By Lorna Reese
A beautiful young woman, Lily Grimaldi, is delivering her first baby on the kitchen floor of her grandmother’s old farmhouse in the country. Helping her is hunky first love and former husband (and uncle) Holden Snyder. Damien Grimaldi, her current and third hunky husband — and the father of the baby — is enormously jealous of Holden. When Damien peeks through a chink in the curtain and sees that Lily is in labor, he leaves in a rage, thinking the baby is Holden’s.
This kind of drama is just one of endless crises in the life of a soap opera. I should know. For 40 years, I had an on-again, off-again lunch date with the Hughes, Stewart, Snyder and Walsh families and all their colleagues and friends in Oakdale, USA, on “As the World Turns” on CBS. My mother introduced me to the show in 1956, the year it first aired. I was ten and home sick, so she tucked me under a blanket on the sofa and, together, we watched the triumphs and traumas of Chris and Nancy Hughes and their children Penny, Bob and Don, and of the Lowell family, whose wayward daughter Ellen was pregnant but unmarried, a genuine calamity back then. The only time my mother sat down was during what she came to call “my program.” One year, when I was sick for three straight weeks, I witnessed my undemonstrative mother on the edge of her seat, brought there by Penny Hughes’s love affair with Jeff Baker and Lisa Hughes’s back-handed schemes to hurt her husband Bob. What a surprise! But my affair with the long-running daytime drama began in earnest in the late 1970s when I lived alone in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment and was between jobs. It was shortly after Barbara Ryan left Tom Hughes, literally, at the altar, to marry James Stenbeck, the father of her illegitimate two-year-old son who was being raised secretly by a friend. James, a fiend disguised as a good-looking, enormously wealthy businessman, went on to torture Barbara physically and psychologically. Once he enticed her into a bull ring in Spain and then turned loose a ferocious bull to gore her to death. Luckily, one of Barbara’s many later lovers — this time, James’ cousin and the legitimate heir to the Stenbeck fortune — saved the day and won the lady. James would go on to marry and torment several other women and come back from the dead — twice!
A few years later, married and operating a freelance business out of our suburban Boston home, I began having lunch on Fridays with “World.” It was just as Tom Hughes and Margo Montgomery’s love affair blossomed on a desert island where they had washed up after fleeing for their lives from “Mr. Big,” a malevolent dwarf with magical powers. At the same time, Margo’s brother Craig had been dispatched to the jungles of Montega, a fictional Latin American country in the midst of a civil war. His mission: to rescue a young “friend” of his boss and lover, Lucinda Walsh. Much later, when family “friend” Sierra had become his lover and then wife, he discovered she was, in fact, Lucinda’s birth daughter. How gripping!
Soon I was watching the show every weekday, surreptitiously in secret. No one knew. Especially not my husband, Len. Anyone who knew of my clandestine liaison with a 40-year-old soap opera would, I was positive, question my intelligence, judgment and worth as a person.
Soon I was planning meetings and other outings around the time the show aired. “No, I can’t make a 1:30 meeting,” I’d say to a client, “but I can be there in the morning or at 2:30.” If I did make a late morning date, I burned rubber getting home, driving too fast on curvy country lanes, not coming to a complete stop anywhere and parking as close to the house as I could possibly get. I’d run to the door, unlock it, leave the keys dangling, and rush upstairs to turn on the TV.
At some point in my secret life, I began purchasing Soap Opera Digest every other week when it came out. (I didn’t dare subscribe and chance having Len find it in the mail.) But I read every speck of news about my soap and the actors and characters in it and then hid the small magazines in an innocuous brown envelope in a filing cabinet in my office. When the envelope grew too fat, I’d take it with me during my weekly errands and throw the entire package furtively into a dumpster in town. No one would catch me with Soap Opera Digest.
During a slow period in my business, I got caught up in Erica Kane’s constant travails and search for love on “All My Children,” a soap on another network. I saw her through several love affairs, two husbands, the birth of a daughter and the re-appearance of a child she’d borne at age 13. (She’d been raped by an aged friend of her movie director father!) Then I took a few peeks at “General Hospital” and was seduced by Luke and Laura’s struggle to be together and by hunky rock star Frisco’s pursuit of Felicia, the gorgeous blonde Aztec princess. For a time, I was watching three soap operas every day and still managing to make my deadlines.
Though I did occasionally stray to other soaps, I remained completely loyal to my mother’s show. The only two people I confided in were my mother, for obvious reasons, and my youngest sister, who shared our addiction. It was something to talk about when I called them on the phone.
“Did you see the one where Sierra told Craig that Bryant was his, not Tonio’s?” “Yes!” my sister would say. “I knew he wasn’t sterile.”
We disagreed about the right wife for Tom. I felt Margo was The One, but she felt Tom should have stayed with Barbara. “They belong together,” she declared. I thought the woman who played Lucinda was the best actress on the show but my mother could only mutter, “That Lucinda! She is such a stinker.” Perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to soaps.
When my husband left his firm in the city and began a consulting business out of our garage, I felt insecure and anxious about being exposed. Only one floor away and likely to come up the stairs at any moment, I was afraid he would stumble onto my secret and judge me as insipid and foolish.
I became tense and irritable. Like a junkie, I knew I was addicted. Part of me longed to wallow in my dirty little habit while another part ached to be saved from my obsession. But I continued to watch my show, now on a television set I bought for my office. I closed my office door, locked it and listened through an earphone that came with the TV. Sometimes Len came silently up the carpeted stairs and knocked at my door. Heart pounding, I would disconnect the earphones, turn off the TV and answer the door with the vague excuse that I was on deadline, hoping I could quickly provide whatever answer he needed so I wouldn’t miss too much of the on-screen action.
I first recognized my fixation as a bigger problem when Dan Rather interrupted the broadcast to report a breaking news story. Whether it was hurricane warnings for the entire east coast, election results or other news of national significance, I went my own version of ballistic. I paced and fumed. Several times I shouted obscenities at the screen. I didn’t know anyone living in North Carolina or Florida and most politicians were crooks anyway, but Tom and Margo, Lily and Holden, Craig and Sierra, were family! I bought a VCR about the time the conniving John Dixon (Margo’s real father) impulsively proposed to the equally conniving Lucinda Walsh (adoptive mother of Lily and birth mother of Sierra). That’s probably when Tom Hughes’s daughter, Lien, conceived while he was in Viet Nam, appeared at his door, and Margo left Tom to have Hal Munson’s child on a Greek Island.
The VCR solved two problems. I could record the show while I worked and watch whenever my husband went off to a meeting, as he often spontaneously did. I could sit with my feet up and a cup of tea in hand, fast forwarding through all the commercials, wasting only 45 minutes instead of an hour. And I could go on vacation without furtively trying to catch “World” in different time zones.
I was horribly embarrassed about being hooked on my show. I didn’t read romance novels or women’s magazines and didn’t fancy myself the type to be enslaved to a daytime trauma — excuse me, drama. I was afraid of what people would think about me if they knew. Once, in an effort to unburden myself of the immense weight of the secrecy I carried, I tried to confide in two friends about my habit. “I want to tell you something,” I began, “something I’m not very proud of… ” They were palpably disappointed when they found out I wasn’t a drug addict or sex fiend or something much more interesting.
All the time I was squandering perfectly good hours on my soap, I rationalized that I learned good life lessons from watching it: don’t jump to conclusions; things are never what they appear to be; give people the benefit of the doubt. I told myself it was helping me be a better person, and for a time I believed it. Later I admitted to myself that I was just rationalizing, making excuses; it was more evidence of my addiction. Then Len and I moved into a small cabin on the West Coast for a year while our new house was being built nearby. There was just one great room and no privacy, but rather than give up my soap, I bit the bullet and began watching it in front of him. To his credit, he never said a word in opposition. He just sat in a chair on the other side of the room, shifting his gaze from the TV set to me, gently shaking his head.
During my addiction, several “World” regulars went on to stardom: movie stars Meg Ryan, Marisa Tomei, Parker Posey and Julianne Moore; and TV stars Dana Delany, of “China Beach” and Steven Weber, of “Once and Again.” Others, while not stars, appear on the big and small screens in supporting roles. “She was on my soap,” I’ll say to Len of Ming Na, now on “ER.” “He was on my soap,” about the guy who played father-in-law to all three Snyder brothers, when I saw him on “The Practice.” “She was on my soap,” about Margaret Colin who had a short-lived sit-com of her own.
“Was everybody in the world on your soap?” he cried out once.
I gave up watching in 1995 when troubled teen Nikki Munson showed up, the daughter Hal Munson hadn’t known existed and the twenty-second character of unknown or fraudulent parentage during the years I had been watching. And when Lily and Damien — who had also come back from the dead — broke up yet again. And when Margo, a police detective, seemed destined for a nervous breakdown after being raped by a felon who was HIV-positive. Finally, I was sick and tired. I wanted my life back. I wanted that hour a day for other activities. I decided to go cold turkey and stop watching, but I taped two weeks of shows, just in case. They are probably still around somewhere.
The irony is that now I’m addicted to three prime time dramas which are, if we’re honest about it, just glorified soap operas. What else would you call “Once and Again,” “ER” and “West Wing?” But there’s good news as well because, this time, Len is hooked too. In fact, he’s the one who discovered “ER” and “Once and Again.” These days, we curl up on the sofa and watch our shows, together.
Copyright 2002 by Lorna Reese