04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Staff Writer Bonnie Johnson was indirectly introduced to the effects of alcoholism by one of her neighbors. "I'd wake up to the walls shaking," recalls Johnson, 42. "The husband would come home drunk and beat his wife. Poor woman. I felt sorry for her because her mother-in-law, who lived with them, was also an alcoholic. Just being next door to those people was terrifying."
That childhood experience gave Johnson, who wrote a major part of this week's cover package on the children of alcoholics, a deeper understanding of how drink can destroy a family. "For so long, alcoholism has been a private affliction, something a family hid behind closed doors," she says. "Now it's beginning to be talked about openly. People are seeking help and learning to live without the shame, pain and guilt they once felt."
Several months ago, Johnson, who oversees the Coping section, began work on a story about actress Suzanne Somers and her childhood with an alcoholic father. Managing Editor Jim Gaines asked Johnson to expand the piece to include other children of alcoholics and the plight of their families. "Somers' story is just one of many," says Gaines. "There are uncounted thousands of people who are afflicted with the problem, and we thought we might be able to help."
Johnson teamed with Senior Writer Leah Rozen, 32, who edited the package, and worked with correspondents to find suitable subjects to interview. For Rozen, who admits she prefers editing "lighter fare," the subject of alcoholism was an eye-opener. "I come from a family that, basically, doesn't drink," says Rozen, who grew up in Boalsburg, Pa., and whose parents teach at Penn State. "In fact I'm considered the family alcoholic because I suggest a little wine at dinner. This project made me realize how incredibly sad the plight of kids with alcoholic parents can be and how prevalent it is. I hope it makes a few of those parents think twice before taking the next drink. Even better, maybe they'll think about going for help."
Johnson, who joined PEOPLE in 1980 after several years free-lancing and a seven-year stint at LIFE, is no newcomer to trauma. Over the years, she has written some 60 Coping stories dealing with everything from abortion to multiple sclerosis to teenage suicide. ("Luckily, I also get to write about fashion and the royals," observes Johnson.) Her most difficult assignment, she says, was a 1984 story on Helen Kushnick, the mother of a 3-year-old boy who had died of AIDS. "It was emotionally very difficult because my child had just started his life as hers was dying," says Johnson, whose own son, Christopher, is now 4. "The horror of such a situation is something I'll never forget. There is no greater loss a parent can experience."
By contrast, she notes, alcoholic parents at least have options. "They can get help; they can quit," says Johnson. "But even if they don't, there is still help available for their kids."