If Dickens had written a book about Hollywood, he could not have penned a childhood more desperate yet inspirational than Patty Duke's. Born Anna Marie Duke 54 years ago, Patty was systematically alienated and virtually kidnapped from her troubled mother and alcoholic father by talent managers Ethel and John Ross at an age when most children are learning their ABC's. In the hands of the Rosses, she endured unabated abuse for more than a decade. Her startling acting talent was at once a key to escaping the sorrow of her life and a doorway to a mental affliction that very nearly took her life.
When she was 7, Duke was already smiling in commercials and small television parts. Next, her young career led her to Broadway and later to a role as Helen Keller in a stage version of The Miracle Worker. She starred in a screen adaptation of the play, which garnered a frenzy of praise and an Oscar, and she was later offered her own TV series. The Patty Duke Show's hugely popular three-year run in the mid-1960s clinched her status as a teen icon. Yet Anna was never able to find joy in her success. She would endure a long struggle with manic depression and medicinal misdiagnoses before she would find the girl she was forced to pronounce "dead" and learn to live her life without fear. In a Psychology Today exclusive, she discusses some key moments on the path to her well-being.
I was 9 years old and sitting alone in the back of a cab as it rumbled over New York City's 59th Street bridge. No one was able to come with me that day. So there I was, a tough little actor handling a Manhattan audition on my own. I watched the East River roll into the Atlantic, then I noticed the driver who was watching me curiously. My feet began tapping and then shaking, and slowly, my chest grew tight and I couldn't get enough air in my lungs. I tried to disguise the little screams I made as throat clearings, but the noises began to rattle the driver. I knew a panic attack was coming on, but I had to hold on, get to the studio and get through the audition. Still, if I kept riding in that car I was certain that I was going to die. The black water was just a few hundred feet below.
"Stop!" I screamed at him. "Stop right here, please! I have to get out!"
"Young miss, I can't stop here."
I must have looked like I meant it, because we squealed to a halt in the middle of traffic. I got out and began to run, then sprint. I ran the entire length of the bridge and kept going. Death would never catch me as long as my small legs kept propelling me forward. The anxiety, mania and depression that would mark much of my life was just beginning.
Ethel Ross, my agent and substitute parent, was combing my hair one day a few years earlier, wrestling furiously with the tangles and knots that formed on my head, when she said, "Anna Marie Duke, Anna Marie. It's not perky enough." She forced her way through a particularly tough hair bramble as I winced. "OK, we've finally decided," she declared "You are gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You are Patty, now."
I was Patty Duke. Motherless, fatherless, scared to death and determined to act my way out of sadness but feeling as if I was already going crazy.
Although I don't think that my bipolar disorder fully manifested itself until I was about 17, I had struggles with anxiety and depression throughout my childhood. I have to wonder, as I look at old films of mine when I was a child, where I got that shimmering, supernatural energy. It seems to me that it came from three things: mania, fear of the Rosses and talent. Somehow I had to, as a child o f 8, understand why my mother, to whom I was attached at the hip, had abandoned me. It may be that part of her knew that the Rosses could better manage my career. And maybe it was partly due to her depression. All I knew was that I barely saw my mother and that Ethel discouraged even the smallest contact with her.
Because I wasn't able to express anger or hurt or rage, I began a very unhappy and decades' long pursuit of denial just to impress those around me. It's odd and thoroughly displeasing to recall, but I do think that my unnatural vivacity in my very early movies was largely because acting was the only outlet I had for exorcising my emotions.
While working on The Miracle Workerplay, the movie and later, The Patty Duke Show, I began to experience the first episodes of mania and depression. Of course, a specific diagnosis was unavailable then, so each condition was either ignored, scoffed at by the Rosses or medicated by them with impressive amounts of stelazine or thorazine. The Rosses seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of drugs. When I needed to be ratcheted down during a crying spell at night, the drugs were always there. I understand now, of course, that both stelazine and thorazine are antipsychotic medications, worthless in the treatment of manic depression. In fact, they may well have made my condition worse. I slept long, but never well.
The premise of The Patty Duke Show was a direct result of a few days spent with TV writer Sydney Sheldon, and if I'd had enough wit at the time, the irony would have deafened me. ABC wanted to strike while my stardom iron was still hot and produce a series, but neither I nor Sidney nor the network had an idea as to where to begin. After several talks, Sidney, jokingly but with some conviction, pronounced me "schizoid." He then produced a screenplay in which I was to play two identical 16-year-old cousins: the plucky, irascible, chatty Patty and the quiet, cerebral and thoroughly understated Cathy. The uniqueness of watching me act out a modestly bipolar pair of cousins when I was just beginning to suspect the nature of the actual illness swimming below the surface must have given the show some zing, because it became a huge hit. It ran for 104 episodes, though the Rosses forbade me from watching a single one...lest I develop a big head.