‘I Take Full Blame’ : Sallie Dornan says a longtime drug addiction drove her to falsely accuse her husband of abuse.
For all of his public life, there has been a painful secret in Rep. Robert K. Dornan’s political closet involving a series of aborted divorce suits in which the congressman’s wife alleged over a 16-year period that she was beaten by her husband.
The issue has hardly been mentioned in public, even though Dornan (R-Garden Grove) says his political opponents have whispered about it in every campaign since the outspoken conservative first ran for Congress in 1976.
Each time, Sallie Dornan and the couple’s five children have braced for the day when Dornan’s role as a controversial public figure would lead to exposure of the darkest period of their lives.
Now, only months after the stories neared the surface again during a politically stormy year for Dornan, the family is stepping forward for the first time to give a detailed account of their dysfunctional past.
Their hope is that the story will be told in full, because they insist that Dornan never beat his wife, despite what is said in four separate divorce actions filed and withdrawn by Sallie Dornan from 1960 to 1976.
Those suits contain graphic descriptions of abuse. In 1961, Sallie Dornan said under oath that her husband “dragged her about the home . . . by her hair and . . . exhibited a revolver.” And in June, 1966, a judge found Dornan guilty of a “violent attack” on his wife and ordered him to jail, although police records show no evidence that the sentence was carried out.
But Dornan’s family is unanimous today in saying that the violence never happened. As proof, family members granted The Times access to private medical and police records that confirmed their story. And recently, Sallie Dornan issued a written statement saying she perjured herself in the court statements.
“Every word of every charge and hurtful allegation was totally false,” she wrote.
Instead of abuse, the family’s tearful recollections are of a young mother struggling to raise five children while she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and under the control of her domineering mother. Sallie Dornan says she was driven by depression, addiction and loneliness to seek attention through the divorce suits and to lie about her husband’s actions.
“This has got to be printed as I tell you, because I swear to you on the lives of all . . . of my grandchildren that this is the truth,” Sallie Dornan, 59, recounted in an interview. “I am a Christian, I am a good wife, I am a good mother, but I sure as hell wasn’t then. It’s just very sad that Bob has to suffer what I brought down on his head through illness, major illness.”
The drug problems are not over for Sallie Dornan. A doctor authorized by the family to talk with The Times says Sallie was treated late last year at the Betty Ford Center when she was found to have resumed her addiction to Valium. The addiction was discovered only after she underwent surgery and was confronted because her behavior was suspect and she appeared bleary-eyed.
Sallie Dornan says she is no longer taking the tranquilizers, but she expects her drug problem will be a lifelong struggle.
The story of Dornan’s family is one that would likely stay private in most households. But in the glass-walled world of politics--especially at a time when character is a national test for office and women’s issues are receiving new attention--allegations of wife beating contained in public court records are hard secrets to keep.
Last year, amid the toughest re-election campaign Dornan has ever faced, the secret was quietly slipped to reporters once again. A woman who described herself only as a “concerned citizen” delivered a Manila envelope to The Times containing 11 pages photocopied from a 1966 Los Angeles Superior Court file. It said that a judge once sentenced Dornan to jail for beating his wife.
When the family learned the issue had surfaced anew, it was a cathartic moment. Within a few hours, most of the family members were involved in a wrenching discussion that pitted the demands of Bob Dornan’s public life against the need to protect Sallie Dornan’s privacy.
Not all agreed. Some were ready to candidly discuss their difficult past. Nobody had done anything wrong, they said. And it was time to stop running from a story that was not going to go away as long as Dornan stayed in the public eye.
“This is very painful,” says the congressman’s oldest son, Robert Jr., a 36-year-old construction worker who lives near Washington, D.C. “It’s something I’d put behind me (like) everyone else in my family. . . . (But) I’m glad it’s all coming out in the open. It will put this to rest forever.”
Others balked. They were concerned about sharing intimate family secrets with a public that has frequently vilified their father. And they figured Dornan’s critics would probably use the court allegations against him anyway.
Sallie Dornan said that worried her too. The scars of her past were painful enough without having them revealed in a way that would also damage her husband’s career. “It was me--and I take full blame,” she says. But Sallie Dornan says the story could be helpful if it showed her to be the victim of a common and destructive illness. She compares her personal problems to those of Kitty Dukakis and Betty Ford, two prominent political wives who suffered private addictions.
“To me, it’s . . . something that could help somebody else that is going through either hidden abuse, silent suffering, taking or abusing substances . . . people afraid to seek help,” she said in a lengthy interview at the congressman’s Garden Grove office.
Sallie and Bob Dornan cooperated extensively with The Times review of their story, and they both said they believe it is time that it be published. Over several months, the couple and most of the five children candidly talked about their history in interviews with the newspaper. Sallie Dornan also authorized two Los Angeles hospitals to disclose her private medical records to The Times, confirming that she had a drug dependency. And at the newspaper’s request, Bob Dornan was fingerprinted by the FBI to demonstrate that he had never been arrested on charges of spousal abuse.
For Dornan, there is a strong political motivation to step forward and tell the story of his family’s past. He is exploring a 1996 campaign for the White House, having visited New Hampshire last month to talk with Republican leaders about his prospects for the presidency. Under the intense scrutiny of a national campaign, Dornan expects the issues of his private life would be revealed.
Dornan also says he is considering a campaign next year against Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Telling the story “gets this thing behind us,” Dornan says. “This has been like the sword of Damocles hanging over us.”
He also says he looks back on much of the struggle with pride, not shame.
“Anybody who asks me, ‘What’s the greatest accomplishment of my life?’ I say, ‘That’s easy--there’s nothing even close. The single greatest accomplishment of my life was holding my family together when my wife was ill.’ And if I’m saying that’s my single proudest accomplishment, then I’ve got to be able to talk about it.”
In Washington today, few public figures inspire stronger feelings than does Bob Dornan. He is loved by his supporters and hated by his critics. There is little ambiguity.
Last year, he gained national attention for a series of scathing speeches suggesting there was something nefarious in Democrat Bill Clinton’s college-age trip to Moscow. Clinton shot back that Dornan was an “extreme right-winger.”
This year, state and national Democratic leaders have already launched a major campaign to target Dornan’s congressional seat in 1994. And moderate Republicans have also pledged to challenge him in the 1994 primary if he seeks re-election to Congress.
At home, Sallie Dornan says her husband can be the same loud, red-faced fighter. But being loud does not mean that he is abusive, she says.
“He’s about as passionate as you see on the House floor when we’re having a fight,” she says. ". . . He’s just a big, loud, blustering man. He’s loud when he’s happy, he’s loud when he’s sad, he’s loud when he’s mad, and he’s loud when he’s glad.”
Sallie and Bob Dornan celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary this year. They were separated for brief periods several times when Sallie left home during the family’s most difficult 16 years. But today, the parents and all five adult children describe the family relationship as close.
The oldest daughter, Robin Griffin, is 38 and has children of her own. She helps run her father’s campaigns, including a national mailing list that consistently makes him among the top 10 fund-raisers in Congress. Besides the construction worker in the East, there is another son who works as a Hollywood extra. A second daughter is a homemaker in Springfield, Va. And the youngest daughter, now 33, is the mother of Dornan’s ninth grandchild, born in early June.
Griffin was born the same year her parents were married, 1955. Bob Dornan dropped out of Loyola Marymount University that year to join the Air Force. And over the next five years, the couple had four more children.
Sallie Dornan recalls her experience as a young mother as being extremely stressful. While she was at home raising the children, she suffered the lonely anguish of a fighter pilot’s wife, often frightened that her husband would be killed in a crash.
Twice, it almost happened.
In August, 1956, military records show that Dornan was training for air-to-air combat when his jet spun out of control over the Arizona desert. Dornan ejected from the plane before it crashed into a mountainside.
His second child, Robert Dornan Jr., was born three months later.
In February, 1960, a month before their last child was born, Dornan was delivering a plane from Van Nuys to Arizona when its engine failed. He restarted the engine in-flight at least four times before he bailing out into the ocean, where he was rescued by helicopter.
Four months after her husband crashed in the ocean, Sallie Dornan filed her first divorce action, citing “extreme mental cruelty and physical cruelty.” There are no specific descriptions of abuse in the suit. And after just two months, the case was dismissed without a court appearance.
“Sallie and Bob were going to get divorced, and it was going to be a friendly thing,” says John A. Griffin, a former Municipal Court judge and Sallie’s attorney in the suit. “It was going to be a little, simple default divorce. Then Sallie got un-mad and called up and said, ‘Let’s drop it.’ ”
Sallie Dornan was introduced to prescription drugs when she had a series of major surgeries during her childbearing years. Eventually, the painkillers and sedatives became stress relievers.
Sallie Dornan says her drug use was also encouraged by a circle of friends who abused alcohol and prescription medication. But she was also vulnerable to drug dependency because of a troubled childhood in which her father was an abusive alcoholic and her mother was addicted to prescription drugs. Both parents are now deceased.
In her written statement explaining the divorce suits, Sallie Dornan says: “As a result of horrific child abuse against me throughout my youth and from a 15-year dependency on drugs prescribed by doctors following several major surgeries, I made charges against my husband. . . . My lies, even in court, were born of illness and my confusion brought about by those prescription drugs and alcohol addiction and the sad, self-serving tragic advice of my mother, who was living through her own painful addiction by doctors to prescription drugs.”
Getting the drugs was apparently not difficult. Sallie Dornan says she and her friends would see several doctors at a time, complaining of symptoms that would lead to a prescription for Valium or other sedatives.
In medical records that Sallie Dornan provided to The Times, a UCLA physician concluded in 1969 that she was abusing drugs and fabricating stories to obtain them. “Sallie has tried all sorts of devices to obtain drugs . . . from me and other physicians,” he wrote. “There is definite drug abuse.”
When life at home became difficult, some of Sallie Dornan’s friends encouraged her to file for divorce. Daughter Robin Griffin says those friends led her mother to “believe that if she really wanted to scare her husband she would have to make him afraid that he would lose his children. Alleged ‘spousal abuse’ was the only sure-fire way to guarantee custody, consequently a sure-fire way to scare my father.”
Sallie Dornan says she was also told by a Roman Catholic nun that the church would not recognize the divorce unless she said it was required to escape an abusive husband.
In November, 1961, a year after the first divorce suit was dismissed, Sallie Dornan filed a second action. Once again, it cited “extreme cruelty” as the cause.
This time, a restraining order was issued against Bob Dornan. And in December, Sallie Dornan signed a statement that said her husband violated the order by pulling her through the house by her hair, producing a revolver and pouring a quart of milk over her head.
Bob Dornan says the description in the complaint stems from a time when he was loudly playing on the floor with his children, roaring like a lion and waving a toy water gun. He said a neighbor called police to the house because of the noise and that the officer reached for his gun when he saw the toy pistol.
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa,’ ” Dornan recalls. “And I remember that as a funny story we have told many times. The officer said, ‘Will the lion hold the roaring down?’ ”
Sallie Dornan said in a separate interview: “He didn’t do it. . . . He didn’t have any guns then. They were toy guns. And he played guns with the kids all the time. It was a toy gun, and I knew it.”
The early 1960s were also a difficult time financially for the Dornan family. Bob Dornan said in the 1960 divorce suit that he was self-employed as an actor and that his take-home pay was $100 per week.
It was a period when he bounced among a variety of jobs: cabdriver, janitor, sheet-metal worker, movie-theater assistant manager, motion-picture stuntman and a soft-water salesman.
He had close connections to Hollywood, where his mother had worked as a Ziegfield showgirl, and his uncle, Jack Haley, played the Tin Man in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” In 1962, Dornan had an acting role in the war movie “To the Shores of Hell.”
Dornan also had his eye on politics. He became a guest commentator on political talk shows on Los Angeles radio and television. And after debating the head of the American Nazi Party in 1964, he was offered his own program on KHJ-TV--"The Bob Dornan Show.” In 1965, he also became a regular on TV’s “Twelve O’Clock High,” in which he played a co-pilot.
When the Vietnam War began to build, Dornan says, he tried to return to the Air Force as an active-duty fighter pilot. When he was rejected because he had spent so much time out of the cockpit, he went to the war in 1965 as a journalist for his own talk show.
It was the first of nine trips that Dornan made to Vietnam from 1965 to 1972. And today, Dornan says he looks back on that time with some regret because he left his family when his wife was ill and caring for five children. Daughter Robin Griffin learned at an early age to care for her younger sisters and brothers.
“Where I can be criticized is not putting time with the family first,” Dornan said in a recent interview. “I had six personal friends shot down in Hanoi. . . . (But) the thing I get angry about is that I never should have left my family to keep going to Vietnam.”
During those years, Sallie Dornan was sometimes employed as a nurse. She also worked in Hollywood as a motion-picture extra or a stuntwoman. And she says she would leave home frequently, sometimes after fights with her husband and other times to escape the stress, to live with her mother.
“Of course, this stress led to arguing,” Griffin said in a written statement. “As the oldest, I would wake from sleep at the slightest sound and position myself as referee between my mother and father when they quarreled. The arguments were over housekeeping, but mainly my father’s dangerous career as a journalist and his desire to continue flying in the Air Force Reserve.
” . . . Never was there physical violence,” she added. “Never of my mother nor of us children. My mother was not a scared, intimidated person. She held her own during any disagreement.”
In June, 1966, when Dornan returned from his second trip to Vietnam, he found that his wife and children had moved and that he was under a restraining order issued by a judge in the couple’s third divorce case.
According to the court record, Dornan was later sentenced to jail for violating the restraining order. But police records show that he never served the sentence.
The family remembers 1966 as one of the worst years for Sallie Dornan. She says she weighed 93 pounds that summer. One day in August, Dornan says his wife dropped the children off at their West Los Angeles home and left for a month. At times, her whereabouts were unknown.
When she came back, he says, she was critically ill and was soon hospitalized. She was put on intravenous fluids to increase her weight. And two weeks later, a doctor performed major surgery.
Robert Dornan Jr. says he has forgiven his mother and he has a “wonderful” relationship with her. But that summer, when he was 10, he says, “I begged my father to divorce my mother. She was stoned.”
Despite treatment, Sallie Dornan’s drug problems continued. She was treated at UCLA in 1969 and 1970. And in 1972, Bob Dornan says the family confronted her about the addiction when they searched hiding places throughout the house and found more than 80 prescription bottles for Valium.
It wasn’t until 1975 when Sallie Dornan filed the fourth divorce suit, which was dismissed the next year. Like the first case, the court record is brief and no specific incident of violence is described. But again, the reason cited for the action is physical abuse.
Dornan says he never knew the fourth suit was filed until months later, when his opponent raised the issue in Dornan’s first congressional campaign for a seat representing Santa Monica.
Democrat Gary Familian quoted Sallie Dornan’s sworn statement in the suit saying that her husband “has struck and attacked me within the past six months and has telephoned me with threats of violence.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Nancy Watson, who signed the court papers in the 1976 divorce case, says she does not remember Dornan. But she also says it is “absolutely possible” that the case was filed and Dornan was never notified.
Sallie Dornan says her husband’s entry into politics marked a major improvement in her life. She says it was something the two could believe in and pursue together. Since then, she has acted as her husband’s campaign manager in most of his elections. And she has joined her husband in traveling throughout the world on some of his congressional trips.
“It is fun,” she says.
Dornan says his best memory in politics was winning his first primary for Congress in 1976.
“It was on the edge of those problems,” he says. “The primary wasn’t all that difficult, but I took Sallie out in the hall afterward and hugged her and said, ‘We’re on our way.’ ”
Now, after telling their painful story, Bob and Sallie Dornan say they hope to use their experience in a productive way.
Sallie Dornan suggests that she might lecture about her experience. And Dornan says his wife could provide valuable testimony to a congressional committee on women’s health issues. He says his wife’s case demonstrates a serious difference between the ways doctors treat women and men.
“A man comes in and he’s under stress, (doctors) tell him, ‘Grow up, suck it up, do pushups, get a regular exercise program,’ ” Dornan says. “With women, (doctors) reach for the prescription pad.”
For several years, Dornan says he fought and argued with doctors who prescribed drugs for his wife, even when they knew she was dependent.
“I ran up against 15 years of ‘Dr. Feelgood’ and ‘Dr. Easy Score,’ ” he says. “Modern American medicine almost destroyed my wife.”