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He's Still Here
The Biography of Joaquin Phoenix
By Martin Howden
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Martin Howden
All rights reserved.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
In conversation, interviews and in life, he has had to deal with a multitude of queries about his name. How do you pronounce your forename? 'Wah-keen' would be his usual response. When, as a child, he decided he needed a similar nature-charged moniker to his siblings – River, Summer, Rain and Liberty – he would fend off questions like 'Why Leaf?' by telling a tale of how when he was a four-year-old kid blowing leaves with his father, he decided on his new name. 'My brothers and sisters all had these beautiful names, and I guess I felt a little left out,' he said.
It's his surname, however, for which he became known. From childhood to young adulthood, Joaquin Phoenix has been, to the world's eye, simply the younger brother of River. It has been the way throughout his life and, tragically, his brother's death at only 23.
River's shadow had loomed large not just over his family members but also over the hearts of teenage girls throughout the eighties and early nineties. It was his teen heart-throb looks, which had earned him the name 'young Elvis' by the all-powerful child -actors' agent Iris Burton after she first clapped eyes on him, and his charismatic delivery in films like My Own Private Idaho and Stand By Me that captured their hearts.
But it was his death that immortalised River Phoenix. Rightly or wrongly, he would be remembered as one of the movie greats. He would never grow old, or make cuddly, safe films to top up his pension fund. His legacy is rooted in the earth of Hollywood. He had the innocent soul of someone ruined by the business like Marilyn Monroe, and the live-fast die-young rebel spirit of James Dean.
To Joaquin Phoenix, however, he was just a brother – the one that he would share a room with for many, many years, and one half of their apparently dead-on impersonation of Scooby-Doo and Shaggy. There seems to be nothing to suggest any resentment from Joaquin towards River when they were growing up. In fact he always sought approval and comfort from his older sibling much as a kid would do from his father. But his older brother was exactly that. River's role as an authority figure, and certainly a provider for the family from a young age, marked the sort of role reversal and dysfunctional aura that would mark the Phoenix clan. However, to their credit, they also instilled a set of family values that would bond them together tightly during their many moments of personal drama.
The Phoenix kids would be remembered by many as an all -singing all-dancing clan that entertained their way through the streets handing out religious pamphlets to bemused spectators in Puerto Rico, before the focus moved on to Summer and River attempting to sing for their supper in America, and their attempt to break into Hollywood.
But it was never meant to be that way. The mother and father of this incredibly close-knit family didn't dream of Hollywood success for themselves only to live out that life through their talented brood, like pushy parents throughout the world. The life they were hoping to carve for themselves and their family was a self-contained one, far from the corruption and materialistic world they themselves had grown up in.
Arlyn Dunetz was just a normal Jewish woman, raised by a middle-class family in New York's Bronx and destined for a run-of -the-mill life as a Manhattan secretary in an unloving marriage to a computer programmer. She had other plans, however, and vowed that her life would be different to that of her Hungarian mother Margaret.
Arlyn once said, 'At eighteen I was just a clone, totally unconscious. I didn't know the air was polluted and I didn't care. I just went to work and thought that everything the government told me was right and true. It took some time before I was awakened. I became aware. It was difficult because my parents weren't seeing the same thing, but I knew I had to change my life.'
Her mother predicted that her daughter would end up being a hippy – the then current way to rebel against your family was to join the sixties free-love revolution.
The strict, hard-right hand-wringing section of America was facing, for the first time in its life, a rebellion from its younger citizens.
The deaths of the two Kennedys and Dr Martin Luther King – as well as the Vietnam War, which was in full swing in 1968 – soured the nation. There was a backlash, and it was one that would be accompanied by some of the greatest music ever heard, fuelled by mind-bending drugs and topped off with one of the biggest sexual revolutions America had ever seen.
'It was a time of dissension and conflict in the nation, we were seeking an answer,' Arlyn said.
She formed a simple plan. She would leave her husband, whom she had married shortly after finishing high school, and make a new life for herself – far away from the current lifestyle that was stifling her so much. She wasn't happy, and she believed there was more to life than the nine-to-five jobs and occasional dinner parties she was being subjected to.
The answer would be California. And she would have to hitchhike, which seems out of date now, but in 1968 it was an acceptable and popular mode of transport.
On her many attempts to hitch west to California she met John Bottom – a man who, on surface level at least, was the complete polar opposite to her. He was a high school dropout who seemed content living his life on the road, away from the young daughter that he had left behind. He had suffered a series of personal tragedies whilst growing up. His mother had had a car accident when he was a young boy, the result of which left her brain damaged. His relationship with his father was not a good one. Unable to cope with his wife's medical bills, Ehlia Bottom would turn to drink to get him through it all. But the debts kept mounting up, as the drinking got worse, and it seemed only a matter of time before he would lose his home.
When John was 13 he came home to find that his father was nowhere to be found. He had simply abandoned him. His Aunt Francis would say, 'We went to Church every Sunday – Johnny wanted to go, but he got into trouble. I remember he and another teen tried to set fire to a building. Johnny was sent to a care home, not Juvenile Hall but a place privately owned that cared for errant teens. He was a wild boy. I don't think his parents were that good to the children. They had to root for themselves.'
After his father left him, John Bottom's world was turned upside down – and the subsequent years would see no upturn in his fortunes as he flitted between stays with family members and orphanages. He was to turn to drink and drugs – namely, marijuana. A serious back injury would hinder his attempts to try and earn a living, mostly through carpentry and gardening. The injury was due to a carpentry accident when he was young, or a head-on collision with a car while he was on his bike, depending whether you believe his relatives or John. It would, in fact, be an injury that was to play a big part in River and Joaquin's path to Hollywood.
Fancying himself as a poet and a musical vagabond, Bottom dropped out of high school to roam around California looking for music work. He would have a daughter named Jodean who was conceived after a brief fling with a woman called Trinity. He had little contact with his daughter, and left for Canada in 1966 over fears he would be drafted for the Vietnam War. Two years later he returned to LA, and soon after he picked up the pretty little hitchhiker that was soon to be his wife.
There was undeniable chemistry between John and Arlyn, and she went back to Bottom's place that night, where they would end up talking for hours about their dreams and how they were fed up with the 'normal life' that everyone wanted for them.
'We were flower children. We were full of faith. We loved everybody,' John would say later, while Arlyn noted, 'We just had similar desires.'
They made it as far as the Pacific Coast, doing things that you would expect free-loving youngsters to do in the sixties. There would be marijuana smoked and acid dropped among the odd jobs they would do along the way. 'We heard that acid was the truth serum. It was the thing that was going to get you above the world, to the level of consciousness where you could feel the power of God,' Arlyn said. They would eventually settle in a farmyard hippie commune later that year, 'marrying' each other during a commitment ceremony performed by the other hippies.
Arlyn and John continued to spring from one commune to another, looking for jobs, but eventually settled on a place called Nance Farm.
Roy Nance told River's biographer Barry C Lawrence, 'I was about twenty-five at the time. She was a pretty little thing. They were about seventeen or eighteen years old when I hired them. They were a rather strange lot. One time I was driving the tractor. The hippies all were supposed to pick up the rocks off the ground and put them into the trailer I was pulling. All of a sudden, it got quiet. I looked back only to find that they all decided to just lay down on their backs and look up at the sun. One of them did that too many times. I still know him, and today he's nearly blind.
'They would take off their clothes and skinny dip at the creek, then lay naked, spread-eagled on the grass, just to shock me. Once I was on the tractor when they did that; I nearly wrecked several rows of potatoes. The women didn't wear any underwear, and they would always bend over whenever I drove by, pretending they were picking something up,' Nance said, going on to describe how he sabotaged their plans to grow marijuana.
'All the hippies planted marijuana seeds here, but I had put a pre -emergence spray into the soil that they did not know about. So, every time the plants got about an inch high, they would die. They kept wondering why they couldn't grow the stuff, especially since mint grows so well here.
'But, they did work hard.'
Arlyn was pregnant at the time and it seemed a perfect place for them to stay for a while, with Bottom, a skilled gardener, managing to find work harvesting the local mint crop. Despite being pregnant with their first child, Arlyn still helped out by planting potatoes and picking mint. Farmers who remember them during that time would acknowledge how hard they worked, especially the heavily pregnant Arlyn, who rarely complained.
River was born on 23 August, much to the pleasure of not only John and Arlyn – but also to the other couples, who all lived in the same house. Their faces beamed with delight as River was born to the sound of applause by his new house-mates. They all gathered around him at the Oregon home, with a clearly delighted John rushing to the nearest hardware story to look for candles for the naming ceremony.
Nance remembered, 'He was still wet when she walked across the field over to my house to show me the little one, bless his heart. He was still wrapped up in a blanket. He could not have been more than twenty minutes old. I was the first outside person to hold him. He was a cute little bugger.'
An exhausted Arlyn and John would continue to stay at the farm for several more months before deciding they would move once more.
Arriving in Texas, they met a group of young like-minded people, who told the Bottoms about a religious group they had joined. They paid scant attention to the details of this new spiritual movement but enjoyed the group's company and headed to Colorado with them.
With a child in their lives – and with a keenness for more – they were looking for a sense of structure to their daily routine, while still allowing for the liberal and bohemian outlook they both had. Drugs had now become empty and soulless for them and they were seeking more spiritual comfort. Taking their new friends' advice, they found exactly what they were looking for in the shape of the Children of God founder David Berg – or Moses David as he would later call himself. While it would go on to be a controversial movement, at the time it was in its relative infancy, with nearly 150 Children of God groups around the world.
It appeared to be just a simple case of two disillusioned people seeking a community that spoke on their terms, with the Children of God movement answering first. The group preyed on individuals like the Bottoms – promising much about free love and constantly promoting their anti-Establishment stance. Later dubbed a sex cult by many of its critics, it was clear that sex was a major factor in Berg's vision, and one that would get stronger and stranger as his reign continued.
The prerequisite for any cult leader is charisma, and Berg had it in spades. His rise to that position started from humble beginnings – becoming an evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1964, before roaming around California's Huntington Beach singing folk music and making peanut sandwiches for those who where hungry. In 1968 he founded the controversial movement – which has been under the umbrella of several names, including Teens for Christ, Revolution for Jesus, Family of Love and currently The Family International. But their most famous incarnation is that of Children of God. The cult was a haven for hippies who, like the Bottoms, were striving for meaning and a sense of duty without having to conform or go against their bohemian beliefs; there was a reason it was seen by many as the 'gospel of rebellion'.
Moving back to Texas to the Children of God commune in 1973, the Bottoms quickly set about impressing the leaders of COG.
They began their three-month induction during the Leadership Training sessions at the Texas Soul Clinic Ranch, during which Berg ensured that everyone knew he was the figurehead of the movement. Their identity of old was being stripped, and a new one given by Berg. Recommending them to rid themselves of their old names, and to take new ones based on biblical figures, Arlyn settled on Jochebed, who was Moses' mother, while John picked the name of the father of Moses, Amram. They worked hard to please their new leaders, eager to seek out the approval of those who mattered.
Berg did not stay with his converts, preferring to live a more suburban life. It was a canny move to bolster his air of mystery and importance and he would only turn up to his convert camps every once in a while. His visits were seen as a huge event: the less people see you, the more impact you have when you turn up. A sense of joy would fill the air whenever word came that Berg was coming.
The Bottoms devoured as much information as they could about the sect, happy too to place their young son in the hands of fellow cult members during daycare sessions. These sessions were like a nightmarish vision of Sunday school. River would be subjected to fiery tales of doom, fire and brimstone warnings of what happened when you sinned; the group foretold a colossal doomsday event following the appearance of the comet Kohoutek, and said that the antichrist would walk this earth destroying the young American children who weren't following Berg's orders. It was all designed to create fear and instill a lasting bond for River to the COG.
By this time, River had a young sister, called Rain, born six days earlier than expected. Her name came from the rainy night that welcomed her into the world. She was delivered by her dad, after Arlyn refused medical help. She would later extend her name to Rainbow when she eleven.
River's time at the camp is shrouded in mystery and controversy. One of the sexual practices Berg preached was that children of a young age should be encouraged to have intercourse. When he was 20, he claimed in an interview that he lost his virginity at around four years old.
'I'm glad I did it when I was young,' he said. 'But, I didn't want those young vaginas and different body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older, so I blocked it out. I was celibate from ten to fourteen. You're just born into that reality, and you accept it.'
Despite later dismissing the comments as nothing but a joke, the damage had been done and soon nameless friends of his who grew up at the same place would claim that he was abused.
River's Dark Blood director George Sluizer is quoted as saying, 'He told me quite a lot about his youth. A lot about his childhood – three, four, six years old, eight years old, ten years old. He told me a lot about the sexual abuses.'
Excerpted from He's Still Here by Martin Howden. Copyright © 2011 Martin Howden. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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