by John Steinbeck IV & Nancy Steinbeck
© 2001 by Nancy Steinbeck
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This book is dedicated to our children, Megan and Michael Steinbeck.
What a long, strange trip it's been
Table of Contents:
• Foreword by Andrew Harvey
• 1. Entropy
• 2. Mom and Pop
• 3. The Wound
• 4. The Wild Tibetan
• 5. Naropa Nights
• 6. Chateau Lake Louise
• 7. Room Service
• 8. Prince Charming the Fourth
• 9. Outside In
• 10. Boarding School
• 11. Trouble in Paradise
• 12. Revolt
• 13. A Geographic
• 14. The Rose Garden
• 15. At War with Dad
• 16. Home-1967
• 17. The Scene
• 18. Saigon Again
• 19. The Coconut Monk
• 20. The Turn of the Screw
• 21. Broken Taboos
• 22. Decent
• 23. Billy Burroughs
• 24. Kissing Trains
• 25. Whip Stall
• 26. Close Encounters
• 27. The Kerouac Festival
• 28. Apocalypse Now
• 29. Magical Thinking
• 30. Mother
• 31. Our Magical Kingdom
• 32. Impermanence
• 33. 1984
• 34. Blood, Sweat, and Tears
• 35. Hell Bent
• 36. Last Ditch
• 37. Last Straw
• 38. Pentimento
• 39. The Two-Foot Drop
• 40. The Receptor Site-My Father's Grave
• 41. Larger than Life
• 42. Grace Notes
• 43. Icarus's Flight
• 44. The Karma of Words
• Appendix: Time Line
JOHN: It is my fate, and perhaps my disease to be considerably self-involved, with a head full of thoughts about myself ... I have always tried to make sense of the world around me as if, by way of understanding it, my confusion would be transformed into wisdom. This is possibly a clever case of putting the cart before the horse....
I believed Laura Huxley when she wrote You Are Not the Target, and in the cosmic sense I think this still holds true. But I have to tell you, by taking this panoramic stance in Absolute Truth, I have often hidden from myself many important relative truths along the road to this ultimate view of things. I think that much of my attachment to a sweet, pacific, and perhaps reductive nirvana was due to my fear in facing the more common and coarse weave in the tapestry that ordinary people toil with.... Consequently, I feel that along with so many other things, deft transcendence became just another painkilling habit.... I find that every day now I have to give myself permission to not understand and be genuinely frustrated by what I see....So, I try to dose it down with some sort of desperate comprehension to dispel the motion sickness of impermanence on any scale.... Many of the crosswinds swirling from my head and my heart cannot be followed objectively, especially by me. And though sometimes I might want to, the idea of defending them then becomes truly ludicrous....
It seems that when all is said and done and in spite of all intent and schooled purposes, the most identifiable quality of what I have come to think of as the Father Principle is anger....The father as "The Fool" tries to teach: "Let me tell you about life, son."... the father does seem to do good, but can also do very bad things... He seems to be always indignant or mad, and always moving away from contentment and happiness to a state of irritation.... what he does see you learn, like sexuality, somehow threatens the hell out of him. So he wounds you some more, and a scar begins to grow....
Sometimes I think that perhaps it's the knowledge that there is so much that can't happen between people which turns out to be the real essence revealed....There are no straight lines in life, and the phenomenal world is unconditionally unconditioned. It's raw and wild.... From this ugly cut of primal insult comes oozing the immensity of one's loneliness and total separation, and then, if you have survived and have been rendered haplessly honest by this trauma, you are finally set free into a world of your own determination....
I think the spirit of life really has much slyer dynamics than are contained in mere tribal campfire tales about this chimera of growing up. Notwithstanding a genuine poetic and collective unconscious, modern family evolution is less dramatic and thus even more insulting in its galling demonstration than a white man's reconstruction of an aboriginal dream. Though myth helps to organize our romantic image of ourselves, in real life, it is about as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage.
NANCY: Our destination was Halifax, where [Trungpa] Rinpoche had moved the center of Vajradhatu, the Buddhist organization. He claimed that the Canadian soil was more fertile for meditation practice, the natives less aggressive than Americans, and the lifestyle more in keeping with the gentleness of Buddha dharma. Secretly, we were privy to the real reason: he wanted to establish an enlightened society. He had come to the alcoholically grandiose conclusion that the best structure for a spiritual utopia was a monarchy. Indeed, the formation of his kingdom was the latest assignment on our spiritual path.
After extensive research by his minions, he decided Nova Scotia was most appropriate for his vision, a small foreign province with little political influence. He established his own army, navy, and even an air force, staffed by weekend warriors, sailors, and aviators. Former hippies were now being told to find lucrative jobs, buy elegant houses, and dress in three-piece suits in order to build a power base. The more financially endowed were buying boats and planes, and sleek new Mercedes became ubiquitous.
He assigned a battery of henchmen called the Guards, and suddenly large men in pinstriped suits appeared at Rinpoche's talks, flanking the auditoriums like Nazi bouncers. We were told they were there to establish a sense of "container" at all the functions, standing at attention on the periphery. Some students were disturbed by these developments, but the dissenters were cajoled back into the herd by the party line that we were serious students of Buddhism, weren't we? No longer hippy trippers browsing a spiritual supermarket, we needed to manifest in a more orderly fashion. Like many Boomers, we were mutating into Yuppies, but our impetus was at the invitation of our guru, which made us superior to the others, whom we scorned because they were doing it out of greed. Advanced practitioners were told that the plan was to infiltrate Nova Scotia and eventually we would take over, thereby creating the Kingdom of Shambala. Rinpoche claimed this would happen, not by force, but by example. The simple people of that impoverished maritime province would be so impressed by our ways that they would want to join our utopian society. Rinpoche, as the universal monarch, would govern the people with his fearless proclamation of sanity.
Having lived in British Columbia for seven years, I was intimately familiar with the Canadian mentality and I was disgusted at his naivete. Most Canadians are fifties-types with distinct family values, and they don't like their boats rocked. I once asked Rinpoche in front of a room full of people if he really thought Nova Scotia would secede from Canada to become the Kingdom of Shambala, and he didn't bat an eyelash. He claimed that it would happen perfectly naturally. A few years later the Canadian government placed the Vajradhatu community on their subversive list.
John and I were uncomfortable about the direction in which Rinpoche was headed, and especially by his spiritual chauvinism, which touted his particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism as having all the answers. Students adapted a sense of superiority based on the access he provided to teachings that had previously been kept secret within the confines of Tibet's isolation. Again, we were helplessly uneducated. The same lack of awareness about chemical and codependency extended to our ignorance about belonging to a cult. Later, we were astonished at how his tactics fit the mold.
Rinpoche played into Western greed. He took fifteen hundred hip students and encouraged us to shed our counterculture plumage for a formal lifestyle, which he claimed would be a reflection of our discipline and exertion. We were ordered to stop tripping and make enough money to support him in the lavish elegance to which we were all about to become accustomed. He began to insist on a courtly style of life. Indeed, his home was now referred to as "The Court." We were to treat him like a king; his middle-class British wife was to be called "Her Highness, Lady Diana." His head honchos were titled "Lords" and their wives became "Ladies." Students who had come off of communes a few years before, or from the sweat of the antiwar movement were now lapping up the very bourgeois lifestyles we had all protested. Livelihoods changed from subsistence to opulence. We were encouraged to study the Shambala arts of ikebana flower arranging, calligraphy, archery, and dressage. Ragged-assed hippies became monkeys mimicking English nobility. It was hysterically funny and perturbing at the same time. There was a Mouse that Roared quality, and there was also an underlying oxymoronic undertow, of which John was particularly suspicious. What did this have to do with Buddhism?
NANCY: People still ask me how I managed to stay in the relationship. In those early years, despite John's mood swings and heavy drinking, we clung to the sweetness we saw in each other. Our survival-mode living skills dovetailed beautifully. We had both grown up in a war zone, so we were addicted to a constant crisis and drama. As children, when insanity screamed from the rafters, no one was allowed to speak about it. We learned not to trust or even feel emotions. However, as is typical in recovery, those childhood safeguards eventually stopped working. The strength of our emotions was so powerful that we were forced to deal with feelings directly, instead of using the habitual defense of stuffing them.
As our relationship deepened, we dredged up the unimaginable and unmentionable from each other's psyches. Our psychic Roto-Rooting turned our safe haven into the trench warfare of our childhoods. In his search for recognition at any price, John had become a master manipulator. Abandoned by our parents as they chased after their own narcissistic reflections, we both had self-esteem issues, which resulted in the deleterious practice of people pleasing. Since neither of us knew how to communicate discomfort without anger, our fights became more frequent. And then, strangely, in the midst of our mutual napalm, we could drop the rage enough to give comfort, to search for meaning and hope. We never gave up on each other.
Later, when I became personally familiar with the private lives of my existential heroes, Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, I learned those guys had grappled with the same painful issues. For many years I have corresponded with beat icon Neal Cassady's widow, Carolyn, who was also Kerouac's longtime lover. She is one of the few women I've known who can truly understand my journey with John. Once Carolyn told me:
"People, especially feminists, ask me constantly why I didn't dump Neal. The circumstances he provided me were tailor-made, exactly what I needed to jolt me out of attitudes blocking my growth. Suffering is necessary in order to change. I pity those who aren't strong enough or too blind to have known such men as Neal, John, and Jack."
Psychiatrist R. D. Laing's widow, Marguerite, has also given me enormous solace about that chaotic period. Ronnie was a consummate alcoholic, yet Marguerite stayed with him because every other man paled in comparison, drunk or sober. She knows the magnetism of a man who reveals the full sweep of human emotions, from drooling drunkard to a brilliant, creative cult hero. We've spent hours talking about what it's like to live out the myth of Beauty and the Beast, as Ronald Colman morphs into Quasimodo.
William Burroughs watched his son die of a failed liver transplant in his twenties because he couldn't stop drinking and wore out the new organ. Born to a drug-addicted mother, Billy emerged from the womb craving a fix. Although William wrote with a tough veneer, the death devastated him. Watching a loved one possessed by the demons of addiction is heartbreaking.
Allen Ginsberg struggled to detach from his lifelong lover, Peter Orlovsky, when he drank. "We made a vow to enter Heaven together," Allen said. "It's hard to break that vow."
The radical feminists and recovery police would prefer us to toss guys like Ronnie, Neal, Jack, and John aside. They would chastise Carolyn, Marguerite, and me for our weakness and lack of self-esteem. But it's never that black and white when you love an addict, especially when you stop pointing the finger at their transgressions and look at your own character defects.
Robin Norwood, who wrote the codependency gospel, Women Who Love Too Much, is a pioneer in understanding the nuances of tempestuous relationships. In her subsequent book, Why? she explores the link between childhood wounds and an inclination to attract certain events and people into our lives. To toss John's problems out like yesterday's garbage would only have meant I would have attracted another difficult relationship. In order to clean up the mess in my own psyche, I had to develop stronger boundaries to keep from getting sucked into John's maelstrom. That cannot be done in a vacuum; I need to practice in a relationship.
Norwood goes so far as to question whether the prevention of addiction is even desirable. She claims that although the stakes are high and the price one pays for failure can be immeasurable, addiction can create a pressure which results in personal transformation. I am grateful that there are some veterans of the recovery movement who have emerged with such outrageous insight. I rode astride the razor's edge with John, and although we placed our bets on victory, the odds were on insanity or death, mine or his. As a result, I learned about the true nature of unconditional love. There is a bond so profound that it can surpass the ravages of child abuse, a garbage pail of addictions, and finally, even death. Nine years later, when John embraced sobriety wholeheartedly, he made his amends to me. "My drinking must have taken years off your life. Can you ever forgive me?"
Norwood examines the theory that people with AIDS can be seen as a group of souls dedicated to expressing universal laws of sacrifice. Their suffering may be the catalyst that advances the evolution of humanity toward compassion and acceptance. Similarly, in the early eighties, I believe many addicts worked on a soul level to raise society's awareness about the effects of drugs and alcohol. When the dust settled, I felt that we had bitten off a huge chunk of the collective consciousness by striving to heal those ills on a societal level, as well as in ourselves. When the nights are darkest, our souls labor toward a quantum leap in spiritual evolution. I would have walked through fire in order to free myself from dependency, rage, and fear. My quest began when, as a thirteen-year-old beatnik, these words of Rimbaud's Illuminations were etched on my soul.
My eternal soul,
Observe your vow
Despite the night alone
And the day on fire.
NANCY: Then [William Burroughs] brought out a primitive, long, and lethal blowgun. With a devilish glint, he deposited a dart in the column and poised the gun on his lips, aiming it at my head. Laughing, I ducked around the corner. "Oh, no, you don't," I chided him. "I'm not as game as I used to be! Now I know when to get out of danger." In the hands of another man, it would have seemed a gesture of insanity. In William, it was a cosmic acknowledgment of the humor, however black, in every situation.
He told me his theory about World Assassination Day. ''That's when you get to shoot all the assholes." "But William," I protested. "How do you know who's bad enough that he deserves to die?" "Oh, you know," he said, grinning emphatically.
I remembered a time when my world had gone mad, and the only comfort I found was when Johnny told me sometimes William wished he could put an atom bomb in the Dharmachakra of the universe. His audacity put things in perspective.
SON OF A FAMOUS FATHER
You might have been a writer, musician or a saint
You might have been an actor or told your tale in paint
But now you're just a hustler who travels with the tide
An easy riding con man who never even tried.
Son of famous father, you work hard having fun
Everyone hurries forward to meet your father's son
You started in your childhood to play a special game
Bearing a special burden, your famous father's name.
The people ask you questions about your father's life
His habits and his pastimes, his crazy second wife
You answer them with patience, supply the missing link
The only thing you ask them is buy another drink.
Women are what you win at, you never do them right
Watching the way they wind up is not a pretty sight
Women can hear your nightmares, they love the game you play
Somehow you must destroy them before you slip away.
Whenever you get busted somebody bails you out
With all your charm and talent you only fuck about
You can't ignore his footsteps on any side of town
He's too much to live up to and so you live him down.
You can't avoid his shadow no matter what you do
Though he was loved by many, he had no time for you
How could you ever touch him when all is said and done?
Son of a famous father, you load your father's gun.
NANCY: Immediately after returning from Nepal, I started to experience flashbacks of my father sexually abusing me as a young child....The first flashback hit me in the hotel bed, cuddling with John. I saw myself as a tiny baby. My mother was bathing me but something felt wrong. A man was looking at my body in a sexual manner. I realized it was my father....Determined that my father would never attack me again, I held my head high, but my heart was broken....Now that John was ready to talk about his childhood, we faced our sexual abuse issues together. While mine was more blatant, John became aware of the degraded atmosphere in which he'd been raised, where Gwyn's friends had drunkenly fondled him as they removed their coats from the pile on his bed....When John realized what my father had done to me, he stopped feeling so misunderstood about his own miserable childhood.
Tanya sent me to a therapist who specialized in sexual abuse. Under hypnosis, I saw my father molest me repeatedly as an infant. It continued up to age three. I had very few memories, but my therapist claimed that feelings were the evidence, not the concrete recollections. Surprisingly, my brother supplied the missing pieces. "When I was nine," he said, "you accused me of doing something sexually inappropriate and I got punished. I remember thinking you couldn't have made it up, because there was no way a three-year-old would imagine something that explicit." Blaming my brother had been safer than blaming my father.
Although it was excruciating, I went straight to the heart of the abuse. After a session with my therapist, I would cry into my pillow until the kids came home from school. Johnny was at his supportive best, fascinated by the process. He wanted to hear everything; he never judged me, and I was grateful for that, because sometimes I felt so dirty.
NANCY: After his death, a Buddhist teenager asked me, "Did you know that some guys used to pimp for Rinpoche? They'd find him new women to sleep with." She was talking about the sharks that sought out eager new females, either at Rinpoche's request, or on their own recognizance, hoping to win favor with him. We discussed the obvious oxymoron to which everyone turned a blind eye, that an impeccable warrior's path cannot incorporate a voracious and sloppy appetite for drugs, alcohol, and hundreds of sexual encounters. While everyone was busy honoring Rinpoche's courage for being so blatant about his massive indulgences, his henchmen constantly skimmed the various centers for new blood. Women were trained as "consorts." That meant they knew what to do when he threw up, shit in the bed, snorted coke till dawn, turned his attention to other women, and maybe even got in the mood for a threesome.
Our little band of recovering Buddhists began to ask people if they thought this flagrant behavior constituted religious or sexual abuse. The standard answer you get from the male good old boys who buy into the system because it means their coffers will also be full to feed their own addictions, is that they never, in all their pimping, heard any woman complain about sleeping with Rinpoche. (I use that term loosely, because for years he was alcoholically impotent and would devise little sexual games such as using a dildo known as "Mr. Happy" or insisting women masturbate in front of him.)
NANCY: My Al-Anon sages managed to impart the profound notion of powerlessness to me.
JOHN: Writing this book is going to bring me to the Source. All I saw was God.
-- The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck, by John Steinbeck IV & Nancy Steinbeck