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Defiantly focused on hope

Like her unstoppable mother, Evelyn Ryan, the subject of 'The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,' author Terry Ryan is a portrait of stamina, joy and optimism.

October 02, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — "MOM often compared herself to crabgrass. No matter what you do to it, she pops back the next day," said Terry Ryan, the author of "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," the true-life tale of her late mother, Evelyn Ryan, married to an abusive drunk, with 10 kids to raise, no money and no profession to speak of.

Evelyn Ryan managed to do it by entering product contests sponsored by ad agencies, and winning. A fad throughout the '50s and '60s, the contests required entrants to write poems, limericks, jingles and sometimes just statements, in 25 words or fewer, about the merits of whatever product the companies were hawking, whether it was Dr. Pepper, Beech-Nut gum, Western Auto products or Purina dog chow, and Evelyn Ryan won more than her fair share.

"She had a batting average of .250," said Terry Ryan, who calculated that her mother won one contest out of four in some 24 years of competing. That talent netted everything from luggage to TV sets, a car, a freezer, a shopping spree though the local supermarket, and Arthur Murray dance shoes. Her ability to churn out catchy appliance jingles such as "My Frisk-the-Frigidaire, Clean-the-Cupboards-Bare Sandwich" enabled the family to buy a house and later saved that very house from foreclosure.

Like mother, like daughter

IT is the eve of the release of the film adaptation, which opened Friday in Los Angeles and stars Julianne Moore as Terry's resilient mom and Woody Harrelson as her feckless and offhandedly brutal dad. The 59-year-old Ryan and her 61-year-old brother, Bruce, are sitting in the sunroom of her home atop a hill in San Francisco -- a view of the bay stretching before them, the sounds of children's voices from the nearby elementary school wafting up from below.

Dressed in a battered blue shirt embossed with faded palm trees, the author is lean and spare, her once dark locks having fallen out because of chemotherapy, leaving gray tufts all over her head. "I like my hair now. I never had the chance to have a buzz cut. This is it," she said wryly, running her hand through what's left.

Two weeks after the completion of the film last October, Ryan -- who'd been suffering double vision and balance problems for months -- was diagnosed with brain cancer. There were lesions on her brain and her lungs, most of which have been removed, she said, as she pointed to a scar across her collarbone.

Her missing hair makes her seem less bereft than uncluttered, as if she's been stripped bare to reveal a kind of buoyant essence, the deep creases in her face only serving to emphasize her toothy Midwestern smile. Still, during a recent screening when she saw herself with hair -- the real Ryan family appears at the end of the movie -- she couldn't stop looking at its luxuriance.

Her mother's resilience seems appropriate today, many years later. "I think she had a wonderful acceptance, which she taught us," said Ryan, who still goes by her childhood nickname, "Tuff." "You just ignore the buzzing in the background and continue with your own writing or reading or studying or whatever. It was a great lesson for us all. You can live through almost anything."

"Focus your mind. Just eliminate the noise," added Bruce, a former lawyer turned massage therapist.

Adapted into a screenplay and directed by Jane Anderson, perhaps best known as the writer-director of the HBO film "Normal," the film is a witty examination of the contesting phenomenon, one that ironically captures both the peppy and naive consumerism of competitive jingle writing (shot in the black and white of the day, with Moore breaking the fourth wall to address the audience) and the determination, and chutzpah, of a mother ferociously working on her rhymes amid a family watching TV in the living room and a husband bellowing with rage in the kitchen. According to both the book and the movie, the Ryans were so poor that Evelyn was once forced to serve her family a soup that had been invaded by bugs and tried to pretend that the many-legged creatures were simply spices.

"I've never seen a piece of literature or a film deal with a housewife in quite this way," Anderson said. "Usually the pieces I've read or seen involving a woman stuck in a household ... those characters succumb to despair or rage. I was astounded to read a piece that goes against every feminist bone in my body."

Anderson identified with Terry Ryan, who in the film and in real life repeatedly asks her mother why she stayed. "By the time she finished that memoir, she understood that her mother was a woman of independent happiness," Anderson said. "She intelligently and deliberately found a way to accept her situation and not only to endure it but also to find joy in it. That's very complex and difficult to understand. It's Buddhist in nature."

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