By Victoria Balfour
May 28, 1990 12:00 PM

Wherever John Bradshaw goes, fans approach him trembling for a hug. Women press their phone numbers into his hands. Tough-looking dudes in leather motorcycle jackets with names like “Biker Dave” want his advice. As for his public appearances, says his manager, Winston Laszlo, “It’s like he’s Mick Jagger. We have to have a bodyguard hustle him out a secret exit.”

Never mind that Bradshaw is a slightly paunchy 56-year-old with the mousy look that comes from having spent many of his adult years as a Catholic novitiate and in academia. He has become a superstar among a large segment of Americans looking to understand and conquer addictions. As the creator and host of the 10-part PBS television series Bradshaw On: The Family—which first aired in 1986 and has now become a syndicated show—Bradshaw draws deeply on his own painful past as an alcoholic son of an alcoholic father to explain the forces that derail so many lives.

Frequently mistaken by first-time viewers for a television evangelist because of his thundering emotional style, Bradshaw instead preaches a powerful secular message: Most addictive behavior can be traced to American family life. Bradshaw cites research that found 96 percent of all families to be to some degree “dysfunctional”—that is, the system by which the family interacts is distorted by the addictions and compulsions of one or more members and, so, ignores the needs of each individual. In his view, it is the “don’t trust, don’t feel” rules in such families that lead the children into their own self-destructive patterns.

For the growing number of people around the country grappling with dependencies on everything from alcohol and cocaine to food and sex, John Bradshaw’s message has become gospel. When he lectures about the impact of his father’s alcoholism, even men are moved to tears. “With all his self-disclosure and pain, it’s real easy to bond with him,” said Mark Connelly, a St. John’s, Mich., dentist who recently attended a Bradshaw workshop in Detroit. Around the country, Bradshaw’s lectures and workshops—in which participants pay as much as $250 to be led through exercises to confront their childhood pain—sell out months in advance. Bradshaw’s companion book to the Family series has sold 520,000 copies. A follow-up book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, has sold 500,000 and this winter landed on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. A third volume, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Wonderful Inner Child, is due out in August. For this book and a subsequent volume, Bradshaw claims he received a $400,000 advance. He estimates his total income last year at $800,000. “I’m astonished,” says Bradshaw, who has given up his private counseling practice. “But I do seem to be tapping into a deep level of pain that is almost universal.”

In his lectures, Bradshaw mixes material~ from his favorite psychologists and philosophers with painfully honest details of his own life. At a recent engagement in Detroit, he cited Kant, Kierkegaard, Freud, Erik Erikson, Scott Peck, and Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir, the pioneers of family-systems therapy. “I have been accused of stealing other people’s stuff,” he admits. “But my job has to be to translate the more abstract theories so the people can understand. What I really am is a teacher.”

He can also be a ham. With the polish of a stand-up comic, Bradshaw cracks jokes about sex and Catholic nuns and prances around the stage like a manic leprechaun. “I get turned on by the audience,” he admits. Says his mother, Norma: “John has always been a showboat.”

Though Bradshaw, who graduated from the University of Toronto, has had no formal training as a therapist, he has earned begrudging respect in the field. “Most people think they come from a dysfunctional family,” says Dr. Michael Kerr, a psychiatrist at the Georgetown University Family Center. “They’re looking for answers, and they’re looking for a charismatic leader. That’s why they like someone like Bradshaw to stand up and say, ‘This is why you’re hurting.’ ” But David Treadway, a family therapist who has written about substance abuse, cautions that Bradshaw’s thesis is too “glib and simplistic.” For example, Treadway believes that drinking problems can also result from biological factors, from trauma, or from events such as getting fired.

Bradshaw’s father, a Houston railroad clerk, was an alcoholic who would sometimes disappear for weeks. “What I remember is being terrified all the time,” Bradshaw says. When Bradshaw, the eldest of three children, was 10, his father left for good. “In my family, as in all dysfunctional families, instead of parents who act as strong and nurturing role models for their children, you get these needy people who use their children. I was the kid who tried to take on the marriage.”

At 13, Bradshaw was drinking to ease the pain. “I had all this rage,” he recalls. “I used to go into bars and kick tables over.” By junior year in high school, he suffered from blackouts and was patronizing the local whorehouses. Yet academically he excelled. “I was president of my senior class, and I won three medals at graduation,” he says.

On a scholarship to St. Thomas University, he continued to play out his Jekyll and Hyde life-style. But after sophomore year, worried about his drinking, he dropped out and decided that the Catholic priesthood might offer a refuge. Children filled with rage and shame “either go to superachievement or become slobs,” he says. “After all those years of messing up with the drinking, I thought I could go into the seminary and be perfect.” At age 21, he joined the Basilian Fathers in Toronto.

In his first year, Bradshaw says, “I was very committed to the vows. I tell people, you can go for 375 days without having a sexual thought, because I did.” By his fourth year, however, he had become disillusioned. “I saw guys drinking, and one priest had a girlfriend,” he says. “I got into a lot of masturbation. I went to confession every morning and had to find a different priest.”

Drinking again became a problem. Assigned to Houston by the Basilians to teach high school, Bradshaw kept getting into brawls. “The brothers frowned on this,” he says. “But they thought I was a genius and they kept me.” But frustrated by celibacy, Bradshaw left the Basilians in 1964, just before he was to be ordained. “When I walked out of the seminary, I was 31, but I was like a scared, frightened kid,” he says. “I had no place to live, no license, no clothes. I was just a lost soul.”

In the next two years he managed to get fired first from a teaching job and then from a sales position at a drug company. Finally, in 1965, at the end of a two-week bender, Bradshaw checked himself into the Austin (Texas) State Hospital. “I was there for six days in this locked ward with the criminally insane. I remember standing barefoot in front of 40 doctors, and they’re asking me, ‘What do you want to do?’ It was at that point that I surrendered. I went back to Houston and went to 12-step meetings every day for three years. If I hadn’t, I’d be dead by now.”

From that point on, Bradshaw appeared—outwardly, at least—to be putting his life back together. In 1969 he married Nancy Isaacs, a counselor with two children from a previous marriage, and fathered a son, John Jr. Bradshaw taught theology at a Jesuit prep school while studying religion at Rice University. At the same time, he had a thriving counseling practice, consulted with corporations on stress management and flew eight times a year to the Palmer Drug Abuse Program’s Los Angeles chapter to treat celebrity addicts like Carrie Hamilton, the daughter of Carol Burnett. By 1979 he was pulling in $150,000 a year and had 150 people on the waiting list for counseling—but he felt like hell. “I was thinking, ‘Everybody wants me, so I must be okay. But deep down I was empty,” he says. “My marriage was nonintimate, and my kids weren’t really close to me. The fact was that though I no longer used any mind-changing chemicals, I was still out of touch with my feelings, grandiose, compulsive.” His own therapist forced him to see that “my helping was more about me than about people. I was a professional co-dependent.” The problem, Bradshaw believes, is that although he had stopped his disease, he hadn’t dealt with its cause: “As a child I was not allowed to express my feelings, so I had to go back through therapy and express the child’s pain.”

By that time, Bradshaw was an enormously popular Sunday-morning lecturer at a Houston church and a regular on a local late-night talk show called Spotlight. In 1981 television producer Liz Kaderli asked him to do a television series on Erik Erikson’s eight stages of man. The show aired on more than 100 PBS stations in 1983 but did not gain a wide audience.

Then in 1983, Bradshaw got the idea for his Family series. During his first decade of recovery, Bradhsaw had become familiar with the family systems theory and had incorporated some of it into his practice. “But I never got it personally, the connection with my own alcoholic family,” he says. “I thought my addiction to excitement, my people-pleasing, were just personality quirks.” While attending a lecture on families of alcoholics in Shreveport, La., “I got the whole thing, and I just got on fire with it. I went to Liz and said, ‘I want to do a series getting the family systems material out there-looking at alcoholics, rage-aholics, incest, violent families, and helping people to see they are all about the child’s loss of emotions and about shame.” ‘ Bradshaw did the whole 10 episodes without a script: “In a sense it was the result of 20 years of my life and work.”

When Family was first released in 1986, only a handful of PBS affiliates carried it. “The producers told me, This’ll never go. One person cannot sustain the airtime, it’s too heavy, people can’t understand it,’ ” says Bradshaw. But when KQED in San Francisco ran the show for 11 straight hours during a pledge drive, it picked up 3,500 members and over $300,000. That word spread quickly, and PBS arranged three more release schedules. “We’ve gotten over 100,000 letters for this series,” says Bradshaw. “People write me the deepest secrets of their lives.”

Bradshaw’s own kin, however, have not always been comfortable with his public confessions. Mother Norma Bradshaw, 76, who has seen all of the series, says, “It has really been hurtful—the fact that all our family secrets have to be aired in public to make a point. And some of it is exaggerated.” Says his now ex-wife, Nancy: “I have experienced it as an invasion of boundaries. A lot of times what he said was not okay with me, and it wouldn’t feel good.” And John Jr., now a 20-year-old sophomore at USC in Los Angeles (who, Bradshaw confided to his Detroit audience, has just started to see a therapist) has “gotten angry at times that I tell stories and I spruce them up a bit,” his father admits.

Last June, Bradshaw’s 20-year marriage ended in divorce, but Nancy still runs the mail-order business for Bradshaw’s self-help tapes. Though he and Nancy had always been best friends, Bradshaw says, “We were never excited about each other in that man-woman sense.” Nancy doesn’t dispute that, but says that John’s growing fame also put strains on the marriage. “It felt chaotic, all this stuff going on around me—all the phone calls, people turning up on our doorstep.”

Since September, Bradshaw has been seeing Sissy Davis, a merchandising manager for Neiman Marcus. He is in no hurry to marry, however. “I think it’s very hard to be married to someone like me,” he says. “I’m traveling a lot, there’s a lot of accolades. Before, I needed a lot of attention to get my deprived narcissistic needs met. I still need it, but less and less. But there’s an old spiritual law that says the more you give it up, the more it comes back. Is that ever true!”