Losing Terry

UPDATED 01/09/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/09/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

They found her body facedown in the snow Dec. 13 in Madison, Wis., her bare hands frozen solid. Initially her identity was a mystery; the pocket of her black jacket held only a set of keys and $5. But what killed her was readily apparent. An autopsy showed she had frozen to death while intoxicated, her blood-alcohol level more than three times the .10 level of drunkenness under Wisconsin law.

What set this woman apart from the 100,000 others who lose the battle against chronic alcoholism each year is that she was the daughter of a man who ran for President of the United States. Teresa Jane McGovern, 45, the third of five children of former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, 72, and his wife, Eleanor, 73, was herself the mother of two daughters: Marian Frey-McGovern, 9, and Colleen Frey-McGovern, 7. "I can't believe it, she's so young," little Marian said when told of her mother's death. "This means when I have kids, they won't have a grandmother."

Terry, as the family called her, had been an outstanding campaigner in her father's 1972 presidential run against Richard Nixon. She was even more energetic in her own lifelong campaign—against alcoholism and depression. A drinker since her mid-teens, Terry was hospitalized for the first time at 19 and would subsequently undergo extended treatment at over a dozen of the country's most prominent rehab centers. Yet she always relapsed. "Alcoholism isn't 'too much too often,' " says Dr. Brian Lochen, who treated Terry numerous times at Madison's Tellurian detox center. "It's an 'I can't stop' disease."

Terry's own struggles gave her a remarkable sensitivity to the troubles of others, observed several of the mourners who spoke at her funeral at Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church on Dec. 17. She was always quick to lend a helping hand, working at hospices and group homes for the mentally ill.

Two days after she was buried, a grief-stricken George McGovern spoke with Washington bureau chief Garry Clifford. "This is too hard, "he said. "I just hope by talking about Terry, maybe it will help somebody else." Seated in the memento-lined study of his northwest Washington home, he detailed the long, futile fight of the girl he called his very special daughter.

I've had dreams that something like this might happen, but I never really thought she was going to die. Somehow I felt dear Terry would pull through. When that policeman came to my door and told me she was dead, it was the most terrible moment of my life—exceeded only by my having to tell Eleanor. She wept uncontrollably. Terry was on Eleanor's mind night and day.

At the funeral a friend of Terry's speaking from the podium looked at us and said, "All the senators in the world can't legislate sobriety, and all the devoted mothers in the world can never give birth to sobriety." And that's true. The disease is so insidious that with the exception of AIDS, I can't think of any illness I would dread more in a child than alcoholism. It is an absolute certain killer if you can't contain it, which I am now convinced Terry could not do. There is rather strong evidence that almost from the first time Terry tried alcohol, she began the process of addiction that she was never able to overcome.

It is hard to know why people become alcoholics, but I believe that they are born vulnerable to chemical dependency. My Irish ancestry has a full quotient of alcoholics, but I suspect another factor was the lack of self-esteem that Terry struggled with for most of her life.

When she was little, she was as delightful a child as you could meet. We had a game when she was small, an affectionate ritual. I would go in to wake her in the morning by tickling her nose. Knowing it was me, after a slight stall she would open her eyes and give me a broad smile. Terry was in first grade when we moved to Washington in 1956. I think the transition was tough for her. Later we couldn't get her interested in extracurricular school activities—anything that required public participation. She just didn't think she was talented enough.

Terry was always very anxious to please her mother and me. Even as a youngster she knew that politics was the love of my life. So after I had had some differences with her, she came to me and said, "Dad, I just got elected president of the student body of Kensington Junior High." I was delighted. Her mother and I made a big fuss about it. A year later, Terry told us that she had made it up in order to please us.

I think Terry probably took her first drink around the age of 15. Alcohol was always there in the neighborhood. Kids growing up in the '60s in Maryland's affluent Montgomery County were under great peer pressure to experiment with forbidden fruit. Terry had a boyfriend she wanted to please, and he led her into alcohol and other things that further undercut her self-esteem. I don't for a moment want to blame him entirely, but he certainly aggravated Terry's problems. We never really put any pressure on her to stop seeing him, but we did express our disapproval about the drinking.

Terry later told us that she started drinking to relax so that she could have a better time at social functions. Soon she was on a merry-go-round that never quit after that. Every time she felt anxious, a couple of drinks would solve everything. She had a marvelous wit, and with booze she was even better. She became the life of the party.

Politics take a heavy toll on family life. This is one of the curses of a political career. Eleanor carried too much of the family responsibility. Just when Terry most needed a strong father, I was gone a lot. It isn't that I didn't love my kids. I did. I think they all knew it. But they also knew I was so involved in public issues that their private concerns frequently took second place. I feel especially regretful about this with Terry. Right until the end, she coveted every hour I could give to her, and they weren't nearly enough.

I never thought Terry had a drinking problem until she was in her early 20s. It was just a gradual awareness that maybe she was becoming too fond of alcohol. In her late teens she began to develop periods of depression. So we took her to the University of Virginia psychiatric clinic, where she was given extended care. The doctors there never treated the drinking problem. To them that was secondary to her persistent depression. It was the wrong approach for her. She managed to persuade friends to smuggle bottles in to her. I should tell you that she attempted suicide there.

During Terry's two years in Virginia she had a wonderful boyfriend, a guy that I've always wished she had married. She broke it off. There were two or three men in her life. I think she felt she was unworthy of them. She was a beautiful girl and a delightful personality, but I think she felt that she'd just disappoint them at some level. She also feared committing herself to a strong and admirable man. She felt more comfortable with men who were as problem prone as she was. She wanted to nurture people, not have to measure up to their standards.

But Terry was not a shrinking little violet. When she was in a situation that she was convinced was really important, she did well. During my 1972 presidential campaign, she was part of a barnstorming bus tour called the Grasshopper Special, with celebrity speakers Liz Carpenter, Gloria Steinem, Arthur Schlesinger and others. Terry, I'm told, stole the show every day.

She had an enormous admiration for the dignity and worth of every human being. I've received hundreds of letters since the funeral from people who said that she saved their lives. Why couldn't she save herself if she could talk other people into putting their faith in recovery? I'll give you my theory. She didn't think she herself was worthy of the confidence she placed in other alcoholics.

Terry was sober for about seven years, four before she met the social worker who became her partner and the father of her two children, Raymond Frey of Madison. During that period she was a very faithful member of A.A. She wouldn't touch a drop of anything that could jeopardize her health when she was pregnant or nursing the little girls. They gave a defining purpose to her life and a great feeling of achievement.

Terry and her partner split after several years, around 1988. At that time she was working part-time outside the home and rearing the children as well. Then the drinking started again, and shortly thereafter, Ray became the primary physical custodian of their two daughters. Between 1989 and 1994 she was in one Madison detox center 76 times. A detox is not a long-term recovery program. It is a period of several days to get the alcohol out of the system. Then there were the treatment programs. My address book, which is only about four or five years old, tells the story. For the other kids, their addresses seldom changed. But a sizable section of the book comprises Terry's addresses, up and down the pages.

We could have put her through the Harvard Medical School for less than we invested in treatment, but that is only a small part of the cost. Alcohol becomes a family affliction. You have other members of the family, but the one with the greatest problem gets the most attention. I used to tell the kids that it's like the old biblical story of the shepherd with the 99 sheep in the fold who were safe, and he spent his time looking for the one who was lost. Not because he loves the lost one any more, but because she is lost.

There is the constant struggle as to what is the right thing to do. Because we thought it was the best way, about five years ago we told her that if she didn't get her life together, we were not going to help anymore. For several months, Terry just went from hand to mouth living on her own or with friends. Then we heard that she was out in the snow, and we just couldn't tolerate that. You have to be as compassionate and understanding of an alcoholic as you would be of a child suffering with cancer. I wish I had acted on that premise more consistently. During the last three to five years, I think the disease was beyond Terry's capacity to contain. If I have any regrets now, the one that stands out is that I didn't accept that more gracefully.

About three years ago, Terry began a downward spiral; the relapses were becoming more and more frequent. Her tolerance for alcohol was becoming less and less, and her confused state while she was drinking was more and more apparent. The blackouts were becoming quicker and more severe. One night in Madison, a couple of guys hassled her, stayed the night in her apartment and shoved her around. They didn't rape her, but she was afraid. Stories like that broke my heart.

In December '93, while Terry was home for Christmas, she and a friend went to an A.A. meeting. She disappeared across the street to a bar and downed a pint of vodka. Then she came back here and passed out. We had to get her to an emergency room. We put her in a treatment program in Montgomery County and tried to keep her here, but she wanted to go back with her little girls in Madison. This was always the story. Colleen and Marian were the passions of her life, right to the end.

We talked frequently on the phone. In November, Terry had to go back into detox. On Dec. 7 she began to drink again. The police found her passed out in the snow, and they took her back to the detox center. She was revived and stayed until Dec. 12.

That day, against the wishes of the center, she left. Had she lived another two days, she would have been in Milwaukee right now behind closed doors. The counselors had prepared a court order which would have enabled them to commit her to long-term care. They thought she had one final chance if she were confined for six to 12 months with intensive care. I agreed to it; I'd seen her deteriorate. Terry knew the court order was imminent. That is why she was so desperate to get out of there.

Terry left filled with hope that if she could get a nice apartment close to where her little girls lived that she could make it. I agreed to help her. The last time I talked with her was on Sunday, Dec. 11. I said, "Terry, you know you have an airline ticket and your girls have tickets to come home for Christmas; please don't screw up." She said, "Dad, I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize that. I have to come home."

Our daughter wanted desperately to be sober. She never once conceded that it was impossible. Even that last day she told her new landlord, "It is going to be great, and I think I am going to make it."

About 8:30 that night, someone called the police and said that a young woman in a highly intoxicated state was staggering down Williamson Street. The police went out, but they didn't see anybody. Terry apparently wandered off the pathway. She probably just blacked out and fell.

At noon the next day, someone saw this small lifeless body. It was just a couple of blocks from where Marian and Colleen live. Terry's ex-mate thinks that she may have been trying to walk by their house. He said that sometimes they would see her just walking by gazing at any lighted window.

Terry lived in Madison for 15 years, but when she talked about coming home, she meant Washington. Eleanor and I each left a letter in the casket by her side stating what we would like to have said to her on her last day. "I think you know I have a special love for you that transcends anything else and I want you to know it again," I wrote. "I don't want to make you sad, but I have shed more tears in the last four days than in the previous 72 years."

We plan to put a memorial bench with her name on it outside the Tellurian detox center where she spent so much time in Madison. Now, Terry is home, and I am positive that she is buried right where she would want to be. It is the oldest cemetery in Washington, and she is buried right near a huge Celtic cross. It is the highest place there. Terry would love that.

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