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Healing the Reagan Wounds : Patti Davis Talks About Forgiving and Recovery in a Dysfunctional First Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The seminar is entitled “Recovering From Dysfunctional Families,” the cost is $39 and the teacher is Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Yes, her mother beat her, Davis tells the 25 people gathered at a Culver City hotel. Her father refused to acknowledge it. Her mother popped a galaxy of pills. Her father abandoned her emotionally.

In the past, Davis says, she bemoaned her fate as yet another casualty of a dysfunctional family. But now she has another perspective she would like to share. And this perspective, she explains in a melange of pop psychology lingo and New Age jargon, has to do with forgiveness, healing and recovery.

“Exactly!” shouted a woman at last week’s Learning Annex seminar. “What you went through is a mirror of what I went through. There was just one difference--my father wasn’t President.”

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Ronald and Nancy Reagan were not simply dysfunctional parents, Davis tells the class. They were dysfunctional leaders of the nation. They had the same problems as President and First Lady that they had as her mother and father.

One of the reasons for the Los Angeles riots, Davis says, was that her father was “in denial about the problems in the inner city,” just as he was in denial about his children’s problems.

“The Los Angeles riots erupted, in part, because of the policies that went on in the 1980s--the cuts in social programs, the climate of elitism . . . ,” she says. “This was just denial of all the problems going on. In situations like this, I watched my parents parent the country much the same way their parented my family.”

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When Davis saw the Iran-Contra scandal unfold, she tells the Learning Annex class, “she had a sense of deja vu. " Her parents were responding to the scandal in the same way they responded to problems at home.

“There was a whole drama to conceal what was going on behind closed doors,” Davis says, elaborating on the issue in a later interview. “People were told to shut up and people changed their stories. That’s the way my family dealt with anything that was uncomfortable. What was going on in the White House after the Iran-Contra story broke epitomized what went on in our home. It was our household magnified.

“The most ethical way to deal with an unethical situation would be to simply say: ‘We did something wrong.’ But nobody in a family like mine would ever respond like this.”

Her father responded to the Iran-Contra scandal, Davis says, in the same way he responded to her when she told him as a young girl that her mother was “hitting me year after year.” He simply would not believe the truth.

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At the time she was infuriated. But now she realizes that, “as an adult child of an alcoholic,” he was “adept at turning away from things that are painful.” With her new perspective, she sees her father as “emotionally shy” instead of selfish or remote or distant.

Nancy Reagan, Davis says, also approached her duties as First Lady and her responsibilities as a mother in much the same way. Everything was image and many of her efforts, such as the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, Davis says, were superficial, without ever getting to the core of the problem.

“Look at the way she tried to get rid of people, like Donald Regan, who she thought were messing up,” Davis says. “She was just trying to change pieces on the board to fix an image, but she didn’t dig any deeper.

“It’s like if I had friends who didn’t have the right appearance, if they looked like hippies or something. She’d say: ‘Oh, they can’t come here. How would it look?’ ”

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She now views her mother with compassion and sees her as “frightened,” rather than merely cold or abusive. Because Nancy Reagan’s “birth father abandoned her” she spent the rest of her life terrified. She could only find security, Davis says, in her ability to completely control the people and events around her.

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For almost a decade, Patti Davis has earned a living by parlaying her troubled home life into a cottage industry. She wrote three thinly veiled semi-autobiographical novels and an autobiography (“The Way I See It”) for which she earned a reported $500,000.

It might have been a tough childhood, but, unlike others at the seminar, Davis at least had a payoff when she reached adulthood. And Davis has been able to adapt her message to suit the times.

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Her 1991 novel, “A House of Secrets,” is described on the book jacket as the story of “a woman coming to terms with her debilitating childhood in a . . . successful but destructive family,” and her autobiography the following year graphically revealed her parents’ frailties and failings. At the time, there was a ready audience for Davis’ prose. The backlash against the Reagan years had begun. The economy had turned sour. Acquisitiveness was no longer in vogue. And critical attention was focused on the budget deficit, which had ballooned while Reagan was in office.

But now, during an era when victimizers often are viewed as victims and an entire genre of pop psychology is devoted to forgiveness and redemption, Davis’ new message plays well. She tells those at the seminar she once was a drug addict and at age 24 had herself sterilized--a procedure which was reversed a decade later--so that she would not pass on her mother’s pattern of abuse to another generation. Now Davis has not only forgiven her parents, she says, but also has reconciled with them. Davis and her parents were estranged for several years and did not talk at all, but they had a rapprochement recently and now see each other occasionally.

The Reagans have consistently refused to comment on any of Davis’ allegations. After her autobiography was released, they issued a statement: “We have always loved all of our children, including our daughter, Patti. . . . We see no useful purpose for further comment.”

Davis continues to lecture on dysfunctional family life--last month in New York, last week in Los Angeles, this week in San Francisco. But her latest novel, “Bondage,” is a departure for her. Gone are the familiar portraits of the powerful, distant father and the wicked, abusive mother. In “Bondage,” the father installs air conditioners and heaters and the mother is a down-to-earth housekeeper who pads around the kitchen in pink curlers and terry cloth slippers. The book, which features a panoply of sexual acts, positions and permutations, with an emphasis on sadomasochism, was liberating for her, she says, because her writing was finally free of her family.

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Davis, dressed in a style that evokes images from the book--tight black skirt and top, lace-up black boots and a wide black leather belt--has picked up some of the public speaking skills of her father. While she has no advanced psychological training, or any professional qualifications on the subject of dysfunctional families, she is at ease in front of her audience and speaks for several hours without notes. Standing behind the lectern and frequently tossing her head and running her fingers through her hair, she retains the mannerisms of the fledgling Hollywood actress she once was.

Davis, who is divorced, lives in Connecticut, is a disciple of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, and refers to her teachings a number of times during the seminar. She is in California to promote her book and give her lectures on dysfunctional families. Those at the lecture in a small meeting room at the Red Lion Inn are as interested in learning about the lifestyle of a rich and famous dysfunctional family as about Davis’ psychological insights.

Questions to Davis range from the generic--"Why is it that nice people are so boring?"--to the trivial--"What was it like having the Secret Service in your life?"--to the Freudian: “Are you attracted to men like your father?”

There are few fans of the Reagan Administration at the seminar. One man states that he was “never a Reaganite. I voted for everyone else . . . " Davis interjects: “So did I.”

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Another man stands up and announces: “I have to admit that I couldn’t stand your parents. But after having met you, the word Reagan will never again have such a negative association.”

During a break at the seminar, Suzy Wai sits in the front row and reads a tabloid article entitled: “I Tried Everything to Get Michael Jackson Into Bed.” She was intrigued by the advertisement for the seminar because of the “ritzy reputation” of the Reagans. During the 1980s, she says, they were the closest thing America had to royalty. Wai, a computer programmer from Westwood, confides that she recently read a tabloid article about Davis’ breakup with her boyfriend.

Wai leans over and whispers, in a conspiratorial tone, “I don’t want to embarrass her, but do you think I could ask her what really happened?”

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Davis never could figure out why her political and social sensibilities were so different from her parents’. But she gained some insight, she says earnestly, during a “a past life regression” with a Los Angeles channeler. (This, at least, is one thing she has in common with her mother--an interest in the psychic world.) While with the channeler, she saw herself in a number of past lives, as a soldier on a battlefield, surrounded by fighting, and she kept muttering to those around her: “This is so wrong.”

“I’ve held onto that image and it’s given me some insight,” she says. “I don’t think it’s an accident who our parents are; I believe we choose them. So maybe I chose my parents in order to effect change.”

Davis acknowledges at the seminar that she has been roundly criticized for exposing intimate family details. People ask her, can’t you just keep this kind of information in the therapist’s office? How can you live with yourself after being so disloyal?

“I don’t view what I’m doing as disloyal; I’d be disloyal if my motivation were to hurt or to cause pain,” Davis says. “I just think that when you work through something as difficult as this, you have an obligation to share it with others.”

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