I began my recovery from alcoholism in March 1978 and started attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. In those early years of recovery, I became friends with Terry McGovern, the third of the five McGovern children. She also was working on her recovery and attending many of the same meetings. Terry became a close friend of my housemate, a young man who was beginning his own recovery from alcoholism. As a result, Terry was a frequent visitor.
(An aside: When I identify myself as an AA member, I realize I’m violating AA’s 11th “tradition” which states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” However, I’ve decided that in today’s more open climate, it’s silly for me to talk about “my support group” when everybody knows I’m talking about AA. I certainly respect the right of others to disagree with my departure from this tradition.)
I knew Terry as a smart, funny, generous, tender young woman who was fighting hard for her sobriety. After her father was defeated in 1980, her parents sold their house here and moved back to South Dakota. Terry relocated to Wisconsin where I believe she had a sister. We didn’t stay in contact.
On December 12, 1994, Terry — then age 45 — left a detox center in Madison, Wisconsin. That night, she downed several shots of vodka in a bar, stumbled outside, passed out in the snowy parking lot, and froze to death. I was devastated when I heard the horrible news.
Senator McGovern’s book “Terry “
Two years after her death, Senator McGovern published his book Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism. It’s the most harrowing story I’ve read about a parent’s struggle to deal with a beloved child’s addiction. McGovern loved all his children, but acknowledged having a special affinity for Terry.
Born in 1949, she was a teenager during the counterculture of the 1960s, when a generation rebelled by experimenting with sex and drugs. At 13, Terry began drinking beer regularly with friends. Two years later, she became pregnant the first time she had sex and had an abortion that haunted her. At 19, after a Republican-orchestrated arrest for smoking pot as she campaigned for her father in the Senate election, Terry was hospitalized for severe depression. She escaped and attempted suicide.
She was 23 and appeared on the road to recovery when her father won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. A formidable campaigner, Terry was an articulate, even charismatic speaker, and managed teams of volunteers.
Though she had slipped back into drinking for a few years, when I met her in the late 1970s she was starting an eight-year period of sobriety. After she moved to Wisconsin in 1980, she remained sober and met a social worker who became her partner and the father of her two children. Terry was a faithful AA member, proud of staying sober while pregnant and nursing her children.
In 1988, she and her partner split, and the drinking started again. The father gained primary custody of the children. Between 1989 and her death in 1994, she was in one Madison detox center 76 times. She ended up homeless, exploited by men, and reduced to shoplifting liquor.
When I first read McGovern’s book, I was in tears at the description of Terry getting drunk and lurking outside the father’s house, just to get a glimpse of her children through the windows.
In 1994, after decades of having Terry admitted to pricey rehab facilities, McGovern and his wife Eleanor took the advice of a counselor who told them they had to let Terry “hit bottom.” As a result, they distanced themselves from Terry during what became the last six months of her life. George and Eleanor were tormented by that decision for the rest of their lives.
The Anguish of an Alcoholic Family
McGovern’s straightforward, no-frills account is a riveting description of a family’s attempt to deal with alcoholism. It’s based on his reading of her anguished and accusatory diaries, interviews with her friends and doctors, and reviews of sordid police and medical records.
In her diaries, Terry charged her father with neglecting his children for his own political ambitions. McGovern’s daughter Ann once said to him, “I guess the best way to get attention in this family is to be an alcoholic.”
In his book, McGovern wrote:
(Terry) needed the unbroken love, support, and protection of her family, her neighbors and her community. I ask God and I ask dear Terry to forgive me for not always faithfully adhering to these simple concerns as a father and a member of the human family. There is no such thing as too much compassion, understanding, support and love for the sick and dying. Alcoholics are sick until death. They won’t make it through the night without our love and protection.
And, just before her death, Terry described her pain in a note she wrote her mother:
I truly cannot believe I’ve let myself stay sick for so long. It’s been 4 years relapsing — pulling my life apart and damaging the spirits of those I love the most. I wonder if I can ever really have a full life knowing my children and I have lost precious time and not knowing what time I’ll be allowed now. I am so sad mom. Please pray for Marian, Colleen and me to be reunited. I want to be a daughter to you and dad — not a source of worry, anger and sorrow. I want to be a sister to my brother and sisters.
Terry’s brother Steven died in July after a long struggle with alcoholism.