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  • Writer's pictureGail Agronick

Spotlight: Dr. Ravenna Helson

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

I’ve had some amazing writing mentors. Today’s post is dedicated to one of them, Dr. Ravenna Helson, my grad school advisor. She was a humble trailblazer with a fiery spirit, far-ranging curiosity, and a keen sense of humor.

Ravenna recently passed away at the age of 95, one month shy of the publication of her book, Women on the River of Life. I eagerly awaited its release, considered purchasing an ebook, but preordered a hard copy instead. I wanted to feel it in my hands. A physical testament of Ravenna’s impact in the world. Something to hold onto.

The first thing I noticed was the book’s weight. Substantial. I burst into tears. She and Dr. Valory Mitchell produced a 370-page chronicle of the Mills Longitudinal Study, a groundbreaking exploration of women’s lives from ages 21 to 70. Written for a non-academic audience, this book intertwines narratives about women’s individual lives with overarching themes of adult development culled over fifty years.

I was lucky to contribute to the Mills Study. As an archivist, I knew the women’s written words and data files intimately. I enjoyed chatting with participants while planning their return to Berkeley for the Age 60 Assessment. During difficult times, I’ve leaned on their wisdom, shared through open-ended responses to study questions.

Ravenna taught me, through example, how to do research with the highest integrity. It is always better to write in pencil than in pen; it is vital to keep the person at the center of personality psychology; and doing longitudinal research artfully requires an intuitive understanding of study participants that can only evolve over time. It is often difficult to strike a successful balance between providing enough guidance to students and allowing them to learn on their own. She did this magnificently.

Thank you, Ravenna, for your generous mentorship.

Thank you for rocking my newborn babies and sharing leftovers in my sunny kitchen.

Thank you for leaving a vibrant legacy through your writing.

A life well lived indeed.

Gail Agronick, principal of WorksWrite, brings her experience as a psychologist, educator, and published author to each client.

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