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Coping: Still Here

4 minute read
Andrea Sachs

Think back. Was that Betsy Carter’s name you saw in the gossip columns in 1986? That was the year that Carter, the former editorial director of Esquire, launched New York Woman, an edgy, sophisticated magazine for urban women. For Carter–accomplished, energetic, at center stage of the Manhattan magazine world–those must have been exciting, happy times, right? Wrong. While her career flourished, Carter’s private life was rocked by a sequence of injury, illness, divorce and other disasters so relentless and extensive that it would be almost laughable if it hadn’t been so painful. Carter, 57, now the editor in chief of My Generation, looks back on it all in a new memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On: The Life and Times of a Perpetual Optimist (Hyperion). As her subtitle suggests, the book is surprisingly upbeat. “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, because I don’t feel sorry for me,” she says. “And I didn’t want to make people sad, because mine isn’t a sad story. I really wanted to convey that this was just part of a life that had happened. This business is you’re up, you’re down, you’re up, you’re down. So I’ve been both.”

Carter’s Job-like ordeal began in 1983, when a taxi she was riding in crashed into a car. “There was blood,” she writes. “I saw a hand I recognized as my own, shaking. My teeth. They’d come undone. This had to be a dream.” Outfitted with temporary teeth, Carter went back to the office one week after the accident. “Magazine work is the perfect antidote to personal crises,” she writes. “Deadlines supersede tragedy; there are events that must be attended.”

Around the time of the New York Woman launch, her husband of 17 years, Malcolm Carter, announced he was gay. “Everything inside me felt berserk,” she writes. “Blown to pieces. I was gasping for breath, swimming in air. I had crazy thoughts: I’ll call my mother, she’ll talk him out of this.”

Again, Carter threw her energies into the office. That’s where she was a few months later when her marketing director relayed an emergency phone message: “Betsy, your house burned down!” Her weekend home in upstate New York was a total loss in a fire begun by an arsonist. Writes Carter: “Putting one foot in front of the other: I was getting very good at that. Understanding the pattern and meaning of what happened over the past couple of years was harder. I’d lost my teeth, my ability to bear children [because of an earlier hysterectomy], my husband, my house, and everything in it. Stripped bare again and again. If this were a movie, I’d skip to the end and pray for a happy ending. But this was my life, and there was no easy fast forward.”

By then, Carter was a natural candidate for therapy. When normal psychiatric techniques failed, her psychiatrist, Phoebe Slom, suggested that Carter have an exorcism. “I suspect that in your other life, you were an evil person,” she told Carter. “I think you did a lot of very bad things, and now you’re being repaid for them in this lifetime.” That was the end of Slom, although Carter herself had begun to wonder whether she was being pursued by some dark force. Her friends had begun calling her nicknames like Bloody Mary and Typhoid Annie. When Carter started dating again, however, she met Gary Hoenig, a divorced editor, and soon got engaged. Things seemed to be looking up–but the fates weren’t through with her yet. She learned that New York Woman was closing down. Five months later, she learned she had breast cancer and had to endure a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

Carter has now been married to Hoenig for 10 years, and is grateful to be looking at these events in the rear-view mirror. Does she have advice for others on coping with adversity? “I was not always cheerful,” she admits. “Be easy on yourself. The last thing you need is that inner judge saying you shouldn’t be losing control that way, why are you crying that much?” She adds, “One of the things that I did, and do, is share my bad news with everyone as fast as I can. I don’t keep things to myself. Suddenly you’re not alone with this big dark secret.”

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