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Not to the Manner Born

Back to Memoirs and Occasional Papers

Not to the Manner Born: Reflections of a Wife and Partner in the Foreign Service

In 2001 Helen Lyman began writing about the more humorous incidents she witnessed as the wife of an American diplomat. She observed the overseas life with a somewhat detached and wry view, through the prism of someone who never thought of herself as being born to the trappings of diplomatic life.

Her book recounts incidents from South Korea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Washington and stories about the famous—Nelson Mandela, Al and Tipper Gore, Hillary Clinton—and the not so famous, whom she loved, such as her first grade students in Nigeria. She wrote about her own peripatetic professional life, moving back and forth between the United States and abroad. From housewife to family counselor, to teacher, to computer trainer for the State Department, she records the human touches of each of those roles and in the process her own development.

Just as she was looking forward to a rich retirement life, illness struck. Cancer came in 1987, with all its attendant exigencies, followed by seven years of remission and ending with cancer’s return. In those later years she wrote about her early life, her family, the loss of a child, and her dreams for herself and her country. The work is thus not a traditional memoir, but a rich journey. Near the end of her life, she turned to poetry and recorded her final thoughts in that way.

Born in 1935 in San Francisco, California, to parents who had fled Nazi Germany, Helen Lyman graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Social Welfare. After marriage to Princeton Lyman, she worked as a bank teller in Boston, Massachusetts, while her husband attended graduate school. She acquired a master’s degree in counseling from Bowie State College and worked as a family counselor for seven years in Washington, D.C.

Posted overseas with her husband, she worked as a first grade teacher in Ethiopia and Nigeria. In 1991, the State Department hired her as a computer trainer. Her work for the State Department took her to China, El Salvador, Turkey, South Korea, Israel, Swaziland, and Botswana, as well as South Africa, where her husband was ambassador. The Lymans have three daughters and eleven grandchildren. Helen Lyman began work on this memoir in 2001. She died from cancer in 2008.