The Way Patti Sees It : While Some Question Her Motives, Davis Says She Just Wants to Tell the Truth About the Reagans
While Nancy Reagan was exhorting the country to “Just Say No” to drugs, she was regularly consuming prescription tranquilizers and sleeping pills, Reagan’s controversial daughter, Patti Davis, says in her new autobiography, “The Way I See It.”
“What I witnessed was a problem,” said the former First Daughter in an interview. She declined, however, to call her mother an addict: “I’m not a doctor and that seems to me a medical evaluation.”
In a statement Monday, former President and Mrs. Reagan declined comment on Davis’s allegations: “We have always loved all of our children, including our daughter, Patti. We hope the day will come when she rejoins our family. Toward that end, we see no useful purpose for further comment.” The Reagans’ three other children also declined comment. Davis’s first nonfiction tome, which hits stores today, paints yet another portrait of Nancy Reagan as abusive, cold and cruel and the former President as excessively detached. Patti’s own life has been a strange brew of privilege, promiscuity and drug addiction. Her story embraces fame, politics and emotional scarcity. She flirted with show business, dated rock stars (Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and Kris Kristofferson) and ditched the Secret Service.
Overall, the book is rife with verbal tinder that is sure to spark charges that Davis is profiteering and vengeful--accusations that were leveled at her on the publication of her three novels inspired by her life.
And “The Way I See It” is not only Davis’s view of the unvarnished truth about the former First Family, it has also reportedly netted her more than half a million dollars from Putnam.
Davis, 39, is clearly steeling herself for the onslaught. The epilogue of “The Way I See It” is essentially an apologia, explaining her motivation in part as an attempt to answer Kitty Kelley’s explosive book, “Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography,” which was published last year: “I read the book, recognized many of the stories, and came away thinking, ‘This is never going to end unless someone tells the whole story. The misperceptions and the judgments will just keep piling up.” Kelley’s book did not call the former First Lady drug dependent.
In an interview last weekend at her airy Santa Monica home, Davis defended her book as an attempt to deepen the public’s understanding of her family.
“I wasn’t trying to tell my parents anything with this book because I think that’s a wrong reason to do something,” Davis says. “I did it really because I felt it was the right thing to do. I felt it was the time to tell the truth. I thought the misperceptions about this family were where the unkindnesses were. And it was time to just let all that drop.”
Yet Davis’s family portrait has many cracks, and she seems to relish the role of spoiler.
Davis on her personal life:
* She had herself sterilized at 24 (a procedure that was reversed 10 years later) because “I was terrified that if I became a mother I would become like my mother and abuse a child in the ways that she abused me.”
* She was addicted to diet pills for six years, starting in high school. She became so desperate for them that she stole pills from a classmate and stole her mother’s Quaaludes so she could trade them for amphetamines. She sold marijuana to pay for therapy.
* In the late ‘70s, she says her alienation from her father led her to a series of promiscuous relationships, including experimentation in a menage a trois.
Davis on her mother:
* Nancy Reagan screamed at maids and frequently fired them. She regularly hit Patti when she was a child and intruded on her in the bathroom.
* Davis’s half-brother Michael never had his own room in the Reagan home--even when it was his primary residence--because of Nancy’s attempts to keep the children from Reagan’s first marriage to actress Jane Wyman at a distance. Patti wasn’t even aware of Michael and his sister, Maureen, until she was 7, and 18-year-old Maureen was the one who told her of her existence.
Davis on the Reagans’ politics:
* Ronald Reagan called the Watergate investigation “a witch hunt” and said Nixon “should have destroyed the damn tapes.”
* The Reagans responded coldly to Jackie Kennedy’s appearance on television shortly after her husband’s assassination: “ ‘Couldn’t she have changed her suit?’ my father asked suddenly. ‘There’s blood all over it’ . . . ‘Well, honey, her husband was just killed,’ my mother answered patiently, matter-of-factly, as if she were saying, ‘The pool man is here.’ ”
* As the 1980 election loomed, the Reagans dreaded the possibility that Iran might release the hostages “at a time they thought would be inconvenient for their election plans. ‘It would be just like Carter to get those hostages out right before the election so he could win,’ I heard my mother say on the phone one day.”
* Minutes before Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President in 1981, Davis overheard someone telling her father “the hostages have just lifted off.” Davis expected Reagan to announce the news immediately, but he didn’t do so until the luncheon after the swearing-in. “He wasn’t yet President when he got the news. He wasn’t supposed to have had anything to do with it. In my view, what was whispered to him was an indication that he’d been involved before he was in office.”
Davis says she hasn’t spoken to her father in a year or to her mother in two, but she says she knows the book will upset them. (The family has pursued the curious practice of going for years without speaking to each other, only to communicate in books and the press.)
Still, she justifies the book as the fruit of her own evolution over the last few years, which she says has resulted in her own understanding and forgiveness. She says those qualities--not anger at her parents--prompted her to divulge her mother’s dependence on prescription drugs.
“I agonized over revealing this,” Davis says. “What I kept coming back to was that my mother has gotten an indictment of hypocrisy in her choice of the anti-drug issue. ‘What does she know about it?’ and ‘It’s a PR stunt.’
“I never saw it as hypocritical. I saw it as both an act of denial and a cry for help, and I saw her withdrawal from Phoenix House as a panic reaction of getting too close to her own reality,” she says, referring to her mother’s about-face on helping the drug rehabilitation center plan a new facility.
Davis says she was about 9 when she became aware of her mother’s drug use. When the two would emerge from their frequent battles, Davis says, Nancy Reagan would pop a pill--as many as four or five a day. Depending on which tranquilizer was in vogue, Reagan variously consumed Miltown, Quaaludes, Dalmane, Librium and Valium, Davis says. When Nancy Reagan turned in for the evening, she placed a glass of water and Seconal by her bed, Davis says. Since Davis was blamed for her mother’s stress, Davis says she took to counting her mother’s pills to gauge the impact of her own behavior.
Davis writes that Nancy Reagan’s dependence on drugs erupted on her stepfather’s deathbed:
“Suddenly my mother let go of my grandfather’s hand and touched the doctor’s arm. “ ‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I forgot my pills at home and I haven’t been getting any sleep. I’ll be OK for another night, I guess, but then I’ll really need something.’ ”
Davis speculates that Dalmane was responsible for her mother’s spill before the TV cameras at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit.
Davis finds the seeds for her family’s woes in her parents’ own troubled childhoods. Reagan’s father was an alcoholic, forging his tendency to blot out what displeased him.
In Nancy’s recollection of her youth, her father abandoned her mother. And her stepfather, a Chicago neurosurgeon named Loyal Davis, forced Nancy to earn his love before he would adopt her 10 years into his marriage to her mother. Nancy courted his love by watching him perform surgery. Those events contributed to Nancy’s insecurity and excessive need for control, Davis says.
Although Davis insists her book--the fifth autobiography of a Reagan family member, is not intended to answer charges made by other Reagans in other books, it nonetheless does so. (Brother Ron is the only book-free Reagan.)
Davis also acknowledges her own lie about why she failed to attend her grandmother’s funeral in 1987, a year after the publication of her roman a clef “Home Front.”
Her family’s reaction to “Home Front” was so negative that she and her siblings have not spoken since. Rather than face them at her grandmother’s funeral, she left a message with her mother’s secretary that she would be out of the country on a work-related trip. Her mother responded through her press secretary, who released a statement that Patti’s absence formed “another crack in an already broken heart.”
Davis writes: “I probably should have called my mother personally. I probably should have sent flowers, or a card. I probably should have gone to the funeral. But fear is powerful, and at that point, my fear was not only of my mother, but of the entire family.”
Against such a history, it may seem curious that Davis chose to adopt her mother’s maiden name. “Symbolically to me, it meant something having my own name,” says Davis, who divorced yoga instructor Paul Grilley in 1990. “It was that kind of complicated thing of, ‘I’m going to distance myself, but I want some approval here.’ ”
Even though Davis and her father clashed often on politics, she applauds his political commitment. And for all her battles with her mother, Davis says Nancy came through in times of personal crisis: “All of her defenses were dropped. All of my defenses were dropped and there was nothing but love there.
“There’s no way that my mother looked at me when I was born and said, ‘I’m so glad because I always wanted to have a child I could hit.’ They set out to love you, but if they didn’t learn unconditional love in their childhoods, then they can’t give that to you.”
So when Davis is asked whether she misses her family, the question somehow does not compute. She pauses before she answers: “The sad thing about this family is that there’s no foundation there for a relationship. And the times that we’ve kind of come together, usually at election times or something like that, I had this image that we were sort of trying to build a house on sand with no foundation. It worked for about a minute and then the wind would come and blow it down.
“So I don’t really know what it would be like to have a family in the way that I see my friends have families. I think it would be nice, but I can’t use the word miss , because I don’t feel it’s ever something I really had.”