Sunday, April 8, 2007

Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism

By George McGovern.
ISBN 0-679-44797-0

Reviewed by Tom S.

It has been said that there is no greater sadness than to outlive one's children. George McGovern, former U.S. senator and Democratic Party candidate for president, shares his sadness as he writes of the tragic death of his daughter, Terry.

On the night of December 12, 1994 Teresa Jane McGovern, age forty-four, fell into a snow bank in a vacant parking lot behind a Madison, Wisconsin printing shop. There, she froze to death. By the time Terry McGovern had reached the end of her life she had been hospitalized, de-toxed, and through alcohol and chemical dependency treatment programs numbering into the hundreds. By the accounts provided to George McGovern in his research for this book, Terry was taken into de-tox no less than six times in the last four weeks of her life.

George McGovern tells Terry's story from not only his own perspective but through the recollections of friends and family. Terry also tells her own story. An inveterate journal-keeper, Terry made a lifelong habit of recording her thoughts and feelings. She speaks quite frankly of her alcoholism and her other "demon": clinical depression. This potent combination of alcoholism/depression ultimately killed her.

Terry McGovern was the second daughter of George and Eleanor McGovern. After Terry's tragic and untimely death, as a direct result of her alcoholism, her father sought to understand why this beautiful and special woman died. His telling of Terry's story is his tribute to his daughter's life.

By all accounts, Terry McGovern was an intelligent, loving, and, when sober, capable person. But she was troubled, from an early age with difficulties that haunted her throughout her life. A teen-age pregnancy and abortion, an arrest for drug possession, bouts of depression, and early use of alcohol and marijuana were among the many things that Terry had to deal with. All of this coupled with parents she found distant and aloof, especially her famous father.

To his credit, George McGovern takes responsibility for his own shortcomings, early on. Additionally, he is critical of the approach that he and his wife were counseled to take in the last days of Terry's life. They were told to "disengage" from Terry and allow her to discover the consequences of her drinking/drugging. As George McGovern writes:

"But if I could recapture Terry's life, I would never again distance myself from her no matter how many times I had tried and failed to help her. Better to keep trying and failing than to back away and not know what is going on. If she had died despite my best efforts and my close involvement with her life up to the end, at least she would have died with my arms around her, and she would have heard me say one more time: 'I love you, Terry."

Oddly, Eleanor McGovern has almost no voice, whatever, in the telling of Terry's story. It is perhaps, for her, more than she can deal with. We are not privy to that information.

George McGovern, while a man with his familial sensibilities firmly in the nineteen-fifties, manages to convey a true sense of loss and the beginnings of a genuine understanding of the nature of alcoholism. Though his view as to what the alcoholic should be doing is also firmly in the nineteen-fifties. He touts Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve steps as the appropriate approach to gaining and maintaining sobriety.

Don't let the AA influence prevent you from reading this book. At its best it conveys the abject horror of chemical dependency at its worst. At the same time Terry recounts her own attempts to come to grips with the thing that finally kills her. Without much pretense, this is a sad and poignant and very human story. I recommend it to anyone. (1/14/98)

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