Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

What do Exits Mean?

Rituals needed to mark all kinds of endings

Posted Aug 09, 2012

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players. They have their exits and their entrances….”

--William Shakespeare

Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who is Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at Harvard University, always makes me think…long and hard. Soul-searching, you might say, is one of the things she has a gift for making people do.

Another of her gifts is taking what ought to be obvious and might seem obvious at first mention, then helping you understand that there are lightyears beyond the obvious where you can go. In the book she wrote with Jessica Hoffman Davis called The Art and Science of Portraiture (, she and her co-author urged those who study human behavior to work with the people they study. Like artists who paint portraits in oil, they urged us to paint or write about what we think we see but then to consult with those we are trying to describe or represent and hear their take on whether we have done so accurately and fully. I cannot do justice in a brief essay to the richness of what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis wrote, but suffice it to say that it was brave of them to propose what they did in the fields of social science, where alleged objectivity was prized, which meant that we studied people, wrote what we thought we saw, and believed that by not including the perspectives of those we studied, we somehow reached deeper truths than if we had let them in.

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s more recent book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the Twenty-five Years After 50 ( ) is based on in-depth stories of a number she met and interviewed about the major work and other life changes they made after midlife — how they came to make them, how it felt, and, to some extent, how the changes turned out.

Her latest book, Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free ( makes a fascinating follow-up to The Third Chapter, because now she draws our attention to the way that in North America we tend to be excited about and to stop and mark beginnings but fail to pay close attention to exits, to what they mean — both positive and negative, exhilarating and terrifying.

Reading Exit took me back to the mid-1990s. I was born, raised, and educated in the U.S., but right after I finished graduate school, I was delighted to move to Toronto, Canada. I remained there and raised my children there, staying for nearly two decades. I loved much things about Toronto and indeed about Canada. One thing I adored was my teaching. It had never entered my mind that I would want to teach, but when Professor Ronnie deSousa conceived of an undergraduate course in Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto, told me it would be called “Scientific Perspectives on Sex and Gender,” it would be multidisciplinary, he needed someone to give the psychology lectures and coordinate the whole course, and he wondered if I would do it, I agreed. He liked my decision to organize the whole course around a critical thinking approach.

At the first meeting of the course, I was stunned to realize how happy I had been presenting the introduction and interacting with the students. I phoned Dr. Kathryn Morgan, a Philosophy and Women’s Studies professor who was a close friend, and told her about my reaction. When I said, “But I guess it gets old after awhile.” Kathryn, who is a phenomenal teacher, replied, “Not if you really love it.” It turned out that I really loved it, and it never did get old. I went on to teach both graduate students in the Applied Psychology department and undergraduates in that new course, and the teaching itself was a source of great joy (although the bureaucracy and the petty politics of academia were not).

The building where I did the graduate teaching (which was most of what I did) was called the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and was part of the University of Toronto. The structure was created in the 1970s with windows that could not be opened, and nearly everyone who worked or studied in the building or came there for conferences complained of feeling exhausted or of experiencing terrible headaches or respiratory problems while there. I had just such headaches when in the building, but it turns out there are dangers in being a psychologist, because I remember thinking, “I thought that I love teaching, but obviously, unconsciously I do not, because every time I teach, I get a terrible headache with pain so bad it often wakes me in the middle of the night. And it hurts so much that I know not to plan to do anything after class on the days that I teach.” Planning to do nothing was no mean feat, given that I was single parent with two children. Not for years did I learn that the building’s owners brought so little fresh air into the structure that close to 95% of people who had to spend time in the building — what later came to be called a “sick building” or a building with poor air quality — developed the same kinds of symptoms. And a huge percentage of those of us who spent a great deal of time in the building were ultimately diagnosed with one or more of the family of conditions that are now called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. It was not some strange, unconscious dislike of teaching but rather air filled with mold, dust, and harmful chemicals that made us ill.

In the early 1990s, there was a widespread myth that people reporting that poor indoor air quality made them ill were simply hypochondriacs or malingerers. And many people who worked in the building and were quite ill because of it could not bring themselves to think that their workplace was ruining their health. So the wonderful students who started a petition campaign and who marched through the building with me, chanting “A house is not a home,” and who came with me to hold class on the front steps to dramatize the fact that it was not safe to enter the building for purposes of learning and teaching…well, none of that endeared us to the OISE administration or to many of my colleagues. And although a fair number of faculty and staff approached me individually to say how glad they were that we were trying to get the administration to bring in more fresh air, because they themselves had health problems while in the building, when I thanked them and asked if they would send the administration a note about their symptoms, with a copy to me, they invariably looked frightened and said it was too risky to do so.

To shorten a long and painful story, the administration did nothing, and in order to try to recover my health, I had to leave a job that I loved. So here we are at Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s theme of exits. I ended up leaving the job, leaving Toronto, leaving the Canada I had loved for nearly 20 years, leaving dear, wonderful friends. OISE refused to give me Worker’s Compensation, on the grounds that I had had hay fever and some food allergies before going to work there, so I could not prove that the building had caused me health problems. And of course it is almost as true today as it was in the mid-1990s that there are no tests to prove causation of this kind of condition, even though any decent physician taking a careful history will notice that symptoms that were not present before the patient went to work in a particular building and that suddenly appeared (and only were present) when she was in the building and for awhile after she left is likely made ill by something in the building. I appealed the decision up to the highest level, and this took many years, as I lost at every level. The appeals went on for so long that it felt unsurprising and anticlimactic when I lost at the highest level. That did not feel like a time to mark an ending with any more ritual than grueling quasi-legal ones I had been going through for years.

Back when I left OISE and Toronto and Canada in the mid-1990s, I realize in retrospect that I never much dealt with how it felt to leave. This was partly because my health and energy were so poor that most of my attention was focused on getting away from the source of the trouble, and I had not the luxury of much time or energy to think about what I would go to. When I read in Exit about the importance of performing rituals to mark an exit, of noticing fully a leavetaking, it struck me that there had been no official noticing, not by me and by almost no one else. Neither OISE, my home department within it, nor any of its three entities that I had headed at various times sent me a good-bye card, and certainly there was no going-away reception with punch and cookies. Dr. Elaine Borins, a colleague for whom I had great admiration and fondness but with whom I had spent little time, hosted a beautiful dinner party for several people, and June Larkin, then one of my students, assembled several other students and took me to dinner. I was deeply touched and grateful about both of these events. The only thing like an exit ritual that I arranged was to have those students come to my home after dinner, where I had set aside piles of clothes I did not plan to take with me, and it was great fun to have them try on and pick garments to keep.

Looking back, not knowing when I left where I would end up and certainly having no longterm plan, I understand that the absence of exit ritual served a helpful immediate purpose but ultimately left me with many loose ends. I think the helpful purpose was that it would have been too hard to say farewells with a full sense of all that I was leaving. I focused what physical and emotional energy I had on packing, selling the house, figuring out where I would go for at least the first year, and applying for many jobs—without getting a single interview.

I have had no permanent job since leaving my tenured Full Professorship in Toronto. I ultimately recovered enough of my health that I could teach parttime, and I did that for a few years in various places. I began to spend chunks of time back in the world of theatre that I had loved when I was growing up, and recently I wrote two screenplays. I have continued to write and do some research and to do as much social action work as I can. I have lived in three different cities for different reasons. I still think often of what my friend and colleague Dr. Nikki Gerrard said to me awhile after I left OISE, when I told her I kept feeling strange and all at-sea. She said, “You’re in transition.” “Ah, yes! That’s it! I am in transition!” I said, glad to have someone name what was happening to me. But that was in the 1990s, and I still feel that I am in transition.

I think about the noun “exit,” and I wonder about the verb. How long can exiting last? What happens when an exit is not as finite and clean as the making of a surgical incision, followed by excising of some bit of one’s body and the precise sewing up of that incision?

And I worry about the people still working at OISE whose health is being harmed but who, for whatever reasons, do not exit from there.

Some days, if you ask, I will tell you that I feel lucky to get to do such a variety of things, and other days, still doing that same variety of things, I will tell you that I feel almost maddeningly fragmented. I don’t even know how to think about what some kind of exit ritual harking back to the leavetaking all those years ago might consist of or how it might affect me. But after Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Exit, I keep coming back to wondering if maybe it’s time to try. See what I mean? This woman makes you think.

©Copyright 2012 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

More Posts