John & Nancy Steinbeck

In his original proposal for the book, John Steinbeck IV aptly summed up its intent:

Nancy & John Steinbeck
Nancy & John Steinbeck in Big Sur, 1990

“I inherited two life-threatening diseases from my parents. Due to hemochromatosis, a genetic iron retention disease, and alcoholism, I developed cirrhosis by the time I was thirty-four. Despite my life long dedication to spiritual pursuits, intellect blocked the road to sobriety. Fortunately, when I truly accepted my powerlessness over my disease, the drama was over, and I could begin to understand the source of some of the behaviors that had taken over my life, apart from the fact that I am just a plain old alcoholic/addict.

“Perhaps it is long past time when I should have expressed many of the feelings that tug at me due to the special circumstances of being my father’s son. However, timing is not the forté of Adult Children of Alcoholics. Conflicting notions of propriety conspire to keep family secrets closeted in “borrowed shame” no matter how crippling or even lethal this toxic situation might be. Of course, this unconscious policy of Pavlovian loyalty (which seems to be universal) is accentuated when one of the parents is world famous.

“The only known fix for this kind of situation seems to be disclosure. Busting open family secrets without regard to reciprocity or reprisal can at least save what is left of our lives, and since no one else is going to do it, it’s good that I begin. And since I’m a writer, I’m going to attempt the unveiling of my father’s feet of clay with art.

“I love my father deeply. He had great kindness and humor. He taught my brother and me about so many magical things, and instilled in us the gift of curiosity. I have always been proud to be his son, and I am grateful to both him and my mother for giving me my life and the tools to interpret a wonderfully rich world. In spite of everything, I have been challenged to puzzle out my own fate with a large degree of poetic insight. They gave me this. It is not at all my intention now to break bubbles just for the sake of doing it, but rather to do myself a kindness, and in the long run, do my ancestors a favor and put them back in the realm of human process. As I try to do that with the gifts I have been given, the readers could share in that process.”

John Steinbeck IV

John Steinbeck IV Library
John Steinbeck IV at The Steinbeck Library

John Steinbeck IV was born on June 12, 1945, in New York City. Although he was the younger of Steinbeck’s two sons, he was his namesake.

In 1965, John was drafted into the Vietnam war where he became a journalist for Armed Forces Radio and TV as a war correspondent for the Department of Defense. “As a reporter for the Army in Vietnam, I had gone out looking for a good human interest story, and I found instead more marijuana than Cheech and Chong’s best dream.” Upon his return to the United States prior to his discharge, he was asked by the Washingtonian to write an article which he titled The Importance of Being Stoned in Vietnam. He was called to testify in front of a Senate Subcommittee on drug abuse. Despite General William Westmoreland’s statement that Private John Steinbeck’s comments on the use of marijuana in Vietnam were baseless, John received an honorary discharge.

In 1968, John returned to Vietnam as a journalist. Along with Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn, he started Dispatch News Service. Fluent in street Vietnamese, they quickly became independent of the flow of information dispensed by the United States Press Office. Hence, they were the first to disclose the truth about the My Lai massacre and the Con Son Tiger cages. Sean disappeared in Cambodia on a photo shoot. John’s Vietnam memoir In Touch was published by Knopf in 1969. He wrote about his experiences with the Vietnamese, the GI’s and his romantic interlude with that exotic culture. John took the vows of a Buddhist monk while living on Phoenix Island in the middle of the Mekong delta, under the tutelage of the politically powerful Coconut Monk, a silent tree-dwelling Buddhist yogi. This tiny, stooped mendicant adopted John as a spiritual son and invited him to stay on the peace zone he had created in the midst of the raging war. Howitzer shells were hammered into bells by the 400 monks who lived on the island.

John traveled to Asia several more times before settling in Boulder, Colorado, where he and Nancy met while studying Tibetan Buddhism at Naropa University with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1983, the family traveled around the world for a year, living in Kathmandu in order to further their Buddhist studies. In 1984, John was diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disease that causes iron retention in the organs. This life threatening illness, combined with his excessive drinking, created a healing crisis for John that resulted in his successful quest for sobriety.

In 1987, the family moved to La Jolla, California, where John pursued his journalistic career, writing articles about their travels with the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, the genetic aspects of alcoholism and the toll it takes on loved ones. In 1990, he began his autobiography with this statement:

 “The reasons for attempting to write this book could be summed up simply by my desire to live free from fear. However, the path leading to that sort of fruition has, along its border, a lot of fearful things that at first glance can cause panic, or resentment, or shame. There is also charity and sanity, which accompany this sort of voyage like good dolphins on a good quest. Frankly, I feel blessed that these guiding elements have never abandoned me and, as I and others continue to recover from the effects of my actions, I am encouraged that these qualities will endure, even shine.”

 In 1990, John was diagnosed with a ruptured disc. He underwent corrective surgery on February 7, 1991, and did not survive the operation.

Excerpt from Nancy Steinbeck’s introduction in The Other Side of Eden

The night before John’s operation, I had a dream that Sable, our German Shepherd puppy, had died. A voice said, ‘I am taking my angel back today. I want you to have acceptance about the death, and never doubt that it was not meant to be. You must not feel sorry for yourself. This sacrifice is evidence of a greater plan.’

Johnny and I lay in bed the next morning, drinking coffee, sharing dreams, as we did every morning of our lives together. We never tired of that ritual. Born in the Chinese year of the Fire Dog, he groaned, ‘I hope that dog in your dream isn’t me.’ I had never thought about his dying in surgery until then. I looked at him in horror.

‘Johnny, if something happens, will you promise to come back as our guardian angel?’

He didn’t miss a beat. ‘If I die today, I will always be with you and Megan and Michael. I will never leave you.’

I didn’t miss a beat either. ‘What about the book? Do you want me to finish it … you know, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir?’ That was our favorite movie, about a woman who writes best-selling adventure stories dictated by an adoring, phantom sea captain.

‘Absolutely,’ he said, before I could finish the sentence. ‘It’ll be easy. I’ll be there to finish it with you.’

And then we laughed. We thought it was banter. We thought we were cute. We never thought either of us would die young. We finished our coffee and drove to the hospital. A few hours later, John was dead.”

Nancy Steinbeck

Nancy Steinbeck 1982
Nancy Steineck in Yellowstone, 1982

Nancy Steinbeck was a musical child prodigy, but decided to pursue a career in writing and social work. A graduate of San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, she received her BA from the University of California at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. She shares a unique history with a small group of San Francisco teenagers as being one of the original Haight-Ashbury hippies.

Nancy spent a decade traveling around the world and living abroad, in Kathmandu, on a commune in British Columbia and in a remote mountain village in Mexico. She has worked as a counselor with hard core delinquents at the San Francisco Juvenile Hall and drug addicts at Scripps McDonald Center in La Jolla, California. She and John spent twelve years engaged in the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado. Upon John’s untimely death, Nancy moved to a remote area of the Ozarks, where she became an advocate for severely mentally ill adults.

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