Rewriting his own script

You may never have heard of Guideposts magazine, but 2.3 million subscribers have. Its editor, Yale Drama grad Edward Grinnan ’82MFA, has a harrowing tale of addiction and recovery that could have come from its pages.

Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD, writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He is director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a lecturer in the English department.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Grinnan and his fellow Guideposts editors meet every Monday morning to read prayer requests sent in by the magazine's readers. View full image

Every Monday morning at 9:45, editors of Guideposts, the monthly inspirational magazine, gather in their Manhattan conference room to honor prayer requests sent by some of their 2.3 million subscribers. The requests are homely and personal, handwritten on notepaper or on pages torn from the magazine, or submitted to the magazine’s website.

At first, each editor grabs a stack from the middle of the table and reads silently. On the May morning I visit, four men and four women are present, including a Catholic, several Protestants, and one self-described “Jew-bu,” or Jewish Buddhist. Then the editors take turns reading the requests aloud. At the end of the meeting, they bow their heads and together offer a prayer on behalf of all the readers who have written to them. The readers’ pleas are heartbreaking or hilarious, sometimes both, and during the reading the editors allow themselves some mordant chuckles to lighten what otherwise could be a depressing way to begin the week.

“Here’s a prayer for Miriam to think before she speaks and acts,” says Rick Hamlin, the executive editor, holding a stack of white 3 x 5 note cards sent by one reader. (I have changed the names of the letter writers.) “And for her to have healing of heart, ears, and hemorrhoids, and to have good breath, and to find a good doctor. And for Tina, with the finances of a single mom, to find a born-again man. And for Eddie, healing with his nerves, and his finances, and help with his truck to pass inspection. And Pamela, healing to be free of slot machines.”

There are prayer requests from Lena in Michigan, for her incarcerated daughter who has never been able to get over the shame of being raped, and from Wanda, who is 55 pounds overweight and wants the Lord “to take away the hunger.” Ellen has had the same prayer for 49 years, she writes: “for my husband to stop drinking.” Everyone smiles at the request from the eighth-grader who wants prayers that she “will pass and get a good score” on her upcoming standardized tests.

The sixth editor to read, 15 minutes into the brief meeting, is Edward Grinnan ’82MFA, erstwhile playwright, now editor-in-chief of a magazine beloved throughout the American heartland but unknown—it is safe to say—to many of his fellow Yalies. Grinnan offers a prayer for the tornado-stricken people of Alabama, a state he recently visited to promote his memoir, The Promise of Hope. “It is a mess,” Grinnan tells his colleagues. “They need lots of prayers.”

The same could once have been said of Grinnan, judging from his book, a harrowing chronicle of alcoholism and recovery. By the time he entered the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program in 1978, at the age of 24, he was already a drunk. He had taken his first drink at age 13, a sip of Old Grand-Dad whiskey. It was love at first taste. “We were all standing around, and I said, ‘I want to feel like this all the time.’ I don’t think most people react that way.”

When I meet Grinnan for coffee near his magazine’s office in New York City, he tells me about his childhood, the time before he started drinking. He was the youngest of four children in suburban Detroit. His father was “in sales and marketing”; his mother was “a housewife and inveterate do-gooding volunteer.” He was especially close to the next youngest, Bobby, who was three years older and had Down syndrome. When Bobby was 12, he wandered away from home one day and disappeared. After five weeks, his body was found in a pond in their subdivision. Grinnan does not say that this, or any other misfortune, made him drink—“Drunks drink because they are drunks,” he writes emphatically—but the episode haunted him. What began as a biological predisposition to drink was surely worsened by the sorrow and his irrational, guilty sense that somehow he could have saved his brother.

Despite his drinking, Grinnan excelled at the University of Michigan, where he won an award for his playwriting. After graduating, he worked at an alternative newspaper in Ann Arbor, then lived at an artists’ colony in New Mexico, then disappeared to the Caribbean and South America, where he “did nothing but get into trouble and contract diseases.” He applied to Yale Drama, was rejected, then applied again, this time successfully. But in New Haven his drinking worsened, and he was asked to leave after his second year. He still remembers the kindness of one teacher, the playwright John Guare ’63MFA, who helped him get readmitted: “He was kind of an angel for me, and made sure I could get back in,” Grinnan says.

But receiving his MFA did nothing to curtail his drinking and drug use, and The Promise of Hope contains harrowing scenes of a young man stumbling precariously close to death. In 1983, Grinnan, age 29, found himself in a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey: “It was just a few minutes after six in the morning, but I’d been up since four, when I emerged in a dawning terror from the alcoholic stupor I’d fallen into a few hours earlier after a night of blackout drinking. Those two hours were pure mental and physical anguish as I waited in a kind of existential hell for the time when liquor could be legally sold in New Jersey.”

With the help of a rehab program and then Alcoholics Anonymous, Grinnan got clean—then relapsed, then got clean again. (Above all, his book is a moving account of how hard drying out can be.) In 1986, sober for only four months, he interviewed for a job as an assistant editor at Guideposts, “having barely heard of the publication,” he writes.