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Giving thanks with Joe Eszterhas

Books | A gritty screenwriter turns from Hollywood's dark side and walks in the light

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

Just as Christmas should center on Christ, so Thanksgiving should emphasize the recipient of thanks. God gives us amber waves of not only grain but grace, as He continues to transform the lives of those who formerly scorned His teaching.

Joe Eszterhas, born in Hungary, grew up too fast in 1940s refugee camps. He became a police reporter, Rolling Stone editor, and then Hollywood's highest-paid screenwriter. He wrote scripts filled with sex, violence, and hatred, and those scripts turned into films with evocative titles such as Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Betrayed, Sliver, and Showgirls.

Eszterhas in Hollywood saw and heard weirdness by the bucketful, everything from Marlon Brando asking every visitor to provide a stool sample for his private collection to John Candy downing 21 rum cokes and smoking two cigarettes at a time during a script meeting. Marriage 14 years ago had some effect on him-he and Naomi soon had four children-but not until he was recovering from a throat cancer operation did the major change occur.

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Eszterhas celebrated his 64th birthday last month, but in another sense he's 7 years old: He had an experience in 2001 that most of his former colleagues find incomprehensible. He discusses the big change in his new book Crossbearer (St. Martin's Press) and stopped by my New York office with his wife Naomi to talk about it.

Q: What happened to you after the refugee camps?

My mother became a schizophrenic. She stopped talking to me and my dad. She started saying the most horrible things, and she went around putting cement in the window frames and the locks saying that the aliens were coming. Life in the little one-bedroom apartment that we lived in became hellish, because you never knew what she was going to do or say. I grew up in a really tough neighborhood, and when I was 13 years old I hit a kid in the back of the head with a baseball bat and he almost died. I finally had the brains after that to stay off the streets, but before that, we had guns and knives that we rubber-banded to our arms, breaking and entering places, and all that.

Finally I started to read. I became a street reporter, worked the police beat, and would often get to the scene of the crime before the cops did. I saw too many things, and I saw many things that I really regret seeing now. Right alongside that, I developed a real fascination with serial killing and mass murders. I started interviewing people who had killed several people, I interviewed Manson. I remembered a lot of things from the refugee camps as well-all of that really pushed my writing in a darker direction.

Q: Tell us about what happened in 2001.

I was drinking about a fifth of gin a day, plus lighter stuff-beer, wine, and stuff like that, and I was smoking four packs of Salems a day. A radical surgery took out about 80 percent of my larynx. The surgeon said, "The only chance you have of surviving is if you stop smoking and drinking immediately." I had four little boys who were significantly smaller then, and there was Naomi, and so I really wanted to do this. I really try, but I'm completely obsessed with having a cigarette and having a drink.

About a month goes by. I have not had a cigarette or a drink. I'm in complete withdrawal-I'm shaking all the time, and I have no patience with my wife or my children, I'm sweating all the time, I've begun walking twice a day because I discovered that if I tire myself my cravings would be lessened and I can sleep more. So I'm walking on this particular day, it's 90-some degrees, I have a trache, and I can't speak at all with a trache. I have this child's blackboard to write on. The irony there is that not only can I not speak, but I have the worst handwriting, so no one can read it, either.

I go out, and the bugs start going after my trache, and I'm really sweating and I'm having difficulty breathing, and I start shaking. In a little street behind our house, I sit down on the curb, put my head down, and start to cry. I'm crying so hard that I see the tears hit the cement. I've never cried much as a man, since I was a boy, and I didn't cry much as a boy either. I don't remember a situation where I'm actually seeing my tears hit the cement. And as all of that is happening, as I'm crying, I put my head down and I hear a voice that says, "please God help me." I realize that it's my own voice in my head, and of course I can't speak so I'm not saying it. But I hear this voice that says "please God help me," and I realize that I'm praying.

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