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Meredith Baxter, untied

The former 'Family Ties' star talks about her struggles with fame, family and sobriety

Jen Weigel

June 9, 2011

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For seven years, America rooted for Meredith Baxter as she played Elyse Keaton on the hit television series "Family Ties." But as her career flourished, Baxter suffered in silence. Her low self esteem, failing marriages and traumatic childhood left her emotionally distraught. Yes, even the rich and famous have mommy issues.

"My mother made me call her by her stage name, Whitney Blake," said Baxter, who removed the "Birney" from her name more than 20 years ago when she divorced her second husband, David Birney. "I wasn't allowed to call her Mom or Mommy from the time I was four or five and I'll tell you … I'm now a 63-year-old woman, and to remember that I couldn't call her Mommy and that this is still an issue for me—it's too bad. It's really too bad."

In Baxter's book "Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering" (Crown Archetype, $25), she doesn't hold back. Growing up in Hollywood with a mother who was more concerned about her acting career than her family took its toll on Baxter. There were the acid trips with her brother and a suicide attempt when she was shipped off to boarding school. Soon her acting career took off (first with the television show "Bridget Loves Bernie," followed by "Family" and eventually "Family Ties"), but her personal life was less triumphant. With three failed marriages under her belt, Baxter admits to soothing the pain with white wine.

"Alcohol just sort of helped me knock those feelings away," she said. "I was very shut down as a child so when I started drinking, alcohol allowed me to feel. I felt alive. I could talk. I could be funny. I could be present. For a while it was just drinking in the dressing room before I went home, and then it became a tool to help me get through difficult scenes. I just didn't tell anybody."

Eventually, Baxter found herself carrying a tumbler of chardonnay between her legs while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"I never once thought that I was doing something wrong," she said. "It was a terrible arrogance — the arrogance of the alcoholic. I thought I could navigate traffic — the people I put at risk. It was horrible. It's a thoughtless way of being."

Now in a 12-step program, Baxter says that stopping drinking alone was not enough to heal her emotionally.

"I was a dry drunk. I dragged my feet. What I skipped was the self-examination. I had to realize I was not a victim — that I had made choices based on my belief system I had that kept me in these unhealthy relationships. And if I didn't change the thinking, I was not going to be able to change the behavior."

Baxter credits finding the right therapist for helping her see the self-destructive patterns in her life.

"I was operating under this belief system that 'I'm not loved, I'm not loveable, Meredith could you please not be here,' so that affected the entire trajectory of my life," she says. "Every relationship I went into, every job I took, anytime I engaged in any kind of pursuit — that was the voice in my head."

Baxter says that negative self image prevented her from leaving David Birney when the marriage started going south.

"I saw myself as a victim of all of this — all my life — the entire time that I was with David and even before I was married to David, because I didn't think I was enough. He was very smart and very well educated and he thought I was stupid so I thought I was stupid too. So that allowed me to stay."

Baxter says Birney both physically and verbally abused her, which he denies.

"In an abusive household no one talks about the abuse — so I wrote about it," she says. "David had a rage that would just come down all the time — and you would hear that Porsche drive in and you would dive into action. You'd clean what had to be cleaned and you'd straighten it up, and get an excuse for what you didn't have done because you were going to have to answer for it. It felt like a reign of terror."

One of Baxter's regrets is that she used her children as pawns during her divorces.

"I did what I was taught, which was, 'If we're divorced, you're dead to me.' It was so unfair to the children and emotionally exhausting for all of us. I battled with David for eight long years in the courts before that divorce was finalized."

And when Baxter came out as a gay woman in 2009, she says her five children were incredibly supportive.

"They said, 'We just want you to be happy, Mom," she recalls. "I tell people they have treated me like I hope most parents would treat their kids if they came out."

By being honest with her struggles, Baxter hopes to inspire others to forgive themselves and get support.

"It's hard to imagine, but even in the dark times, some wonderful things emerged," she says. " I have five beautiful children. I'm in a loving relationship now. I'm trying to surrender to the things I can't control. If one person hears my story and makes a better choice, it's worth it."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel