An Obituary for Shelley Spear
By her son, Max Sosna-Spear
Shelley Spear was born on August 11, 1960, in Tooele, Utah, to Gayle Dossey (ne Nielsen), an administrative professional, and Bill Spear, a mine inspector, and raised in Pinehurst, Idaho. A Midwestern girl who liked her meat country-fried and who was always game to go “hunting” for “critters”, i.e. catching lizards and pollywogs, she was also a Californian, a doctor of English Literature, who spent the last twenty years of her life in Santa Barbara. She was brilliant, beautiful, charming, and disarmingly modest, and she swept every man and woman she met off their feet.
She grew up in a modest, working-class home but found a way to put herself through college at Boise State. After several years teaching high school, she went on to complete her Ph.D. at Washington State in department record-breaking time. It was there she met Todd Sosna, the man who would become her third husband (third time’s the charm), and, in 1989, gave birth to her son, Max. Shortly thereafter, they moved to California where Shelley began teaching at UCSB and, in 1992, had a daughter, Quinn. On Halloween of 1993, she and Todd were finally married. They were vampires.
Throughout her adult life she suffered from bipolar disorder. Mental illness, as those who suffer from it and their families know, is the most insidious of diseases. It affects the behavior, the minds, the very essences the people we know and love, and Shelley was no exception. As a result of her disorder she committed thefts, drove drunk, took a fall which shattered her wrist and multiple vertebrae, found herself in jail, and was left homeless. While it is hard for those of us who have not undergone similar experiences to even imagine the toll of such a downward spiral, Shelley did not give up.
For her children and for herself, she regained everything she had lost and more: she regained her driver’s license; she relearned to walk and write; she got a job, now employing her peerless writing skills as an advocate for children with mental health issues; and, most importantly to her, she regained custody of her children, her most prized possessions, and imparted on them all manner of wonderful gifts, not the least of which being a love of language; she would live to see her daughter win the California Young Playwrights Festival and her son study literature at Stanford University.
In the early morning of November 28th, she committed suicide; she died of bipolar disorder. The battle to simply live, though we try to hide or ignore the struggle, is taking place within and all around us. More than 30,000 people will have committed suicide this year, nearly twice the number of people who were murdered, and yet it seems we do relatively little to staunch this wound of society.
She is survived by her mother, her siblings; Charlie, Callie, and Amy; her children, and untold numbers of other friends and family who will remember and celebrate her every day. She loved “to frustrate a cat’s dignity,” and she studied George Eliot at Cambridge. She was, in the words of one of her favorite songwriters, “a little black cloud in a dress.” She was a woman of inherent contradiction, a walking oxymoron, and yet, for Shelley, there was no contradiction.
Some of her friends and family will be gathering on January 30th of the new year at the Mosher Alumni House at UCSB from 2-5 and we welcome anyone who knew her to come.