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Luke Sullivan’s Rochester memoir tells it like it really was

To outsiders, the family represented success. But Sullivan’s father was a raging alcoholic, and viciously tormented his family as he spiraled from alcoholism to madness.

“Rochester, Minnesota, is a privileged white enclave of conservative Republicans nestled in the southeastern corner of a Democratic state,” begins Luke Longstreet Sullivan in his memoir, “Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic.” The description, it’s clear, is not a compliment. Sullivan grew up there with his five brothers during the 1950s and ’60s, and if during those years American pop culture put a happy, wholesome face forward, Rochester tried even harder to present a perfect image. But, as Sullivan writes, what went on behind closed doors was far more complicated.

Sullivan’s father, Charles Sullivan, was a handsome, accomplished young orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic. He had a beautiful wife and lived in a fantastic 30-room English Tudor country mansion. To outsiders, the family represented success, Rochester-style. But the good doctor was a raging alcoholic, and viciously tormented his family (and endangered the public) as he spiraled from alcoholism to madness, eventually dying alone in a hotel room at age 45.

Sullivan self-published his book in 2011, and it immediately found an audience of other children of the 1950s whose early years had not been a perfect as the family photos would make it seem. It has just been republished by University of Minnesota Press.

‘Billboard grins’ through the anxiety

“I started getting letters. I’d say more than 100 of them specifically noted, ‘I’m so glad to know my family was not the only one suffering like this.’ But I don’t blame any kind of weird Rochester culture for it; I think this was simply the way of the world back then, or certainly the way of America,” said Sullivan in an interview. “See, the thing is, in the 1950s, everything was ‘perfect.’ Everybody was ‘happy.’ Or ‘goddamn well should be!’ There was a cheerful strain of dishonesty that forced everybody to put on these billboard grins and smile through all the anxiety of the times.”

Luke Sullivan
Luke Sullivan

The country was beginning to crack under the weight of repression and the specter of nukes, social unrest and wars in Asia. Sullivan’s older brothers and their friends formed a rock band called the Pagans and enjoyed modest success (and notoriety).

Their highly intelligent mother, Myra, however, as a housewife of her era, had no way out. She wasn’t allowed to see her own parents, but kept up a stream of highly detailed and expressive letters with her father.

Those letters became the foundation of Sullivan’s book. His own memories, written with wry humor, are interspersed with his mothers words, his and his brothers’ diary entries, as well as newspaper clippings and photos to create a compelling portrait of a family in crisis, and a family of survivors. His working title was “All Survivors Accounted For.”

Like late-arriving condolence letters

“Most of the letters I’ve received have been letters in praise of my mom and of the strength it took her to get us safely through those years. A few have been from my father’s friends, and most of those have been more like condolence letters arriving 45 years after the event,” says Sullivan.

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In the years after her husband’s death, Myra Sullivan became a well-known and effective reading tutor and dyslexia specialist, teaching thousands of kids in southern Minnesota to read, and training teachers. She also wrote poetry. Myra, along with Sullivan’s brothers, still lives in Minnesota.

Luke Sullivan now lives in Georgia. His first book was “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising,” and he makes his living creating advertising messages — happy, perfect images.