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Rep. Dean and her son share their family’s struggle with addiction in new memoir

Rep. Madeleine Dean from Pennsylvania is perhaps best known these days for her high-profile role as a House manager during former President Trump's second impeachment trial. But in a deeply personal and revealing new book, "Under Our Roof," written with her son, Harry Cunnane, they share for the first time their family's long struggle with addiction. They join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff: Representative Madeleine Dean from Pennsylvania is perhaps best known these days for her high-profile role as a House manager during former President Trump's second impeachment trial. But in a deeply personal and revealing new book, "Under Our Roof," written with her son Harry Cunnane, together, they share for the first time their family's years-long struggle with Harry's addiction. Congresswoman Dean and Harry join us now. It's so good to see both of you. And, Harry, let me just start out by saying, congratulations on eight years of recovery.

  • Harry Cunnane: Thanks.

  • Judy Woodruff: But what I have to ask you, Harry, is, when you wrote this book, you couldn't possibly have known that your mother would have just come off of being the manager in this trial of the former president. How hard for you was it, though, to write about something when your family is already in the public eye?

  • Harry Cunnane: It was challenging. And to hit on the first point, when we first started writing this book, my mom wasn't even elected to Congress yet. So it's been a long time in the making. But doing it in the public eye, I think, for us, it's — at this point, it's kind of what we know. But I think we wanted to highlight our story and try to show people that it is OK to continue to tell these stories, regardless of where somebody is, because it's such a common issue that impacts so many Americans.

  • Judy Woodruff: Representative Dean, why was is important to you to write about it?

  • Rep. Madeleine Dean: I think for those reasons. You know, this past year, 81,000 people died of overdose from addiction. That's more than 200 people a day, every single day, 365 days a year. So, we thought that, if we wrote about our stories and our struggles, and me trying to fig outer what was wrong with Harry, Harry manipulating and hiding what was wrong with him, maybe somebody else would see themselves in our struggle, and, more importantly, that maybe somebody else would see themselves in the hope that is in recovery, in treatment, in asking for help. We just — we literally hope that this book helps somebody.

  • Judy Woodruff: You — the book does go through so much of what you experienced in raw detail. It started when Harry was in high school. And, Congresswoman Dean, you write about you saw him changing, the way he looked, the people — the friends he was hanging out with. And yet you still didn't — it took you a long time to understand what was going on. Why was it so hard, do you think?

  • Madeleine Dean: I think it was a couple of things. On the one hand, I believed I understood something about addiction, and I learned through the process I had no idea. On the other hand, as a parent, and you have somebody who is in junior high and high school, you think, maybe this is normal adolescence. But I saw some — the core features, the gifts, the beautiful gifts of Harry, just seeping away over the course of a couple of years. He is pretty good at telling a story, as you might have noticed in the book, now with honesty, but, back then, with manipulation. And so it took me a long time. I think stigma was in our way. That's one of the things we want to try to fight here. We want to try to stop the stigma, because, even though I thought I knew something, turns out I really didn't, lots of things like that.

  • Judy Woodruff: And, Harry, you — the two of you take turns writing the book. And you come from — I mean, you come from a comfortable family, loving parents. A lot of people, I think, want to believe that people turn to drugs or alcohol because they have had a traumatic time growing up. How do you explain that to people?

  • Harry Cunnane: I think, if we look at this as a disease and substance use disorder as a disease, it makes that easier to understand. It is common, if somebody has experienced a trauma, especially in childhood, maybe there's a higher likelihood of falling into a substance use disorder. But I know, from my own personal experience and from that of many people that I have gotten to know through being in recovery, this disease doesn't discriminate, and this disease can come and impact any family.

  • Judy Woodruff: And, Harry, you use the word discriminate. I know there are people who say you were never — you didn't end up in jail. You didn't go to prison. People — a lot of people would look at your situation and say, well, he's white, comfortable family. You live in a comfortable part of Philadelphia. If you were Black, if you lived somewhere else, how do you think about that, about privilege?

  • Harry Cunnane: It's a huge part of my experience. I write in the book about the color of my skin, the socioeconomic status, where I lived, all of these things, really, as the pillars that held together my freedom. You know, and through recovery, I have had an opportunity to try to give back and go into CFCF, is a local jail in Philadelphia, because there's no fair reason as to why I don't have a criminal record and so many others do. So, I try to expose that in the book, because that is a big factor for my recovery. And it's something that not being caught in the criminal justice system has allowed me to really thrive, because I'm not held back in some ways that so many others unfairly and unjustly are.

  • Madeleine Dean: That's one of the things, Judy, we wanted to expose, examine and expose: What role did white privilege play in Harry's path? Obviously, it made his path, even though it was a very difficult one, a whole lot easier than a whole lot of other people, also his socioeconomic status. We visited Curran-Fromhold prison, and we tell of that in the book. And I very honestly say it's a prison that could have been his own, because I know there's an awful lot the mothers who have children in that prison, and they are in that prison because of a disease, substance abuse disorder, addiction. We have got to do something about that.

  • Judy Woodruff: And, Harry, I know you have spent time talking to others who are experiencing addiction. We know there's so much — so many who relapse. Why do you think you haven't?

  • Harry Cunnane: It's hard to pinpoint why I haven't. But what I can say to highlight recovery is, I think the beginning is really, really challenging. You know, going from active addiction and the hopelessness and despair that goes along with that, the shame and the just self-loathing that I felt, that didn't just go away the moment that I stopped using drugs. It took time and effort. But another thing we're trying to highlight in the book, "Under Our Roof," is what is possible through recover, the joys that are possible through recovery.

  • Judy Woodruff: And given how prevalent addiction is in our society, Congresswoman Dean, and especially now during this pandemic, what do you say to other parents who are worried about this for their children or family members who are worried about it, for anyone they love?

  • Madeleine Dean: I would say ask for help yourself. Early on in my struggles, trying to figure out what was going on with Harry, what was going on with Harry, I reached out to another mother in the neighborhood. We sat down and had the longest cup of coffee. And she really gave me some clarity of what probably was going on, even though I couldn't exactly see it up close and personal. She also gave me ideas for resources. I would say to people — and I really say this sincerely — that there is always hope. There's nothing worse than when I talk to a parent and that hope has somewhat drained from their eyes. There is always hope. And I say it to the parents or a family member or a loved one. But I also say it to the person who is suffering from addiction. I say it to the addict. And I think Harry didn't realize this at the time, that he could have reached a hand and said: "Mom, I need help. Dad, I need help." We were there. But too often the person who is struggling with the disease, they feel such shame, and they have gone through such trauma themselves, that they don't know it. So, I say to anybody who either has a loved one or is struggling with it themselves, raise your hand. You would be surprised at who wants to help you.

  • Judy Woodruff: Well, it is such an inspiring story, even as it had to be so difficult to live through. Thank you both, Harry Cunnane, Representative Madeleine Dean.

  • Madeleine Dean: Thank you, Judy.

  • Harry Cunnane: Thank you.

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