At 38, Joyce Rebeta-Burditt has a life any woman might envy. Married to a successful television writer, she is the mother of three well-adjusted teenagers and smoothly balances her home life with a career as a writer and program executive for ABC-TV.
Yet 10 years ago, Joyce Burditt was an out-of-control drunk, an alcoholic housewife whose daily bouts with the bottle left her husband and children adrift for six miserable years. She deteriorated from simply forgetting whether she had cooked a meal to almost killing her children while driving drunk.
Five months ago Burditt published The Cracker Factory (Macmillan, hardback $8.95, paper $4.95), a wry, scary novel about the reform of an alcoholic housewife. It has already hit some bestseller lists. Joyce, who is now adapting the book for TV, admits that the heroine, Cassie Barrett, was patterned after herself.
Born in Cleveland in 1938, Burditt enjoyed a conventional middle-class upbringing. Her father was a purchasing agent, her mother a housewife; she had a twin brother and a younger sister. After graduation from St. Joseph’s Academy, she went to work at 17 for a greeting card company as a verse writer. Three weeks later the boss, George Burditt, fired her, and then asked her to marry him. Joyce recently talked about the highs and lows of her life with Nancy Faber of PEOPLE.
How much of your book is you?
About 50 percent. The basic story is autobiographical, but there are fictional situations and characters. I didn’t want to write a diary—there are parts of my life that are not that enthralling.
Were you committed to a mental ward, like your main character, Cassie?
Yes, I signed myself into the psychiatric ward of Cleveland General Hospital, although I was drunk at the time and don’t remember doing it.
How long were you an alcoholic?
In all, six years. I started as a social drinker at 18. Then after I got married and was pregnant, I couldn’t stand the smell of alcohol. My husband had to take me home from parties. I didn’t get into drinking until 22, when my family was complete.
Then you started at home?
Yes, and deep down I knew it was wrong, so I always tried to have an element of control. I would only drink after 5 o’clock or I wouldn’t drink at parties.
How much were you drinking?
It doesn’t matter how much you drink. Many alcoholics are periodic drinkers who are sober for months. What does matter is loss of control.
What was it like for your family when you drank?
My husband had to take over much of the mothering. And my own mother was around a lot. I adopted the attitude and behavior of an oldest child. I was physically there, but AWOL emotionally. Then when I was sober, like many alcoholic women, I tended to be the overprotective supermother. I probably drove the kids bananas.
How was your own life?
I withdrew more and more. Alcohol takes all your time: buying it, hiding it, drinking it, getting rid of the bottles. It is a full-time job. And I didn’t want anyone to know—particularly female friends. I perceived other women as functioning perfectly. I thought all the mothers at the PTA ironed their sheets; I couldn’t identify with them, so I was hostile.
Do you remember those days well?
No, I kept having blackouts. Once at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a woman said she was worried because she had forgotten a week. I said, “Don’t worry, I can’t remember 1967. I hope it was a good year. I wasn’t there.”
What finally put you in the hospital?
My husband went on a Catholic retreat. I don’t know even now what happened there, but he came back and said, “I care a lot, but it’s your problem.” He stopped playing games with me like rescuer and Daddy. Wonderful games, like I’d hide three pints and he’d find two. My mother stopped speaking to me. Then when my psychiatrist suggested I might dry out at the hospital, I was terrified to learn how sick I was.
How was the hospital experience?
It was wonderful. You think it would be awful to be in a locked ward, but it constituted no problem. The door kept out the world. I stayed there three months. My defenses were totally wrecked, I was physically sick, emotionally disintegrating. My shrink suggested AA. I thought, “My God, even he’s given up on me.” So, with a nurse’s aide, I went to the hospital lobby and called AA.
What happened to your life after you left the hospital?
The main thing is I moved from Cleveland to California in 1969. I felt so disconnected. The day after I arrived in Burbank, it rained for 21 days—with floods and mudslides. Sunny California! One month later to the day, all three kids were in the hospital having their tonsils out. And the show my husband was working for was canceled. It was like being on the Titanic.
What did you do?
Thank God for AA! The night after I arrived, I walked into the hall in Burbank and felt at home again. They said, “Pull up a chair, sit down.” I could relax, unwind, unload. It was my centering for the first year or so.
What did your family think of your book?
My immediate family loved it, but some older relatives were annoyed because I said, “I’m an alcoholic.” I should have died quietly and not made a fuss.
What about your kids now?
Paul, the oldest, was 19 in March and is studying sound engineering at Pierce College; Jack was 17 in December and just graduated from high school. And Ellen was 16 last month and is a junior at Burbank High. They all turned out to be terrific kids. I can’t believe it. We have enormous fun.
What makes a housewife an alcoholic?
First of all, alcoholism is a disease. You have to have a physical disposition for it. But of all the jobs I’ve held in my life, being a full-time housewife and mother is the hardest. There is the sheer physical work to begin with. With all these wonderful gadgets, you are expected to have a perfectly scrubbed and clean house. Who isn’t going to feel guilty? That’s why I always love Erma Bombeck’s column. She says, “Hey, I’ve got bagsful of dirty laundry and I don’t care.”
What are the other pressures?
There is the job of being home with preschool children. My three all took naps—only not at the same time. Another thing, a housewife has no place to go. She lives in her office, surrounded by the things she hasn’t done, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My husband used to say to me, “My paycheck is half yours, sweetheart.” But if I dropped dead, he would still get that paycheck. The raise he got was because he did a good job, not because I waxed the floors better. I think being a housewife is the most underrated job in the world. It is a perfect setup if one is predisposed to be an alcoholic.
How can alcoholic housewives be helped?
They need each other. They need to know they are not alone. I love my husband and kids, but sometimes I’d like to strangle the children or put ground glass in his dinner.
Can the family help?
They can say, “Stay sober or else.” It’s like an employer warning, “Knock off the drinking or we’ll fire you.” But if you threaten, then follow through. I would have been literally protected to death if everyone’s patience hadn’t run out.
What is your advice to the drinking housewife?
First realize you are not alone. Then know that alcoholism is a progressive disease that can kill you. The end result is either insanity or death. There are no alternatives. Contact the National Council on Alcoholism. Or see a private physician—although there is a catch there. Patients, particularly women, are reluctant to say they have a drinking problem, and doctors are equally reluctant to mention it. They see all the signs, but instead of treating the illness, they treat the side effects: nerve damage, cardiovascular problems, bladder infections, sinus trouble. Or they prescribe Valium or Seconal for your nerves. Then you end up with two addictions instead of one.
What about joining AA?
Absolutely. AA is not a group of weirdo strangers; it is filled with your neighbors. You don’t sit around gritting your teeth, talking about not drinking. You talk about how to deal with life, how not to be thrown by every pothole in the road.