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Duke hopes painful past helps others


April 06, 2011
Many people remember Patty Duke as the young actress who portrayed the deaf and mute Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Her Oscar-winning performance in that movie propelled her to a successful stint on the "Patty Duke Show" and established her as one of entertainment's most versatile and beloved actresses.

But there was a dark side to Duke's personal life. And she talked about that side at "Breaking the Cycle," the 2011 Child Abuse Indiana Conference held last week in Indianapolis.

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Actress Patty Duke hugs an audience member at the “Breaking the Cycle” conference in Indianapolis. Duke shared her own painful story in an effort to help others. Photo by Lee Cable
A group of Crawford County professionals, including Prosecutor Cheryl Hillenburg, Hoosier Hills PACT advocate Lisa McSpadden, Milltown Police Chief Ray Saylor and nutritionist Jackie Young, made the trip to Indianapolis to attend the conference. The event featured workshops about bullying, understanding and managing difficult behaviors in early childhood, affordable nutrition for children and families, mental health issues in adolescents and raising resilient children.

But the highlight of the conference was Patty Duke, who addressed the audience as the evening's guest speaker. The warm, friendly and approachable Duke was immediately loved by the audience as she took the stage, cut right to the meat of the discussion on mental health and child abuse, putting her life's ups and downs on display for all to examine in an effort to make mental health issues less debilitating for others.

Anyone old enough to remember "The Patty Duke Show" can probably still recall how Duke was considered a "teen idol" during the 1960s as she portrayed a mischievous American girl, Patty Lane, on the show, and also doubled as her identical cousin, Cathy Lane, a "prim and proper" girl from Scotland. The show ran for three seasons and earned Duke an Emmy Award nomination. She went on to play Neely O'Hara in "Valley of the Dolls" and starred in "My Sweet Charlie," "The Women's Room," "A Time to Triumph," "George Washington" and other movies. She also starred in the TV series "Captains and Kings," "Hail to the Chief" and "Karen's Song."

"My father was an alcoholic," she began. "I had an older brother and an older sister. My mother was depressed and miserable. When she wasn't, she was a ball to be around."

Duke, whose real name is Anna Marie Duke, lived a hard life as a child. Her mother, who was prone to violence, threw her father out of the house when Duke was just 6 years old.

"My brother was the target of my mother's violence," Duke said. "He took it for all of us. I did things, too, but he was the one who was punished. Often, he would just smile when my mother beat him. It was his way of finding and maintaining some dignity. When he and I talk about it now, he's in a place where 'Mom didn't mean it'. My brother is retired now and loves to play golf. Some of the scars have faded, and we have a very strong bond."

Duke said that some talent scouts had seen her brother in a play, and her mother allowed them to work with him. When she turned 7, the talent scouts came to her mother and "talked her out of me." Her mother turned Duke's career over to John and Ethel Ross, who became her managers. The Rosses believed she had talent and promoted her as a child actress. Duke even moved in with the Rosses.

But the young girl's well being was placed second to the Rosses' desire for success, and she was exploited through often unscrupulous methods. They often billed her as being 2 years younger than she really was.

"I was Anna Marie," said Duke. "But one day, Ethel Ross came into the living room and said, 'Anna Marie is dead. You're now Patty.' I started to work professionally. It was better than living with my mother. Money started coming in, and the Rosses were afraid of losing me. When we were filming 'The Miracle Worker' on location, we stayed in a hotel at the ocean. The Rosses broke out banana daiquiris. I'd had virgin daiquiris before, but these were real. After that, there was alcohol and even sexual molestation. But I covered for them, much like my brother covered for my mother.

"At 18, I got married, and my illness began to show itself. I was suffering from manic depression — bipolar disorder — and I took over where the Rosses left off. My marriage didn't last, and neither did the second one, but I had kids. When my sons were 5 and 7, I started verbally abusing them. Then, it became physical. I didn't abuse both of them — just one — much like my mother. It's amazing. He's a terrific dad now, but he went through hell."

Duke's mental illness wasn't diagnosed until she was about 35.

"I was aware of my failure with my children," she said as tears ran down her face. "And eventually, I decided to see a psychiatrist. I guess I was lucky — I had a manic episode just before my appointment — so he was able to see that side of me. He told me, 'Anna, I don't want you to be afraid, but I think you are suffering from manic depression.' All I could think was, 'Thank God' when he told me there was treatment for it. I went to a hospital, was placed on medications, and it turned my life around immediately. I've had to adjust my medications since then, but I'm always careful about taking them. In 29 years, I've never missed taking my medicine. They correct the chemical imbalance in my brain. Pills don't run my life, but they have given me back my life."

Duke said that, like many who abuse their children, she knew not to hit her son where it showed.

"And I was never naughty at work," she continued. "I saved it for people I love. I did a lot of damage to a sweet, adorable boy. It took a while for me to work my way back to him. He chose therapy instead of rage. He was the one who broke the cycle. He didn't take it out on someone else."

When asked by someone in the audience why she didn't tell about her abuse when she was young, Duke responded, "It was fear — that was the reason I didn't tell about the bruises and pain — but it is far more complex than I know how to describe."

As Duke became an advocate for abused children and mental health, she also took back her identity, reclaiming her real name, Anna Marie, which is the only name she uses now.

"I like to be called Anna," she said. "That's my name. Not Patty."

Another person in the audience told Duke that she and her sisters used to watch "The Patty Duke Show" and always wanted "hair like yours."

"I wish I had known," Duke answered. "It would have been nice to know that back in 1963. I never got to see my fan mail. And the Rosses would never allow me to watch my own show on TV."

Duke explained that alcohol played a tremendous role in her problems as she got older.

"After my first marriage fell apart, I drank heavily," she said. "I woke up next to people I didn't recognize. It was my way of self-medicating. My father died at 50 from alcoholism. I'm 64 years old, and I've been doing this for a lot of years. But I'm not the expert. The experts are in this room. If something happens, go to an expert. I have a fantasy about child abuse, that there will be a wonderful enlightenment. We can change this. We're outnumbered, so we have to speak out. The shame is enormous, even for the victim.

"And I'm willing to embarrass myself and stand in front of strangers to tell my story in hopes of helping others. It's been a long way back, but we can never give up."

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