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Author Gail Sheehy; Chronicler of those who found their way

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Along the way, in 1970, she won a fellowship to study at Columbia under her mentor, the celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead. A grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation in 1974 enabled her to forge ahead with her studies of adult development.

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But one of the most crucial crossroads in her life came when she had what she calls in ''Passages'' a ''breakdown of nerve.'' It happened when she was on assignment in Northern Ireland for New York Magazine, writing about women who were taking over from men being imprisoned.

It was a sunny day, one later called ''Bloody Sunday.'' She was standing on an open outdoor staircase, and the fighting in the streets seemed to be over. She was asking a young boy how the paratroopers could fire their gas canisters so far and he was in the middle of answering her when a bullet exploded in his face.

Suddenly she and all the other people on the staircase were caught in a crossfire between snipers on the roof and the army's armored cars. ''As I got to the top of the block of flats on the staircase, I was hesitating about whether or not to put myself in even further and (trying) to bang on a door when I saw a bullet, I literally saw a bullet several feet in front of my nose just as if it were hanging in midair. And I watched it embed itself in the wall of the flat. And in that moment that whole collection of protective illusions that I had carried along since early childhood, thinking that I was a terribly plucky young girl who pole-vaulted across icebergs in Mamaroneck Harbor, climbed trees and jumped out of windows, who became a journalist who traveled around the world in a classically intrepid way. Suddenly I was very naked and I didn't have any source of safety. . . . And that triggered some hard work at reexamining the sources of one's faith in the purpose of life. . . .

''It wasn't just this bizarre brush with death. In fact my perspective had begun to change on my 35th birthday, when it kind of hit me that these normal passages can be even more harrowing than the life accidents, because there isn't any dramatic outer event to explain the way. And I remember . . . having an outburst, being upset, fearful, angry questioning where am I going? Who's coming with me? Is it enough to be just a performer as a journalist any more? . . . What sort of sacrifices am I willing to make in my life for continued career participation? Do I want to have another child? Do I want to be remarried? What about friends? There really hasn't been much time to keep up old friendships or build new ones in all this flurry of professional activity. Aren't they important, weren't they always important, doesn't it feel a little empty not having them?''

And so ''Passages'' was born. ''I think I was very fortunate,'' she muses, ''in having the profession I do because in part I think every writer who does a book about serious subjects is working out some of their own demons and trying to explain through other people's experiences as well as through commonalities of experience. I think that colors the choice of subjects. I suppose it was very comforting to me when I did my first interview for 'Passages' to find that other people shared the same perspective. . . .''

Hitting the top of the best-seller list with ''Passages'' was a shock for the little girl who grew up in suburban Mamaroneck, N.Y., and spent half her life in a rowboat.

But on her way to becoming successful Gail Sheehy has had two superb mentors: editor and publisher Clay Felker, a longtime friend, whose innovative approach brought early success to New York Magazine; and Margaret Mead, who beamed on the ''Passages'' study of adult development and helped point out a path in her anthropology courses and through personal encouragement.

In a sense what Sheehy has explored in both ''Passages'' and ''Pathfinders'' is a unique sort of anthropological mission, studies of the rare and endangered species, urban contemporary man. But her interest in tribal customs surfaced early, even at the Trib, where she brought the same sort of rapt attention to stories about the delicatessen-and-bridge culture of Lefrak city matrons as she later did to the Black Panthers of New Haven, the prison widows of Northern Ireland, the streetwalkers of Midtown Manhattan.