Lawrence-Lightfoot closes a book about closing the book

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During recent public and radio appearances, audiences haven’t interrogated Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot about her latest book, “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free,” so much as offer their confessions to the Harvard sociology professor. The author’s latest is a collection of intimate interviews with people from all walks of life, all of whom discuss longing, leaving and letting go, and Lawrence-Lightfoot claims that even at cocktail parties, people feel compelled to share their stories of exit. Without pretension but with pride, she says the book provokes that. “When people bring the book to have me sign it, the lines take forever because everyone has to tell their story,” she laughs. “They’re telling stories that are particular to them but obviously universal — about the death of a parent or a child, losing work, divorce, bullying” — themes that cut across racial, cultural and social boundaries.

Everyone has an exit story, multiple even. In what could be an infinitely long book on the topic of finality, Lawrence-Lightfoot narrowed four dozen stories down to 11, according to “which held the most poignancy, particularly as they were paired one with the other and [those that], if we look through the lens of exit, allowed us to see some fundamental human experience differently.” She breaks down the encounters with her subjects — a gay activist, an Iranian ex-pat and a former priest, to name a few — into six categories: tales of finding and embracing our home, voice, freedom, wounds, yearning and grace.

These abstract ideas, which seem more in line with a self-help manual than a sociological survey, become solidified in each of the storyteller’s shared experiences. Lawrence-Lightfoot gleans wisdom from their sometimes joyful, sometimes painful exits, yet the book never solicits direct advice. “The lessons are embroidered [into the stories],” she contends. “They aren’t presented as didactic prescriptions. They’re presented as the insights of the protagonists.” Additionally, she highlights the anchoring analogies her interviewees use to describe their complex exits — like “peeling an onion,” “joining the dance,” “a merry-go-round” — mnemonic tools that resonate in their profound simplicity.  

But the aim of the narratives isn’t only that we recall and compare past endings in our own lives; it’s also to “reframe” how we perceive exits as they happen, to call attention to why it is that they’ve occurred before looking out for the next beginning or new opportunity. Lawrence-Lightfoot urges readers to attend to the moment of exit and “use [it] as a moment of reflection, as a moment of propulsion.” Being purposeful and aware of how we make even the smallest ritual exits can be helpful “as we get ourselves prepared to make the larger exits in our lives.”

Finishing this book marks a momentous ending for Lawrence-Lightfoot, one she admits hasn’t been clean cut. In its wake, she must confront an “intergenerational” exit — accepting her children’s independence while still participating in their lives — as well as how to eventually, gracefully, end her four-decade career at Harvard. Like the exits her subjects recount, she anticipates that her own will be layered. “I know there will be a lot of pain and loss, as well as liberation and relief.” The book has also forced her to think about the next chapter in a literal sense. “What do you write after a book called ‘Exit?’” she asks, rhetorically. So long as she gives a voice to the stories we’re hungry to tell, the possibilities are endless.

Q&A

We’re often afraid of exits, but when they happen, we want them to be neat, to make sense. What are your thoughts on closure?
There’s a moment when it all seems to come together and we say, “I’m out of here.” But it’s not as if you make the leap of faith and it’s done. It’s messy and iterative. Maybe you want that to feel like closure, but as you look back, you recognize that this has been long in coming. There were signs along the way that were blurred and unclear but were important precursors of this very moment. As you move on, you realize they continue to reverberate in you. The wounds are still there and they can be relived at any time…Closure, I don’t think it’s the right word. I think clarity that comes from that moment when we know it’s time to walk — that’s important.


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