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Sheila Ballantyne, 70; novelist who explored women's changing roles

June 14, 2007|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Sheila Ballantyne, a novelist and short story writer whose early work explored the changing roles for women in the shifting landscape of the feminist era, has died. She was 70.

Ballantyne, whose best-known book, "Imaginary Crimes," was made into a feature film, died May 2 at her home in Berkeley of multisystem atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder, said her daughter, Anya Spielman.

As a writer who was first published during the feminist movement of the 1970s, Ballantyne often explored "family obligations versus personal growth and creative achievement," she once said.

In her first novel, "Norma Jean and the Termite Queen" (1975), the main character is a wife, mother and sculptor trying to balance family and artistic aspirations. A New York Times reviewer described it as "a sort of West Coast 'Diary of a Mad Housewife,' " a reference to the 1967 novel by Sue Kaufman about a woman who feels trapped by the restrictions of gender roles in her marriage and family life.

Novelist and poet Diana O'Hehir told The Times this week that Ballantyne's work was "one of the first novels about women coming of age, artistically."

Her second novel and most critically successful book, "Imaginary Crimes," was published in 1982.

The narrator, Sonya Weiler, strains to reconstruct her early life with her widowed father, Ray. She moves from confused feelings about him to a painful understanding that he was a con man who rarely made good on his promises.

It was her most autobiographical work. Ballantyne's mother died when she was young. She and her sister were raised by their father, who was not well-suited to parenting.

With "toughness in observation and judgment," a reviewer for the New York Times wrote of "Imaginary Crimes," Ballantyne "produces a portrait that is funny and terrible at the same time."

The 1994 film version starred Harvey Keitel and Fairuza Balk.

Ballantyne was born Sheila Carolyn Weibert on July 26, 1936, in Seattle and adopted her mother's maiden name as her pen name.

She moved to Oakland in the 1950s to attend Mills College, where she majored in psychology. She graduated in 1958 and later taught creative writing at Mills for 12 years starting in 1984.

She married Philip Spielman, a psychoanalyst, in 1963. The couple had two children. Besides her daughter, Anya, Ballantyne is survived by son, Stefan, sister, Alison Georgeson, two grandchildren and one niece.

Ballantyne's husband died in April of complications from kidney disease.

Her last book, "Life on Earth," (1988) is a collection of short stories, many of them treating death as the nameless villain. One story in the book, "Perpetual Care" won an O. Henry Award.

Some stories in the book are about the early phases of her husband's long-term illness.

Ballantyne describes hospital waiting rooms, conferences with doctors and the inescapable question of mortality. Critics praised her for her honesty, humor and hopefulness.

"Some say there's more, beyond this life," Ballantyne wrote in the book's title story. "That we will rise, at last, above all grief. We could be weightless, soaring far beyond the planet we have loved."


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