MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL - APRIL13, 2015
Actor Peter Coyote’s second memoir honors the mentors who helped shape him
A child grows up with a critical domineering father and fragile mother, rejects the family’s wealth and power, turns to drugs to heal the inner wounds, achieves fame and fortune, and hits the nadir during a midlife divorce.
It’s a familiar story, one that can end any number of ways, including tragically. Not for Peter Coyote, the award-winning politically engaged actor, director, screenwriter, author, narrator and ordained Zen Buddhist priest, who eventually found clarity, wisdom and truth in spirituality. But the longtime Mill Valley resident would be the first to admit that he may not have made it without the many mentors who seemed to pop up in his life when he needed them the most. And so it is to them that he dedicates his second memoir, “The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education” (Counterpoint Press, April 14), a follow-up to 1998’s "Sleeping Where I Fall."
Despite the emotional pain he endured in his youth, Coyote clearly has come to embrace it as much as the many joys he’s experienced in his 73 years.
"Where would our tenderness come from, where would our empathy for other people come from if we didn’t have suffering to soften us?" asks Coyote in the rich smooth voice that has narrated more than 120 documentaries, including Ken Burns’ recent seven-part series "The Roosevelts." "We might think we were bullet-proof.”
While "Sleeping Where I Fall" was more a social history of the 1960s and his association with some of the leading forces of the Bay Area’s counterculture movements — the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the anarcho-activist Diggers, the Black Bear Ranch commune, even the Hell’s Angels — his new book is much more personal, with explorations of his romances and womanizing, heroin addiction, acting career, health struggles from hepatitis C and Buddhist practice.
Which made it much harder to write, or as Coyote playfully says, "like pooping a porcupine; it was rough."
"What I wanted to do was talk about what growing up and learning was about, and how intelligence is not just the province of just the educated or the rich or the favored. That it’s a universal gift of mankind, and if you know how to look for it and recognize it, you can see it in a lot of unusual places," says Coyote, his long, lean frame dressed in jeans, a chambray shirt and beads.
Coyote was the first-born of Ruth and Morris Cohon, a successful and whip-smart investment banker who attended MIT when he was 15, played chess with grand masters and once boxed with Ernest Hemingway. Morris Cohon was hard on his son, born Robert Peter Cohon.
"He was a fabulous man, but he was a disaster as a parent and probably as a husband," Coyote says. "He thought I maybe wasn’t so bright, he thought I was weak, sort of a poetic-airy little kid."
Coming down from a peyote high while he was in college, he saw tracks around him that looked like a coyote’s, and later got another sign that it might be his spiritual animal. He adopted the name Coyote as a way to distance himself from his family and the messages he heard from his father: "stupid," "loser," "timid."
In many ways his father was a mentor, too — by default, he taught Coyote self-sufficiency — but Coyote relied on other mentors to help him navigate the world.
The first was Suzie Howard, a young black woman who moved in when his mother had a breakdown when he was not even 3 years old, and who brought peace and love to him and his baby sister, Elizabeth. Too young to understand their mother’s lingering depression, Coyote writes he and Elizabeth "transferred our loyalties to Sue with barely a glance over our shoulders."
Coyote didn’t make peace with his mother until he was in his mid-30s.
Among his other mentors were Beat poet Gary Snyder, haute couture stylist Nino Cerruti and his Buddhist teacher Chikudo Lewis Richmond.
Coyote had been introduced to Buddhism several times, but began to practice regularly when he met his first wife.
The marriage ended in 1998 after 23 years - "the greatest single failure of my life," he writes — but he became even more devoted to Buddhism, becoming ordained in 2011.
By then, he had success as chairman of the California Arts Council under Gov. Jerry Brown in his "Governor Moonbeam" days” — somewhat ironic for a man who spent a good part of his youth fighting the establishment.
"It turned out I had a lot of skill sets from living on the road as a hippie, moving into strange and sometimes dangerous communities and learning how to get close to people," he says.
He also was a “bona-fide movie star," appearing in such films as "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial," "Outrageous Fortune," "Legend of Billie Jean" and "A Man in Love" although he began acting when he was 40,
His memoir’s title comes from a Bob Dylan song, "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," whose lyrics include "The rainman gave me two cures." Coyote saw the two 'cures' as metaphors for power and love, and the struggles to find the right mix. It wasn’t until he began practicing Buddhism that it occurred to him that there might be another option.
"I realized there was a third choice to love and power, and that was wisdom," he says. "I made the decision to spend the rest of my life listening to it and, to the best of my abilities, speaking to it."
Kirkus Review calls his memoir an "often descriptively brilliant biographical odyssey."
"Remarkably forthright and insightful," notes the Library Journal.
His father has been dead a long time and while Coyote may not have quite forgiven him, he’s no longer angry — he feels more pity and tenderness, he writes.
As a father himself, Coyote is aware that he, too, stands in judgment by his children — Ariel, 46, a psychologist in Park City, Utah, and Nick, 30, who works for Christie’s in New York City.
"I can say I never terrified them," he says matter-of-factly, sitting in his sunny apartment filled with Native American art and artifacts. "I was a very maternal kind of guy. I tended to be attracted to women who were not so maternal, but I think there was a lot of careless, crazy stuff, certainly that my daughter was exposed to in the '60s."
He admits his son was angry at him until his 20s, in part because of the divorce when he was just 6.
"I think some of my past is uneasy to read for him," says Coyote, who is separated from his second wife, Stephanie, vocalist for Olive & the Dirty Martinis. Still, they talk weekly on the phone and Nick asks for his opinions. "That’s a big compliment to me."
He believes they’d treat him kindly if they were to write a memoir about him, teaching them to see everyone as equals.
While Coyote still has an occasional role in film and TV, acting is less fun than it used to be. He’s focusing more on his writing, compiling his numerous poems for publication.
And he’s enjoying being a grandfather to his daughter’s 9-year-old daughter. "More fun than sex in your 20s," he quips.