Brave Betty

In a first lady’s courageous revelations about addiction, a family found its lifeboat

I remember making the call. My hand was shaking. “I would like to speak with Dr. Pursch,” I said. I was put on hold and then came his voice—an accent, eastern European. What stays with me was his no-nonsense warmth. “My father has a serious drinking problem,” I said, uttering the sentence out loud for the first time in my life—certainly to anyone outside the family. “I need your help. I don’t know what to do.”

It was the early 1980s. My father was in his sixties. I adored my father—or rather I adored part of him, the daytime part. We would have lunch and make each other laugh and talk about movies and books. He lived about half a mile from me, and he would come to the house in his blue jean overalls and fix things, doors and shelves. But after dark everything changed. From 6 p.m. on he would drink vodka. I was terrified that he would kill somebody when he was driving. In L.A. that’s always the fear. He was also an emotional bully with his wife—my stepmother—and my teenage half brother. They would summon me to talk him down from his vituperative high, which I generally could do. But night after night I would leave feeling ill and humiliated, as if I were simply putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Finally I had had it. I was sick of him and sick of myself.

There was no Internet. You couldn’t Google a slew of articles about how to confront a substance abuser. The tabloids were not yet offering the chronicles of party girl princesses like Lindsay Lohan, and Los Angeles had yet to become a rehab capital. The topic itself was taboo—despite the rock and roll ’60s, the overdose deaths of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison that had been glamorized by the media. That kind of substance abuse belonged to a different world, not the one I lived in. Mine was the quotidian disturbance of the domestic space by an addict. Nobody was really talking about that, about the tense, slurry-sad days. Nobody but Betty Ford.

I had watched, fascinated, as this highly regarded president’s wife admitted to her own problems and talked about getting help. She was the one throwing out the lifeline. Her center in the desert wasn’t up and running yet, or I probably would have called there. Instead I went to the library and read all the articles about her, and that’s how I came across the name of Dr. Joseph Pursch. He was the physician who had treated Ford in 1978, when he was director of the Alcohol Rehabilitation Service at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Long Beach. When I tracked him down, he was the head of the Care Unit, a treatment center in Orange County. “What should I do?” I asked him.

He put me in touch with a counselor who orchestrated “interventions,” a word I don’t think I was familiar with—not in relation to booze. We should gather together the whole family, this man said, and surprise my father en masse. We had to make him sit and listen as we rattled off his drunken misdeeds—each with our carefully prepared personal list—and tell him how his behavior offended and embarrassed us. I felt queasy just listening to the guy. How could this possibly work? Why would my father sit there and take it? Would he still love me? Oh yes, that was there, too. I later read that Betty Ford had been hurt and angry when her husband and kids performed their intervention with her. But I was willing to risk losing my father. In effect, I already had.

What I didn’t know, as I took my first wobbly steps into the 12-step universe, was how many others were drawing strength from Betty Ford. Here was the best kind of ordinary woman, one who radiated Midwestern motherliness even as she found herself in the most extraordinary circumstances: living in the White House. She had a natural honesty that made her confront her demons and her shame in public. She didn’t duck. She let us in. She made herself an example. It wasn’t the first such disclosure. That had happened four years earlier when she’d talked openly about having a radical mastectomy. In today’s tell-all, bare-all culture, it is hard for some to understand what the atmosphere was like—how closeted so many people and issues were. I was a frisky young feminist, dancing to the tune of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, with their liberationist exhortations. Along came this rather proper-looking politician’s wife, with her novel and thrilling candor, and she went straight to the head of my role model line. Betty Ford had the courage to face her maladies without a scintilla of the victim mixed in. When asked whether she felt sorry for herself over having her right breast removed, she replied, “Heavens, no. I’ve heard women say they’d rather lose their right arm, and I can’t imagine it. It’s so stupid.”

She was also, though outwardly Republican, strong on women’s issues. She had endorsed legalized abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. These were important markers, as was her forthright attitude about having cancer. But her openness about her dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs resonated on a primal level for me. Whoa! Betty Ford. If she could go to a clinic and get well (along with her family), then the rest of us could, too.    


Ford was the angel on my family’s shoulders that sunny morning as we drove down Dad’s driveway to challenge him. This would work. This had to work. No more hiding in the shadows, tiptoeing around the user in our midst. My father appeared at the front door in his robe, coffee mug in hand, hung over. I saw right then he knew what was coming and that we meant business. He listened as we talked, and he squirmed, and then he signed on for a monthlong stay at the Care Unit. “Why did you have to pick Orange County?” he asked, trolling for a laugh. “You know I don’t like it down there.”

But he went and spent three weeks by himself, at the end of which we joined him for the intense five-day emotional maelstrom with the jolly name of “Family Week.”  The “we” was complicated. My stepmother was in Europe. She insisted my father didn’t have a problem. Some members of the get-Daddy-sober group backed out, citing busy schedules or other reasons. That left my half brother and me to do the honors. We arrived at night and checked into the motel up the road from “the Unit,” as he and I called it. Pop is in “the Unit”; I also used the word “incarcerated,” a little grumpy gallows humor.

When I see my father for the first time, he seems on board. He has pals; two he will stay in touch with for years after—they have a shorthand, jokes. The hard detox has already happened. Now comes the slow slog of sobriety, one day at a time. He is making his bed and going to his meetings. I hug him and realize that for the first time in years there is not the whiff of booze or the Dunhill aftershave he used to camouflage it. I am relieved. He hugs my half brother, and a shard of rage goes through me. I want to say, “You can’t touch him yet. You aren’t fixed.” But I am on a steep learning curve myself. I have been told that alcoholism is a family disease, that we all play our parts, and that I must unlearn mine—the hardworking, joke-at-the-ready, A-plus enabler who for years put two olives in my father’s martinis and was then rewarded with one of them, a lifetime of olive splitting. No more. We are in this together. I have to get well, too. Damn.

The members of the other families are in the same conflicted state. I see it in their eyes: They are exhausted, wounded, enraged—and hopeful. There are maybe 25 of us, including executives’ wives who got sloshed at the country club and brothers with coked-out siblings. We all come from West L.A. movie stock or from spots in the deepest Inland Empire. Listening to everyone, I realize I have never been in a place where I felt safer. We rail and weep, but mostly we laugh—the liberating hilarity in the wake of the remembered insults and incidents. We are told that our family members have about a 20 percent chance of staying sober even if they work hard and regularly show up at AA meetings. We groan. We look around and gesture at one another. We have bonded. We say with our hands: I’ll kill him if he (or she) drinks—or gets high—again. Fists up, pow, pow.

My dad never drank again. He wasn’t perfect after our days in “the Unit”—still a big, manly World War II-era guy, he didn’t go in for sharing confessions or making amends or attending meetings. But I was off sentry duty—that’s how I saw it—and we had some very sweet times. 

I have never talked a lot about the Care Unit, nor have I written about it. But the details and the people came back to me when Betty Ford died in July. I recalled the conversation with Dr. Pursch and how terrific he was and how young I was, such an alco-novice. So long ago. So much has changed, much of it due to that one woman, Betty Ford, and her world-famous eponymous center. It’s hard to imagine any first lady in recent years having the honesty and the chutzpah to go public as she did. Sad to say, the current atmosphere will not permit it. Yet I come not to rue (maybe a bit) but to celebrate and say a personal, if corny, thank-you to someone whose bravery helped kick-start my own.                              
Illustration by Gracia Lam