. Deborah and myself to have a chance to talk. That was important; my conversation with Deborah about her husband who was literally dying, especially when he was given 5.5 years to live. I figure you can wait."
"How is facing 60 for you?" I ask, creeping up on the number myself.
Yanehiro: "I'm lovin' it! I'm lovin' it!"
Risley comments, "She embraces everything."
Yanehiro: "That's the way I wanna live. I've always been a positive person anyway. Let's go after and let's do it. Then I will ask for forgiveness. 'Oh gee, I didn’t know we were standing in your lawn. We're taking up part of your property with our cameras, I am so sorry.'"
"We never did anything to hurt anybody and I never did anything to take advantage of anyone in my career as a broadcaster or in my personal life. But I always wanted to move forward. One of the great lines comes from 'Cheers,' 'Onward!'"
When Yanehiro's husband John was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she said. "No, I don't believe it. John is going to be a miracle. I would do a television story about it."
"John dying at 46 was a real wake up call for me. People say life is short, you hear that all the time. I know that life is short."
In surgery they removed the portion of the brain that governs emotion and behavior. "John fought bravely. 'Don't worry, I'm going to beat this thing.' He died 6 months later."
Diana: "I'm impressed by how you each chose to respond to what had happened to you."
Speier, "Chose, an interesting word."
Yanehiro: "Yeah, Jackie, you were laying on the tarmac and you said, 'If I survive this I will dedicate my life to public service and you did."
Speier: "I'm thinking about Steve more than that. What I did after Steve died. I would not talk to the press about it for a month and I definitely chose to. The thing there was, after a month, they're not interested in talking to you about it." (We all laughed!)
Yanehiro: "I, of course, wanted to talk about it. Maybe being a broadcaster or whatever. First of all, people don't know how to respond to you when they know your spouse is dying or dead or has died. They just don't know what to say."
Stephens: "They think, oh, you'll get over it."
Yanehiro: "Or they're thinking I know exactly how you feel, my great aunt twice removed on my cousin's side and she was 101, and …"
"I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to say this is the truth. Dave Mc Elhaton, San Francisco broadcaster, called when John died and said, 'I'm going to mention it on television. Do you mind?' I said not at all. He said, 'Do you have anything you want me to say?' I said, all I want you to say is what he died from because people are wondering. Gee, aids, suicide? I want people to know the truth. I said that's my only request. The truth is what we can say."
Jan Yanehiro pioneered the magazine format on television as co-host of "Evening Magazine," a nightly program in San Francisco for 1976 to 1990. She hosted "Everyday Angels" on Comcast Cable TV and served as the Executive Producer of "Pacific Fusion TV." Her documentary, "Resettlement to Redress," examines the resettlement of Japanese Americans after WWII and won an apology from the US government regarding internment. July 2008, She became Director of Multimedia Communications school of the Academy of Art University
Risley credits the safe environment of the group and respect for truth-telling as essential to her healing. "I tell in my story in the book, I think that being able to speak – I was sexually abused – there's something about saying that, that becomes very freeing. Because, before when I would speak, I would get so many repercussions within the family that it stopped me from speaking. And so I finally just let go."
"As a child, I became an expert at hide and seek. I hid my light so no one would notice and hurt me." At the age of 12, she told her mother, "I want to be a writer," and promptly went out to the corner store and purchased a notepad. As an adult, Risley had built a successful career, but like a child in a swimsuit at the edge of the pool, "I was still standing at the edge waiting to jump in."
When Risley began to speak out about sexual molestation she had experienced as a child by her father, she faced down outrage and disbelief by family members. Then, as her father lay dying in a hospital bed, in order to free herself and him, she forgave the unforgivable. "Though he lay in a coma, I felt his body ease and mine did too."
Empowered by her actions, Michealene Cristini Risley produced, directed and funded the short film "Flashcards." The movie includes stories about the epidemic of childhood sexual abuse. It won Best Cinematography at the California Independent Film Festival; Best Short Film at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. The film also screened at the Cannes Film Festival "Shorts Du Jour." "Flashcards" is currently being distributed by American Public Television on PBS stations.
A bargain for life, a blue-haired lady, unrelenting optimism, and unfathomable forgiveness led four friends to write a manual for women to achieve victory over adversity. Jan Yanehiro, Deborah Collins Stephens, Michealene Cristini Risley, and Jackie Speier radiate confidence, success and peace within. They also possess the compassion, and generosity to render dignity without arrogance or judgment as they encourage women to launch their own group. Venues where the authors have helped start groups include work sites, universities and women's prisons. On the book's website, the authors invite you to read other stories and to post your own.
Diana deRegnier writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her articles appear in websites, wires and print publications around the world.