Theater-goers cheered twelve-year-old Patty Duke for her heart-wrenching portrayal of the young deaf and blind Helen Keller in the 1959 Broadway smash-hit THE MIRACLE WORKER. They did not know that the precocious actress’ own childhood was nearly as deprived and distorted as that of the character she played.
Born to working-class Irish parents in New York--her father an alcoholic, her mother an angry depressive--Anna Marie Duke went from the frying pan into the fire when John and Ethel Ross became her show-business parents. The Rosses, also drinkers and pill-poppers besides, took over Duke’s career and her life when she was seven, cutting her off from her family and changing her name by telling her curtly, “Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.” They drilled her for hours to get rid of her lower-class accent, taught her to lie her way through interviews, and pushed her to win the top prize on the rigged $64,000 CHALLENGE. She lived with them for years, sleeping in a makeshift bed in a hall she shared with their sickly chihuahua. When she was the star of ABC’s THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, the Rosses never let her watch an episode, and when she began to mature, they tried to molest her. She finally freed herself of them at age eighteen, then found that their lavish living had used nearly all her earnings.
“My life was ripped off,” Duke writes. Not surprisingly, she became a desperately confused young woman, terrified of death but frequently attempting suicide, driven to success but capable of halting whole productions with her tantrums, looking for love through four marriages. Slowly, with the help of her children, therapy, and the controlled use of lithium, Duke began to understand and conquer her problems. The book ends with Duke happily married, the recent winner of a television popularity poll, and the respected president of the Screen Actors Guild. She is still not sure what lies ahead, but, “I’ve survived,” she concludes; “on most days, that feels like a miracle.”