Writing her own life: Suzy Becker

At 43, bestselling author Suzy Becker has a new book and some amazing stories
By Pamela  H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2006

Suzy Becker was seated at the dining room table in her 19th-century farmhouse in Bolton, nursing her daughter, Aurora, as she explained how it is that she has led so interesting and varied a life.

Ms. Becker is, after all, just 43 years of age. Consider, if you will, what she has accomplished:

She is an artist, a writer, an educator, an athlete, an entrepreneur and a social activist. She has won two prestigious fellowships and has survived brain surgery. She has had loving relationships with both men and women and is now married to Lorene Jean, who owns Hudson Art and Framing in Hudson.

Aurora’s father is a gay friend, a writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia. The impish red-headed toddler will be 2 in October.

Ms. Becker’s achievements have, from time to time, put her squarely in the media spotlight. Her first book, “All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat,” stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for eight months. It has been translated into 16 languages and has sold 1.6 million copies. Ms. Becker was 27 when she wrote it.

Her latest book, her fifth, is a whimsical children’s story about a farmer who takes his cows on vacation to Niagara Falls. Ms. Becker has filled “Manny’s Cows” (HarperCollins, $15.99) with her fanciful, fun-loving illustrations, composed in the style with which she gained renown as the creative force behind the Widget Factory, the greeting card company she owned and operated for half a dozen years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But back to Ms. Becker’s reflections on her life thus far. She offers them, actually, after being asked about her commitment to lesbianism. Given the strong views that swirl around the homosexual lifestyle, is it difficult?

“I want to say for the people who think it’s hard, it is hard,” she said. “But I think the hardest thing a person can do is to be herself. At this point, it would be harder not to be a lesbian. I feel that my life, while it’s hard to forge that path, is a whole lot easier than people leading conflicted lives. It’s a constant examining and truthfulness. You have to ask, `Who am I and where am I? Do these things align?”

That sort of honesty has led Ms. Becker to change direction and take on challenges when it would have been far easier to remain on an already successful track.

Ms. Becker, who has curly dark brown hair and a slender, athletic build, grew up outside of Philadelphia and graduated from Brown University in 1984 with two bachelor’s degrees, one in economics and the other in international relations. Asked how she managed that feat, she shrugged and said: “I didn’t think I’d be good at economics, but I had a socialist professor from Finland and came to love economics through her.”

It was during college that her desire to be an artist re-awakened. Years earlier, she had suppressed her artistic inclinations. “It was too intimidating,” she remarked. Then she wrote and illustrated a children’s book for an independent study project. It was published as a center spread in a literary magazine. Ms. Becker walked into a room and saw everyone reading it and laughing. “That was when I said, `This is what I want to do.’”

After college, she biked across the United States and taught school in Barcelona. She settled in Boston and went to work as a copywriter for a boutique advertising agency. She won awards, but the job offered little personal satisfaction. She wanted to engage with social causes.

Three years out of college Ms. Becker founded the Widget Factory. She encouraged her employees to spend 10 percent of their time on philanthropic pursuits. For her part, Ms. Becker started an HIV/AIDS 500-mile bike-a-thon. It has been a biannual event since 1989. Last year, 23 riders, with the support of a road crew of 10, raised $150,000.

The Widget Factory, meanwhile, gained an international reputation, and Ms. Becker wanted to license T-shirts and mugs. Her publisher suggested she first write a book. That’s how she happened to produce her best-selling font of wisdom imparted by observing her cat, Binky.

Ms. Becker had long volunteered in elementary schools, and she next wrote a book inspired by children who had been upset by pictures of ducks dowsed with oil as a result of the Persian Gulf War. “The All Better Book” is filled with children’s solutions to problems.

Then Ms. Becker’s life took a turn. She captured a coveted White House fellowship during the Clinton administration and spent a year in the nation’s capital working on how to make policy accessible to the public through speeches and marketing. She had licensed out the Widget Factory to a West Coast company, and, on her return to Massachusetts, she realized she wanted to focus on her creative side. Her next book, “My Dog’s the World’s Best Dog,” was a love letter to her chocolate Lab, Wylie.

Ms. Becker turned back to children and schooling. With renowned educator Ted Sizer, she helped found the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, an alternative public secondary school at Devens. She taught there for two years, integrating arts across the curriculum. She also met student Manny Moreira Jr., whose family owns a dairy farm in Lancaster. Manny told her he could not take a vacation because of the family’s 500 cows. His predicament was the impetus for “Manny’s Cows.”

By the mid 1990s, life was exciting – but not without worries. Ms. Becker had started having seizures.

“I thought it was going to kill me,” she said of the first one. “I stayed up to fight it. I didn’t call my boyfriend at the time. I didn’t call anybody.”

The seizures continued; a doctor said they were stress-related. Meantime, Ms. Becker had a strong desire to write an illustrated memoir, so she applied for a Bunting Fellowship at Harvard University. “I was a maverick candidate,” she said.

Shortly after she was awarded the prestigious fellowship, she had a grand mal seizure that precipitated a series of medical tests. By the Fourth of July of 1999, she was undergoing surgery for removal of a mass on her brain. She awoke to discover her personality altered and her speech impaired. She wondered if she would ever recapture her sense of humor.

Even so, she turned up on time for the Bunting and spent the next year creating a deeply personal – and often humorous – account of her trip through the medical maze and her halting recovery, using italics and cartoon figures for her alter egos.

As “I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse?” unfolds, no one is sacrosanct – not her parents, sisters, friends or her then-lover.

“It was completely uncensored, the way I wrote it,” Ms. Becker said. “I felt I had to tell the whole truth about myself, too. It was hard to write in the angry part of myself.”

The mass was benign, but the ordeal has left its mark. After a hiatus, Ms. Becker started having seizures again, about one a year.

“It was scary,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was headed down a certain path again. We called the neurosurgeon. He said, `This is your Achilles’ heel.’”

Still, life has never been better. She and Ms. Jean celebrated a civil union in Vermont in June 2002, followed by a big party with family and friends. They married in front of their fireplace shortly after gay marriage became legal in this state. Earlier this year, they took Aurora to Australia to visit her father and his family. Ms. Becker said that she and Ms. Jean, 54, would be deeply disappointed if gay marriage were banned, and they support organizations working to keep that from happening.

“I am deliriously happy,” Ms. Becker said with a broad smile. “For me to find the person I was going to spend my life with – I thought it might not happen. I thought it’s great to have double the chance. I thought it would be a person, and gender was not going to get in the way. It’s not a man or a woman. It’s a soul mate thing. It’s been a trip, which is great.”