A Woman’s Got to Do


“Would you have any problem with the kind of books we publish?” Louise, the advertising manager, asked. I detected a polite whiff of doubt in my potential boss’s question. Young as she was, she had sized me up: background, education, work history, interests, even my children’s Waldorf school (“Aren’t they sort of, well, Buddhist?”). At least the outfit I’d chosen was tasteful and quiet, and she couldn’t see behind my back where I’d crossed my fingers. This was our second interview. I knew Louise liked what I wrote. I wanted her to feel good about me.

“Not at all,” I lied cheerfully. Hell, any job that would actually pay me a salary and benefits was not one I was about to pass up. It was 1981. I was 46, possibly the last college-educated woman of my generation to have assumed that marriage meant support for life. I’d raised my three children fulltime for 15 years. Now I was facing divorce. I’d write whatever they wanted me to write.

I had pounced the minute I saw the ad in the Bergen Record classifieds: “Want to write full time? Come and talk to us.” No name on the “us,” just a phone number in a town 30 minutes from my home in New Jersey. Three days later I found myself inside a long brick box off Route 4 that could have passed for a discreet rehab clinic. The sign, “Larkwood,” left me clueless. Soft-drink bottling? Insurance?

Louise wasn’t quite what I had expected with her long straight hair, toothy smile, little-girl voice, and discount professional attire. Like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, I suddenly realized what it meant to return to the work world after a long employment sleep and discover that someone in a position to hire me looked only a few years older than my own daughter.

I smiled when Louise explained that Larkwood published books. She needed an advertising copywriter to devise jacket copy, catalog one-liners, and 10-second radio spots. I kept the smile but swallowed when she explained that Larkwood specialized in Christian books. Pornography would have shocked me less. In the eighties, “Christian” did not refer to Catholic and Protestant denominations but to a fundamentalist, right-wing coalition intent on converting the unsaved and dictating public policy on values,their values.

Louise handed me galley proofs of a new book, How to Increase Sunday School Attendance. “Take it home and write something for the inside and back flaps that will make someone want to buy it.” She smiled encouragingly at me and I relaxed, confident now that I’d concealed my initial alarm. Thank goodness my new bumper sticker, “The Moral Majority is Neither,” was still back home on the kitchen counter.

Three late nights holed up with my typewriter and several glasses of wine followed. My fingers turned purple from changing ribbons. I looked at what I ripped from the machine before I sent it in: “You’ll learn HOW to build a dynamic Sunday school, a school for Christ. WHY inner commitment and outgoing love can and will win children and adults to Jesus no matter what the size, location, and financial position of your church. How the SPIRITUAL growth of your flock will result in NUMERICAL growth that will amaze your congregation and gladden your heart.” Did I actually write that?

Now, at this second interview, approval and a tinge of concern colored Louise’s voice as she told me my copy beat out the entries of more than 300 applicants (I could only wonder at the competition). We got down to logistics. I alluded, as I knew I must, to the upcoming divorce—everything proceeding calmly, no problems (if she only knew!), quite civilized, children doing well. Forced to choose, perhaps, between someone who could string words together and someone who claimed active status in the Assemblies of God or its equivalent, Louise offered me the job. I did my best to raise her comfort level with a respectful reference to membership in the Church of all Nations, a denomination I made up on the spot.

We walked down the hall to the office I’d be sharing with my fellow copywriter. Susan was twenty-four years old, with a round scrubbed face, schoolgirl plaid skirt and white blouse. She beamed at me. “Hi Lee, God bless. Welcome and praise the Lord for sending you to us.”

No one could say I wasn’t warned.

So—what, exactly, did Larkwood publish? Once on the job, it didn’t take me long to find out. Today few may remember that back in the eighties, the Republican Right’s favorite pediatrician, a “Christian alternative to Dr. Spock,” dispensed his baby and child-care advice under Larkwood’s imprint. But who could forget the bouffant blonde whose bestseller gave devout wives permission to morph from conservative helpmeets to bedroom sirens? Mercilessly satirized in secular circles, the author claimed that yes, you CAN, because he’s your loving HUSBAND, your MASTER!

When Susan and I were given the first two titles of the now-famous Rapture series, I stifled the impulse to ask my born-again colleague how much aerial space Jesus planned to allot to each of those thousands of lucky Christians destined to be swept up to heaven at the same moment. I knew that questioning the fate of ethical atheists, or even Presbyterians, for example, would have segued into a theological discussion I dreaded. Best to keep my mouth shut.

My apprenticeship didn’t last long. I was the one assigned to develop jacket copy for the You Are There series. This is what I wrote for A Special Time in Nazareth: “You’re just fifteen, engaged to an older guy, the best catch in the village. One morning an odd visitor with wings flies into your room, and next thing you know you’re PREGNANT! How do you convince your fiancé you’re still a virgin, that it was an angel, not an affair?” I wasn’t sure this copy would fly, but Louise, who’d surmised from the first that I’d only been born once, conceded that I’d caught on to the Larkwood style “really fast.”

I smiled graciously, but even now I attribute my success at writing born-again ad copy to born-again mimicry. Hadn’t my “misplaced chapter” from Joseph Andrews and my sonnet in the style of Browning earned me As as an English major? Within weeks I found myself easily pitching the confessions of a Christian husband; the story of a born-again Chicago cop; the tale of a teen swim champ whose diving disaster led from coma to a life returned by a “greater power.” I could churn out this stuff like a pro, my tongue so far into my cheek it almost came out the other side.

Yes, it felt weird. But with my impending divorce getting nastier by the day and three children to raise, I told myself that a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

Three weeks into the job I set Susan straight. Thus far I’d been careful to respond noncommittally to her evangelical chatter, but when she proffered a second invitation to a Wednesday morning “prayer break” I knew I could fudge no longer. I kept my voice calm: “Susan, I must and will be frank. I may have been raised Episcopalian, but I am no longer any kind of Christian at all, born again or otherwise. My about-to-be ex-husband is Jewish, and we’re both agnostics.” As an afterthought I added, “But my children do attend Quaker First Day School, if that will make you feel any better.”

Susan’s face glowed. “Oh, Lee, I’m going to make it my ministry to bring you into a personal relationship with Christ.” Her voice shook with joy. “He’s already shown you to Larkwood. Now I know there’s a reason you and I are here in this office together.”

I smiled and offered her a chocolate caramel.

Over time, my officemate and I managed to build some bridges. A shared passion for strong coffee, red wine (just one glass for Susan), Bach, and Shakespeare took us farther than you might expect. True, Susan reminded me a little too often that Bach wrote his music—“Yes, Lee, even the Goldberg Variations”—not for the enjoyment of others but solely in praise of the Lord. I encouraged her latent sense of humor. Even she had to smile at some of the nonsense we wrote. Chortles bonded us when deadlines and desperation drove us to use the ad writer’s stock ending: “. . . and much, much more.”

Still, Susan’s expressions of dedication never stayed submerged for long. I had heard the joke about the born-again Christian who prays every morning: “Lord, please tell me what shirt to wear today.” For Susan it was no joke. I’d try to look away each afternoon at 4:30 as she clasped her hands together and murmured audibly for divine assistance on a similar theme. “Lord, I can’t decide. Do you want me to wear the navy blue skirt or the tweed jumper tomorrow? Should I try the new sweater Mom sent, or my brown jacket?”

“Praise the Lord!” issued from her lips so often that I started making checks on my note pad each time she said it.

When you share an office, you make concessions. At Susan’s request, I did my best to stop muttering “Shit” and “Jesus” at my typos, and “God damn” into the telephone when my attorney updated me on my husband’s latest evil maneuvers.

I pared my own wish list for her down to two items. “Susan, don’t you think God gets tired of hearing you say the same thing 25 times in one day? Give him a break. And do you have to ask him what to wear the next day every afternoon before you leave work? Couldn’t you do it at home?”

Susan did try to tone down the number of Praise the Lord’s per day. And although she explained that she preferred the privacy of her desk (even, apparently, with unsaved me across from it) to a bedroom shared with two “spiritually bankrupt” Methodist roommates, she reluctantly internalized her prayers for fashion guidance. We agreed to disagree – except when we didn’t. Besides, I told myself again, a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.

What I had to do was bang out sentences like “Here’s a glimpse of just a few of the truths this remarkable Christian leader reveals about the abundant life God promises.” Dealing with this material all day long, it was tempting to view Larkwood as an alternative universe, one set on a higher spiritual plane. But scratch the surface of employee life, and you’d see some worldly reality.

Biblical injunctions didn’t pay for orthodontia or help husbands swing Bergen County mortgages. The women I worked with put the uncomfortable lie to the stay-at-home, wifely values promoted in Larkwood’s books. Nor did evangelical Christianity always answer the employees’ particular dilemmas. For that, oddly enough, they came to me, the unchurched pre-divorcee. Bev had accepted Jesus as her savior but lived with her alcoholic Catholic father who hadn’t. Was AA too secular? Nineteen-year-old Lonita in shipping wondered if she should give up her virginity to her boyfriend. What would Jesus say? (“What would you say?” I asked). Ed, the lone male, confided that he’d always remember the moment he’d been struck by the light. Six months later he suddenly left, caught in an extra-marital affair with one of the filing clerks. Of course, these chats were a two-way street. Phyllis, a chic grandmother in charge of media, let me know she was praying for my divorce to come through so I’d stop spending alternate weekends in sin with my lover in Maryland and marry him.

I alternated between acceptance of my present fate and feeling as if I’d gone down the rabbit hole with Alice. Editorial meetings were on Friday mornings, all of us seated around the conference table with bowed heads (mine inclined a bare half inch). Larkwood’s vice president, Mr. Mayberry, typically opened with prayers for the health of our authors, the success of our current projects, and handsome proceeds for all. Eyes were closed reverently and lips moved inaudibly as avuncular Mr. Mayberry invoked blessings from The Lord with such smarmy absurdity that at one meeting a snort almost escaped my lips. Coughing discreetly into a tissue, I quietly made my exit and dashed to the women’s rest room. I locked myself in one of the stalls and pounded my fists against the door. “What is a nice girl from Barnard doing at a place like this?” I whispered. On a planet of belief, only me on the dark side. I had to be careful. Women have to do what women have to do, and I needed to keep my job.

I kept it for two years. Three, if you count the year I spent at home as a freelance copy editor for the Children’s Bible workbook division. Larkwood gave me a festive goodbye lunch party. Susan’s farewell present was, of course, a Good News version of the New Testament inscribed, “Jesus and I are NOT giving up on you.”

People ask me how I could have earned my bread writing copy for beliefs I ridiculed. How could I have worked so long with such zealots? But then, they weren’t around the day after my house was seized for my husband’s nonpayment of our taxes and Louise spent the better part of an hour comforting me in her office with tea and homemade brownies—and not a word about Jesus.

The skills I’d gained at Larkwood in turning words into sales tools eventually got me another job, this time as an editor at a secular publisher. My divorce came through, my children grew up. Years later, married to the Maryland lover and living in Maine, I was tracked down by Larkwood’s HR department and informed about my profit from a 401K I’d forgotten. It had grown—sizably. I still may be a born-again skeptic, at best, but I’ll never forget the affectionate message on the card Susan gave me on my last day of work: “Who will laugh at my copy with me? Who will read scenes from Twelfth Night with me at lunch time? Jesus and I wish you nothing but happiness—and much, much more!”

Lee Haas Norris

has published nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, VoiceCatcher, Wolf Moon Press, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and online in Common Ties, Mamazine, and Bits and
Bytes
. She served in the United States Peace Corps in Moldova in her sixties, later earned an M.A. in English, and taught in the Czech Republic. She is an avid reader, English Country dancer,
traveler, amateur musician, choral singer, and has performed for six years in The Portland Christmas Revels. She moved from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon in 2003.

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13 thoughts on “A Woman’s Got to Do

  1. raquelle azran

    I loved the writing and the writer! Lee, you succeeded in prioritizing your needs while keeping your perspective and sense of humor – a rare achievement in today’s word of extremism and intolerance. Congrats and many thanks for sharing.

  2. Leanne Flanagan

    This piece was terrific! A wonderful example of how to take a life experience and make it bearable through humor(although I realize you must have had many rough days). As a Bergen Cty resident myself,realize the low % of Born agains (although I too know a few). You did an admirable job! Thanks–Lee

  3. Linda Gartz

    A beautifully-written essay on how we can bond with and get along with people of good will, even if we don’t accept their “Good News” [of the Lord]. Too bad our politicians can’t learn from this. Good people of all persuasions abound, but the intent on demonizing anyone with a different point of view is ruining us.You show how respect for others while maintaining your beliefs helped you — and Larkwood — through a tough time.

  4. Holiday Johnson

    Thank you Lee Haas Norris. How fortunate I am to have you as a student and a woman of many in common life experiences with such writing skills. Our fortitude and tenacity has given us some deeper understanding. Your fellow employees are as several in my family. Daily I meditate on being ready with love and care to shine the light of Jesus & Buddha to help open up their blinders. Humor looks to be the highest skill to be used.

  5. Sally Joughin

    What a great story, so beautifully written and engaging. After all the description about the religious views that Lee did not share with her Larkwood cohorts, the ending was wonderful.

  6. Cleta

    Love your writing and you story. I can relate, being an agnostic who has spent a huge segment of her life trying to write a secular non-fiction book tying Mary the mother of Jesus to the Jewish Royal House and their Queens named Mary/Mariamne–making my life a little schizophrenic…and so much more.

  7. Roz Schindler

    I enjoyed the piece immensely and discovered a world in your story that I knew nothing about. Your relaxed writing style caught this reader and kept her entertained.

  8. Joanna Bressler

    Thank you Lee Haas Norris for this gorgeous, erudite, and hilarious memoir. I am Barnard, Class of ’57 and proud to have you represent the school so well. And I have asked myself the same question you did in several bathroom stalls over the years. A huge strength in this piece is how you “loved the sinners not the sin” re your fellow employees at Larkwood.

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