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- March 04, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 8
Against All Odds
Risen from the Ashes, Richard Dreyfuss Faces His Family's Pain with Strength, Not Self-Pity
Considering what followed, Dreyfuss's comments seem eerily prophetic. Four and a half years later, in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, he wrapped his Mercedes 450 SL around a palm tree in Benedict Canyon and survived the horrendous wreck—only to face a highly publicized arrest for illegal possession of cocaine and Percodan. After a court-ordered rehabilitation in lieu of a trial, the two felony charges against him were dismissed. Three months into sobriety, he would meet, as if rewarded, a graceful young television writer-producer at a Hollywood party and, two months later, marry her.
Enter, stage left, the Laughing Gods. Jeramie Dreyfuss, on the birth of the couple's first child, would suffer a debilitating, incurable illness so painful that she could not pick up her own newborn daughter. She would endure a grueling series of operations and months of recovery as the disease seemed to subside. Then, 2½ years later, the Dreyfusses' second child, Benjamin, would be born with an abnormality that occurs randomly once in 10 million births, ultimately leaving him permanently blind in one eye.
If anything is obvious from his reaction to these travails, it is that Dreyfuss, now 43, has undergone a radical change. Happily married for nearly eight years, the father of three, with his career back on track—as demonstrated by his current roles in Once Around and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—no longer wastes time musing about the vagaries of fate.
"I hope this isn't a maudlin story, because I'm blessed," he says matter-of-factly. "First of all, I have a big salary, and I'm cushioned in many ways that a lot of people aren't. Also, I don't believe that anything that's happened is so terrible. What happened to Benjamin and his eye is horrible, the worst thing that's ever happened to me. But it's not as terrible as things I read about in the paper every day. And I always remember that."
Such equanimity was not always his forte. While still in his 20s, Dreyfuss, the son of an attorney and a housewife who raised him in a "left-wing pocket" of Bayside, Queens, N.Y., had already starred in three of the biggest films of the '70s: American Graffiti, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was also earning a reputation as one of Hollywood's most arrogant young actors.
Five years later, with a few film clinkers (The Big Fix, The Competition, Whose Life Is It Anyway?) behind him and a demanding coke habit, he awoke one October night in his upside-down Mercedes. As he was being released from the hospital, he experienced a vision.
"In my mind's eye," he later said, "I saw an image of a little girl. She was an 8-year-old, wearing a pink-and-white dress with crinolines, black patent-leather pumps and white socks. Finally it came to me. She was the little girl I did not kill by my recklessness."
That vision, coupled with the Alcoholics Anonymous program he entered soon after, brought his life to a turning point. "You do drugs because you don't want to be in the world," he says now. "But I learned that what I really wanted was to have children, to live on the planet Earth with my feet on the ground."
Dreyfuss's version of events is corroborated by his wife, Jeramie. "I never knew the Richard who drank and did drugs," says Jeramie, 42, the daughter of a West Virginia physicist and a nurse turned secretary. "John Belushi had been a friend of mine, and after he died, I no longer tried to rescue drug addicts. If Richard had been doing drugs and drinking then, I would have run the other way."
Instead, when he proposed a precipitous 10 days after meeting her, she accepted, and in March they were married. "The first couple of years, we really didn't know anything about each other," she admits. "But the nice thing about being married is that you can't leave so easily. Then when you have children, it's even harder."
They could not have foreseen how hard. In November 1983, the couple's first child, Emily, was born. Two weeks later Jeramie developed excruciating pain in her elbows, wrists and shoulders. The pain, she was horrified to learn, announced the flaring up of her lupus, an often-devastating disease that causes the body's immune system to attack its own tissue. Although the disease is not uncommon (it currently affects more than half a million Americans, nearly 90 percent of them women), it is often misdiagnosed because of its tendency, as in Jeramie's case, to mimic other illnesses.
Jeramie's lupus had not been diagnosed until she was 29, though its symptoms had appeared far earlier. By her early 20s, after leaving Michigan State University to study acting in New York City, Jeramie, an aspiring gymnast in high school, had already suffered bouts of mononucleosis, diphtheria, a nonmalignant knee tumor and chronic arm sprains. A broken back from a fall led to a spinal fusion operation at 24.
Five years later, while working as a production assistant at NBC, she suffered an attack of peritonitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the lining of the abdominal cavity. Later that year, after moving to Los Angeles with a boyfriend, she had four more attacks. "It was very scary," she says. "The doctors kept saying, 'This can't happen. You can't get peritonitis again.' And three months later I'd be back in the emergency room, all bunched up."
Finally, after running a specialized blood test, doctors gave Jeramie a name for what had plagued her for so much of her life: systemic lupus erythematosus. "I left work and went to every library, every bookstore, and I could find nothing on it," she says. "Then I went to Cedars-Sinai medical library, and they gave me their information. It said you had a life expectancy of about five years. [Since then the prognosis has improved significantly.] I called the doctor crying, saying, 'I do not have that! I do not have skin lesions [a classic symptom].' I was furious at him for having told me I had something so terrible. I went into denial."
With her disease in remission for years, and clinging to a belief that it would remain so, Jeramie did not discuss her lupus with Dreyfuss before marrying him. "I don't even remember how or when she told me that she had lupus," he says. "People have asked if I felt a sense of betrayal or deceit. That's ridiculous. Your wife gets sick, she gets sick. That's it. I never assumed that there wouldn't be any problems ahead of me."
When the disease revealed itself unmistakably after Emily's birth, doctors prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs to ease Jeramie's lupus-related pain. She then developed bleeding ulcers from the medication and virtually lost the use of her hands and arms for two years. "I didn't think I'd ever change a diaper again or do anything involving my thumbs," she says. Eventually the tendon sheaths in both wrists were surgically repaired, and her arms were put in casts to allow them to heal. Next, inflammatory tissue in both shoulders was surgically removed to relieve her pain. Finally doctors started her on a modified steroid treatment that Jeramie calls her "miracle drug."
Despite the complications of Jeramie's first pregnancy, the Dreyfusses were eager for another baby, and in June 1986 Jeramie delivered her second child. When their son was born, says Richard, measuring his words, "I noticed that one of his eyes was shaped funny. We were all happy and thrilled. It was a boy. A few seconds later, I noticed that our doctor had walked out of the room, which I knew was not normal. I knew it was about the eye. I took another look at Ben. His left eye was enlarged, grossly enlarged. The eye itself came out to where someone's glasses might sit. The lid closed over it. Actually, it strained and stretched to close. And it was colored black."
Jeramie too recalls the shock. "The sweetest moment of my life was after Ben was born," she says. "But they knew right away something was very wrong. They were calling in all these specialists, and we were still in the delivery room. Richard took Ben, and he went over to a corner and he held him. He was crying, but took him in his arms, and in this wonderful voice that he has, this very centered voice, he was saying to Ben, 'We're going to take care of you.' Because we thought he was going to die that morning."
But their baby did not die. In the first few hours of his life, "doctors did terrible things to Ben," recalls Richard. "They pulled his eye, looked in it, prodded it. At about 11:30 that night I was in Jeramie's room, and two doctors came in with our doctor. They said that what Ben had was a very rare eye ailment called Peter's anomaly. Jeramie and I looked at each other in horror. We had named him Peter." Richard pauses. "We quickly renamed him Ben."
Doctors explained that the defect had fused the baby's cornea with his iris. "Richard and I were very naive," says Jeramie. "We just thought, 'Aha! We'll just go get an eye transplant.' " Instead, in the first year of his life, Ben underwent 23 eye operations, including two corneal transplants.
During that trying time, the couple moved temporarily to San Diego to be nearer a University of California treatment center and somehow managed not to lapse into self-pity. "We were sorry. Obviously," says Richard. "But we never looked at each other and went, 'Oh, why did this happen to us?' "
Most worrisome, he says, were doctors' early concerns that the boy might suffer mental retardation. Finally, at a year and a half, Ben took behavioral tests at UCLA, but when Dreyfuss arrived to pick up his wife and son, doctors told him they had already left. "They said, 'Would you like to know the results?' " Richard recalls. "I said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'He's fine. Ben's perfectly fine. Normal. He's great.' Then I burst into tears. I had no idea that for all that time I'd been keeping this inside me. All this worry. They sat me down on one of those little children's chairs until I recovered."
Eventually, Ben became totally blind in his left eye. Today, although in theory he has no depth perception, Ben "never misses a step," says his mother. "We're just waiting for his face to grow, and as soon as his eye socket is large enough, he'll get a glass eye."
Other things are not so easily remedied. One day at the park, Dreyfuss overheard another child calling Ben, whose milky left eye shows an obvious bulge, a "monster," and recently the 4-year-old began refusing to attend a much-loved karate class. "I don"t like school, because people bother me about my eye," Ben says, imitating a singsong taunt. " 'I don't like you! You don't have an eye! Ha-ha! Ha-ha!' So I say, 'Well, you're the one that's being mean, because you don't know what you're doing to other people.' "
Six months ago Jeramie gave birth to the couple's third child, a son named Harry. Ben's first question was whether the baby was a boy or a girl. Then, says Richard, he asked if Harry had two good eyes. "We said yes. He got very sad for a minute and asked, 'Why-am I the only one in the family who has a bad eye?' Jeramie explained, as she had so many times, 'Everyone has something. Your thing is your eye; other people have other things.' "
These days, the Dreyfuss house, a massive Spanish-Moorish mansion in the Hollywood Hills, now undergoing a total renovation, serves as the focal point for the couple's extensive charity work. "My mission has been to talk about lupus and say the word so many times that people can't say, 'Oh, I've never heard of that,' " says Jeramie. "First we let people know the word—and then maybe we can raise more money to cure it." To that end, the couple donated $300,000 for a lupus research lab at UCLA and have also raised funds for an international eye-research facility slated to open next month at the University of California at San Diego.
Though she often lives with the pain of it, Jeramie refuses to surrender to her disease. "I have a very good attitude about lupus," she says. "You either rise above it, enjoy life, and go on, or you start feeling sorry for yourself and, I think, lose everything. When I first learned that life expectancy with lupus was five years, part of me hoped that maybe I'd make it to 30. And here I am, at 42, with three children. So I see every day, every year, as a gift."
For the time being, it seems that the Laughing Gods are being held at bay. Three weeks ago, Emily, now 7, posed a stumper to her father. "Daddy," she said, "what is heaven?"
Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award winner and movie veteran, was, he admits, temporarily at a loss for words. "Heaven," he ventured, "is a place where everyone loves each other. It's a place that's very comfortable and pleasant. Everybody gets along and has fun. It's a place," he concluded, "where there's a lot of love."
For a moment, Emily looked puzzled, then broke into a smile. "Oh, Dad" she said. "That sounds just like our house."
—Susan Schindehette, Nancy Matsumoto and Todd Gold in Los Angeles
- Nancy Matsumoto,
- Todd Gold.
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