At an elegant literary luncheon, first-time author Carole Geithner offered a rare glimpse into the life of a Washington Cabinet Wife who has made it her mission to speak openly about death and grieving.
While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner struggled to pull the country out of economic free-fall — only to be hammered by Democrats and Republicans in the process — the longtime social worker and bereavement counselor was finishing her first novel.
“If Only,” published earlier this year, is about death, which has been Carole Geithner’s professional focus for the past 20 years, and it opens with a punch to the solar plexus. Corrina Burdette, 13, shows up on the first day of eighth grade certain that once her schoolmates learn her mother died of cancer over the summer, she’ll either become the class “freak” or a “pity project.” Life isn’t much easier at home for this only child living with a grief-stricken father.
Now 50, Geithner was a 25-year-old social work graduate student when her own mother died of cancer, triggering “the sense of the world stopping still for me and the rest of the world continuing on as normal.” People around her didn’t know whether to raise the subject or avoid it entirely.
With its attendant sorrow and ambiguity, losing her mother “gave me an extra ear, if you will, to listen about loss.” whether from divorce, relocation, prison, military service or dementia.
It put her on the path to working with grieving children, pre-teens, adolescents and adults, including a stint in a Westchester County bereavement center when her husband headed the New York Federal Reserve Bank. She helped her young charges use “art projects to express things, games to release tensions… ‘Death Jeopardy’ to answer funny or serious questions” in the safety of a support group of their peers.
When she decided to write a book for kids who couldn’t get such grief counseling — maybe they were too shy, or had parents who didn’t believe in it — she chose a demographic with the fewest literary resources to consult: middle-schoolers who had lost a parent or sibling and who felt profoundly alone and isolated. She also chose fiction, rather than self-help, as a way of incorporating stories she’d come across in two decades of practice.
Geithner explains that she was able to write in an authentically young voice because “my kids were in that age range, I was driving carpool, I was working a lot with that age group in the bereavement center. An advantage of writing in that voice was that it gave me permission to speak from my gut or my heart.”
“If Only” was published in February, and like any first-time author Geithner is happy to continue spreading the gospel of informed grief management whenever possible. On Thursday, she brought it to a Washington luncheon sponsored by the Founding Friends of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which promotes writers and literary outreach.
She told the overwhelmingly-female crowd that she considered publishing under her maiden name, Carole Sonnenfeld, in order to preserve family privacy (her son and daughter are now in college). But she ultimately went with Carole Geithner because having been married for more than half her life, “it would be weird to say I didn’t want to be connected to my husband.”
She has been careful not to use Timothy Geithner’s visible government position to promote the book (the jacket bio states that Geithner “lives with her family in Maryland.”) Her husband has already announced he’ll leave the Treasury Department even if President Obama wins re-election, so there is no telling if the couple will stay around Washington, return to New York or go elsewhere.
Now at work on a second young adult novel, about a multi-generational family with a deep, dark secret, Geithner, a recent empty-nester, is keeping her day job for the next few months. She’s an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine, where she teaches “listening skills” to physicians-in-training. “I am all about the listening. It came from feeling my mother’s doctor wasn’t listening to her.”
After her talk, a number of guests quietly confided their own tales of loss as they had her sign books. When my turn came, I suggested she teach “listening skills” not just to med students but to Washington’s vast population of political windbags and high-decibel bloviators.
Like a good cabinet wife who is a tad wary of the press, she smiled and allowed as how instructing people in all professions to be better listeners would be “incredibly helpful.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post staffer and PoliticsDaily.com correspondent and columnist whose has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country and More. She is at work on a memoir.