Karen Dodge has volunteered to tell her story but now that the day she agreed to meet a reporter has arrived, she isn’t sure she can.
It’s been 30 years and she’s never talked publicly about those days.
“My son is the reason I haven’t told my story all these years,” she said.
But she’s dressed up for the occasion in an ivory silk shirt, in case a photographer came along. It’s the kind of fancy blouse she wore in the old days when her closet held Valentinos and Giorgio Sant’Angelo dresses.
She’s nervous. Back then, newspapers chronicled the unraveling of her life — the saga bulges out of five clip files at this newspaper — but never the knitting of it back together.
Fall’s buttery sunshine pours through the windows of her office at the Hanley Center’s cheerful blue and white campus in West Palm Beach, where Dodge, 57, is director of research.
She pulls a chair away from her desk, which is cluttered with scholarly papers and professional journal articles.
They’re all about addiction, its toll, current treatments, neurobiology, pharmacology. Statistical analysis of recovery and relapse. Blood biomarkers. The role of micro-RNA in the addicted brain. It’s cutting edge scholarship in the addiction treatment field.
She wrote some of them.
Addiction treatment has become her life’s work.
Addiction’s collateral damage remains her life’s lingering heartbreak.
“In recovery, we talk about making living amends,” she said. “It’s not ever over.”
She pulls a bound document from the bookshelf. It’s her dissertation from Florida International University that earned her the right to put Ph.D. after her name.
She turns to the title page. “The Effectiveness of Female-Sensitive Substance Abuse treatment.”
“I couldn’t believe someone like me who ended up on the streets of West Palm Beach could actually do something like that,” she says. “I don’t know how I did it.”
Then she sits down and begins to talk.
“I want others to know there is hope,” she begins.
In the mid-1970s, Karen Christine Flanagan was a pretty blond woman in her early 20s, with blue eyes and a wide glamorous smile.
A sometime-college student from Long Island’s affluent north shore, Christine, as she was then known, arrived in Palm Beach at the invitation of Alexander Guest, the son of C.Z. Guest. At a party, she met Palm Beach’s most eligible bachelor, a former Florida youth tennis champion named John Francis Dodge.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
The two had much in common. Both came from wealthy, dysfunctional families riven with divorce and alcoholism.
But their tightest bond was a predilection for drug-induced obliteration. Their preference was pills, mostly opioids like Dilaudid, which they would crush and snort. But they weren’t picky. They abused Valium and barbiturates. Cocaine. Eventually, heroin.
“It’s not like Johnny Dodge got me hooked on drugs,” she said. “I came with plenty of addictive behavior.”
She had snorted heroin for the first time in London during an art history internship at Christie’s.
Not even Jackie Collins could get away with a plot as preposterous as the true riches-to-wretches story that unfurled around the Dodge family of Palm Beach over the next 15 years.
John Dodge expected to inherit millions as the grandson of the Dodge brothers who founded the Detroit car company in 1914, one of the early 20th century’s great garage-to-glory fortunes.
But his mother, ambitious, heavy-drinking former beauty queen and actress, Gregg Sherwood Dodge Moran, fifth wife of the late Horace Dodge Jr., plowed through her own Dodge millions. She spent an estimated $9 million to $11 million in less than 18 years before she was arrested for raiding her son’s trust fund. She died in 2011.
By 1978, both John’s and his mother’s oceanfront houses were in foreclosure. With intermingled estates and creditors, his mother dragged John with her into bankruptcy.
A sheriff’s auction was set for both properties.
By this time, Karen said they had become skeletal addicts, spending stuporous days in a squalid bedroom in Dodge’s mansion at 1015 S. Ocean Boulevard, a few doors north of Mar-a-Lago. They barricaded themselves away from the Palm Beach sun shining on the blue ocean outside.
When the society matrons who lived on either side caught a rare glimpse of the couple, they called police.
“They thought we were vagrants breaking into the house,” Karen said.
Memory can be a flimsy archivist, selectively trimming and editing. Karen says hers from that time is especially fractured. Details float just outside the edges of remembering, like trying to grasp a fading dream.
“I was in a fog then,” she said.
She does recall getting Detroit bankers to squeeze a last dispersion from John’s trust account, maybe $50,000, she guesses, but enough to save their home. But, they missed the auction while passed out from a drug-fueled binge.
“Our house was sold on the courthouse steps while we were sleeping off the effects of drugs and alcohol,” she said.
The $2 million house went for $550,000.
They married a year later and moved into his mother’s chaotic household where the liquor still flowed but the money had long since flown.
“At Gregg’s, the drinking started early at about 11 with tumblers of Tanqueray,” said Dodge.
Their son, John Francis Dodge III, was born in 1982. They called him Johnny. In a newspaper photo a year later, the little boy’s wary gaze contrasts with his parents’ wobbly smiles.
Earlier this fall, Johnny saw the photo for the first time.
“They both look high,” he said of his parents.
In the years following his birth, his parents tried to get straight.
In early 1984, John and Karen entered rehab at Good Samaritan Hospital. Karen smuggled in airline bottles of gin and her “works” (IV drug paraphernalia) in a Monopoly game box.
“It was a treatment wing for wealthy people,” said Karen. “They dried us out and patched us up.”
It didn’t take. Nor could they pay their $15,000 bill.
By late summer, Karen’s escalating drug use had become too much for even John to tolerate.
“He took Johnny and moved in with Gregg and moved me into the Mount Vernon Motor Lodge on Belvedere Road,” said Karen.
Today, the property is the hipster favorite, Hotel Biba. In the ’80s and early ’90s, it was known as a crime-ridden flophouse for prostitutes and drug addicts.
By then, she was regularly injecting cocaine and heroin.
“I had tracks up and down my arm,” she said.
She was 29 the October day she woke up naked in a Singer Island apartment full of strangers, a needle in her arm.
“My son was gone, my family was gone,” she said, sobbing quietly at the retelling. “I was absolutely broken, without a prayer.”
That same day, she called Palm Beach County’s Comprehensive Alcoholism Rehabilitation Programs, begging for help.
Withdrawal lasted two horrible months. Later, she moved to Gratitude House, a long-term rehab facility for women in West Palm Beach. She was there when her husband served her with divorce papers on Christmas Eve.
She got a job at Pioneer Linens in West Palm Beach, where she occasionally waited on the women she used to see at the Bath and Tennis Club.
Headlines followed the battling Dodges for nearly a decade, as they fought over custody and child support. She never asked for alimony.
She started using her first name, Karen, because by then, she felt she had become a different person, but she kept the Dodge name even when she remarried years later.
Her parents helped her pay for a small place off Village Boulevard. She enrolled in Palm Beach Community College.
“I was trying to see if there was a legitimate life out there for me,” she said.
She stayed clean and earned a social work degree from Florida Atlantic University.
She fought for custody of Johnny for four years, then within months after the judge granted it, she gave her son back to his father. She couldn’t afford to keep him, she said, because she was working and going to school while John wasn’t making his $1,200 monthly support payments.
Over the years, therapists described Johnny to the court as a malnourished “sad-looking child” and a “very bright, sensitive and angry child who is caught up in an intense struggle.”
She told a judge in 1988, “I had to look at it realistically. He’s a kid who has grown up in Palm Beach all his life, and he says, `What? No swimming pool?’ I can’t give him what he’s accustomed to … I mean, I don’t have servants; I can’t afford that.”
John’s battles with drugs continued.
He was arrested for forging prescriptions in 1985. A year later, he and a girlfriend led police on a chase after they were discovered removing illegal prescription drugs from John’s bank safety deposit box. Speeding away, they tossed handfuls of pills out the window of her Porsche.
John served a year in jail then inherited $1.1 million a few months after he was released in 1989.
Karen again sued for custody, saying her ex-husband could now afford support payments.
She regained full custody when Johnny was 10, but said the little boy had trouble adjusting to life off the gilded isle.
“He was mad,” she said. “He wanted to be back in Palm Beach.”
(Neither Karen nor her son would provide contact information for John Dodge, who they said splits his time between South Carolina and Palm Beach. They asked The Palm Beach Post not to contact him. “He’s not well,” Johnny Dodge said of his father.)
At age 40, Karen finished her doctorate in social welfare policy and began a career in public health.
Johnny went to boarding school, then graduated from FAU with a business degree.
There’s no such thing as a simple tale that rises from despair to redemption with no bumps in the road.
Real life is rarely so tidy. Addiction leaves wreckage; recovery continues for a lifetime.
After Johnny went away to school, mother and son say they had little contact until two years ago.
On a recent evening, Johnny, now 31, sipped a beer on the terrace of his downtown West Palm Beach condo looking down on Palm Beach. He was working at Digital Domain, raising money for movie projects, when the company imploded in 2012.
He’d like to return to filmmaking, but for now works in commercial real estate.
Asked about his mother, he says at first, “I think she’s great,” then turns bitter.
“She fought so hard for custody of her child but she gave me away,” he said. “She might have gotten her professional career in order but she abandoned her boy until he was 29,” he said.
Karen continues trying to repair their relationship, which remains uneasy.
“I know Johnny feels abandoned and if I could redo it, I would,” his mother said. “It’s the one heartbreak in my life that’s not fully been healed.”
At Karen Dodge’s Atlantis home, the phone starts ringing each night at about 7 p.m.
Her conversations are short.
“Did you have a good day? Are you doing all right?,” she asks callers.
They’re recovering addicts, making their daily check-in calls to their mentors, either Dodge or her husband, Richard Wolff. He’s advertising director for Passport Publications, a specialty magazine publisher.
The couple met in a 12-step program and married 13 years ago.
“By the time we met, we’d made all our mistakes,” said Wolff, a tall man with an ex-jock’s build.
He calls her “an angel.” She calls him “papa.”
Said Karen, “I thought he looked like a cross between a lovely Bedlington terrier and a lamb. I thought he was extremely attractive.”
Karen loves animals, particularly dogs. Petey, their 100-pound American bulldog jumps up and licks her face, making her eyes water.
“I’m allergic to dogs, but I really don’t care,” she says, as their other dog, a pit bull mix named Snoopy, vies for attention.
In Palm Beach County’s public health world, people known Karen Dodge as a bit of a bulldog herself — a charming pit bull with a smile and a fierce determination.
In 2004, in one of only three studies in the U.S., she surveyed the worst neighborhoods in Belle Glade, Riviera Beach and Delray Beach to determine the needs of untreated HIV-infected women.
“She wasn’t just a statistician who stayed in her office, she went out to these neighborhoods, to truck stops, where the prostitutes hung out,” said Dr. Ron Wiewora, director of the Palm Beach County Health Care District. “Out of that came programs to fund small clinics for the uninsured.”
Professor Miriam Potocky became Karen’s faculty adviser at FIU, then a close friend. Potocky, who has an alter ego as a writer of hard-boiled crime fiction, partially modeled her tough, blunt-spoken character, Dirty Harriet, on Karen.
“Karen lived this supposedly charmed life on the outside but it was a very dark life on the inside,” said Potocky. “She had the guts to leave that world … she faced her own demons, got herself into treatment and devoted herself to helping others.”
Later, Karen moved to the Palm Beach County Health Department, where her grant proposals brought in millions of dollars, said former director, Jean Malecki.
“To me, she’s one of the miracle workers in Palm Beach County,” said Malecki.
The Hanley Center, a nationally recognized treatment facility, recruited Karen five years ago to research the success of their treatment programs. That Karen was a recovering addict was a plus.
“When you’re trying to ascertain the critical factors that will give the best outcome in this disease, someone who’s got the T-shirt, so to speak, has the innate knowledge,” said medical director Dr. Barbara Krantz. “Then, with Karen, you add the academic knowledge. You know what the stumbling blocks (to recovery) are.”
Karen’s workaholic determination could be a kind of addiction substitute she’s still working through, said Paul Kenny, a former Scripps Research Institute neuroscientist who is working with Karen on developing a blood test for addiction. Kenny has since moved to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, where he directs an institute for experimental drugs.
Addiction, he said, requires energy. When an addict gets sober, “what do you do with the energy left over?” Kenny said. “One goal of (addiction treatment) is to put something in the center of your life that’s driving you, not killing you.”
Maybe, the lesson is that you have to save your own life first. Perhaps, putting on your own oxygen mask takes far longer than you expect.
No matter what else she does in life, how many others she helps, Karen said her amends to her son will take a lifetime.
She hopes he’ll allow it. She’s not sure he will.
She takes heart from two Old Testament verses a friend read at her wedding: “God will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten,” “giving them beauty for ashes.”
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Barbara Marshall is an award-winning writer who has been at the Palm Beach Post since 2002, covering everything from lifestyle trends to travel stories. She is a former TV reporter and anchor, magazine writer and travel TV show producer. She spends her free time patching up a nearly 90-year-old house and negotiating a truce with the jungle that surrounds it.
Our video report: pbpost.com/living
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