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His Daughter, the Alcoholic : NONFICTION : TERRY: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism, By George McGovern (Villard: $21; 208 pp.)

June 09, 1996|Michael Walker | Michael Walker is an editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine

Comedian Denis Leary once bluntly identified the problem with requiems about celebrity substance abusers: "I'm drunk, I'm nobody. I'm drunk, I'm famous. I'm drunk, I'm dead."

Teresa McGovern was famous only in the context of her father, the former U.S. senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern. She was an alcoholic who died a ghastly, banal death in 1994 at the age of 45--she was found frozen in a Madison, Wis., snowbank where she apparently had fallen asleep after a night of heavy drinking.

Teresa had by then been drunk for great swaths of her life. She had lost custody of her two young daughters, was unemployed and existed chiefly through the financial support of her parents. She was, in other words, no different than a thousand, or 10,000, hard-core alcoholics. But her lineage and the lurid circumstances of her death generated news coverage around the world. Now comes "Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism," McGovern's memoir about the doomed daughter he affectionately called "The Bear."

Books like "Terry" have become such shopworn publishing conventions that it is hard not to be cynical about them. Despite McGovern's sincerity and anguish--the legal pads on which he composed the book, he writes, "show many small smudges--that is what happens when tears fall onto the page"--there is little about Terry's litany of addictions, detoxes and relapses that hasn't been thoroughly covered in the Betty Ford/Kitty Dukakis canon.

Whatever McGovern's intentions, the from-these-revelations- we-might-better-understand-alcoholics theme of "Terry" feels uncomfortably like an invitation for unvarnished voyeurism; that, without a whiff of celebrity, the story of Teresa McGovern's "life-and-death struggle with alcoholism" would not have been published. As Terry herself recounts in her diary after spending the night with four men in an alcoholic fog: "[I] made a point of telling them all who my dad was so they wouldn't think I was just a drunk and a loser."

What "Terry" and books like it need most but seldom get is an unsentimental reckoning of the steep price paid by those closest to their self-destructing protagonists. Living with unrecovered alcoholics can be hell, but McGovern keeps the details of his and his family's feelings about Terry's behavior mostly at arm's length. And he never fully explores the impact that the family's emotional vagaries may have had on Terry. For example, we learn that after giving birth to Terry, Eleanor McGovern enters a depression that lasts for "long and painful months."

But McGovern barely contemplates the ramifications. "We were not capable then--nor are we now--of evaluating the impact of Eleanor's depression on our children," he concludes.

Whether by nature or nurture, young Terry is soon compulsively cleaning her room at all hours, and by high school and college is drinking and doping heavily. There are glimmers of hope: She campaigns energetically and effectively for her father, remains sober for eight years during her 30s and, despite the countless relapses, never gives up trying to beat her addiction. But when the relationship that produced her daughters unravels, she begins a free fall that finally ends in that Wisconsin snowbank.

Yes, it's the same sad story. And that's the problem.

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