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....
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....
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
feelings directly, instead of using the habitual defense of stuffing
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
Abandoned by our parents as they chased after their own narcissistic
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
can truly understand my journey with John. Once Carolyn told me:
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
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
of Beauty and the Beast, as Ronald Colman morphs into Quasimodo.
watched his son die of a failed liver transplant in his
twenties because he couldn't stop drinking and wore out the new organ.
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
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."
feminists and recovery police would prefer us to toss guys like
Ronnie, Neal, Jack, and John aside. They would chastise Carolyn,
and me for our weakness and lack of self-esteem. But it's never that
white when you love an addict, especially when you stop pointing the
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
childhood wounds and an inclination to attract certain events and people
into our lives. To toss John's problems out like yesterday's garbage
only have meant I would have attracted another difficult relationship.
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
which results in personal transformation. I am grateful that there are
some veterans of the recovery movement who have emerged with such
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
As a result, I learned about the true nature of unconditional love.
a bond so profound that it can surpass the ravages of child abuse, a
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?"
the theory that people with AIDS can be seen as a
group of souls dedicated to expressing universal laws of sacrifice.
may be the catalyst that advances the evolution of humanity toward
compassion and acceptance. Similarly, in the early eighties, I believe
addicts worked on a soul level to raise society's awareness about the
of drugs and alcohol. When the dust settled, I felt that we had bitten
huge chunk of the collective consciousness by striving to heal those
a societal level, as well as in ourselves.
When the nights are darkest,
souls labor toward a quantum leap in spiritual evolution. I would have
walked through fire in order to free myself from dependency, rage, and
My quest began when, as a thirteen-year-old beatnik, these words of
Illuminations were etched on my 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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