Cheryl Krauter: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life
An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman
Learn to navigate the publishing industry. Much like my experiences in Hollywood as a young actress, I was unprepared for the cold, hard realities of the publishing world. Years ago I attended a writer’s conference hoping to find a publisher for my first book which was written to help cancer survivors. A presenter who was featured as a successful author had published a book on cat massage and I felt demoralized. Then an MD who had heard me present my work approached me and encouraged me to continue in my own direction and not to be influenced by what is deemed a success in the commercial market.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Krauter.
Cheryl Krauter is an existential humanistic psychotherapist with more than forty years of experience in the field of depth psychology and human consciousness. After her cancer diagnosis in 2007, she began to focus on people who have been diagnosed with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses, as well as their partners, family members, and caregivers and her two published books, Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story(Oxford University Press 2017) and Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care (Oxford University Press 2018) grew out of this work. Her memoir Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go (She Writes Press 2021) shares the story of her journey through grief after the sudden death of her husband.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am an only child who grew up in the Pacific Northwest exploring the forests that were around my house. As I child, I was enamored of the Little House on the Prairie books and my father along with a family friend built me a small log cabin playhouse which was nestled in the woods right behind my house. I requested Dutch doors so that I could keep the bottom door closed and then look through the open top part at the trees as the rain made comforting noises on the roof of my cabin. I was a child who loved to create magic worlds of fantasy. I believed that wood fairies lived in the Hoh Rain Forest, a spot on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, where I would spend hours exploring all by myself. This was a different time when children were left alone to wander and wile away hours in imaginative worlds of their own creation. I was such a child. And because my mother could be scary and my father was often gone, I disappeared into the trees by my home and spent hours in the wood library with large glass windows on the small island on which I lived. There was a wood stove that gave heat and light in the early afternoon darkness of the Pacific Northwest. I grew up being always a bit damp. My family moved to Los Angeles when I was eleven years old and life changed. I was the target of the older kids in my apartment building who mercilessly bullied and shunned me. The magical world fell apart until the arrival of The Beatles when I found some friends. However, the sting of being bullied remained a silent trauma within me. A magical child grew into a shy, withdrawn kid who would later become a powerful, compassionate woman who is still looking out for sensitive souls who are marginalized. My love of reading and writing has always been a solace for me and is indelibly woven into the writer I have become.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” –Mahabharata
I have lived through an aggressive cancer diagnosis and the sudden death of my husband. These life events changed me forever. I went through a brutal treatment for cancer, never quite sure I was going to “make it out alive”. At 55 years old with a young son, I looked in the face of my own mortality and had to let go of the fantasy that I was guaranteed the longevity so present in my family, most of whom lived well into their eighties while two grandmothers lived to be over one hundred years old. Facing death burst that bubble and brought me into the stark reality of living with uncertainty as an existential truth of life. This was no longer an intellectual concept but my own lived experience. The exploration of my own death opened up a sense of renewal in regard to how I wanted to fully live my life with whatever time I had. Since 2007, I have lived on what I call bonus time carrying within me a profound gratitude for my life.
In 2016 I experienced the sudden death of my husband and was thrown once again into the throes of a life changing occurrence that shook the foundation of my world. This devastating and unforeseen loss took me on a grief -stricken journey into places within myself I didn’t understand or recognize. I rode the waves and tried not to fight the tides that were taking me beyond my known life into the next phase of the life I would now need to create alone.
It is an understatement to say that both of these life events deeply changed me. It is also important to acknowledge that my personal transformation could not have happened without “listening carefully” to the inner voice of my lived experience. Transformation does not occur on its own. It involves a willingness to travel through darkness, confusion, and sorrow to get to the light. This quote says this in such a concise, graceful way and reminds me of the possibilities I may discover when I deeply listen to myself.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Loving kindness — I received the Heart Sutra transmission from the Dalai Lama at Green Gulch Zen Center in the San Francisco area in 1986. My intuition led me to Green Gulch on a day when I knew it was closed but I felt compelled to be there. I went to the office and told the young woman at the desk that basically my car had driven me here and I had no idea why. She looked up at me and said, “Well, I know why, the Dalai Lama is here and clearly you need to be there, too.” I then went into a gathering of distinguished spiritual teachers and found the one empty seat in the room. The seat happened to be in the middle of all the chairs in the room and I had to crawl over people to sit in it. I’m sure I was completely annoying and inappropriate. For the next several hours I sat and listened while the Dalai Lama, through his translator, Robert Thurman, taught the Heart Sutra. The honor of this teaching lives deep within me and, in my opinion, loving kindness is the most important quality that I bring to my life.
- Curiosity — When I was beginning my career as a psychotherapist, I was told by my therapist that I must always bring curiosity to my work and remember that I am sitting with another human being and that I need to be curious about who they are. I am now a supervisor for beginning therapists and my first, and most important, instruction to them is … be curious.
- Humor — Life without laughter is unimaginable! I have a quick, sometimes dark sense of humor, and enjoy playing with people. The integration of humor within me is best shared by a story I heard from some nurses and nurse’s aids at a colonoscopy center when I returned for another exam. They all begin looking at me and smiling which seemed friendly yet a bit odd. One of the nurses then told me that the last time I had a colonoscopy there I entertained the staff by being totally hilarious. I have absolutely no memory of this which is a bit disturbing yet humorous.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
My First Chapter really began in 1968 when, at the age of seventeen, I started college and discovered the field of psychology and human consciousness. I had a huge crush on a young psychology student who introduced me to encounter groups and other types of therapies that were cutting edge at that time. The 60’s were exciting, chaotic, inspiring, and, at times, a bit dangerous but I jumped in with both feet. I was studying theater but continued an interest consciousness studies until, at age 25 I decided to return to school and get a Master’s Degree in Psychology. I was taking classes at UCLA but the department was traditional and emphasized research rather than clinical work which wasn’t the direction that worked for me so I found a college with a humanistic psychology program, left Los Angeles for Sonoma County and Sonoma State University. My first internship was at an adolescent group home and I was barely older than some of the kids who were residents of this home. My first day there, in a rather foolish move, the staff left me alone in the house during the kid’s “rest period” when they were to stay in their rooms. The leader of the kids, a tough guy with a roughly drawn, self-inflicted tattoo reading “Born to Raise Hell” etched into his arm, came out from his room and stood over me, silently glaring down as I sat at the broken- down dining table in the kitchen. I was terrified but knew that if I failed this test, I might as well just walk out the door and never return. I met his glare, staring straight back at him without moving or blinking. After what seemed like hours, he turned and walked back to his room. From that moment on, I was never threatened by any of the kids and created sweet relationships with these abandoned and mistreated young people. I stayed at this internship for one year before moving into a training program at the counseling center at Sonoma State University. To this day, I remember each of these kids, their names and faces remain with me now 45 years later.
My First Chapter as a psychotherapist has been going for over forty years with no signs of ending. In essence, I have two careers right at about the time when some of my colleagues are slowing down and retiring. My First Chapter is still being written and rewritten is as a humanistic existential psychotherapist as I plunge into My Second Chapter as an author.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
My Second Chapter as an author certainly has roots in magic, imagination, and exploration.
A Second Chapter as a woman often allows for a creative life that has been put on hold in order to take care of others to finally bloom when we allow ourselves the time and space to explore and develop our own creative pursuits. I think this is particularly true for women of my generation. Younger women have benefited from those who have gone before and paved the way for them to feel entitled to take their own power. My Second Chapter as an author has given me the opportunity to focus in on myself and what I want to voice at this point in my life. This inner focus was not an easy transition from my work as a psychotherapist. As that intense inner focus is essential for a writer, it took some time for me to shift perspectives.
My Second Chapter began years before I brought it into fruition and I believe this is often the case. I contacted the Beat Poet, Diane di Prima to study poetry in 1997 and when she asked me how I would find the time for this undertaking, I replied that if I didn’t find that time I would somehow wither away. After this statement, she took me on immediately. Over the years, I continued to write, found other mentors to work with, and over time, grew into a serious writer who became an author.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
Everything I have written has come into being because I felt called. Each time, I was reluctant to do so and then each time I felt carried along by a commitment that felt bigger than myself. All my books come from my personal experience as well as my desire to turn that experience into something that might help others. My books on cancer started from a short piece that I wrote intending it as an article that would establish and identify me as a therapist who worked with cancer survivorship. The writing coach I was working with greeted me at the door before the next group with praise for the piece and convinced me that this was a book. Surprised, I agreed without really having any understanding of all that I was embarking on. I was dragging my heels while writing it and at one point, she confronted me on taking myself seriously as a writer, that this was not just a little assignment. It was a turning point for me and I began to experience myself as a writer who took myself and my projects seriously.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I began to explore creative outlets such as expressive arts workshops, writing groups, and retreats. I worked with a jazz singer and opened up my own singing voice. The hardest barrier to overcome was my own lack of belief that I actually had something to say that was worth saying or writing about. Allowing my experience to show me both the excitement and possibilities of my creative inner life supported my capacity to overcome the self-doubt and self-consciousness I was struggling with. In the end, and to this day, I decided not to let fear have power over me.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Going very well. I have published three books at this time.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Brooke Warner, editor and founder of She Writes Press, brought me into the world of the professional writer presenting me with deadlines and guidelines that are a required part of the publishing world. She respected me as a writer but “took no prisoners” in her critique of my work. Prior to this, I would say Diane di Prima who confronted me on “writing raw” and avoiding the cautious approach of writing from the point of telling a story rather than showing the experience and splashing it onto the page.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I was giving a keynote speech at a cancer survivor conference in Seattle, Washington after the publication of Surviving the Storm and was interviewed on a local radio station prior to this presentation. When I was giving the keynote, I noticed a man in the audience looking intensely at me. I usually find that there is one person at my talks who really needs to be there, in a way, the person I am there to speak to. At the end of the presentation, a woman approached me with this man standing behind her. She had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had some questions. After she spoke, the man told me that he had heard me talk on the radio and had brought his partner to hear me speak. He was a gardener, a man from Africa, who had been driving from job to job that day when he heard me on the radio. He was a gentle, lovely man, someone who had been touched by my words and by what I had written. He reminded me of why I do what I do.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I have struggled with believing in myself all my life. In my opinion, this is particularly true for women … starting out with girls who are not encouraged (particularly in my generation) to stand out, to stand tall, and God forbid to be competitive in a world that demands that stance for success. That is no longer as true but I also believe in humility as an essential quality of creating what is authentic no matter what genre one is working within. I have been a psychotherapist for over 40 years yet each time I sit in the chair and begin a session, I am always a beginner. When I was first starting out I told my therapist that I was terrified because I didn’t know what I was doing and this was paralyzing me. She told me that if we should never stop questioning who we are and what we are doing as therapists. I do not trust those who believe that they don’t need to examine what they are doing in their work, these are dangerous people in that they have stopped questioning. This is the death of growth … and only produces dull and trite conversations that essentially have no meaning at all. The death of creativity and aliveness occurs when we stick with our canned answers and forget to value questions that engage us in new ways.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I am blessed to have a strong support system in place. As a psychotherapist, I have two consultation groups a month so I am familiar with the necessity of receiving feedback along with the continued importance of educating myself throughout the life span. I have worked with an editor throughout the writing of all my books. I believe this to be essential for writers. You have to find the group, the editor, the mentor who both encourages and confronts you as both are essential to success.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
My comfort zone has always involved focusing on others rather than myself. I had to confront my own discomfort in believing that I had something valid and interesting to say, or write about. My current book tells the story of my husband’s sudden death. The book is written from the raw, torn apart center of my soul. I went out on a steep and scary ledge to put this into the world for others to witness. My private grief is visible for all to know and the vulnerability of that put me as far out of my comfort zone as I have ever traveled.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Learn to navigate the publishing industry. Much like my experiences in Hollywood as a young actress, I was unprepared for the cold, hard realities of the publishing world. Years ago I attended a writer’s conference hoping to find a publisher for my first book which was written to help cancer survivors. A presenter who was featured as a successful author had published a book on cat massage and I felt demoralized. Then an MD who had heard me present my work approached me and encouraged me to continue in my own direction and not to be influenced by what is deemed a success in the commercial market.
- Know your audience but remember who you are and don’t lose track of that. This piece of advice has come from every good writing teacher I have ever had.
- The publicist you hire is a key element to your success. My current publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, is excellent and completely supports my work. I have an author friend who hired a publicist who basically left her in the lurch when the going got tough.
- Be careful who you trust with your manuscript. I once hired an editor who is quite famous, I was blinded by her success. At our first session, she greeted me with a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut my manuscript into pieces, all the while criticizing the work while I sat frozen in her presence. When she got to the end of the manuscript, she realized that she had completely misunderstood the work and, half-heartedly apologized. Needless to say, I did not continue working with her. I chose an editor with whom I have now worked for six years who has been an invaluable collaborator on all three of my books.
- As a writer … don’t quite your day job! The last royalty check I received was in the amount of $46.00.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would humanize the health care system with particular emphasis on the stigma that still surrounds the treatment of mental health. I would create structures for humanistic health care with accessibility and sensitivity to cultural humility and the needs of the underserved. I would create an equitable system for all people.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Oprah Winfrey. I would like to dine with her to discuss mental health issues and how they must be destigmatized. I can imagine us talking about how to create holistic centers to address the issues of providing quality care to the many who struggle with trauma and emotional distress. I would like to have a serious conversation about how funding must be attained to actually implement services rather than just talking about these needs without doing anything to solve the problems of accessibility and the necessity of treatment. I think that the series she did with Prince Harry, The Me You Cannot See, is a good beginning to the actualization of a spotlight on the essential importance of mental health care for all people. Maybe Oprah, Harry, and I could talk with each other about these vital issues.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website — www.cherylkrauter.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!