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A life less ordinary

November 30, 2012

SUSAN Jeffers, who has died aged 74 of cancer, was the author of the 1986 self-help book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Initially rejected by numerous publishers, the book went on to sell an estimated 15 million copies in some 100 countries and spawned a mini-industry of workshops and merchandise.

Jeffers published 17 more books in a similar vein, and drew candidly on hard-ships in her own life, which included divorce and breast cancer, for inspiration; when she urged her readers to face their fears and shake up and improve their lives, they knew that she was writing from personal experience.

One of the groundbreaking aspects of Feel the Fear was that, unlike many self-help books then and since, it did not maintain that love and a relationship should be a woman’s primary aspiration, instead arguing that women had to learn to stand on their own two feet and be self-determining.

Jeffers did eventually add Feel the Fear Guide to Lasting Love (2005) to the canon, but her message was always that self-love and self-confidence came first.

Some have regarded the book as a feminist work, but Jeffers always said she wrote for both men and women, and was encouraged by the fact that her mail and the participants in her workshops always included a significant number of men.

The book became the framework for courses run initially by herself but now by accredited trainers all over the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe.

The other books that followed included End the Struggle and Dance With Life (1996), Feel the Fear ... and Beyond (2000), Embracing Uncertainty (2003) and Life Is Huge! (2004).

She was born Susan Jane Gildenberg in New York to Jewish parents, and raised in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Her father, Leon, a pharmacy owner, and her mother Jeanne, a housewife, were, she later said, “unadventurous”: “Be grateful to your parents for teaching you the things you don’t want to be.” At 18 she married and quickly had two children, but it was, by her own account, too early and to a partner who ultimately proved unsuitable.

At 23, she had an epiphany, realising she had become someone afraid to go out at night, afraid to travel and afraid of life. Determined not to be that person — and to the consternation of her family — she went back to her studies, gaining a degree from Hunter College, New York, in 1964, and a master’s and then a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University.

Upon graduating in 1971 she was appointed director of the Floating Hospital, a medical facility that gave support and advice to New Yorkers unable to afford medical care, initially based on a barge. She remained in the post for 10 years, during which she explored meditation and self-development workshops.

In 1972, she not only asked her husband for a divorce, but eventually relinquished custody of their children to him, recognising that, contrary to the prevailing myths about motherhood and parenting, this was the best option for all concerned.

She later distilled much of her thinking into I’m Okay...You’re a Brat (1996) in which she took on what she saw as over-optimistic and unrealistic attitudes to parenting.

She also changed her name, from both her maiden and married one, to Jeffers — a name chosen with her mother after her mother’s favourite actor, Anne Jeffreys.

The 1980s proved to be a period of change for her. She met Mark Shelmerdine, a British filmmaker whom she was to marry in 1985, and started to develop her workshops; a course on facing fear that she taught at Manhattans New School for Social Research would provide the basis for Feel the Fear.

This coincided with a diagnosis of breast cancer and, in 1984, a mastectomy, an experience she faced with her customary confidence and went on to call an “enriching experience”. Death was not something Jeffers dwelt on. She had said: “Life is huge; if you want to be happy, commit to making your life one of rejoicing.” — The Guardian, London