THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
I would like to thank my agent, Laurie Harper, for her unwavering enthusiasm, and my editor, Steven L. Mitchell, for believing the two voices could work together.
I am grateful to Paulette Mariano for her humor and encouragement, to Cynthia Lester for her insight, and to Brad Paulson for his love, wisdom, and inspiration.
Special appreciation to those who sustained and maintained me during the writing of this book: Pete Beevers, Beth Robinson, Andrew Harvey, Eryk Hanut, Jay Rosenthal, Mimi Gladstein, Ted Hayashi, Louis Owens, Mary A. Read, Carol Hammond and the Wichita girlz, Kim Wann, Irma Preston, Shannon Smith, Lisa Buchanan, Missy Wyatt, Pat Lawler, Nan de Grove, Luigi Tindini, Marie and Sean Warder, Carol and Jim Heidebrecht, and Duncan Campbell.
I am honored to write a foreword to this lacerating, profound, and exquisitely written book. The Other Side of Eden has harrowed and elated me, shattered my heart, and made me laugh raucously out loud. In John and Nancy Steinbeck's sophisticated and naked company, few extremes of human emotion go unexplored, often with a brutal brilliance that is as purifying as it is terrifying. This is one of the most original memoirs of the twentieth century. Anyone who finds the courage to read it as it deserves to be read -- slowly, rigorously, bringing to it the whole of their feeling and intelligence -- will find themselves changed.
All great memoirs are a clutch of different books marvelously conjured into one. The Other Side of Eden is no exception. It is at once an exorcism of family wounds and secrets, an expose of the projections of religious seekers and of the baroque and lethal world of New Age cults and gurus. This poignant unfolding of a great love affair between two wounded, difficult, but dogged lovers is also the account of a journey into awakening through the massacre of illusion after illusion, to the awakening that lies on the other side of Eden. Few books risk, or achieve, so much under such blisteringly candid authority. Reading it is as much a rite of passage as a literary experience.
First, the exorcism. Many readers will undoubtedly be attracted to the most "sensational" aspects of the book -- John Steinbeck IV's terrible alcohol-and-drug-ravaged struggle with the shadow of his famous father. Anyone hungering for cheap dirt or the easy satisfaction of the destruction of a celebrity idol will go away disappointed. The younger Steinbeck shirks nothing of his father's violence, inner desolation, addictions, occasionally pathetic and outrageous phoniness, and is honest about the lifelong, life-sabotaging wounds these caused him. He is far too intelligent, however, not to know and celebrate also how generous and tender his father could sometimes be. John is also far too wise not to understand that the very terror of his father's legacy was itself a kind of appalling grace -- one that would nearly kill him again and again, yes, but which would also constantly goad and harass him, against great odds, to discover his essential self and the supreme values of spiritual clarity and unconditional love. Those who admire the elder Steinbeck's writing, as I do, will find nothing here that sours their admiration. If anything their respect for both the work and the man will only grow sadder and more mature as they acknowledge the struggles both had to endure. Dreadful though his father's legacy partly was, the younger Steinbeck did not allow it to annihilate him. He fought it, and himself, with agonizing courage to finish his life at peace with those he loved, with his past, and with the world. His father left two or three real masterpieces as signs of his truth. The younger John's masterpiece was the scale, reach, and passion of his life, a life that could only be written by a combination of Thurber, Dostoevsky, and Milarepa. The marvelous writing he achieved in this memoir is also in itself a victory, all the more rare because of the atmosphere of forgiveness and awareness that bathes it with a final, and healing, light.
This light of rare, bald awareness also bathes Nancy and John Steinbeck's expose of their disillusion with Tibetan Buddhism and its guru system. Searching for a spiritual truth that could spring them free of their inherited agonies and also for a "good parent," they both became in the seventies, like so many other seekers, enamored of the "crazy wisdom" teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche. As Nancy Steinbeck writes, "A magnetic aura surrounded Rinpoche .... Infamously wild, in his mid-thirties, wearing Saville Row suits, he smoked Raleighs, drank whiskey, ate red meat, and sampled the entire panoply of hippie pharmaceuticals." Initially intoxicated by Trungpa's extravagance and brilliance, the Steinbecks came gradually to see how abusively and absurdly, dangerously grandiose he could be. They began to understand how sick with denial of his alcoholism and sexual cruelty the community that surrounded him was. This shocked them both into awakening from "the guru dream." Inspired by their own struggle with abuse and codependency, they were compelled to speak out, especially when Trungpa's successor, Tom Rich, ran the risk of spreading AIDS with a complete lack of conscience and with the corrupt connivance of his "henchmen." Just as the Steinbecks had both lived through the exposure of their own family myths, they now lived together through the equally anguishing process (one that I know too well) of recovering from the delusion of projecting their own power onto a so-called enlightened master and from the savage, intricate cruelties of a community rotten with denial. Their account of this devastating time is one of the triumphs of their book. Both admit they learned a great deal from Trungpa and praise his sometimes astounding acumen. It is this fairness that makes all the more unarguable their analysis of his hypocrisies and ruthlessness, along with those of his community. All those who continue, despite a mountain of damning evidence, to believe that Trungpa and his obscene Regent were "enlightened masters" and who, in the name of "crazy wisdom" continue to threaten and deride their critics, need to suffer and read The Other Side of Eden. So, in fact, do all serious seekers, especially those still in the thrall of the various contemporary manifestations of the guru system. The New Age at large is still horribly vulnerable to the fantasies of brilliant maniacs and the all-explaining, all-absolving circular rhetoric of a guru system that is now, to any unbiased eye, wholly discredited. The Steinbecks make clear that the alternative to the worship of false gods is not despair; it is freedom and self-responsibility, the dissolving of a brilliant illusion into a far more empowering if less glamorous truth.
The most moving of all the different facets of The Other Side of Eden is that it is a great love story, all the more greater and challenging because it shows how the jewel of unconditional love is only revealed when all the fantasies about love are incinerated. In the course of their extreme and extraordinary marriage, the Steinbecks explored and exploded all love's ravishing but lesser myths. In the end, they were left not with disillusion, but with a mystery, the mystery of a love that transcends all known categories to exist simply in the boundless and eternal. As Nancy Steinbeck writes, "1 rode astride the razor's edge with John and although we place our bets on victory, the odds were on insanity or death, or both. As a result, I learned about 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." The road to such a love cannot be smooth or dragon-free. Because it gives everything, it costs everything. One of the permanent contributions this book makes to the exploration of the nature of love lies in its blistering honesty about the price of authentic commitment and about the continual leaping-off into darkness and mystery beyond all dictates of sense or even, sometimes, self-preservation. At stake in the alchemy of such a love is nothing less than the forging of the whole human and divine self of both partners. The final, amazing grace of the Steinbecks' marriage reveals that this, in fact, took place. Their long, often tormented struggle yielded the golden peace that passes understanding and the divinity of human passion lived out to its end in acceptance.
If The Other Side of Eden were simply an exorcism, expose, and account of a transfiguring marriage, it would still be a most haunting and remarkable book. It is, however, something more than the sum of its parts. After many readings and rereadings, I have come to experience it as an account of the cost and joy of real awakening in a modern world largely controlled by competing lethal myths.
Those who want true and unshakable self-knowledge have to be prepared to sacrifice every inner and outer comfort, every consoling fantasy or dogma, every subtle hiding place, everything that prevents them from taking full, stark, scary responsibility for themselves and their actions in and under the Divine. There is no other way to full human dignity and no other way to the radical self-empowerment beyond the betrayal of dogma, religion, and system of any kind. The human race now needs to reach for this degree of honesty if it is going to meet, embrace, and survive the challenges of our time.
All systems, religious or political, have clearly failed us. We stand, naked and afraid, before doors that are opening into the apocalypse of nature and the massive degradation of the entire human race and Creation. If we go on letting the lies or half-truths of the past haunt and mold us, we will die out. If we risk the terrible and dangerous journey into naked truth beyond illusion, we have a chance of discovering what John and Nancy Steinbeck both discovered at the exhausting but exalted end of this book -- an unshakable belief in the sacred power of true love to overcome and transform extreme disaster. The Steinbecks' eventual ferocious spiritual strength allowed them to witness truth and justice in all circumstances against all possible opposing powers. From this marriage of what Jesus called the "innocence of the dove" and "the wisdom of the serpent" outrageous possibilities of freedom and creativity can still -- even at this late hour -- be born.
The questions that this wonderful book leaves us all with are these: Are we willing to pay the price for this marriage of unillusioned hope and illusionless wisdom to be born in us? Will we risk, as John and Nancy have done, the stark and glorious alchemy of honesty and embrace the spiritual Darwinism of the survival of the most candid? Are we ready to travel through the incineration of every false truth to arrive in the Real, empowered with its hilarity and mystery? One of the most moving legacies of this book is that for all its exploration of horror, agony, betrayal, tragedy, corruption, and sheer brutal psychic suffering, it leaves us with the conviction that the truth is worth everything it costs because it sets us free. Free to love and weep and laugh and rejoice, free to witness, with steely and beady eyes, the rigors of justice. Free to become as Nancy and John Steinbeck became, electric nuisances to all myth-making systems -- personal, political, and religious -- that in any way diminish or imprison the secret of our splendor. [LC]
My husband, John Steinbeck IV, started to write his autobiography, with some mixed feelings and much trepidation, in the spring of 1990, after two years of sobriety. He was excited about finally receiving recognition for his talents, and felt a renewed sense of direction based upon the positive reaction of his agent and editor. By that winter, he had traced the serrated edge of his life up to 1979, the year we fell in love.
John had lived with Promethean intensity. Surrounded by celebrities of the forties and fifties, he was raised in an atmosphere of shameless, alcoholic abuse and neglect. At the age of twenty, he was drafted into the Vietnam War. After a year of service, he remained there for five more, as a civilian and Emmy award-winning journalist, as a Buddhist monk, and as a father and a junkie. Back in the States, he became a voice in the antiwar movement. In 1969 he published In Touch,  a highly acclaimed book about his experiences in Vietnam. He also studied Tibetan Buddhism with the notorious Crazy Wisdom guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in Boulder, Colorado, where we met in 1975.
John's mother, Gwyn, had launched his massive addiction to various chemical substances when she medicated him with codeine at the tender age of four. In the last decade of his life, battling with those demons brought him to death's door and a miraculous recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.
The gentle magic of his writing profoundly touched everyone who read the first draft of his autobiography. As he mailed it off to his editor, Linda Cunningham, he threw a handful of mylar confetti in the envelope. He knew how hard it is to vacuum up the vivid stars and hearts. "I want her to see those sprinkles on her office floor till they publish the book, so she'll remember me." Linda was ecstatic about the manuscript. After he died, she called to tell me the confetti was still in her carpet.
Since he had quit drinking and using drugs, John replaced alcohol sugars with pints of ice cream, tranquilizing the pain of unearthed memories with fat-filled food. His health had been precarious during the 1980s. He was hoping that along with his recovery, his metabolism would eventually stabilize and he would lose the excess pounds he had gained. We joined an exercise class together; it was so touching to see his painstaking concentration on the workouts, and he was enthusiastic about the endorphines they released. Sadly, it was too strenuous for him and in November of 1990 he ruptured a disc. He worked with a chiropractor for three months in the hope of avoiding radical procedures. When he grew impatient with the intense pain, he decided to undergo surgery in February of 1991.
Unfortunately, we were not made aware that the tests taken to clear John for the operation had come back with abnormal results, though we had cautioned the doctor of that possibility. Ignoring the red flags, he mindlessly misjudged my husband's candidacy for surgery. We had no idea that some surgeons are addicted to cutting. The knife wields power and, for them, the slash is the answer to everything. Mirroring John's needle jones, the orthopedist lusted to use his scalpel.
John died immediately following the operation. He suffered cardiac arrest, though they tried for an hour to revive him. When I left the hospital with our children, after saying a final good-bye, my first thought was to finish John's manuscript. Through the shock and pain, I felt an enormous responsibility to complete his work. I spent the next six months writing about his last years and the story of our love affair.
Being married to John was like having Scheherezade on call. He enjoyed telling tales and he recounted them dozens of times. His stories, and his life, were like music to me, leitmotifs as familiar as Beethoven; though there were times, especially when he was drinking, when I was convinced he would never shut up.
John was the only person who could write the chronicle of his family, a story that is much more than the voyeuristic and lurid expose of Steinbeck family secrets that readers have come to expect these days. His working title for the autobiography was Legacy, which speaks of the many qualities handed down from his ancestors, often simultaneously virtuous and twisted, sacred and wounding. He did not intend his book to be a scholarly evaluation of the immense talents of his father or mother, and it was not to be an entertaining journal of his wayward youth. Nor did he want to glorify his emotional pain. His story of the Steinbeck family was to be a process through which he could heal his own very deep and personal wounds.
John's story is not unique. Statistics claim that 98 percent of families are dysfunctional. Where it becomes exceptional is the way it speaks so eloquently of such archetypal themes as power struggles between father and son, psychological suicide, abusive mothers, calculating stepmothers, and so much more. He wrote about the three rules that render families psychologically sick: Don't talk. Don't trust. Don't feel.
For years, John kept the secrets of his family, a conspiracy that eventually killed him. As a wounded warrior, he lived his life partly as the dutiful son, trying hard to win his father's love and approval, even long after Steinbeck's death. The loyal part of him kept his mouth shut to protect his parents, all the while committing emotional suicide. In the process he became an alcoholic and an addict, just like his mother and father.
In family photographs, John is always impeccably groomed, with a stiff posture that displays an anguished attempt to appear dutiful. He reminded me of one of those pictures when, on the day he died, he asked me: "Have I been a good boy through this?" Of course, he meant the debilitating agony that eventually forced him to take the very painkillers to which he had previously been addicted. I told him he'd been wonderful. At the height of his addiction, John was accustomed to taking quadruple doses of his medication. Concerned that the children and I might be distressed by his mood swings, he had been very conscientious during the past several months about letting us know when he took the prescribed amount.
For John, writing his autobiography was about balancing the ledger. Until he got sober, John had few choices in life because his addiction drove him. His healing produced a physical and emotional calm that brought him a measure of confidence in his ability to overcome his past. John's successful effort to recovery from alcoholism was probably the single greatest Steinbeck family achievement since The Grapes of Wrath. While this achievement would not win him a Nobel Prize like the one bestowed upon his father, it is far more pertinent to the human condition in America today. He refused to be victimized by his alcoholic genes or the suicidal dynamic between many famous fathers and their sons, in which the father's presence overshadows the son's sense of himself. From the sons of Cronos, whose jealous father swallowed them whole as they were born, to those of Bing Crosby, we know the archetypal tragedy and waste that occur when a father's persona devours his offspring.
John made a profound impression on everyone he met, no matter how casually. People sensed a depth of compassion, humor, and dignity in him, which they wanted viscerally to bottle, later to uncork and relive the impact. As one whom he intimately affected on a daily basis, I wanted to preserve the memory of his uncanny instinct for waking people up.
I needed to finish his manuscript for our family. As a survivor of severe childhood abuse, I, too, am balancing a ledger by lending completion to the process John started. Nobel Prizes and international acclaim do not sustain a family, or even the person getting the awards for more than the time it takes to receive them. By the time John Steinbeck accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, John IV and his brother, Thom, were already alcoholics and addicts. Their mother was in the late stage of her own alcoholism and Steinbeck himself was burned out on life, alcohol, and drugs. These awards did not help him or his family get better. They merely provided more varnish to cover up the pain, their collective illness, and their profound vulnerability.
John Steinbeck Sr. knew life at a readily observable, but illusory and transitory level. John IV, however, discovered what his father and much of his adoring public missed. That The Grapes of Wrath kind of poverty was Steinbeck's own. Not the poverty of corporeal substance that the great author immortalized, but a deeper, more insidious and lethal poverty of the soul and the spirit.
By slowly working through his recovery, John emerged victorious over anger, resentment, rejection, and humiliation. He could take his seat as a person in his own right, removed from the shadow of his father's haunting presence and his mother's violent temper. Writing his autobiography allowed him to heal the emotional wounds buried deep in his heart. He was finally looking ahead to a life he himself defined, a life that included loving friends and family instead of heaps of abuse and both physical and emotional toxicity.
In the years before his death, John was joyously playing with the different hats of a contented midlife man, a father, a husband, and a sober friend. Johnny would proclaim, "No drug is as potent as sobriety. Accepting life on life's terms is the strongest dope on earth. I wish I had known that twenty years ago." He found it amazing that creativity and joy were the extraordinary fruits that freedom from addiction offered.
The clarity and serenity that John had achieved in his last years were a great solace to those of us who were close to him. His difficulties with finances, setting boundaries, and trying to please people stopped being so unmanageable. He was proud of his maturity. The old feelings had not completely disappeared. Instead, they merely lost their crippling power to cramp his self-image.
Johnny used to tell me how lucky I was that he was even alive because of the short-lived track record of sons of famous fathers, such as John F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, and William Burroughs. I am grateful for every day we spent together, in spite of the pain and confusion of the early years. The success of our journey to heal childhood wounds eventually left us breathless and secretly believing we had discovered an enlightened kingdom in the heart of our relationship.
Unfortunately, the wounds were too deep for John's body to recover enough to grant him longevity. For some, the diseases of child abuse and addiction are fatal. Left untreated, they end in death or insanity. Johnny worked diligently to achieve his emotional recovery. He regained his sanity, but the abuse heaped upon his body proved too much for his system. His loyal heart gave out. Perhaps abuse and sorrow were the lessons he had to master, even if it cost him his life. The joyous rewards ahead were not the harvest he was destined to reap. In his life and his death there are messages John would have wanted to transmit, to ease the suffering caused by poisonous family dynamics.
The night before John's operation, I had a dream that Sable, our German Shepherd puppy, had died. A voice said, I am taking my angel back today. I want you to have acceptance about the death, and never doubt that it was not meant to be. You must not feel sorry for yourself. This sacrifice is evidence of a greater plan.
Johnny and I lay in bed the next morning, drinking coffee, sharing dreams, as we did every morning of our lives together. We never tired of that ritual. Born in the Chinese year of the Fire Dog, he groaned, "I hope that dog in your dream isn't me." I had never thought about his dying in surgery until then. I looked at him in horror.
"Johnny, if something happens, will you promise to come back as our guardian angel?"
He didn't miss a beat. "If I die today, I will always be with you and Megan and Michael. I will never leave you."
I didn't miss a beat either. "What about the book? Do you want me to finish it ... you know, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?" That was our favorite movie, about a woman who writes best-selling adventure stories dictated by an adoring, phantom sea captain.
"Absolutely," he said, before I could finish the sentence. "It'll be easy. I'll be there to finish it with you."
And then we laughed. We thought it was banter. We thought we were cute. We never thought either of us would die young. We finished our coffee and drove to the hospital. A few hours later, John was dead.
Our daughter, Megan, went on a personal photographic expedition the summer after Johnny's death. She stopped at the Steinbeck Library in Salinas, California, to find photographs of him for the book. She called to tell me about one picture in particular that had a powerful effect on her. It was taken a few days before John and I met and fell in love, at the commemoration ceremony of the Steinbeck postage stamp in Salinas. When Megan came home, we looked at it together and I experienced a similarly intense reaction.
There was the Johnny I'd fallen in love with. Gorgeous. To-die-for gorgeous; hair tousled by the wind and his wise, bemused smile. I finally shed the tears that I never unleashed when the grief first started, when his drinking was relentless, when the diseases such as cirrhosis, diabetes, and hemochromatosis started coming like locusts during a summer plague. I cried for the beauty lost and for when it was regained in his sobriety. Johnny called them "Tara Tears," after the Tibetan goddess who wept when she saw the relentless suffering that is the fabric of human existence.
I wept for the pain that engulfed Johnny and for the nobility and integrity that dwelled in his heart. For the humor, the generosity, and the wisdom that spilled out onto everyone he met, in spite of his ailments and depression. The complexity of his life, his mysticism and depth, is a Gordian knot that still challenges me. Just as our marriage provided emotional and spiritual growth, I became stronger as I emerged from my grief. Johnny relied heavily on humor just to get through a day. When I see him in that picture -- young and vital and the charisma glowing from every pore -- the paradox slices clean through me. My only solace is to remember how much he loved paradox.
After his death, I thought of all the resolutions and convergences that allowed John to regain his dignity and to step out of his father's shadow, events that eased his transition and allowed him to establish his sense of self. One of the most significant was Johnny's delivery of an acclaimed keynote speech at the 1990 Salinas Steinbeck Festival, a memory of which we were enormously grateful.
For years, John had avoided appearing at any Steinbeck celebration because he dreaded having to answer questions about his name. He had little patience for sycophants, and he was not interested in playing the "I knew your father" game with Monterey Peninsula locals. He couldn't even make dinner reservations without someone saying sarcastically, "Any relation?" People would ask, "If it's that bad, why don't you change your name?" The dead sons of Errol Flynn and Bill Cosby were not named after their fathers. The curse is not in the name. Those modern sons of Cronos, swallowed alive by their father's fame, cannot change their fate with their name.
Robert De Mott, one of the foremost Steinbeck scholars, wrote his impressions of John's speech for the John Steinbeck IV memorial issue of the Steinbeck Quarterly. "All I can say I knew of John IV in his various selves is that he seemed to have had a roller-coaster life, which he approached with the nervous abandon of a man looking for his own name. Lately, he seemed to have found his name, for that evening in Salinas I felt again both a shock of recognition and a frontal assault on my half-baked, conflicting store of rumors and hearsay. I sensed an unanticipated calm, a Buddha-like repose, as John IV read from his movingly written, calmly measured prose memoir, Legacy, a personal study of the inheritance of addiction handed on from fathers to sons. This once-turbulent and clearly talented man stepped out of the long shadow his father threw. He wasn't shining, he wasn't reveling in self-pity or victimization, but he was settling the score with his inherited and self-created demons by enacting his own healing process, in which the gift of language became an act of homage and a celebration of an enduring link. John IV's words may have been too little, but now in the wake of his untimely death, I prefer to think that they were not too late."
After the speech, Johnny and I took the kids to the merry-go-round on Cannery Row, Monterey's historical fish-packing district which Steinbeck memorialized with his unforgettable characters. We observed a family ritual we had started years ago. After riding the ancient carousel, we matched wits with the caged chicken who faithfully plays Tic Tac Toe and wins every game. Then we posed for the last family portrait we'd ever have taken. Finally, we patted the bust of John Sr. as we paid him homage. And then we drove back to our hotel in Carmel Valley. As Johnny was hanging up his suit jacket, a piece of paper fell out of the pocket. It was a note someone had slipped him unnoticed, after his speech. Written in the quivering hand of an elderly woman, this is what it said:
This was about a question about how well John had known his father, since his parents were divorced when he was two.
As we read the note, we were moved to tears, because someone had been sensitive to the immensity of John's burden. This woman's sympathy for his peculiar fate touched him and us as his family. The audience had appreciated him for his own unique and brilliant self, for the magic of his words and the gentleness of his presence. It was a homecoming, a reunion, rich in its outpouring of genuine mutual recognition. After years of being treated as the black sheep of the family, the event gave him great pleasure. We were looking forward to future appearances, and often spoke of moving to the Monterey Peninsula after John published his memoirs. We dreamed of building a house in Carmel Valley, with room for our animals and grandchildren. Long before Fate brought us together, it was mutually our favorite spot on earth, and we decided it was time to surround ourselves with its beauty.
Many of my dreams died with Johnny, but one will always live on within me and the friends who loved him. We hope that the impact he had upon the people he touched will always be remembered. Later, we may make some sense of his death. Much later, there may even be certainty. For now, there exists only the rawness and the sadness that such great gifts were silenced much too soon. And gratitude for the arc of his white-hot clarity, which lives on like a perpetual shooting star.
When my publisher suggested the book be titled The Other Side of Eden, I was quite intrigued. It intimated the shadow side of fame, an underbelly of which few are truly aware. I was, however, a bit taken aback by the subtitle, Life with John Steinbeck. It seemed to be a stretch, considering that I had never met John's father, and anyway, the book contains the epic sweep of our lives, much of which happened long after Steinbeck's death. However, as time went by, I began to understand the levels on which my life with John Steinbeck operated.
It has often felt strange, being married to and now the widow of a man named John Steinbeck. The name summons up two mental and emotional images which I have to sort through whenever I hear it. The image for Steinbeck Sr. is an almost Jehovah-like figure, formidable, brooding, melancholy. When I think of it as Johnny's name, I feel a sense of warmth and resolution which overshadows my memories of darker times. I am, after all, Mrs. John Steinbeck. In the past twenty-five years, I have come to terms with the effect John's father had on him. Those negative aspects had a profound developmental impact on our children. Ten years after John's death, the three of us continue to heal from the gothic Steinbeck legacy.
In that sense, there has been a running conversation between Steinbeck and me that resembles Abra's pleas in East of Eden, as she begs Adam to bless his son so that Cal may individuate and mature. And so, I came to accept that it was fitting for my memoirs to contain the subtitle Life with John Steinbeck.
This phrase also refers to John's life with his father, mother, stepmother, and brother and how he came to terms with his immediate family. John's memoirs are also a personal account of his attempt to come to grips with his own life and what it meant within and independent of the Steinbeck myth. The Other Side of Eden blends these three psychological portraits, sometimes like well-mixed paint and other times like the clash of fire and water, but always in the spirit of genuine, unadulterated realism. They intermingle and interact as John, in the present, reflects about his life as a boy, a Vietnam vet, a journalist, and a struggling addict. Toward the end of the book, John reflects on the process by which he came to terms with his father, his addictions, and our marriage, which was often torn apart by his substance abuse.
This book is uniquely neither biography nor autobiography, but rather a conversation with two people that provides discrete insights into our enigmatic family. Because my husband's manuscript was unfinished when he died, there were various gaps in the chronology which I have filled in order to give the reader a greater sense of continuity and understanding. John's writing sheds light on his father's character in a way that Steinbeck would never have explained himself. The inclusion of my memories about our life together lends an additional perspective that neither writer might have ever revealed. In order to weave our voices together, John's memories are interspersed among mine throughout the book in a way that requires the reader to dwell in the present moment of each vignette. This format seems particularly fitting; drunk or sober, the Now was always John's favorite state of mind. A time line is available at the end of the book for readers who prefer a more linear approach.
At a bookstore reading last year, I was put on the spot by one of those colorful Steinbeck Country old-timers who think because they've lived in Monterey for eighty years, they can claim a peculiar proprietariness about their town's favorite son, a man they never met. "Your husband speaks of Steinbeck in such a negative way," he said belligerently. "As one of our greatest authors, don't you owe him more respect?"
It was a fair question and I had to think for a moment before replying. "If Steinbeck were to portray himself as a fictional character, he would not have hesitated to show the reader the full sweep of his spirit, his darkness, his shadow side, as well as his exalted, enlightened qualities. Steinbeck dove into the deepest recesses of his complex psyche and surfaced with an uncanny insight into the human condition that few authors have ever accomplished, before or since. In that sense, this book both explains and honors his amazing ability to create unforgettable characters."
Three days before his death, John asked his brother to create a logo for my psychotherapy workshops, which he had christened "Plan B" in reference to the escape hatch every codependent needs when relating to insanity and abuse. John had in mind an image of a briar intertwined around a rose, taken from the old English folk ballad Barbry Allen, which I used to sing in San Francisco's North Beach coffeehouses as a teenager.
1. Please refer to the bibliography for a complete list of all books mentioned.