Thirty Rooms to Hide In – Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic
Luke Longstreet Sullivan
This remarkable book is a comic/tragic memoir written by a young man who grew up with an alcoholic father. This is certainly a field that’s been plowed many times before, but this story is different in several respects. First of all, the alcoholic in question was a renowned orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Secondly, the story evolves in a time not so long ago when addiction was poorly understood, alcoholism was seen as a character flaw (“lack of self-control”) and the devastating effects of one person’s addiction on others in the household were grossly underestimated. Luke Sullivan cobbled together this amazing narrative using contemporary diaries written by several of his brothers as well as his mother and by bound correspondence between his mother Myra and her retired father .
This is really the story of Myra Longstreet and her husband Charles Roger Sullivan. They met while undergraduates at a small Ohio college in the late 1940s. Their courtship was interrupted by Myra’s contracting tuberculosis and their marriage was interrupted early on by Roger’s commitment to the United States Navy. Roger became an orthopedic surgeon and, after completing training at the Mayo Clinic, had the honor of being offered a position on the Clinic faculty.
The marriage produced six children – all boys, Luke being the fifth in line. A good bit of the book deals with the hilarious antics of a household with six precocious and seemingly uncontrollable boys. What one didn’t think of the others did. There were frequent knock-down, drag-out fights, pranks which backfired and stunts which defy belief. The “thirty rooms to hide in” refers to The Millstone, a spacious home on a large tract of land which the Sullivan’s purchased after Roger Sullivan began working on the faculty at Mayo. The structure was built in the1930s and has a very unique architecture, including a turret where Myra kept a large library. There were also spooky places, including an attic with peculiar crevices and a dark and dank basement which was converted by the Sullivans into a bomb shelter during the early 1960s. The boys all had delusions of super powers and frequently used them to climb the high gabled tile roof of The Millstone or to climb down the sides of the structure like Spider Man.
Underlying all of this seemingly charming veneer, Luke Sullivan tells the story of the deterioration of his father. Roger developed the propensity to “rage” when he came home from the Clinic, consuming more and more liquor as time goes on. He directed his rage mainly towards Myra, hurling verbal abuse that is incomprehensible. He railed on for hours at a time about her deficiencies as a mother and wife and resented her close relationship with her father who lived in Florida and with whom she exchanged weekly letters. Roger had a difficult relationship with his own parents. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother (who the Sullivan children refer to as “The Rock” because of her stone-cold demeanor) was a domineering, fault-finding shrew. Roger also verbally and physically abused his sons, once beating the head of one of the younger boys against the refrigerator because he couldn’t remember the days of the week for a quiz at school. The resulting dents in the refrigerator remained a silent but constant reminder of how bad Roger’s temper was and how dire the consequences of his rages were. In the vein of self preservation, the boys developed a talent for disappearing in the house or surrounding countryside, leaving their mother to bear the brunt of most of the terror.
The older two boys, Kip and Jeff, learned to play the guitar and formed a rock and roll band called The Pagans. They became local celebrities, posing in advertisements for a Rochester clothing store and even recording their own 45 RPM record. (OK, I’m showing my age: I know what this is and still own a large collection of “45s”, including many by Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and The Beatles.) Luke Longstreet uses this aspect of their family life to define the profound influence that rock and roll music, in particular the “new music” by The Beatles, helped shape many of us who grew up in that period. He also uses The Pagans to illustrate Roger’s unpredictable behavior fueled by alcohol. One day he was hiring The Pagans to play a Mayo party he was hosting at his house, the next day he was cursing and saying how loud, obnoxious and worthless The Pagans were.
Roger’s addiction and resulting erratic behavior inevitably impacted his performance at the Mayo Clinic. His supervisors, including the Chair of the Orthopedic Department all tried to help. Roger and Myra each sought psychiatric consultation with little benefit. Roger blamed all of his problems on his wife, which in the 1950s and 60s was a readily believed excuse. The environment in The Millstone deteriorated to the point that Myra packed up the boys and left for a few months in 1964. There is a riveting chapter where Roger is beating on the door of Myra’s library with an axe while she and the children cower in fear. Finally, one of the boys lowers himself from the balcony “Spider Man style” and runs to the neighbor s for help.
Friends of the family also tried to intercede. A local dentist, also a close family friend, tried to talk sense into Roger. He was rewarded for his efforts by being accused very vociferously by Roger at a public gathering of having an affair with his wife. Roger is finally let go from the Mayo Clinic. He travels the country searching for another job, often showing up for interviews hung over or drunk. One night, after calling home in another alcoholic rage, he dies from a combination of booze, sedatives and insanity. This is not a “spoiler”, since the book opens with Roger’s funeral.
Luke goes on to describe his mother’s “life after Roger” which included academic success as a reading tutor and instructor at a local college. Myra continues to this day (she is in her eighties) to assume a lot of blame for what happened to Roger and also for the shamble of a life they provided for their sons. The author does not describe what happened to the six boys, although all are still alive. Data shows a high incidence of addiction issues in offspring of alcoholics, so it would be interesting to know how these boys matured. One would hope that they defied the odds and have lived a full, rich and happy life.
This book resonated with me on several levels. First, the Sullivan boys grew up in the same era that I did. I fully understood their fascination with rock and roll, their excitement about the presidential election of 1960 and their despair upon hearing of the Kennedy assassination. Secondly, I, too, am the son of an alcoholic father. Fortunately for me, my father got help before I was born and remained sober the entire rest of his life. Thank the good Lord, I never witnessed or suffered anything remotely similar to what befell the Sullivans. I never even knew until I was in late high school that there had ever been a problem. I just thought my parents were tea-totalers. I enjoy alcoholic beverages as much as anyone but am very cognizant of their power and potential for disaster.
This is an excellent book. It makes several important points. First, doctors and their families are human beings and can fall prey to the same demons as everyone else in the general population. Fortunately, there are much better methods to deal with the impaired physician now then there were in 1960. The Medical Society of Virginia has an excellent program (initiated by Lynchburg’s own Dr. William Barney) which has helped many. Secondly, it is hard to comprehend that the understanding of addiction issues and alcoholism in particular was so primitive just one generation ago. We should all be grateful to the researchers and workers in this field who have advanced the art of treating these problems. Finally, Thirty Rooms to Hide In underscores the value of humor in coping with life’s many trials and travails. I am grateful for Luke Sullivan’s courage to write this book and am very glad that I read it.
Thirty Rooms to Hide In is a self-published paperback book which is available from the usual on-line vendors. There are electronic editions as well. It is also available for direct purchase (at a much reduced price) at the author’s web-site. The web-site also contains many family photos and 8 mm videos. There are scans of Myra’s letters and the children’s diaries. There are even mp3 format recordings of The Pagans!