The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography by Esther Williams with D. Diehl, 1999 (Chapter One), Simon & Shuster, $26.00, 416 pps.

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

What does Esther Williams' autobiography have to do with regression psychotherapy? I was intrigued by the first chapter of The Million Dollar Mermaid and this review will only be about that chapter, Esther Williams, Cary Grant and LSD.

So now you know. If you still don't know then I want to let you know that the psychedelic drug, LSD can, under clinical settings, allow one to relive early repressed trauma. In an interview with Larry King on CNN in November, 1999, Esther Williams said that when she tried LSD, at that time "it had not gotten . . . to be a recreational drug yet." She remarked that it was then called "instant psychiatry."

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As important background information, the author writes that she was a child of the economic depression of the 1930s. She was the last of five children and had always felt the need to please and care for her family. Though a popular movie star and lead actress in many water musical extravaganzas of the late 1940s and early fifties, things were not as they seemed since she had been in deep emotional pain.

While on a trip to Europe, she suffered a panic attack which was only brought under control by the timely arrival of a stewardess offering an alcoholic drink. She knew with certainty, during that time, that something had to be done to assuage the anxiety in her life. Staring in movie after movie had left her no time to think about where her life was going. She felt, at times, that she really did not know who she was. A divorce from her second husband had left her troubled with IRS tax problems as her alcoholic husband had wasted almost ten million dollars through bad investments and gambling.

During the flight to Europe she read the September, 1959, issue of Look magazine. It contained a frank interview with Cary Grant in which he remarked that he had, under a physician's supervision, taken the psychedelic LSD with remarkable effects. Like Esther Williams, Grant had felt that prior to the LSD experience he did not know who he was. He said LSD had allowed him to make a rapid recovery from his emotional problems. He was quoted: "I am through with sadness. At last, I am close to happiness. After all those years, I'm rid of guilt complexes and fears."

Cary Grant had tried everything. And everything except the LSD experience had failed. His therapist, Dr. Mortimer Hartman, was quoted in the autobiography as having said that LSD ". . . empties the subconscious and intensifies emotion and memory a hundred times." Grant stressed that it was important to know who you really were. He had reached the conclusion that having money, beautiful women, and expensive houses wasn't what brought happiness.

His big breakthrough came after many weeks of LSD ingestion. Esther Williams wrote that she had known Grant for years though not as a close friend. She decided to telephone him and he invited her to visit him at his office the next day. At that time the media accounts stressed how the use of LSD by young people had caused many bad trips and disrupted lives. There was little information available about how the psychedelic could be beneficial if used properly. In short, she made an appointment with Dr. Hartman, a radiologist and internist, who had undergone psychoanalysis.

In a darkened room Esther Williams took the prescribed dose of LSD and then was told to lie down, not be afraid, close her eyes, and for two hours let the psychedelic take over. Unlike the LSD treatment used by other therapists at that time, she was left alone during the time the psychedelic was most active. She described the "trip" as the most amazing journey of her life.

Her first perception was the easing of body tension and resistance. LSD brought her to the exact spot which needed to be resolved. The scene which began unfolding before her included both of her parents. She began visualizing her father's face on the day her beloved brother, Stanton, sixteen, had died. At that time Esther Williams was eight. In the place of her father's face she saw a ceramic plate which then shattered into small pieces and then the shards fell down as he became faceless. Looking at her mother, Esther Williams noticed that she had no emotion at all.

Then she regressed to the time of devastation the family had suffered over the death of their son and brother. He was good looking and it was his acting talent which had brought the family to California from Kansas hoping that he would break into movies and become the family's hope. His death had left the parents without a reason to live.

Under the impact of LSD, Esther Williams began wondering why her mother had taken her, the youngest child, to view Stanton's body at the funeral home. There were three older siblings who seemingly would have been better choices to be supportive of their parents. Williams re-lived the event when her mother threw herself across Stanton's coffin while in a state of agitated depression. During the LSD trip all this was felt and re-experienced.

And then came the insight which was to explain so much of her future behavior.

She explained to Larry King on CNN, two months after her book was published: "I made a vow to replace him (her brother) in my family, to heal my mother and father's devastation and be their 16-year-old boy, I was too young at 8 to be that. So I had to become 16." She said that, thereafter, "I felt Stanton's presence with me all the time."

Her parents had depended so much on Stanton's success. The other children had impediments which blocked their filling in for Stanton. Taking her brother's place was to be the central mission of her life. To do that, she had grown up overnight.

But the effects of the first dose of the LSD treatment were not over. That night she spent with her parents. During that day, under LSD, she realized how she had fulfilled her life script and this had become painfully real and insightful to her. She felt an overpowering obligation to made it her life's goal to care for her parents in every way possible, taking over the role that her dead brother had originally been destined to have. The after-effects of LSD were continuing as she viewed her parents at home that night as she had seen them many years earlier with the help of her now LSD lowered defenses. At home that night, her mother was expressionless and her father sad and dejected. They had both been that way, she thought, ever since Stanton had died.

That night she wanted to be alone and so retired early to her quarters. Looking in the bathroom mirror she felt that she could not see herself clearly. After removing her makeup, slicking back her hair and stripping off her clothes she suddenly began seeing herself in the mirror as a split image. One side of her body was herself but the other half had the appearance of a sixteen-year-old boy. She noticed the flatness and muscularity of one side of her chest. She reached over with the boy's hand, touched her right breast and felt her penis becoming aroused.

She felt as though she had become a hermaphroidite and without fear began exploring her body. She wrote: "Finally, I understood perfectly: when Stanton had died, I had taken him into my life so completely that he became a part of me."

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Unfortunately during the drug hysteria of the 1960s all use of LSD was banned, both clinical and recreational. As seen in Williams' autobiography, it is sometimes possible that only a single dose of LSD can demolish one's defenses enough to allow huge therapy gains, instead of the more typical years required by the non-drug regressive therapies.

Thus, those who want psychedelic psychotherapy cannot have it, while those who want it for recreational use have a readily available source in the illegal market. There is one bright spot, however, since research into the use of psychedelics is slowly being permitted by the FDA. Hopefully, soon the prejudices of the past will be overcome and the clinical use of psychedelics will be allowed to resume.

The History Channel recently programmed Getting High: A History of LSD. I thought the program, in general, was biased towards the sensational and that the clinical uses of the psychedelic were downplayed. But, at the conclusion of the hour-long program, the author of Storming Heaven, Jay Stevens, remarked:

"What really ended at the end of the sixties was the scientific research of LSD, and a lot of researchers felt a little bit like Gallieo; that they had the first telescope that could look at what consciousness was, how the psyche was formed, and how bodily energies get transformed into what we call consciousness. And they lost that telescope, not for any scientific reasons, but wholly for cultural reasons and they'd like to see it restored."

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