A Gucci-Loving Spiritual Seeker Gets It in est

In the late 1970’s, my father attended the Erhard Seminar Training, est, a large-group self-awareness retreat founded by modern-day American guru, Werner Erhard, and known today as The Landmark Forum.

After 15 years of estrangement, I became re-acquainted with my father in 1975 when I had overdosed on drugs and alcohol at twenty-four. He visited me in a New Jersey psychiatric institution to tell me about his own downfall and recovery from alcoholism.

A year later, I took my 9-year-old son Joe for his first visit to his grandfather’s home in Chicago’s Lake Point Tower. He ran his coal-mining business from a 6th floor office overlooking Navy Pier, and lived on the 57th floor with a girlfriend whose name I’ve forgotten.

I found comfort in our common interests. We attended AA meetings together, ate according to Dr. Atkins, and searched for meaning in the writings of American buddhists Alan Watts and Ram Dass. Over the years, his Kool-Aid obsession with the est Training led him to attend more exclusive retreats, outdoor survival excursions and seminars that would have led to his becoming an est Trainer himself. He relentlessly pursued fellow AAers, the doormen, his girlfriends, passers-by, my sisters and me to hop on the est bandwagon.

Joe loved and admired his athletic, yoga-practicing, Gucci-loafered, new-age grandfather. After my two failed marriages, I thought my father would make a good role model so we moved to Chicago. Before long, I capitulated and went to the est Training. The Trainer coerced me into confronting all the bad decisions I’d made in my life, which tore my soul to shreds and kept it tattered for years afterwards. I helplessly allowed my father to enroll Joe in the Training at age 14, and silently cheered when Joe walked out the first hour of the 60-hour course.

With est’s emphasis on the Self, my father drifted far away from his Jesuit-educated God-centered roots. His spiritual life ballooned into a reliance on his interpretation of the “god within” — that we are all our own gods and are capable of directing our own lives with no outside help. He preached at AA meetings to accept ourselves as we are in the present with no thought of what we’ve done in the past or what we will become in the future. People in AA tell me to this day his greatest influence on them was his constant reminder that no human power could relieve their alcoholism, that dependence on a higher power was essential to recovery. I never knew anyone to challenge him on his illogical, conflicting philosophies.

In October,1979, Pope John Paul II waved to my father as he flew by his 57th floor living room window in an open-door helicopter, his white robes flapping. The Pope landed in Grant Park to perform an outdoor Mass for 200,000 congregants. We watched the ritual on television and my father claimed that day as his reawakening to Catholicism. He didn’t return to Sunday Mass until the est organization dissolved in 1984. About that time I started noticing a slow disintegration in his character. His live-in girlfriends changed more frequently; he concocted fraudulent business deals, pitted my sisters and I against each other, sold his business and exaggerated his wealth.

In the end, he acted like he was his own god, unencumbered by moral obligations or the consequences of his actions. Perhaps he was like that all along.

Irish DNA: Inheriting A Stigma

Irish DNA seems to have a gene actively predisposed to alcoholism though there’s no scientific evidence that it’s hereditary.

The first ugly secret in my family is that my twenty-three year old mother, Agnes Donnelly Ryan Burke, was drunk in the Georgetown Inn in Washington with my father at the time her mother died. She wasn’t located until the next day. Later that year my parents were married in Key West where my father, Bill, flew reconnaissance planes across the Florida Straits to Cuba. Their married life began with Bill spending two weeks in the brig after a drunken brawl over Agnes.

Alcohol addiction begins with an immature reaction to the emotional and physical pain of adverse childhood and young adult experiences. When and why did Agnes and Bill cross over from heavy drinking to alcohol disease? Bill’s mother died when he was three so he had early trauma. Agnes was prescribed Guinness Stout when she was twelve for anemia so she had early permission. Their chaotic, calamitous alcoholic marriage intruded on the childhoods of my three sisters and me but as far as I know we are not all alcoholics. We all manifest common characteristics of growing up in an alcoholic home: fear of emotions, conflict avoidance, perfectionism, compulsive behavior, depression, melodrama, overreaction to change, and the denial of all these traits and their connection to alcoholism.

In the forty-one years I’ve been in Alcoholics Anonymous, there have been ongoing, persistent discussions, “Is it hereditary? Is it a disease?” Since the1900’s the language describing alcoholism has screamed out to the non-addicted populace, WE CAN’T HELP IT. The world has been given plenty of messages to enable it to accept us alcoholics as normal people with medical problems. Currently, the community that studies these questions is
untitledpromulgating the idea that addiction is a biological disorder from a dysfunctional brain – not inherited and certainly not a moral failing.

This past year I had coffee after church with a new acquaintance. In swapping little tales about ourselves she told me she had a match.com date who told her he was in AA. “Isn’t that disgusting?” she said. I abruptly excused myself saying I had forgotten to walk my dog and had to run right home.

Alcoholism was shameful before I was born, shameful in my family growing up, shameful in myself, and shameful now. All the work that has gone into trying to change negative thinking against alcoholics has not shifted the stigma one iota. Two million recovering alcoholics still sneak off to life-changing, life-saving AA meetings, keeping their recovery a shameful secret.

Agnes died of alcoholic brain syndrome (wet brain) when she was seventy. Bill joined AA when he was forty-five and stayed sober for 35 years until he died. He was proud to be part of a recovery community and thrived by helping others. But he never felt as though he quite measured up to the world outside of the AA fellowship. He wasn’t secretive about his alcoholism, nonetheless, the stigma hounded him until the end.

The Exorcist: RIP

The Exorcist: RIP

Truth is Stranger than Fiction
…but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” ― Mark Twain
I was 24 years old and six months out of Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County NJ, when I read the The Exorcist in 1971. Marlboro was a notorious looney bin where patients attacked one another, food-borne germs killed people, and the criminally insane were constantly getting loose. I landed there after a year-long binge on LSD and Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. My psychiatrist terrified me with photos of headless babies born to LSD-consuming mothers.

After my release, I went to AA meetings, lived with a friend, got a job making terrariums at Julius Roehrs Garden Center in Farmingdale and saved for a home for me and my four-year-old son Joe. He was living with my ex-husband and his parents.

I’d picked up the paperback at Main Street Pharmacy after dropping Joe at his interim home in Belmar. We’d played at our beloved seaside for our weekly visit and parted cheerfully. I drove to the Belmar Diner, ordered a grilled cheese and coke, and opened the book. An hour later I was in my VW van in the diner parking lot, bewitched by the reading.

The book’s demon-possessed 12-year-old girl is called Regan. I’d seen my name printed on report cards, paychecks, my social security card and driver’s license, but I’d never seen the name Regan in any context outside of myself. The author, William Peter Blatty madereference to Regan’s name coming from Shakespeare’s King Lear. My p
arents had told me my name came from King Lear. Exorcist Regan’s mother was an 51evfuyqtdl-_ac_us160_actress whose director, Burke Williams, visited frequently and drank too many martinis. My father’s name was William Burke. He loved martinis. Exorcist Regan lived with her mother in Georgetown. My family had lived in Georgetown after my sisters and I were born.

I finished the book in the parking lot as the sun set on the Shark River Inlet, then serpentined down the road to my mother’s house in my slow-moving van. I was having periodic LSD flashbacks in those days, and the dizzying words of Regan’s possession plundered my healing nervous system.

My mother, Agnes, sat up from her beer-soaked abyss as I blasted through the front door and slammed The Exorcist down on the coffee table. Who is this guy? How do you know him? Why didn’t you warn me about this? How could you let me read this?

Agnes, an avid reader but detached from pop culture or bestsellers hadn’t read the summer blockbuster. I told her about Regan, Burke, martinis, Shakespeare. She joked the author must have been one of those undergraduates who attended parties at our house in Georgetown when I was a baby. I consulted my father in New York, and he had no idea who William Peter Blatty was, though after The Exorcist movie came out he pretended he did.

Years later a friend ran into Blatty and asked him if he had named Regan after me. “Absolutely,” the author replied, “They had the best parties. That name always haunted me. Who would name their little baby after one of Shakespeare’s most craven females?”

RIP William Peter Blatty January 12, 2017. Vaya Con Dios.