By Lois Armstrong
October 01, 1979 12:00 PM

Looking back two years, the beginning of Carol Burnett’s nightmare seems almost trivial. In most ways, her life was joyful. She was in her 10th year as TV’s reigning comedienne on The Carol Burnett Show. She prided herself on her loving husband, Joe Hamilton, who was also her producer, and their three perky daughters. The eldest, Carrie, 13, was a bright girl whose childishness was turning slowly into young womanhood. It was not an easy time, and Carol was a little worried. Carrie seemed to be having trouble adjusting to ninth grade at L.A.’s fashionable Westlake School for Girls. She was making new friends, but they were from a different crowd. Her grades had always been above average; they began to slip. Finally Carol, a self-described “hip square,” was “horrified” to discover that young Carrie was smoking cigarettes. As punishment, she had Carrie’s phone taken out of her room. In retrospect, that signaled the start of a terrifying battle with marijuana, alcohol, pills and psychedelics that nearly destroyed Carrie and her family.

Puzzled by her daughter’s secretiveness, Carol began eavesdropping on her phone conversations on an extension. “I was mother tigress and not above snooping,” admits Carol. She learned that Carrie was drinking beer and suspected that she was running with drug users. She and Joe called a family conference that began with an embarrassed: “Carrie, I’ve been listening in on your conversations.” The meeting turned into “what we thought was a terrific mother-father-daughter talk.” Its effect on Carrie was quite different.

“I quit smoking cigarettes and drinking and started getting stoned,” she says. “I got off on grass, and I liked it. About 80 percent of my school was getting high.” Some days Carrie was using nearly an ounce of marijuana. “Before I could do my homework or anything else, I was thinking about how I could get more dope. Anything. What are you selling? I’ll take it.” At first Carrie was careful never to go home stoned. “Then I started getting high before I came home and after I got there. My day consisted of getting high before school, second period, fourth period, sixth, seventh and eighth, between eighth period and the time I got home, before dinner, after dinner.” Carrie blamed her glazed eyes, lethargy and crankiness on a tough schedule. One spring morning at 5 o’clock, her parents found her sitting out on the street in a robe, even though she was sick with bronchitis. When a friend’s visit left Carrie “high as a kite,” although she was supposed to be taking only mild antibiotics, Burnett knew something was seriously wrong. “We were devastated,” says Carol, “crying ourselves to sleep every night.”

After that there were daily confrontations. “Joe would hit the ceiling, then I would,” says Carol. “I would go in her room and cry. She would start talking and make no sense. We were frightened to death of Carrie. We negotiated with her constantly: ‘Okay, if you’re back by 11, you can stay out next week until 12, but we’ll have to pick you up.’ We didn’t want her to hate us—but she already did.”

Carrie, meanwhile, lived in her own hellish world. By summer 1978 at the age of 14 she was taking “uppers and downers, speed, Seconal, Quaaludes, cocaine, mushrooms, the heavy stuff.” Carrie remembers times when “my head was in one place, my legs in another. After a while you can’t remember how many you’ve taken. First you take the drug, then the drug takes you.” At one point three friends took her aside and rebuked her “for hanging around with the lowest people and screwing up my life,” but Carrie was trapped. Treatment by family therapist Dr. Paul Tobias proved fruitless. Carrie was high during her first visit and soon stopped going. “I wanted someone to say it was okay and my parents were crazy. I didn’t think I was doing anything heavy. I was content to get high for the rest of my life.”

In a feeble move, last January her family cut off her $4 weekly allowance, but Carrie had already turned to dealing. She also pawned her own things—jewelry, clothing, a radio. (A counselor has since estimated that Carrie spent $10,000 on drugs in 1978 and 1979.) Carol and Joe found pills in her medicine cabinet and marijuana paraphernalia in her room. Once they asked her friends to leave their purses at the door, “but that was silly,” Carol admits, “because the next time they could hide the stuff in their underclothes.”

The family was cracking apart. “I started to stutter,” says Carol. “I was nervous and exhausted. We were helpless and totally incapable of dealing with it,” she adds. “I could talk or think of nothing else, and it was driving a wedge in our marriage. We reasoned, cajoled and pleaded with Carrie, but you can’t reason with a chemical. I felt sorry and guilty. By then Carrie was a virtual prisoner in our house.”

The crisis took on grimly familiar proportions. Both Carol’s parents died of alcoholism when she was in her 20s. She was raised largely by her grandmother, a tough Christian Scientist, in a one-room Hollywood apartment. Joe is himself a recovered alcoholic. Still, their professional life went on. Carol played the distraught mother of a soldier slain in Vietnam in ABC’s Friendly Fire, for which she later won an Emmy nomination. She also acted in Robert Altman’s upcoming Health and in CBS’ recent The Tenth Month. “People carry on whether they’re in the public eye or not,” Burnett says. “You have to try to have a semblance of a life. And you pray a whole lot.”

The Hamiltons reached bottom one night in May when Carrie stormed through the house slamming doors and sulking over being grounded. “I went up to her room and laced into her,” Carol remembers. ” ‘You have no right to be mad at us. You’re responsible for being in this position. We don’t know how much more of this we can take, and you can put that in your goddamn bong and smoke it.’ I was shaking and burst into tears. I had seldom screamed at my daughter or used words like that. It reminded me of my own mother when she was drunk and slapped my face. I often felt like slapping Carrie but never did, because that would have made me just like my mother.

“There was a time when I wished Carrie would have an accident and be in a body cast for six months, anything to get her off dope. It was hideous of me, but those were the depths to which I’d sunk.” In despair, Carol and Joe again consulted Dr. Tobias, who suggested Carrie be sent to the Houston headquarters of the eight-year-old Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). It claims 70 percent recovery with the 22,000 addicts, mostly very young, who have undergone the program, which is partly based on Alcoholics Anonymous techniques. When Carrie heard where she was going she ran away from home, but panicked, and phoned her parents at midnight. She felt betrayed. “I had been planning to do acid this summer,” she says. Joe and Carol were prepared to use force if necessary to get Carrie to Houston.

She entered Deer Park General Hospital last June, angry and resistant, but by the second week began to respond to the PDAP program’s intensive individual and group therapy. She was not known as Carol Burnett’s daughter, but as plain “Carrie from L.A.,” which, says PDAP founder Bob Meehan, “is probably the best thing that ever happened to her.” Burnett stayed out of the picture entirely, but near the end of Carrie’s first “sober” 30 days she asked to see her mother. “We held each other for 15 minutes and cried,” Burnett recalls. “She looked so wonderful…I hadn’t seen her in there for a long time.”

Carrie decided to stay on in Houston, as many young people in the program do. She now lives with her sponsor, Cathie Beard, 31, a PDAP counselor, and her husband Frank, a drummer with the ZZ Top band. Carrie has begun her junior year at a Houston public high school (along with 40 other PDAP members) and may move home to her parents in L.A. within six months, when PDAP expects to open a branch there. On a visit early in September to see her family, Carrie discovered: “Some of my friends are proud of me, and some won’t have anything to do with me anymore. It hurts to let go, but I won’t associate with losers.”

Inspired by Carrie’s success, two of Joe Hamilton’s eight children by a previous marriage, Joe, 27, and Jenny, 20, have joined PDAP and are working in Texas. Both have had drug problems. Hamilton admits Carrie’s troubles were harder on Carol than on him. “It’s always a shock, but I had a few barnacles on me from before.”

A reflective Carrie tries to figure out why she slid into the drug world. “I was always Carol Burnett’s daughter, she says. “When I got high, I wasn’t anymore. I wanted my own image.” Burnett and Hamilton, both brought up in poor families, are not sympathetic to Hollywood explanations for misbehavior. “It’s a wonderful excuse to say ‘My parents are celebrities and I can’t deal with it,’ ” says Carol. “I say: ‘That’s tough. Go see what it’s like to be the daughter of alcoholics who don’t care about you at all.’ My hurt was so deep it turned into anger. Now we’re proud of what she’s done for herself. All we did was get her to Texas.”

Today Carol and Joe are closer than ever. At every opportunity, they urge parents with similar problems to “pull their heads out of the sand.” As a typical Beverly Hills father, Joe says he would have bailed out Carrie if she had ever been arrested. No longer. “The kids should spend the night in jail,” says Joe firmly. “Wealthy parents cover up because they’re afraid of what the neighbors will think.” Carol sums up: “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad we went through the tunnel. Now, life is brighter than ever. I can be grateful to God.”