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Tatum O'Neal shares survival story: Part 2

Behind her smile there were secrets, a childhood full of neglect and abuse -- emotional, physical, and sexual. And there was more to come. Tatum O'Neal talks to NBC’s Stone Phillips about what she calls "her crazy life,” the dark side of that "Paper Moon."
/ Source: Dateline NBC

By 1979, at age 16, Tatum was living on her own, renting an apartment in Los Angeles and running with a very fast crowd. There was a near-fatal car crash, a string of one-night stands, and lots of drugs. So much self-destructive behavior, Tatum says she was merely doing to herself what others had done to her all her life.

O'Neal: "When you're treated badly, at least in my situation, I just didn't know any better then. When someone was hitting me, or hitting me and slapping me, or like sexually molesting me, it just seemed normal to continue to do that to myself."

But after all the pain and turmoil of her teens, Tatum was about to meet the man of her dreams, and the happiness that had eluded her for so long seemed finally to be in her grasp.

Phillips: "Was it love at first sight?

O'Neal: "I think I was very, very attracted to him."

Phillips: "John McEnroe?

O'Neal: "Uh Hmm."

Phillips: "What drew you to one another?"

O'Neal: "Well, he was cute. Great tennis player."

Phillips: "And paid attention to you?"

O'Neal: "A lot, yeah."

At 26, John McEnroe was number one in the world and the tennis world's worst behaved player. Tatum became his number one fan and his companion in other activities as well.

Phillips: "You shared a common interest in drugs. Recreation for him, addiction for you."

O'Neal: "Right."

She realized how different their drug habits were early in their relationship. He was off playing tennis and she was alone in his New York City apartment. She says John had a safe.

From the book: There were drugs in it - some pills and at least an ounce of cocaine. Like many people in the 80's, when coke was a staple at parties, John kept drugs around for hospitality, I guess, like having a wine cellar.

O'Neal: "And that's sort of when I realized that I would do drugs alone. I didn't need anyone to do them with me. That I was a drug addict."

Phillips: "You went back to the safe and back to the safe—"

O'Neal: "Well, yeah. I did them all by myself. I did all these drugs by myself."

Tatum says when John got back and found out what she had done, his famous temper flared. She says John thought he could fix her problem. If she got pregnant, he believed she would stop using drugs.

Phillips: "The cure—"

O'Neal: "Yeah. I wouldn't try that for everybody."

Phillips: "But for you it worked?"

O'Neal: "Well, yeah. I didn't want to be like my mother. You know I didn't want to be this crazy mother, which I sort of later ended up later on being."

Married life
Their first child, Kevin Jack McEnroe was born in May 1986, and Tatum, just 22 at the time, writes, "I had never felt such pride and joy."

Three months later, Tatum and John were married in Oyster Bay, N.Y. No one from Tatum's family attended her wedding, a sad echo of the Oscar ceremony 12 years earlier. Tatum says thankfully John's mother handled everything. Still, Tatum felt abandoned: "All I did at my own wedding was show up, as if I were a gate-crasher instead of the bride."

Phillips: "Three pregnancies eventually and never any drugs during the pregnancies?"

O'Neal: "No way. No."

Phillips: "Stayed clean."

O'Neal: "Totally. Yeah."

Focusing on the children may have helped Tatum, but she says John began to feel neglected. "He was sullen and resentful if I didn't have a nanny constantly present so he could command my full attention." And there was more. Tatum says John started blaming her for his frequent losses. "The fury he was famous for venting on the tennis court came spilling out at home."

Phillips: "His temper, his outbursts, are pretty well known."

O'Neal: "Yeah."

Phillips: "What about you?"

O'Neal: "I have a temper, but I wouldn't call me abusive."

Phillips: "He says that while you accuse him of being a bully, that you gave as good as you got."

O'Neal: "That makes sense, yeah. Although, I think he's the bigger bully."

As the years went by, Tatum says she realized that the man she married was much like the man who had raised her, that the abuse she'd endured from her father was now coming from her husband. Their fights escalated until finally, their six-year marriage crumbled in a confrontation she says became violent.

From the book: He started pushing at me, kicking me, until I stumbled backward and started slipping down the staircase... I scrambled to my feet and backed down the stairs as John came raging after me… If my marriage had been purgatory - a place of punishment and torment - the next phase in my life was going to be hell.

O'Neal: "Being away from John and away from the kids, that's when the reality of my old life and who I was and all my demons came right back."

Following their 1993 divorce, Tatum and John shared custody of their three children, ages 6, 5 and 1 at the time. Tatum's weeks without the kids would prove disastrous, triggering a decade long slide into addiction, her life becoming a sad replay of her mother's.

Phillips: "You got into some serious drug abuse."

O'Neal: "Yeah."

Phillips: "Cocaine and heroin? Sniffing it, snorting it at first. And then shooting up."

O'Neal: "Yeah. I was still looking for a panacea, for some kind of relief from all of that life, from all that damage."

Phillips: "Knowing how much you loved being a mother, having those kids, what were you thinking?"

O'Neal: "Well you have to understand I'm still the same woman that was in those bad situations, who feels like a coward and a failure. And all needed was one more man to tell me that I was a coward and a failure, and John was that last person. And then I just believed it. "

She succumbed to heroin.

From the book: I had started craving it psychologically, longing to sink into oblivion. Then without it, I began to experience frighteningly dark depressions, with fierce anger as their flip side.

Realizing she was dangerously out of control, in 1994 Tatum checked herself in for drug detox at New York's Beth Israel hospital. Two years later, she spent three months in rehab at Hazelden in Minnesota, only to relapse again. In 1998, her daughter Emily, just 7 years old at the time, found a syringe in her mother's apartment.

Phillips: "How painful was that for you?"

O'Neal: "Horrendous. The most horrendous thing. And I'm so terribly sad that Emily walked into that room and that, you know, things get so sloppy when you're under the influence. And it's tragic and awful, you know. And I'll regret it 'till the day I die."

Following that incident, John was given full custody of the children. He'd already insisted that Tatum be drug trested before seeing the kids. Now he took it a step further. Tatum writes, "I had to endure the indignity of supervised visits with John controlling the schedule."

Phillips: "Do you blame John McEnroe for taking the precautions that he did?"

O'Neal: "Well, no."

Phillips: "I mean wanting supervised visits, wanting drug tests?"

O'Neal: "No. Not at all. Not at all."

Phillips: "So where's the beef with him?"

O'Neal: "I don't have a beef with him on the testing and stuff. I have a beef with him on the way he's treated me. To go through what I've gone through, Stone, in my life, and then to have another person as volatile and as strong as McEnroe say to me, ‘You suck. You're a has-been. You're nothing. You mean nothing, Tatum. You'll never make it. Without me, you're nothing, and if you think you're ever, you know, forget the abusive drugs, if you think you're ever going to get these kids, you know, you can never get them. You'll never see them.' What do I have to live for in my life? I'm worthless."

John McEnroe's response? In a statement, he said: "I continue to be very disappointed in Tatum's interpretation of my life and the lives of our children. I had hoped that after all these years, she would see things more accurately and that she would share my concern for the welfare of our children."

Back from the bottom
Tatum says in the fall of 2001, she finally hit rock bottom, "And started doing drugs 24/7. I couldn't stop." 

But two years later, she did stop with encouragement from her brother, and some tender words from one of her sons.

O'Neal: "My oldest son sort of sat down with me. He sort of shed a tear. And he said, ‘I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't do that anymore.'"

Phillips: "It was genuine love and concern."

O'Neal: "Well, it is, yeah. That's why I was like, I could probably do that, you know. That's my kid. I can do that. So and that's also for Sean and Emily. And I can do that for them, I can break a cycle that my mother couldn't break. And I can do this for my kids."

Phillips: "Are you-- you're clean."

O'Neal: "I am."

Phillips: "You're off drugs."

O'Neal: "Yes."

Tatum has forgiven her mother for all the neglect caused by her addiction.  Joanna Moore died of lung cancer a few years ago. As for Tatum's father, he's been living with leukemia. His last public appearance with Tatum was at the 30th anniversary of "Paper Moon."

Phillips: "What's your relationship with your father like today?"

O'Neal: "Well, I don't have one."

Phillips: "Have you given up on that relationship?"

O'Neal: "Yeah. He should have apologized to me at least two decades ago."

Ryan O'Neal declined to comment on his daughter's book or our interview, but sent Dateline this statement:

"It is a sad day when malicious lies are told in order to become a ‘best seller.' As a father, it is my hope that this book was written to serve as her therapy, and if this is what she needed to do to wake each day and live with herself, then I can only support her healing process, good, bad and ugly. It is now my hope, that she remain sober, so that her perception of the future is nothing like her clouded memories of the past."

Is Tatum blaming others unfairly for her own addiction? 

Phillips: "At what point do you have to take personal responsibility for it?"

O'Neal: "I do. I do take responsibility for it. I admit to having a problem. I have been to numerous treatment centers. I know it. The kids know it. My 17-year-old knows it. My 18-year-old knows it. My 13-year-old knows it. But chemical dependency is not a right to be punishing me for the rest of my life."

In the end, for Tatum O'Neal, maybe love is about having to say you're sorry. As a parent, she's already apologized to her children for the addiction that took their mother away. Spending more time together, and making up for time lost, remains the unfinished love story of her life.

O'Neal: "And that's really all I could ask for is having an emotional bond with the kids where they want to be with me, as opposed to have to be with me."

Phillips: "And maybe you're someone worth being with?"

O'Neal: "Yes. That's important."

Phillips: "Wouldn't that be a novel idea for you to embrace?"

O'Neal: "Exactly."