When October Goes: My Day with Leah Schaefer

by Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE
Dr. Leah Schaefer

Last October 29th, 2007, I had the experience of a lifetime.  It was a crisp, clear fall day that reminded me of a Johnny Mercer song entitled When October Goes.  This beautiful minor-keyed ballad paints a masterpiece of breathtaking fall scenery and the mournful longing for a moment of time that you'd like to relive again-and the accompanying realization that it's gone forever except for the memory.  

It was the week before the Pittsburgh conference.  About three months previously, I heard about an NCFR member who has been in the organization for 50 years.  I found out about Leah Schaefer in a roundabout way, and we talked several times by phone.  With every conversation, this woman fascinated me more and more.  She is a pioneer and legend in the field of sexuality research and therapy.  She's also a new beloved friend.  I'd like to tell you about her.

Leah Cahan Schaefer joined NCFR in 1957 while she was a graduate student at Columbia University.   She's 87 and doesn't mind if I say so. Her doctoral research was an in-depth study of the Sexual Experiences and Reactions of a Group of 30 Women as told to a Female Psychotherapist.  She offered to send me her 1964 dissertation.  I didn't know what to say except "great!"  I tried to sound enthusiastic.  But in my experience, doctoral dissertations are usually difficult reading, uninteresting reading, or both.  However, from her description of the research, it held promise for this short-attention-spanned reader.  I knew I would benefit intellectually.  I knew next to nothing about sexuality science beyond the Family Life Educator generalist level. 

The dissertation arrived, and I cracked it that evening.  I flew through it in about three days. 

Leah studied sexuality when it was virtually taboo.  Women didn't have sexuality in the 1950s. If they did, they didn't talk about it.  TV couples had twin beds.  Ozzie and Harriet's sons arrived, apparently, via parthenogenesis.  Under June Cleaver's shirtwaist dresses, she wore a stiff crinoline slip. The Cleavers' on-screen chemistry implied that its function was not so much a fashionable undergarment for flaring her skirts-it looked like an ingenious baffle for Ward.  Given the Zeitgeist, it might as well have been razor wire. 

Leah's courageous dissertation cut through the crinoline. She gave voice to the most intimate feelings of her research subjects with absolute respect and clinical precision.  In her own words from her dissertation, "throughout the study the researcher has attempted to deal with emotionally-charged, taboo material with dignity and to present the findings without bowdlerising and with in the purlieu of good taste.  It's quite likely that her ability to access these women's most closely-held private thoughts and memories was that she listened woman to woman.  Up until Leah's study, women's sexuality was studied almost entirely by men.  And Leah's study was also the first to use in-depth interviews to uncover this candid, engrossing and enlightening data.  Let me quote from the introduction:

Sex can be used in countless ways to achieve countless ends, and the infinite variety of ways in which a woman expresses herself sexually have an infinite variety of meanings-gross and exquisite.  Sex can be used by women-as well as men-for self-enhancement or for degradation, to achieve closeness with another individual or to alienate, to build and enrich family life-or even to demolish it.  Sex can be used as a gambit in an interpersonal power struggle, or for the most profound physical expression of human love and understanding.

See what I mean?  I was hooked.  I had to meet this woman. 

Leah lives on Manhattan Island.  I am a Minnesota gal who was scared to death to venture into New York City alone for the first time.  I decided that I could borrow some of Leah's courage-but I might have to borrow on my Visa card as well. New York is not a cheap visit, and it wasn't in the family budget.  Then I realized that, in November, I would already be as far east as Pittsburgh for the conference.  Could I turn it into a side trip?  I had to.  I knew if I passed it up, I would regret it. 

The term "Renaissance person" is now such a hackneyed phrase that even high school essayists won't use it.  But in Leah's case, this tired old cliché comes alive again.  Let's begin Leah's story with what doesn't appear on her vita.  Before her family science career, "Lee" (as she was known then) was a professional singer and recording artist.  Leah graduated from high school at 16.  She went straight to college and double majored in music and music education, graduating at age 19. 

After graduation, she joined a singing group in the Chicago area. This large ensemble, the "Vochestra" sang on Chicago's CBS radio affiliate. For historical perspective-just  a reminder-there was no TV in 1939.  There were only vacuum tube radios that took a minute to "warm up."  One day, a producer named Bill Bunt needed a girls' trio to sing part of the program.  He pointed to three singers who were obviously his best female vocalists in the group-saying "you, you and you."  Leah and friends Sharon and Linda were picked.  They called themselves the "Barries."  Leah's group and their radio show were the equivalent of today's MTV, and she was the Beyonce Knowles of her day.   She was indeed Destiny's Child.

The Barries sang on the radio, but word spread quickly beyond the ionosphere.  Soon they were playing gigs at theatres.  Leah was careful to explain to me what "theatre" meant back then.  They were movie theatres.  This doesn't happen today, but back in the day, floorshows were de rigueur in movie houses.  Between reels, the projectionists needed a while to reload, and there was some downtime.  Singers and other kinds of acts entertained the would-be restless patrons.   Word spread among theatre owners, and job offers came in from all over the country.  Then they got a permanent show of their own on WHK radio in Cleveland.  After one of their 45 minute radio shows, she was called to the phone-someone wanted to talk to a member of the trio.  This had never happened before.

"Hello. This is Johnny Mercer, and I think you are wonderful!" the caller said. (Yes, that Johnny Mercer, the aforementioned legendary composer/lyricist who wrote the lyrics to Moon River and the Days of Wine and Roses, just to name a couple of tunes.) 

"Oh, really?  This is Greta Garbo,"  Leah quipped.  She thought it was a crank call.

 It took some convincing, but eventually Leah realized that she was talking to the real Johnny Mercer.  Mercer was in the Cleveland area and heard the trio on his car radio.  He said he loved their sound and told her that he was starting a record company in Los Angeles.  "We would like to have you record for our company" he said.  Leah and the Barries were some of the first artists who recorded at what became Capitol Records.  She played one of her solo recordings for me.  Her warm, dusky, rich voice is reminiscent of Rosemary Clooney-only better, in my opinion-quite an admission for a Rosie fan.  Leah says she would like to sound more like K.D. Lang.  

In her late 20s, the Barries disbanded.  The world was changing for singers.  Television was emerging, competing with radio.  Families did not have to go to movie theatres anymore for entertainment.  About the same time, her father, whom she cherished, died of cancer. She was bereft.  The grief was paralyzing.  She quit singing-in fact, she had to quit working.  She descended into a deep depression that lasted about two years.  She survived on unemployment benefits.  When they ran out, she scrounged up some typing jobs for scriptwriters-she could type 125 words a minute.  Other than rote typing jobs, she could not cope and had to sponge off the hospitality of friends.  She described a typical day; she would wake up at a friend's place with good intentions for a day of job-hunting.  It took hours to get dressed and pull herself together.  By the time she was ready to head out the door, it was late afternoon-too late to visit employers and move ahead.  She would return "home," without any job prospects, day after day-month after month.

Then one day, while pounding the pavement, she glanced at a shop window and caught her reflection in the glass.  It startled her to her core.  While she could see her body clearly, her face appeared blurry.  She couldn't see her own facial features.  "I've lost my identity," she thought.  Leah knew that her survival depended on getting help.  She contacted a therapist.  During the therapeutic process, her depression lifted and a new life purpose appeared. She knew she didn't want to live a commercial singer's life anymore-"a life that required youth and good looks," because she knew that this wouldn't be the basis for a lasting career. Dr. Alexander Wolf and her fellow group therapy clients pointed out that she had an unusual knack for understanding psychology and human development.  They encouraged her to pursue this as a career.  She went back to graduate school.  She was determined to make it.

It was in graduate school where she found a mentor whose name is a familiar one in NCFR-Dr. Ernest "Lank" Osborne.  The NCFR award bearing his name is conferred on a family studies professor with outstanding teaching skills-something Dr. Osborne was famous for.  Dr. Osborne took a special interest in Leah and recognized her potential.  He became her dissertation adviser.  In the late 50s, between Rosie the Riveter and Betty Friedan, Dr. Osborne was already a feminist.  He supported her academically and encouraged her to pursue her women's sexuality research interest-a controversial move for an adviser and a student back then. Leah described how he was "way ahead of his time." During her doctoral program, Leah was married and her precious daughter Katie was born.  Dr. Osborne urged her to stay in school and expressed complete confidence in her ability to manage her multiple roles.

Then, in the final months of preparing for her dissertation defense, Dr. Osborne died unexpectedly.  A new adviser and her committee members (one of whom was Margaret Mead) saw Leah through to complete her doctorate.  But no one ever replaced Lank in her heart.  Leah is still in awe of him.  She said that although NCFR has memorialized him in an award, he died so young and over 40 years ago.  There are probably few NCFR members who remember him well.  She was concerned that in the future, recipients of the award would be unaware of the true meaning of the distinction.  "I need to get something in writing," said Leah, "that explains just how special he was."  Leah's tribute to her mentor appears in this issue of Report.

After graduate school, she secured her psychotherapy credentials and began her career as a psychotherapist.  She had a successful practice established, but one day she got another fateful phone call-this time from a colleague, Wardell Pomeroy.  Dr. Pomeroy, one of the coauthors of the Kinsey Studies, was working in a new field within sexuality.  He was the therapist who assessed clients for true transsexualism.  Dr. Harry Benjamin, M.D., was the physician who pioneered the use of hormones to help clients begin their transsexual journey.  Dr. Pomeroy worked with these clients before their medical interventions to help them make the transition psychologically and interpersonally. 

Again, Leah's "voice" was chosen. Wardell Pomeroy told her that the most important qualification for helping gender dysphoric clients was the ability to be non-judgmental-and she had the gift.  She was Dr. Pomeroy's hand-picked colleague to whom he wished to transfer his practice as he made plans to move his work to San Francisco. Leah worked with him, seeing clients together for two years.  Then she began her pioneering specialty of gender dysphoria therapy.  She is considered one of the field's foremost authorities in this area.  Her vita is enormous and impressive, with distinctions such as former President (and first woman President) of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.  She still sees clients today.  And she's still thinking about how the field should develop.  She takes issue with the terms "gender dysphoria" or "gender identity disorder" in referring to these individuals' circumstances.  She feels that it's pejorative and inaccurate to classify this condition as a pathology.  In her professional opinion, most of the presenting problems they have stem from the stigmatization they suffer.  She believes that transsexualism is a birth anomaly and maintains, as do a growing number of scientists, that transsexualism is a naturally-occurring variation in humans and is part of a person's inborn psyche.  The DSM V is currently in development-this is one of the classifications now undergoing active debate for revision.  

As she developed her therapy practice, Leah began singing again, recording an album, A Girl and a Guitar, with a very popular jazz guitarist Jim Hall.  She also formed a folk singing group called "The Wayfarers" and made some recordings with them as well.  Psychotherapy gradually replaced music as her life's focus.  I couldn't stop wondering, though, if she still had it in her.

Near the end of our visit, I asked her if she still did any singing.  "No," she said wistfully.   I just had to hear it for myself.  I started to sing a classic WWII era ballad, "I'll be Seeing You," which I knew she would know.  I started singing the melody, and she jumped in with a perfect alto part with no advance notice.

I spent five hours with Leah.  I wish it could've been five days.  See a pattern here?  Bill Bunt at CBS picked her.  Johnny Mercer picked her.  Ernest Osborne picked her. Wardell Pomeroy picked her.  And this amateur biographer picked her.  Lots of people have charisma. But most of the time, once you scratch the veneer, it's a disappointment.  I've just come to expect it.  With Leah, the depth-well I haven't hit bottom yet.

Back to October 29; my day with Leah was ending.  It was time to go.  Leah called me a cab and walked me to the door.  The cab arrived way too soon.  She kissed me, hugged me, and stuffed $24 in my hand for cab fare.  I rushed to the double-parked taxi, fighting back tears.  The cabby broke the spell with a Lennie Briscoe-accented "where ya goin'?" 

"To the PATH station at Ground Zero," I said.  I made some Wobegon small talk and then I added, "You know that lady who just put me in this cab?  She's a world-famous scientist." 

"No kidding." the cabby answered.  Then, in the most brilliant example of a non-verbal "you are dull" message, he turned up the radio. The cosmic weirdness, though, is that 60 years ago, when cabbies turned up the radio to drown-out a boring Minnesota tourist like me, it could've easily been her voice they were straining to hear instead.

A couple of weeks after my trip to New York and Pennsylvania, my new friend called one Saturday and we talked at length.  I laughed as I told her that one of my suitcases was still not completely unpacked.  She was quick to observe that I had just told her that the trip was one of the most meaningful of my life.  She suggested that there may be a reason I was dragging my feet.  It could mean that the trip is over.  Her insight as a therapist was stunning.  She nailed me.  Armed with this new realization, I took my time. I still haven't removed the barcode airline tags from my luggage handles.

How many NCFR members have been with us for 50 years?  According to Cindy Winter, our office historian, there are just a handful.  Leah's gift of written reminiscences of Dr. Osborne ensures that we'll always remember what outstanding teaching and mentorship is all about.

Leah Cahan Schaefer, you are a song. I may never get to Manhattan again, but I'll be seeing you.  In fact," I'll see you in the sunlight, and when the night is new.  I'll be looking at the moon.  But I'll be seeing you."

Share your thoughts

I was a patient of Leah for many years, starting in the late 1970s, and it saddens me deeply to hear of her passing. She always treated me with dignity and respect in a time when TSs had no such luxury. I will always remember her fondly. -Paula M-

I was blessed to know Dr. Leah Schaefer and her family.
She is now a shining star in heaven. She touched my life in so many ways and I cherish her guidance and compasion.
My condolences and thoughts are with Katie and family.
G. Goldberg

One of the loveliest and most telling stories I have ever read. Dr. Schaefer used her beautiful voice to delight, to entertain, and to heal with wisdom and compassion. I am but one of thousands who are indebted to Leah Cahan Schaefer, and to her niece Randi. May God bless you both, and remain with each of you, always. Love, Morgan

Leah was the kindest person I ever met. She changed my life, and I will carry her in my heart as long as I live. She took me into her home and loved me like a son. I owe much of the man I am today to Leah's influence. She was a mentor and a friend. When I met Leah I was a college drop out delivering packages. Years later I found myself with a Master's degree and a career. Leah, Thomas and Katie will always be part of my family.