Therapist Confronts Crisis 

Berkeley psychologist Ellen Pulleyblank Coffey finds strength in survival stories.

When a doctor first told Ellen Pulleyblank Coffey and her husband, Ron, that Ron was suffering from the devastating neurological disease ALS and might die within the year, "we sat like children listening silently. ... We didn't ask any questions because we couldn't believe what we were told. When we left the doctor's office, we walked along a canal near the village in the Netherlands where we were living at the time. It was so peaceful — windmills, thatched cottages, and long open fields running along the water. But this bucolic scene didn't match our terror as we talked and cried, not able to make sense of what we had just heard. ... If we were to believe the doctor's prognosis, then life had betrayed us. Everything that we had expected was gone." Yet she had lived her life until that day "protected and without survival stories, and so I didn't have a map when catastrophe struck me and my family."

Ron lived for seven more years, but died at age 51 in 1993. Coffey is now a Berkeley clinical psychologist specializing in families facing major upheavals. Her book Blowing on the Embers: Stories for Hard Times — which she will discuss at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, March 27 — describes how when disaster strikes us unawares, the survival sagas of our fellow human beings can help carry us through the emotional firestorms. She spent years collecting anecdotes and advice from such survivors as Suraya, an Afghan feminist who has been tortured and imprisoned; Janie, a Catholic nun whose once-successful family was destroyed by addiction; and Florence, a mother of twelve enduring poverty but practicing community on the Lakota Sioux reservation. "Over time," Coffey writes, "I became aware that many people faced tragedy and had a capacity to go on with life even during the hard times. In these life stories there was no great separation between good times and hard times, and I wanted to learn more about ... people who knew more about life than I did." She realized that without embarking on this search and seeking this wisdom, she would be doomed to live in fear and watch so obsessively for all signs of danger as to barely notice even the best moments. 7 p.m.


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