Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


McGovern and his daughter Terry: What we can learn

Perhaps what all of us can best learn from Sen. George McGovern is the need to better understand mental illness and chemical dependency.

Outside of his political career, Sen. George McGovern was a strong advocate for bettering our understanding of mental illness and chemical dependency.

If heaven has a special place for fathers and daughters, Sen. George McGovern is now with his daughter Terry. Hopefully an eternity of happiness and joy lie ahead. 

Judge Kevin S. Burke

McGovern will for the most part be remembered in history as a liberal warrior for the hungry. He had a successful career in politics. Although he was a staunch Democrat he knew how bipartisanship and compromise were essential, as illustrated by his work with Republican Sen. Bob Dole on the issue of food stamps. He had a Ph.D. in history, taught in many colleges and was a prolific author. And of course McGovern was a dismal failure in his effort to become president. All of that is well worth noting, but perhaps what all of us can best learn from Sen. George McGovern is the need to better understand mental illness and chemical dependency. 

In Tim Russert’s book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” there is mention of a book that was so sad that Russert said he had to put it down repeatedly.  This book, written by McGovern, was entitled, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.” Whether you admired, despised or are indifferent to McGovern’s political views, perhaps his passing can inspire us to contemplate how society can better help those disabled by mental illness and chemical dependency. Perhaps his experience can lend some comfort to parents and families whose loved ones are afflicted with chemical dependency and mental illness. 

McGovern had five children. He loved them all, but by his own description he had a special affinity for Terry. She was 45 years old and was the mother of two young girls when she froze to death in a parking lot in Madison, Wis., on the night of Dec. 12, 1994. She died drunk shortly after she had left a detox facility for the 68th time. Terry was an alcoholic and had suffered from depression for years.

A formidable campaigner

As a young adult, Terry had been a formidable campaigner for her father, especially during his ill-fated presidential run in 1972. People who followed that campaign said she was articulate and even at times a charismatic speaker, and an effective manager of teams of campaigners.

Article continues after advertisement

Twenty-two years after her father’s loss to President Richard Nixon, the Los Angeles Times reported, “The doorbell startled George McGovern. He was in the living room, leafing through an edition of Harper’s. George and his wife, Eleanor, had returned a few hours before from a restaurant where, over the years, they celebrated good news with their five children. Eleanor had just gone up to bed. Through the glass, by the light of the entrance hall, McGovern could see two men, and before he opened the door, he suspected two things: They had come about Terry and the news was bad. Senator, we are so sorry. Your daughter Teresa is dead. Last night she wandered into a dark alley and fell into a snow bank. She was intoxicated. No one found her until noon today. McGovern stumbled into his dark study. He couldn’t turn on the light, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t cry. For 10 minutes, he wandered in circles around the room.”

After the men left, McGovern was in denial. He called the coroner, who confirmed his daughter’s death. But before told his wife, McGovern  sat and  “harbored a desperate hope that the coroner might call and tell me that they had revived Terry or that they had made a mistake in identifying the body.”

Followed a counselor’s advice

Mental illness and chemical dependency can tear apart families and at times cause resentment by other siblings. McGovern’s daughter Ann once said to him, “I guess the best way to get attention in this family is to be an alcoholic.” After decades of repeatedly helping Terry into treatment programs and then watching her self-destruct, McGovern and Eleanor took the advice of a counselor and distanced themselves from their daughter for what turned out to be the final six months of her life. After this decision and her death, McGovern was tormented by that decision for the rest of his life. Tough love turns the lives around of many, but when it does not work it has the potential to doom the survivors to decades of self-doubt and agony.

McGovern said of his pain that Terry “needed the unbroken love, support and protection of her family, her friends her neighbors and her community. I ask God and I ask dear Terry to forgive me for not always faithfully adhering to these simple concerns as a father and a member of the human family. There is no such thing as too much compassion, understanding, support and love for the sick and dying. Alcoholics are sick until death. They won’t make it through the night without our love and protection.” 

Depressed women, much more so than their male counterparts, often drink to ease their emotional pain. The result can be an endless spiral of addiction.  There’s little evidence that depression drives one to drink, but it drives people to drink more – often bringing them to the “lethal state” that afflicted Terry.

Epidemiological studies have found that about half of all female alcoholics are clinically depressed – compared with about 1 in every 10 male alcoholics.  A few men drink to abate depression and, certainly, men who are manic tend to drink to excess because their appetites run wild, but with women, there is clearly a different relationship.

Nothing worked permanently

As a teenager, Terry had tried marijuana, beer and LSD but, McGovern insisted that Terry’s consumption was not to a degree that was unusual for youths growing up in the 1960s. He first learned that Terry was deeply troubled after her first year of college, when she told her parents that she was feeling depressed. “She couldn’t stand her life,” he said. “She was so sad, so depressed, so discouraged about what she’d done with her life and where she was going.”  The McGoverns admitted her to a psychiatric hospital, where she spent six months in treatment for clinical depression. She remained in treatment there, later as an outpatient, for four years. But try as they might, nothing worked permanently for Terry. 

Shortly before her death Terry wrote a note to her parents: “ I truly cannot believe I’ve let myself stay sick for so long. It’s been 4 years relapsing —  pulling my life apart and damaging the spirits of those I love most. I wonder if I can ever really have a full life knowing my children and I have lost precious time and not knowing what time I will be allowed now. I am so sad mom. Please pray for Marian, Colleen and me to be reunited. I want to be a daughter to you and dad — not a source of worry, anger and sorrow. I want to be a sister to my brother and sisters.”

A parent who loses a child never really recovers. After Terry’s  death  McGovern taught, wrote books and served as U.S ambassador to he United Nations food agencies from 1998 to 2000. He later collaborated with Bob Dole to create international food for education and child nutrition programs.   But what he said may well be another important legacy of his life that all of us should follow. McGovern said he learned from his daughter Terry something she was never able to achieve peace with: to be grateful for every day.

Kevin Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and the current president of the American Judges Association. 


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright