Under the Influence

UPDATED 07/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/17/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Tina Conn was growing accustomed to blind-drunk phone calls from her sister Audrey Kishline. But after Conn learned of Kishline's call to her sister-in-law Kristen on March 25, Conn grew alarmed. Not only was Kishline, 43, slurring her words, she was also, terrifyingly, calling from a cell phone as she sped eastward toward Spokane, Wash., on an interstate outside Seattle. Kristen, says Conn, quickly phoned the Washington State Highway Patrol. "There's a woman who's drunk on Interstate 90!" she shouted. "You've got to do something!"

A half hour later, at about 6 p.m., travelers Patricia Clark and her friend Brenda Keller were driving east on I-90 when Kishline suddenly pulled onto the highway from a wooded shoulder, heading in the wrong direction at 60 mph. After forcing a startled Clark to swerve into the farthest left lane to avoid a collision, Kishline veered into the tree-lined median, then reentered eastbound I-90, again in the wrong direction. "It scared us to death," says Keller, who immediately dialed 911.

During the next five minutes, a dozen horrified motorists phoned the police. "She kept running cars off the road," says Det. Tom Hickman of the Washington State patrol. Richard "Danny" Davis, 38, and his daughter LaShell, 12, weren't so lucky. Kishline's one-ton brown pickup truck slammed head-on into their 1982 two-door Dodge. Davis died on impact, his daughter moments later. "We had to cut them out," says Hickman. When police arrived on the scene, they found Kishline unconscious and unseat-belted, a half-empty bottle of 80-proof vodka beside her in the front seat. Two hours later at a Seattle hospital, tests showed her blood alcohol level to be 0.26, more than three times the state limit.

The identity of the driver turned out to be as grimly ironic as her behavior was tragic: Kishline is the founder of Moderation Management, a self-help movement for people with drinking problems. MM, which operates through 50 volunteer-run chapters in 14 states, maintains that many drinkers can manage their problem by modifying their habits—a stark contrast to the Alcoholics Anonymous belief that only total abstinence is effective. On June 29 in Washington's Kittitas County courthouse, Kishline pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide. Before returning to an Oregon rehab center, where she will remain until July 8, the mother of two read a statement that said in part, "I take full responsibility for my actions. I am going to prison to pay my debt to society. But I can never repay my debt to the family. I can never bring Danny and LaShell back."

The contrite message failed to move LaShell's mother and Davis's ex-wife, Sheryl Maloy-Davis, 36. "It doesn't change what she did," she said. "It wasn't an accident. It was a crime." Although she and Davis, an electrician, divorced in 1995 after a 12-year marriage, the pair had maintained good relations. "We were trying to raise our children together, as much like a family as possible," she says. "We were a close family."

Kishline's reckless behavior also dealt a blow to Moderation Management, which she founded in 1993, a year before publishing her book, Moderate Drinking. The accident has refueled debate among addiction experts about whether moderation is a viable alternative to teetotaling or simply an excuse for drinkers to keep drinking. Clinical psychologist Frederick Rotgers of Metuchen, N.J., who sits on the MM board, maintains, "Moderation management is not aimed at alcoholics, it's aimed at problem drinkers." Counters psychologist Jeffrey Schaler of American University, who wrote the foreword to Kishline's book but has since parted ways with MM: "You can't tell the difference between an alcoholic and a problem drinker."

Kishline herself was having second thoughts about the wisdom of moderation. In January, two months before the accident, she posted an Internet message to MM members stating, "I have made the decision recently to change my recovery goal to one of abstinence rather than moderation." She went on to announce that she was already attending a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program and planned to enter two other abstinence programs as well. Her message lauded MM as a "gateway to abstinence." In June, however, her attorney John Crowley said that Kishline now realized that "moderation management is nothing but alcoholics covering up their problem."

Kishline has been wrestling with alcohol since her teens. One of three daughters born to a schoolteacher and a housewife, she moved almost yearly until age 8, when her parents divorced. Initially she settled with her mother, but seven years later Kishline moved in with her father, who was by then a high school principal in White Salmon, Wash. "Our father drank every day," says sister Conn. "He had a theory that if you could quit drinking for a month each year, you weren't an alcoholic."

The other two sisters followed, but Kishline stayed the longest. "She idolized our father," says Conn. Apparently, she emulated him as well. "She'd come home from school, pop open a beer and start partying," Conn recalls. Even so, Kishline graduated valedictorian of her class and earned a community-college degree. In 1986 she married Brian Kishline, a computer specialist, and the couple had a boy and a girl, now 8 and 11. The family relocated frequently as Brian pursued contract jobs. "I never saw drinking as a problem for her," says Jeanne Donaldson, a former neighbor in Ann Arbor, Mich. "She was so dedicated to that book and her kids."

About 18 months ago the Kish-lines settled in with Brian's family in Woodinville, Wash. By then, Kishline had enjoyed modest fame through her books and appearances on several national TV shows. But her home life was unraveling. "She was stressed to the max," says Marc Kern, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who sits on the MM board. "There was a colossal amount of tension between her husband, finances and the difficulties she was having while living with her in-laws." Last January, even as she attended abstinence meetings, she was so despondent and drunk that she told her sister by phone, "I just want it all to be over." Soon after, Kishline landed up at a detox facility for five days.

On Aug. 11, Kishline will be sentenced to anywhere from 41 months to life in prison. County prosecutor Margaret Penny Sowards, 34, says that she will recommend 54 months, the highest penalty commensurate with Kishline's record. Kishline, meanwhile, continues to battle her addiction. Kern says that when he spoke to Kishline in mid-June, "she was adamant about accepting abstinence," but she insisted, "They're never going to convince me that this is a disease." As for the psychic toll of her recklessness, Kishline offered a glimpse in her courthouse statement: "What I will do is live with the pain I have caused the victims' family for the rest of my life."

Jill Smolowe
Johnny Dodd and Leslie Berestein in Los Angeles and Clark Champ in Chicago

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