From an early age, singer Belinda Carlisle began searching for what she wanted out of life. After years struggling with her weight and drug addiction despite a successful music career, she began seeking not what she wanted, but what she needed.
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Heaven Is a Place on Earth
For much of my life, I felt like my fate was determined before I stepped into a recording studio, sang a song, or even thought about the Go-Go's -- long before I joined Hollywood's punk scene in the mid-1970s.
When I was twelve years old, I was a mixed-up, restless little girl living in Thousand Oaks, a working-class area in Los Angeles's West San Fernando Valley. My stepdad had a drinking problem, my mom was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I was teased as being fat and stupid. I was neither, but at that age, the facts didn't matter. I hated my life and wanted something better.
I came home one day from a friend's house holding a book that seemed like it might help me change my life. I hid it under my sweatshirt and went straight to my bedroom. I felt a tingle of excitement as I slipped it out and looked at the cover: "The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey. I read bits and pieces, and although I understood very little of the author's rant against Christianity, I focused on terms like "exorcism," "evil," and "black magic," thinking I could find out how to cast spells and take control of my life.
This wasn't the first book I'd read on the subject, but it got me in the mood to finally try to cast a spell. I slid a box out from under my bed and removed the contents I had assembled earlier: brewed tea leaves, oak twigs, string, and a candle. I arranged them in front of me as I'd seen in a different book. I chanted some words and called on the invisible powers of the universe to give my life the excitement I felt it lacked and everything else I wanted.
What did I want?
I asked myself that question for most of my life. As a kid, I wanted out of my house, a place of much torment and trouble. The punk scene became my refuge, my safe haven, the forgiving, understanding world where I could be anything I wanted -- in my case, a rock star. After I became a rock star, I still didn't know what I wanted. Finally, many years later, I began to realize I had been asking the wrong question.
It was actually one night in 2005 when I finally came clean with myself, when I asked what it was I needed, not what I wanted. I had gone to London for business, but spent three straight days locked in my hotel room, doing cocaine. I went on the biggest binge of my life, which is saying something considering I had used, boozed, and abused for thirty years. When I looked at my eyes in the mirror, I didn't see anyone looking back at me. The lights were out. I was gone.
It scared me -- yet I didn't stop until I had an extraordinarily frightening out-of-body experience where I saw myself overdosing and being found dead in the hotel room. I saw the whole thing happen, and I knew that if I kept doing coke, I was going to die.
At that moment I shut my eyes, and when I opened them again I made the decision I had put off for much too long. I opened myself up to life. I appreciated the good, faced the bad, and began to find the things I needed.
Now, four and a half years later, the bad days are behind me but not forgotten. They made me who I am today -- a far better, healthier, smarter, more open and loving person than I ever thought was possible. I'm someone who lived her dream against the odds of any of it happening, and yet I never doubted it.
Who knows, maybe it was the spells I cast back when I was a little girl. Whatever it was, it's been a pretty remarkable ride. I'm writing this book at age fifty, a milestone that seems like the right time to look back, hopefully with some perspective, insight, and wisdom at my career, marriage, sobriety, and efforts to connect with a higher power.
I don't know that people make complete albums anymore. But when I was growing up, and early in my career with the Go-Go's, artists tried to put together a collection of songs that made sense as a whole. You listened to a record cut by cut, hoping every song was great but generally discovering that some songs were better than others, some were great, and some were so bad they should have been left in the studio. At the end, there was some sort of aha moment when you "got" the work in its entirety.
If it was any good, it stayed with you, made you think, and in the best of all worlds it offered inspiration and hope. I feel that way about my life thus far. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but most of the cuts have been pretty good, and some even great. They worked for me -- a little girl who thought she cast a spell that created the rest of her life, and then turned into a woman who realized the real magic had been there the whole time.
I Think It's Me
At eighteen, I worked at the Hilton Hotels Corporation, photocopying papers for eight hours a day. When I wasn't doing that, I was ordering toilet paper for hundreds of hotels. I was bored out of my mind. Making matters worse, I had the world's most hideous boss. He looked for reasons to call me into his office and chew me out. Most people would've quit, but I didn't care. Besides needing the money, I knew I wasn't going to be there long. I was going to be a rock star.
I was absolutely certain of it.
I had always been like that: someone who dreamed big and believed those dreams could come true if I kept at them.
I probably inherited that from my mom. Raised in Hollywood, Joanne Thompson was the eldest of two children of Roy, a plant manager at the General Motors facility in Van Nuys, and Ruth, a homemaker whose head-turning beauty and dramatic flair had inspired her as a younger woman to pursue movie stardom. When those dreams didn't pan out, she turned into an obsessive fan who read all the gossip magazines and took her daughter to movie premieres where they ogled the stars walking the red carpet.
Like my grandmother, my mother was drop-dead gorgeous. Photos of her as a senior at Hollywood High show a redhead with a great figure and big, lively eyes. She was a knockout. I think she could have had a shot at a career in front of the camera if she'd had ambition in that direction. By her own admission, though, she was too naïve and shortsighted. She didn't have a plan.
"I didn't think about what I wanted to do," my mother once told me when I asked how she had envisioned her life going after high school, adding that she saw herself as Debbie Reynolds and "thought everything would be, or should be, happy, happy, happy.
"Then I got married," she continued, "and I found reality."
Actually, she found Harold Carlisle, a James Dean look-alike whom she met while still a high school student. He was her dose of reality. He worked at a gas station near the school. Though he was twenty years older than her, she fell in love with him.
"I was so stupid," she told me. "He was a bum."
They married right after she graduated and on August 17, 1958, less than nine months after she accepted her diploma, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Belinda. C'est moi! I arrived in the world via special delivery, otherwise known as a C-section. According to my mom, I was too large for her to push out naturally. Apparently size was an issue for me from day one.
Two years later, my mom gave birth to a boy, Butch; and two years after him, she had my sister Hope.
Even now she doesn't talk much about those early years. From the little she has revealed, she was in over her head as both a wife and a new mother. She's described it as a time when she learned "the tricks of the trade." Translation: Barely out of her teens, she was juggling three small children in a cramped Hollywood apartment, making do without much money, and trying to figure out life with a much older man.
According to her, my father wasn't happy about having children. I can sort of understand his position as he was an older man who impregnated a high school girl, married her, and then found himself in a situation he may not have envisioned for himself. Why did two more children follow if he was against having a family? Good question. To this day, my mom is reluctant to speak about those early years. She has too many wounds that are still tender and raw.
When I was five and a half, we moved to Thousand Oaks, a fifty-mile drive northwest over the hills from our Hollywood apartment. It got us out of the city and into a fairly rural area with dairy farms and post-Korean War housing developments. Our neighborhood was the low end of working-class and we were among the poorest of the poor, though at my age I didn't know rich from poor.
We moved into a small, pink and brown 1950s tract home at the end of a cul-de-sac. The street was lined with trees; I thought it was beautiful. The backyard was a hardscrabble mix of grass and dirt with a cheap metal swing set lodged in the middle that was like an island of fun. The problem was getting to it. My dad had an extremely territorial pet rooster that roamed the yard with an ogrelike temper and threatened us kids whenever we went back there.
My dad had a similar temperament. He didn't threaten us, but he left no doubt that he ruled the roost. Even on good days, there was always an undercurrent of tension. I know my parents could barely afford the house, but that was only one of their problems. My mom didn't trust my dad, or his explosive temper. Sadly, I felt the same way after I was literally caught in the middle of one of their more physical arguments, with one of them pulling my legs and the other my arms until it seemed I might split into two pieces.
Our move into the Valley coincided with my dad working at the GM plant in Van Nuys, though he didn't last there long before he started a carpet- cleaning business. I don't know whether he left or was laid off. I remember my mom hand-painting a logo on the side of his van. It was like the christening of an ocean liner because after that he spent most of the time on the road.
As part of the change, my mom sought comfort and companionship with the handsome carpenter who lived across the street, Walt Kurczeski. It turned out Walt had his own demons, but I didn't know about them then. At that point, he was my mother's special friend. Many years later, when I asked how their friendship had started, she said, "He was there when I needed him -- with marriage or without."
All I knew was Walt was at our house whenever my dad wasn't there, which was more often than not. I didn't question the arrangement until one afternoon when I was waiting in front of my house to ride bikes with Eddie, a little Mexican boy who was one of my best friends. He walked up to me looking uncomfortable and announced that he couldn't ride bikes with me that day or any other day. When I asked why, he said his parents didn't want him to play with me anymore.
I didn't understand. We played together almost every day.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because my mom says your mother is bad."
My mother was bad? I didn't understand what he meant or why he said such a hurtful thing, and his words left me bleeding from a hundred little wounds. I held back tears as I raced home. I ran into the garage, sat on my bike, and cried while trying to figure out why my friend's mother would've said such a mean thing about my mom.
It didn't make sense. My mom was a sweet, shy, young woman. She wasn't bad, and she didn't have the capability of being mean. She fought with my father when he called from the road, but she sounded defensive and usually hung up feeling scared.
After a few minutes, I went inside and looked for my mom. She was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I stared at her through tear-filled eyes. She asked if I had been crying. I lied and pretended nothing was wrong. I felt like I would hurt her if I told her that someone thought she was bad, and my instinct was to protect her.
She was twenty-five years old. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was wearing a cute dress that she had made herself, as she had most of her clothes, as well as my school outfits. None of that was bad. She liked to watch movies. She also sang around the house, played piano, and clapped when I danced for her. None of that was bad either.
At worst, she was troubled. But bad?
I could think of only one possibility for Eddie's words -- Walt. He was at our house for dinner and often still there in the morning. He was more of a companion to my mom than my father was. I grew used to him being around without really thinking about why he was there. Of course, in retrospect I know why. My mom and dad had split. I don't know if they had officially separated or divorced, but they weren't together anymore.
My mom never mentioned it. Walt's presence was assumed. He continued to show up after we moved to Simi Valley, and then to a rental in Reseda, and yet again to an even smaller home in Burbank that was so close to the freeway that I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of cars speeding past. Even after the final move to Burbank, my mother, sister, and I continued to shuttle back and forth between my grandparents' home in Saugus and those of various friends of my mother.
Just as we were never given an explanation of Walt's presence, my brother, sister, and I were never told why we were constantly moved around. To this day, if I shut my eyes and think back to that time, I can feel the sense I had of being unsettled and uncertain and of wondering why we couldn't stay at home. It was confusing and chaotic. Maybe this moving around was why, years later, I took to the road so easily -- it reminded me of this time in my life.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I asked my mother for an explanation and she finally gave me one. She told me that her split from my father was volatile, and she felt the need to hide us while she tried to work things out with him. I didn't understand why she wanted to hide us from my father, but there were a lot of things going on between them that were beyond my comprehension.