A Daughter's Lament

updated 05/18/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT IS AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY THAT STARS A mother who popped pills and slapped her daughter around and a father who chose to ignore it, so you'd never suspect that Patti Davis, the rebellious older child of former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, wrote The Way I See It out of compassion for her parents. Yet that's what she says she did.

"Compassion was where I had gotten to in my life," says Davis, 39, who has already published two fictionalized versions of her childhood. "I knew I had to slop blaming my parents for all of my problems. But I thought it was important for them to hear the truth."

The Way I See It, for which Davis reportedly received $500,000 and which was published last month, does include descriptions of happy times with Ron and Nancy and gives Davis a chance to theorize why they were so deficient as parents. "My dad's father was an alcoholic, and my mom's father abandoned her," she says, upbringings she believes may have led both Reagans to use denial as a way of coping with problems. For the most part, though, the book reads like one more Mommie Dearest—the work of an angry daughter with scores still to settle.

From toddlerhood, Davis reports, she was made to feel unwelcome in her own family. Her mother had wanted a boy and told Patti she had been a problem child even in the womb. Remarkably, Nancy believed that Patti had hooked her fingers onto her ribs, forcing her to give birth by cesarean section two months early. In fact, says Davis, the Reagans married in March 1952, seven months before Patti was born. "My parents are threatened by the truth," she says.

The hitting, she adds, started when Patti was 9. "The slaps were on my face," Davis says, and her mother allegedly administered them at the slightest provocation: because her daughter ate a cookie and Nancy considered her overweight or because Patti tried wearing lipstick when she was 11. That same year, she says, Nancy struck her after discovering her daughter had started menstruating. "I had been hiding it from her," says Davis, who feared her mother might be angry and humiliate her. "She felt that if she could control everything—including my body—she could be in control of the universe."

Saying yes to drugs, as Patti claims Nancy has done for years, didn't help her maintain self-control. "She took anywhere up to five or so pills a day," says Davis—mostly tranquilizers and diuretics, which Patti suspected she used for weight control. When Patti's father scolded her for getting on Nancy's nerves, Patti felt responsible for her mother's drug taking, she says. The future President was even less helpful on the one occasion when Patti appealed to him about Nancy's physical abuse. "He said I was crazy and a liar," Davis says.

Yet her happiest childhood memories, ironically, are of father-daughter togetherness. "I used to ride horses with him, and he would teach me about the land and the ocean," Davis says. She remembers being close with her mother only when she was older. "The morning after my father was shot in 1981, she reached out to me, and I realized how fragile she was," Davis says. "At that moment, she wasn't the mother who hit me."

Starved for affection as a teenager, Davis reacted accordingly. At age 14, when her father was Governor of California, Patti began a long addiction to diet pills, which she often procured by trading tranquilizers stolen from her mother. She became anorexic and, while at Northwestern University, was so unhappy that she once came close to slitting her wrists with a single-edged razor blade. After transferring to the University of Southern California she began experimenting with LSD, Quaaludes, and, later, cocaine. "I'm lucky to be alive," she says.

Once her parents reached the White House in 1981, Davis, whose liberal politics (yet one more attempt at rebellion) were antithetical to theirs, saw them less and less frequently. She tried singing (her album, Patti Davis, came and went in 1983) and acting, while running through a string of dead-end relationships with actors Kris Kristofferson, Timothy Hutton and, for four years, with Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon. "I went for men who were destined to hurt me emotionally," she says. At 24, fearful of passing on her parents genes, she says, she underwent a tubal ligation, which rendered her infertile.

Only when she began writing in the mid-'80s did she find a measure of fulfillment—and it came at a price. Her brother, Ron, and half siblings Michael and Maureen slopped speaking to her when her novel Home Front, featuring a distant father who becomes President, was published in 1986, and she is not in contact with them to this day. Ron Jr. refuses to comment on Patti's autobiography.

Her parents too were angry, though both they and Davis made sporadic attempts to maintain contact. Davis and her husband, Paul Grilley, a yoga instructor she married in 1984 and divorced in 1990, visited Ron and Nancy at home in 1989. "Dad brought out the scrapbook and said, 'Look, we were a happy family,' " Davis says. "The pictures were taken when I was 2, and I pointed out that I couldn't even talk then."

Before beginning her new work of nonfiction last year, Davis visited her father once more. (Seeing her mother, she decided, would be too uncomfortable.) "I felt it was important to tell him I wasn't writing it to hurl anyone," she says. "He said, 'You are hurling us. If you do this book people will talk about us, and they won't like you.' But I wrote it to tell the truth."

It is not her parents' truth. In their only statement since the publication of The Way I See It, the Reagans said, "We are saddened and pained by stories...which, for the record, are absolutely false. We have always loved Patti and hope the day will come when she rejoins the family."

"I would be very responsive to that," says Davis, who feels that years of therapy have helped her to forgive her parents and lead a more satisfying life. Home is now a "very feminine" Santa Monica house that she shares with her mutt, Sadie. She has a new beau ("I don't want to jinx it by discussing it," she says), and a new novel is in the works. "It's not about my family—I've used that up," she says. Six years ago she had her tubal ligation reversed, and she would love to have a child. "I think I'd be a great mom," she says. "Finally."

But will her own mother ever understand her? "I don't know. Maybe this book will change things, bring her out," Davis says, a little wistfully. "Miracles do happen."

J.D. PODOLSKY
MARY HUZINEC in New York City

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