John Rosengren, author of A Clean Heart, has been featured in an article written by Rachel Hutton for the Star Tribune as well as The Atavist for a story he wrote himself, read both pieces here!
Minneapolis author’s experience with addiction and recovery inform a new novel
By Rachel Hutton
John Rosengren is the Minneapolis-based author of nine books, most recently “A Clean Heart,” a novel centered on the staff and patients of an adolescent drug treatment center inspired, in part, by Minnesota’s pioneering St. Mary’s. At a time of increased concern about drug and alcohol abuse — a June CDC study found 13% of respondents had started or increased substance use to cope with the pandemic — Rosengren shares his personal experience with addiction, recovery and 39 years of sobriety.
Q: Like the protagonist of “A Clean Heart,” you got sober in high school and helped others get through treatment. Is this a case of art imitating life?
A: I worked in an adolescent chemical dependency treatment center just outside Boise, Idaho, back in the late ’80s, and the place was crazy — not just the patients, but the staff. It was highly dysfunctional. And I thought, ‘This would be a great setting for a novel.’ But my mother wants you to know that it is fiction: She’s not an alcoholic.
Q: When did you start abusing drugs and alcohol?
A: I grew up in suburban Plymouth in a Catholic family, with good parents, but was filled with insecurity and doubt and the angst of adolescence. And I found that smoking pot and drinking to excess helped me feel better. By the time I was 17, I was smoking pot many times a day and getting drunk when I could.
Q: What led to your getting treatment?
A: I finally got busted at a party where I wound up passing out and waking up in a detox center where they kept me for four days. That was my awakening. I went through outpatient treatment the fall of my senior year of high school and that’s where I made the connection between my use and my consequences.
Q: What aspects of addiction did you want to explore in fiction?
A: One is the relationship with the main character, Carter, and his mother, and how to free himself from her emotional neediness. She’s the drowning person clinging to him and he ultimately realizes he can’t save her, so he has to save himself.
Q: Another interesting relationship is Carter’s mentorship of Oscar.
A: When I worked at Armstrong High School as a drug counselor and at other treatment centers, I was always attracted to those hardcase kids that others had given up on. I’ve seen kids I worked with get shot at drug deals gone bad and killed. And I’ve seen them get sober and have fruitful lives. It’s not necessarily because of anything I’ve done, but it’s them allowing the grace of a higher power to work in their lives. And also having found the grace to surrender.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about alcoholism and drug addiction?
A: It helps that people understand that it’s a disease. No one sets out to become an addict or an alcoholic.
I knew when I smoked pot with my friends, they liked getting high, but I loved getting high. There was something different about me and my relationship with pot. I have a genetic predisposition, I believe. My grandfather was a skid row alcoholic and depression runs in my genes. I think it was like an affliction waiting to happen, like a little pilot light that’s burning and add alcohol or drugs and “whoosh” it flares up.
Q: Why is it so difficult to quit?
A: It’s not an act of will. It’s an act of surrender. The saying goes in AA, “If you think willpower is enough, try that next time you have diarrhea.”
Q: What are things that loved ones say or do that impede recovery?
A: Way back when I was going through treatment, if I started talking about going through treatment or being in recovery, my mom would shut the windows so the neighbors wouldn’t hear, trying to protect an image or trying to project an image that everything’s OK.
The first step is simply admitting there’s a problem and getting honest. For most alcoholics and addicts and those who enabled them there’s a ton of denial.
Q: How can loved ones be supportive?
A: Being there with another person and not trying to fix it, not trying to cure them, not trying to control them, but simply being present. And there’s a real power when that takes place between two alcoholics and two addicts, because no one understands the way another alcoholic or addict does.
People in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, thought Lois Riess was a nice wife and grandmother. If she had a vice, it was playing the slots. Then she committed murder.
On the evening of Friday, March 23, 2018, the police department in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, dispatched two officers to check on a man named Dave Riess. They drove up a winding dirt drive to a modest tan rambler. The house was dark. So too was the long, low-slung building, located about 50 paces from the front door, where Dave raised fishing bait at the Prairie Wax Worm Farm.
None of Dave’s employees nor his business partner had seen or talked to him for almost two weeks. He hadn’t picked up or returned their calls. They had received responses to texts, but Dave usually dictated his messages, which made the words run together. These replies used punctuation.
Stranger still, Dave was supposed to have left for a fishing tournament in Illinois on Tuesday, March 20. He would have taken his white Cadillac Escalade, which was what he typically used to pull his 20-foot-long boat. But on Thursday, two worm-farm employees saw Lois, Dave’s wife of 35 years, pull out of the driveway in the Escalade. They hadn’t seen her since.
Concern soon escalated to alarm, and the employees called the police.
Blooming Prairie is a blink of a town in southeastern Minnesota. It’s a stop along the railroad tracks that run parallel to U.S. Highway 218, surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. There’s a two-block Main Street of brick buildings, with storefronts that include B-Z Hardware, Farmers & Merchants State Bank, and J & H Liquors. A neat grid of quiet streets about a mile and a half square contain mostly single-story houses. Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.
The Riesses’ home was in the country—a mile south on 218, past six massive grain bins that sat on the edge of town. The night the police visited was dark and cold, with snow still on the ground. No one answered the door. The two officers walked around the house’s perimeter and noticed light coming from an open bathroom window. One hoisted up the other to peer inside. He spotted what appeared to be a body covered with a blanket.
The cops summoned two deputies from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, who went inside the house. They found Dave Riess on the floor. He had been shot twice with a .22 handgun—once in the chest, once in the back. A bullet had pierced clean through his forearm, suggesting that he had raised it to protect himself. He’d been dead for ten days, maybe longer. His body had started to marble, bloat, and decompose.
Ask anyone in Blooming Prairie and they’ll tell you that Dave was a jovial guy. Quick with a tip on a fishing spot. Generous with his employees. Loved to tell stories. Made up funny songs. But his laugh left the biggest impression. The rumble in his throat built to an eruption that shook his husky frame. Soon you were laughing, too, maybe without even realizing why. Being around Dave just felt good.
“He was my best buddy,” Jerry Bissell, a Blooming Prairie resident, told me recently. “Every day I go by their house, I wonder what the hell happened up there.” To find out, law enforcement had to answer another question: What the hell happened to Lois Riess?
Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.
South Padre Island is a narrow strip of land in the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas. It’s a popular vacation spot for families and retirees. On April 9, 2018, a middle-aged woman with long blond hair checked into the island’s Motel 6, a white complex with blue doors. She requested an out-of-the-way room and paid cash in advance for a week’s stay.
Two days later, in the early afternoon on Wednesday, April 11, the woman left Room 227 and walked across the parking lot to the Padre Rita Grill for lunch. The owner, Cathy Laferty, a friendly 61-year-old with blond hair herself, greeted the woman and complimented her cute outfit and matching hat. “What’s your name?” Laferty asked.
“L—,” the woman hesitated, “Donna.”
“Yeah. That’s why I just go by Donna.”
It became their little joke, and how the woman introduced herself around South Padre, where she decided to stay awhile. Donna returned to the grill daily, often in the evening, when there was live music. “She was happy, laughed a lot. A delightful person,” Laferty said. “I probably would’ve hired her if she’d asked for a job.” Donna liked to sit at the corner of the bar, where she could talk to people on either side of her. She was sociable, striking up conversations with waitstaff and other customers. She mentioned that she’d been in Florida previously but had found it overrun with old people. She said she was recently widowed, had come into money, and was looking to buy a condo. She asked locals like Laferty about property taxes and homeowners association fees.
She always paid in cash from a large wad, and tipped generously. The grill’s staff liked her. “I would’ve invited her to my house,” said Laura Giacchino, who waited on Donna the first time she came in. Donna flirted shamelessly with the Padre Rita bartender, Arnie, who was several years younger than she was. He flirted back, but demurred when she asked him out.
Donna made other friends around town. She met Isabel Barreiro at the Motel 6 pool. Barreiro, who was 52 and lived 75 miles away in Alamo, had come to the island by herself for a short vacation, something she frequently did. Cool, she thought when she met Donna, another woman by herself. Someone to talk to. They hit it off, had a couple of drinks, and sat “chatting and chatting,” Barreiro said later. Donna explained to Barreiro that her husband had died, tearing up as she spoke. Barreiro didn’t ask questions, to avoid being nosy.
Over the next two days they had lunch, went shopping, hung out in each other’s motel rooms, and sat on the beach. Donna posed for photos with her new friend. “She wasn’t shy with the camera,” Barreiro said. “She wanted me to take pictures of her.”
A week later, the national news sent shockwaves through the Padre Rita Grill and across South Padre Island. That’s when locals discovered Donna’s true identity. “We had no idea when she was here that she was a murderer and trying to hide,” Laferty said. “You just never know people you see on the street or who walk into your bar, who they really are.”
A Novel (Alcoholism, Dysfunctional Family, Recovery, Redemption, 12-Steps)
Carter Kirchner struggles to stay sane and sober as a counselor at Six West, an adolescent drug treatment center run by Sister Mary Xavier, a hard-drinking nun with an MBA. The young Kirchner is caught between Sister Mary’s plan to rescue the center by reforming a hard-case kid and the dysfunctional staff’s clumsy plan to intervene on their boss’s drinking. Meanwhile, Carter’s mother—who never forgave him for giving up a promising hockey career to treat his own addiction—lands in the hospital with an advanced case of cirrhosis. Before Carter can help the young addict commissioned to his care or safely navigate the staff’s dysfunctional intervention effort, he must rescue himself from his family’s broken past.