The Cold, Lonely Fight of Terry McGovern : Alcoholism: The senator’s daughter gained sobriety, going dry for years at a time. But always something drew her back. In the end, it cost her her life.


Cold, it was so cold.

“Hey,” a man cried, opening the back door of his print shop.

“There’s a little kid, passed out in the snow.”

Another man tramped into the alley, where a small body in a jacket lay under an awning of icicles. “It’s not a kid,” he called. It was a woman, her hands tucked under her chin.

He touched her neck. “And I don’t think she’s passed out.”

He felt her hands. “Call 911.”

The fingers were frozen hard. Her skin was colorless. Her socks had iced onto her feet. She lay next to a circle of footprints, as if she had been trying to walk straight but could make only dizzy circles until she dropped.

It was just after noon on Dec. 13, raw and overcast in Madison, Wis. In the minutes it took for the emergency crew to arrive, the printer, a man who had protested against the Vietnam War and still publishes left-wing pamphlets, knelt and covered the body with his coat.


There’s something about this woman, he thought. She had a delicate, poetic face. There was a refinement to her, the dangling earrings, the russet hair smoothed into a barrette.

She had no purse, no ID; she had fallen among garbage cans and dead sunflowers. Still, he was certain: This woman had a home.

It took till almost midnight to find that home. At 11:30 p.m., a police officer and a chaplain walked up the brick path to a large Colonial house in northwest Washington, D.C.

The doorbell startled George McGovern. He was in the living room, leafing through an issue of Harper’s. George and his wife, Eleanor, had returned a few hours before from a restaurant where, over the years, they celebrated good news with their five children. Eleanor had just gone up to bed.

Through the glass, by the light of the entrance hall, McGovern could see two men, and before he opened the door, he suspected two things: They had come about Terry and the news was bad.

Senator, we are so sorry. Your daughter Teresa is dead. Last night she wandered into a dark alley and fell into a snowbank. She was intoxicated. No one found her until noon today.


McGovern stumbled into his dark study. He couldn’t turn on the light, couldn’t speak, couldn’t cry. For 10 minutes, he wandered in circles around the room, the walls covered with political mementos: a McGovern for President poster, a Time cover from October ‘72, pictures of the senator with heads of state.

He had to tell Eleanor. But how? He forced himself to climb the stairs to their bedroom, a hand on the rail, gripped by a thought so cold it numbed him to his fingers:

In all his life, this was the moment of his greatest defeat.

In a photograph, they are holding hands, raised in triumph. McGovern has just won New York’s 1972 presidential primary, and Terry, then 23, stands beside him on the podium, glowing, her fingers steepled through his. Of all the children, Terry delivered the most fevered speeches on her father’s behalf. In campaign appearances when the candidate was in another city or state, crowds would chant: “We want McGovern!” They meant Teresa.

“She was drinking even then,” George says. “We didn’t know. She would cover it up.”

He is standing over his daughter’s coffin. A veil and a single white rose cover Teresa’s hands, where the frost had eaten her skin. George and Eleanor are greeting mourners at the wake.

Teresa was 45. She had two shiny-haired little girls. She had a famous father who always saved her the seat next to his. She had worked on Capitol Hill and in day-care centers and in a hospice for terminally ill cancer patients. She was intelligent, funny, generous, charismatic, tender. She was a flop-down doorstep drunk.

All his life, George McGovern has been a textbook liberal, either an idealist or a sap, depending on your politics. He believes that human beings are improvable, that good intentions translate into good policy. He believes it is possible to intervene to solve people’s problems. He does not believe, did not believe, that at some level life is just a cold, lonely fight.

The events of 1972 shook McGovern badly. His landslide defeat to Richard Nixon was a personal and political repudiation, an election that seemed at all levels to represent the triumph of cynicism over compassion. The echoes of that defeat were so great they reverberate still; when Rep. Newt Gingrich recently fished for a term to describe the failed liberalism that in his view still poisons the people in the White House, he came up with “McGoverniks.”

But in McGovern’s historic loss, there was a certain dignity. The election was a genuine clash of ideologies, and it led to Watergate. If history has not vindicated McGovern, it has not savaged him either.

At the wake, Teresa’s children, Colleen, 7, and Marian, 9, threaded through the crowd of adults. They edged toward the casket, where a winged teddy bear lay next to the body. Throughout the evening the girls returned, giving Terry timid, darting looks, and rearranging the angel bear. In the end, they decided to cuddle the bear against their mother’s neck.

Teresa’s nickname was “Terry the Bear.” Her father called her that as a child when he’d wake her with a tap on the nose. And later, when the drinking began, George characterized it as a conflict between the Bear and the Demon. He sent her many teddy bears and bear cards to encourage her. He saw things in terms of good and evil. So did Teresa.


Good Things About Me:

* I have a very caring heart.

* When not drinking, I am a creative and loving mother.

* I am intuitive and perceptive.

* I believe that the political and social causes I’ve worked for have been humane.

* I go out of my way not to step on ants.

Teresa wrote this while in treatment at a detox center in Madison.

She was right; she was sensitive. She had a profound sense of what people were thinking all the time. Even at the detox center, while her body jittered from withdrawal, she would limp out of bed to soothe her roommate, or pad down the hall in a robe to bring her orange juice. In group therapy she liked to comfort others.

Her warmth helped heal other alcoholics, even if she couldn’t heal herself. One friend from detox, a man named Don, tells of the time he escaped from a treatment facility with a lunatic plan to run away to Bangkok. He called Terry from the platform at the Amtrak station. She had precisely 15 minutes to persuade him to come back to the facility.

Later, they celebrated his sobriety by spray-painting his initials on a rock along with his recovery date: 12/25/89. Then Don sprayed TJM. Teresa Jane McGovern. He asked her, “What’s the anniversary of your recovery?”

She smiled crookedly and said: “Just put a question mark.”

The mystery of alcoholism--who survives, who succumbs--eludes even her physician at detox, a specialist in addictive diseases. After a routine explanation about the biological basis of alcoholism, Dr. Brian Lochen shrugs and says, “You sometimes wonder if the pains of the world are just too much for some people.”

In the McGovern household, where reserved behavior was the norm, Teresa was mischievous, outspoken. The middle of five children, she was the clown, with the blondest hair and the biggest smile. She became a conduit for the family’s feelings--a wire between parents, between siblings--through which emotions ran. She was the only person in the family who got through to George, who often seemed unreachable, distracted by politics.

The battle for Terry began at age 13, when she drank a Colt 45 with a couple of friends. She stood on her head for a bigger rush. Giggling, she did a cheerleading jump off a ledge but forgot to put her feet together. She landed on her back and chipped her tailbone.

For the rest of her life, the pattern held: a moment of soaring, a backbreaking crash.

When sober, she fell in love, had children, cherished them. She ate organic vegetables, avoided sugar, went for brisk walks and took vitamins. When drunk, she woke up with strangers, tripped down stairs, dropped the phone mid-conversation and passed out. In the last five years, she entered one detox center 76 times.

The past became the present, time froze at age 13. She’d talk about her siblings as if they were children, when they were, in fact, in their 40s.

The family fought with Terry; the family fought over Terry. The children argued that her drinking was worsened by too much attention; the parents argued that it was worsened by too little. They loved her, still, deeply, and that made the arguments burn.

She drank vodka. She drank cooking wine and vanilla extract. She drank in the hospital with IVs in her arm. She drank in the park in the summer, in the public library in the winter.

There were long periods of sobriety, once for seven years. There were short periods of sobriety, such as during the summer of 1993.

Still, in the spitting, cursing, dark halls of detox, where alarms blare if patients break the laser beams across their doors, Terry was something of an oddity: She was one of the only patients who still had people on the outside who cared. Her father was always sending her roses. When the roses withered, she wound them around her headband, smiling: “They love me, they do.”

In October, 1994, while Terry was cutting out paper goblins to give to her girls for Halloween, a talkative patient named Jeff asked someone: “Who’s that ladylike one?”

“George McGovern’s daughter.”

This stunned Jeff. For the rest of the day, he was quiet. That night, alone in his room, he lay face down on his pillow and thought about what it meant. He thought about Teresa, the classy lady who wore Angora sweaters. He thought about George McGovern, who he believes was the last decent man in American politics. He thought about his own sick life, about the country, about the future, and he pushed his face hard into the pillow so no one would hear him cry.

The second week in November, a letter addressed to Eleanor McGovern arrived in Washington.

There had been letters from Teresa over the years, but there was something different about this one. It seemed so hopeless. It seemed like resignation.

The McGoverns wanted to react decisively, to rush to Teresa, but they did not. Since the summer they had distanced themselves, in a desperate tactic to force Teresa to confront the depth of her addiction.


It doesn’t sound like an evil voice. It sounds like a friend, telling you the truth.

Teresa’s younger brother, Steven McGovern, is describing the voice of alcohol, as it whispers to you when you are feeling tense or dissatisfied or empty: Here’s your old pal, I can get you through this.

Like Teresa, Steven has struggled for years with addiction. “My sister . . . is dead from this disease,” he says.

The catechism of recovering alcoholics is that they suffer from a disease, not moral frailty. But it is more complicated than that. It is true that alcoholism tends to run in families, and that all kinds of people become alcoholics, including brave people and strong people.

The night Steve heard of Terry’s death, he lay in bed and smiled, and he talked to his sister.

“I couldn’t help feeling happy for her. We were celebrating together. We were laughing and hugging.”


Bedtime is the worst time since her mother died. During the day, Colleen says, she can keep really busy. But lying in the bunk bed over her older sister, Marian, 7-year-old Colleen stares at the ceiling and imagines what she’d say if she saw her mother again.

The sisters are wearing matching nightgowns, sitting on either side of their father on the couch at their home in Madison. Raymond Frey, a social worker, met Terry when they worked together at a halfway house for the mentally ill. They never married, but they lived as a family for four years, splitting up in 1988 when Terry resumed drinking. Not surprisingly, Frey got custody.

They are grown-up little girls, especially Marian, with the mature face of a child who has been forced to parent. She once drew Teresa a six-page pamphlet titled “Think Before You Drink.”

Yet both girls are wary about adulthood. Marian told an aunt: “I don’t want to get older ‘cause I might be an alcoholic.”

The relationship with their mother was complicated, a blend of tenderness, hurt and unfinished love. The day Teresa died, she had moved into an apartment 30 yards from their front door. She used to wander by sometimes and stare into the living room window. Teresa needed to be near Marian and Colleen. And they needed her too, except that they were worried that friends would see their mother weaving through the streets.

As Terry’s condition declined, so did the frequency of her visits. Several times when Frey picked up the girls, he smelled liquor on their mother’s breath. She offered what she could, dropping in on them at recess, bringing them gum and granola bars. She tried to help Marian with fourth-grade math, but she had lost some capacity for abstract thinking.

If nothing else, Terry called them after dinner several times a week. The phone would ring once, and the girls recognized the signal: Call Mom at the pay phone at detox.

The morning of Dec. 14, Frey sat them down, said he had sad news and let them guess.

Marian winced: “Mom is drinking? Mom’s in the hospital? Mom had an accident?” Colleen said nothing; she knew.


If he had become President, George McGovern says, things might have turned out differently. “It might have saved her life. Terry would have played some role.”

She could have been a college dean, he says, or a congresswoman. “She was a born advocate,” McGovern says.

Today is one of his first days back at work as president of the Middle East Policy Council. For weeks, he has moved around in a haze, losing things, forgetting appointments, drifting through the house in the middle of the night, looking at her picture, murmuring a few words. So much of his life had been consumed by Terry.

He sits in an armchair, his usual straight-backed pose. He speaks openly about regrets, about his guilt over being so preoccupied with his career when Terry was young. He urges members of Congress to spend more time with their kids.

When Terry was arrested in 1968 on marijuana possession charges while canvassing for his Senate reelection campaign, he saw in the crisis an opportunity to make a difference not only with Terry but with the rest of America. He told Eleanor: “If the country is so mixed up that even our daughter is playing with drugs, maybe I ought to run.”

Today, he says: “My whole life’s been gambled on the thesis that through education and information and political action you can change things for the better.”

McGovern has blown up six photographs of him and Terry, and placed them side by side around the office.

“I’m not sure I ever accepted that I was powerless,” he says.


Oh, Dad, things could be worse. I could have lost my life.

It was the night of Dec. 11, and Terry was talking to her father from the pay phone at detox. While drunk the previous week, she had lost her purse with $600, the security deposit for a new apartment.

Eleanor had mailed her another check. In the morning, after her release, Terry would pick it up at her friend Ernie’s house.

If she could just stick to logistics. Tomorrow she would have a home, a place where Marian and Colleen could visit, and a crisp, new life. She would be responsible. She would be sober.

She told her father about her plans. What she didn’t tell him, though, was that the folks at detox were so alarmed by her recent binges, they were about to involuntarily commit her to a 90-day, locked-facility treatment program. Securing this apartment, she believed, was her last hope to avoid the commitment papers.

The next morning, scared and elated, she told drinking buddy Randy: “I hope I can make it this time.”

And she did make it, all that sunny morning and afternoon. She went to Ernie’s and, hands cupped around a hot mug of coffee, discussed plans to build the girls a doll house. She brought an air mattress and a blanket to the new place. She got a new driver’s license, fretted that she had forgotten to wear lipstick for the photo. She met with her landlord, himself a recovering alcoholic; flipped through her family albums with him.

In the evening an icy fog crawled over Madison. The temperature dropped to 16 degrees. And Terry began to drink.

No one is sure where she went for the next three hours. But at 8:30 p.m., she walked in through the back door of a stranger’s house on Williamson Street, a five-minute walk from her apartment.

“Can we help you?”

The woman who lives there stared at the dazed, wet woman, sliding along the hall into the living room, snow on her fingers, water dripping onto the floor.

“Is there something wrong?”

Teresa couldn’t speak. She stood there and smiled, eyes glazed, at the woman’s two children, who were lying on the couch.

“Get upstairs!” the woman told her kids. She wasn’t exactly afraid; after all, this person was well dressed and had a gentle face. Maybe she’d been in a car accident or had gone into insulin shock.

The woman called the police, but Teresa floated out the front door minutes before they arrived. She turned the corner into an alley behind the print shop. She was wearing a gray sweat shirt her father had given her. In her pocket she had five dollar bills and the key to her new home.

She dropped her scarf and lurched 10 more feet. She circled. She staggered. And finally she sank down in seven inches of snow.

The snow cooled her skin, sent shivers through her. After awhile, if she felt anything at all, she felt warm. That is how it happens. Her heart sped up, trying to generate heat. That is how it happens too. A final, desperate rush of blood to the skin. The heat melted the snow around her, all the way down to the grass. But soon her heartbeat grew faint, and then it stopped. She was just one body and there was too much snow, only so much warmth fighting so much cold.