Dean Koontz has written over one hundred novels and is one of America's top suspense thriller writers. Fourteen of his hardcovers and fourteen of his paperbacks have reached the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller list. While I've enjoyed several of his books and knew that he was living here in Orange County, California, I didn't know anything about his own personal story until I heard him do a live interview last Thursday evening at the Orange County Register. His life is quite a story itself.
Koontz was remarkably open and vulnerable at his OC Register interview. He shared about being born in 1945 to become the only child of his parents. He grew up incredibly poor in a small town in Pennsylvania. He was close to his mother, who died when he was just 21.
Koontz' father was alcoholic, mentally ill and unstable. He lost over 30 jobs, and the family went through great hardship. He remembers his father being the town drunk. He was unfaithful with multiple women. Raymond Koontz was abusive to both he and his mother. Dean recalls his mother standing up to his father courageously despite her diminutive height.
Senior year in college, Koontz won a fiction competition sponsored by Atlantic Monthly. After college, he taught school in Pennsylvania and worked and became frustrated with the Appalachian Poverty Program, designed to help poor children. Koontz saw flaws in the program and ways in which the money didn't reach the population it was intended to help.
Koontz married his high school girlfriend Gerda, to whom he is still married and who he deeply admires. He spoke about modeling strong heroines in his books after Gerda and his mother. It reminded me how writers often write what they know. He and Gerda negotiated him leaving teaching for five years while she would support him as he wrote full-time. It worked out very well, and he has been writing more than 60 hours a week ever since.
Dean and Gerda Koontz didn't have children. A biography about him poses that they feared his father's mental illness might be inherited. They do have a great love for golden retrievers. While Koontz researched a guide dogs for the disabled for his novel "Midnight" he became acquainted with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). The non-profit let him observe how they extensively train service dogs, as he was writing a character that had one into the book. Through their involvement with CCI, the couple adopted Trixie, a golden retriever who had been through most of their training, but didn't quite make it. Dean wrote a book as a tribute to Trixie after she died of cancer in 2007. The book was called A Big Little Life: The Memoir of A Joyful Dog. When I spoke with him afterwards at the book signing, he said he still misses Trixie every day.
The Koontz family has donated millions of dollars to CCI to continue their work. Several of his books donate all profits to the group. At his live interview, Koontz shared how some years back he was the president of a writer's group where he got lots of phone calls daily with complaints from writers about publishers and agents. After a long weekend away at CCI, observing people with no use of their arms or legs happily being trained to use guide dog assistance, he came home and resigned from his role with the writer's group. He couldn't believe the contrast.
Since Trixie's death, the Koontz family have adopted Anna, a grand-niece of Trixie, who almost completed the CCI training, but had a fascination for chasing birds that made her a better pet than service dog.
Koontz also shared something intriguing he found out about his parentage. He found an article saved by his parents that explained about an artificial insemination medical research project done using poor families from his area in Pennsylvania about the time he was born. He decided not to do DNA testing with his father before his death, as he decided it didn't matter to him. It remains a personal mystery for the mystery writer.
As a family therapist, I am always interested in family of origin stories. The personal story behind Dean Koontz is one of perseverance, gentleness and transcendence. Despite coming from an unstable father with alcoholism and abuse, he has created a strong marriage and a meaningful, thriving career in writing that he continues to work at full-time at age 70. Koontz and his wife are creating a lasting legacy through their support of CCI to help disabled people live a more full life, one dog at a time.
The script that you are given in childhood doesn't have to be what you live out as an adult. We can choose to take the best part of our childhood backgrounds and revise the rest. You can have an unstable or abusive parent and choose to develop loving relationships and attach securely to others despite what you experienced in your family. It's been meaningful to me to work with many individuals over the past twenty-five years as a therapist to better understand the themes and patterns in their family of origin and rewrite the way they live their lives and the kind of relationships they create. If we understand our family history, we can learn to lead a more conscious life going forward.
Childhood is just where your story begins. It's doesn't need to predict your future.