Oct. 22, 2003 -- Donna Summer was the queen of the disco scene in the '70s and early '80s — but when the spotlight dimmed, so did her spirit.
Summer writes about her amazing journey from singing in a Boston church to superstardom in Ordinary Girl.
The singer-songwriter is surprisingly candid when it comes to the tragedy that followed her success and the road to a spiritual rebirth.
Read an excerpt from Ordinary Girl.
Shortly before Christmas, Helmuth and I decided to try a trial separation, and I went to Anna's to get away from Helmuth and our apartment. This offered me an opportunity to hear other voices, human voices that, thankfully, were louder than the tormenting voices in my own head. Gunther would drop by on occasion to visit Anna's husband, his best friend. We were both at home in Anna's house, giving us the connection that would lead us soon to common ground. I had a sense we were fellow travelers, searching for each other. What a desperate duo we were, perfect for each other. At least, for the time being.Then it happened. One night, while I was there alone at Anna's with Mimi, having just put her to sleep, Gunther showed up unexpectedly and we started discussing our marital problems. He recognized my high level of anxiety and coerced me to take a couple of sips of wine. I fell prey to Gunther's illustrious seduction that night.
I knew in my heart and soul that I had crossed the uncrossable line. I recognized the demise of my own moral convictions, and it shook the very foundation of my emotional stability. What did God think of me now? I shuddered at the idea that my eternal options were narrowing. What would Helmuth think of me? I knew my life was transparent in God's eyes, but how could I continue to deceive Helmuth? Could I trust my husband to forgive me when I couldn't even forgive myself? Gunther, on the other hand, flourished because of my emotional turmoil and now wanted to possess me at any cost. He stepped up his pursuit of me to the point of what would be described today as stalking. This, oddly, enticed and excited me. I was drawn to his burning need as much as he was to me.
Shortly thereafter, I went to the town of Knokke, Belgium, on a singing engagement without Helmuth. Overcome by loneliness, I stupidly decided to pen a steamy love letter to Gunther. I disguised myself by signing the letter "Love, Paul." After reading the letter, Gunther placed it in his desk drawer, where it was found later that day by his wife. Believing that she had discovered that his secret life was the real reason for Gunther's abuse and the cause of their estrangement, she decided to take the letter with her to a local club and show it around. It just so happened that night to be the same club where Helmuth worked as the headwaiter.
Helmuth, drawn to all the commotion, caught a glimpse of the letter and did a double take. The handwriting appeared disturbingly familiar as he read the words:
Missing you deeply here in Knokke.
Was this Donna's handwriting? he wondered. The very thought made him feel as if he'd been stabbed in the heart. He asked quietly, "Dauf ich das im Licht sehen, bitte?" May I see it in the light, please?
Upon my return from Knokke, Helmuth confronted me. He told me he had seen "the letter." I knew immediately that he knew the truth, and squirm as I might, there was no way out. I could see the pain in his eyes as he wrestled with the concept of my being unfaithful. How could someone he held so high stoop so low? I was completely unable to deal with the situation. He was broken, and so was I.
Not long after, feeling I could never repair the breach of trust, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I knew I had to leave Helmuth. Not because of Gunther, but because of the calling I had to pursue because of my singing. Helmuth told me that if there was music there in my heart, he would let me go.
Gunther stood by me during the first difficult days of my separation from Helmuth, and whenever I started to weaken, he encouraged me to keep my focus on my calling. This setting was perfect for Gunther, and as the saying goes, when he was good he was very good. During this time Gunther became my major crutch. He lavished his most sensitive, kind, and humane qualities on me. Gunther took Mimi and me on wonderful rides in the country and made paintings of me, but more than anything, he stood by my side and nurtured me back to emotional health, through the inevitable depression that goes with self-induced failure. I was powerless to resist him, yet at the same time I was extremely afraid of being controlled by him.
Unfortunately, when Gunther was bad, he was horrible. As I became more secure, he became more insecure and would compensate by drinking heavily. Because of his alcohol-fueled temper, I tried my best to keep an emotional arm's length from him, which made for a stormy on-again, off-again relationship. One night Gunther and I went out to a club with some friends. At one point I was walking across the dance floor and a man grabbed my hand and asked if he could dance with me. I politely declined and walked back to our table. The man from the dance floor followed me back to the table and sat down across from me, in Gunther's empty seat. He asked, "Is that your drink?" "Yes," I said. He picked up my drink and drank right out of it! He then reached for my hand again and tried to pull me onto the dance floor. I said no, this time a bit louder. Just then Gunther appeared. Seeing the man harassing me, Gunther raced over to me and grabbed the guy. He punched him, sat him down, picked him up again, punched him, sat him down again, and then kicked his chair, which was on rollers, all the way to the door and down the flight of stairs that led to the street. I stared in total disbelief. Gunther was indeed a dangerous man.
I was terrified of his violent temper! I couldn't believe what he had done. It's true the fellow had been out of line, but Gunther's reaction was completely way over the top. Somehow he avoided going to jail, and in retrospect, that only made him worse.Sometimes he did things I couldn't stand. He would sleep with other women just to try to make me jealous, but his childish behavior didn't faze me in the least. He'd come back, confess everything, and say he was sorry. It didn't matter to me. I was unaffected by his behavior. My attitude would make him so crazy he'd go off, drink, and get even crazier. There were times I tried to leave him, and that's when I learned firsthand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his uncontrollable violence. One night he literally kicked the bathroom door off its frame trying to get to me. Another time I came home and found him enraged over something completely trivial. All six foot four of him slapped the five foot eight of me around and then threw me across the room, straight into my glass cabinet. Pieces of glass pierced my skin and scalp. I had glass in my hair, my face, and all over my body.
When I finally could get up I called the police, who warned him to stay away from me. Despite their warnings, he just kept coming around. He tried to get us back together. He told everyone that "our trouble" was really all my fault. He claimed I had become too arrogant and full of myself, and that I had kicked him out for no reason. In other words, he wanted everyone to think that he was the victim!
Even after he began to abuse me, my insecurities led me to believe that I had destroyed my marriage because of this man and that therefore somehow I had to stick it out. Besides that, I figured I must have done something to provoke him. Maybe I shouldn't have said this, maybe I shouldn't have done that. I started playing that head game because as dangerous as it was to be with him, I really didn't want to face the alternative of "being alone." Here we were, two lost souls, groping at each other in mutual darkness. What a mess; what an utterly hopeless mess.
I kept myself busy and picked up singing work wherever I could. One day, a friend of mine told me about a producer who was looking for new voices. Maybe he could use me. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was a job. I set up an appointment to meet the man.That man turned out to be Giorgio Moroder.
Excerpted from Ordinary Girl by Donna Summer with Marc Eliot Copyright© 2003 by Donna Summer with Marc Eliot. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.