The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”

 

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.

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.

My Secret Years

My Secret Years

The Secret Years by Regan Burke

It’s been 40 years since I left the marriage. I had been sober for almost a year, he for three. We met in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was a hippie and he had been in the Army during the Korean War. We told ourselves we’d bridge our generational, cultural and intellectual divide with love. I brought my delightful six-year-old son, Joe, into the marriage.

A small group of spiritual seekers in AA brought us to a cozy bible study that recruited
prospective believers to a Sunday service replete with emotional, old-fashioned hymns. I made deep friendships there. Kind and accepting fellowship was new to me. I’d grown up thinking sarcastic banter and raging all-night arguments with ever-present booze qualified as chit-chat. My addiction got off to an early start as the legal drinking age was not adhered to in my family.

When I got sober, I hungered for a new family with a clear consistent recipe for living. I easily succumbed to the succor of an evangelical Christian cult. This authoritarian, bible-thumping church required women to submit to their husbands – even when the husbands battered the wives. I returned every time to a husband who tried to smack me into the kind of wife he saw in his neighborhood growing up. I craved God’s love through the approval of the church elders but I had a wild, willful, rule-breaking past that was hard to tame, no matter how hard my husband tried. To this day, the congenial backslapping that people use to emphasize the punchline of their stories, can trigger in me a subconscious fight-or-flight response.

th-1The day of the fight, I raged around the house rattling anything in my path when I discovered the husband had walked out with our joint checkbook. He was going to drain the account. I climbed into my 1963 Volkswagen bus and headed to the bank. There he was in the strip mall parking lot slinking into his 1970 Ford Mustang. I floored my van and slammed right into the back of his Mustang. He tore out down the two-lane highway. I pursued him, crashing into him every time he slowed down.

Eventually I was able to get up enough steam to bulldoze him off the road and cram him into a tree. The impact forced all the doors in the van to fly open, but otherwise there wasth-2 no damage to me or my vehicle. I turned around and drove the speed limit home, parked my van, went inside and fell into bed, believing I had killed him. I slipped into a deep sleep relieved from the cares of all the world.

I was awakened by two elders from the church. The husband escaped unharmed.They had spoken to the police, vouched for my good character and vowed to admit me to a mental institution immediately. No charges were filed. I spent three months in the Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, NJ. My son Joe stayed with a church family. The marriage lasted another two years.