The Final Exorcism of Donald Rumsfeld



I grew up hating alcohol—hating and fearing it, thanks to my alcoholic father and the "just say no" culture of the 1980s. 

I didn’t drink in high school and when I chose a college dorm, I picked the “Health Awareness” hall, a place where all students pledged to avoid drugs and alcohol and focus on wellbeing.

I was 18 and by then I had thought a lot about drinking versus not drinking. Being a committed nondrinker was a core part of my identity.

But then I met Donald Rumsfeld. That’s not his real name, but the boyfriend I’m describing shared both his initials and a certain palpable aura of malice with the former secretary of defense. I cannot recall what drew me to him; he didn’t like me. He wasn’t nice to me. But I became obsessed with making him mine.

This was 20 years ago; I marvel at how I’ve changed these past two decades. I wonder if there would be anything about me now he’d recognize from the person I was then. And if there’s anything that has persisted in my character it’s the single minded, determined, do-what-it-takes focus to make what I want come to pass. Back then, I wanted, to the exclusion of all else in life, to be his girlfriend. 

I knew it would take time and extreme measures to achieve this goal. I was patient. I chipped away at his determination to keep me at arm’s lengths. I lost 20 pounds. I shed friends he thought uncool. I flat ironed my curls, which he thought ugly. I made out with him at inappropriate times and places. 

I did not relent. 

It took a year, but finally he surrendered. 

“Let’s go on a real date,” he said, withdrawing his Filofax from his messenger bag. He was more resigned to this date than excited about it, but we both knew this was inevitable. 

I had won, but I wasn’t done giving pieces of myself away. 

To be his girlfriend I knew I’d need to drink alcohol. For him, a sober girlfriend was too embarrassing. It was nonnegotiable. The first time I was ever drunk, I was at a party with him. And if he thought my abstaining from alcohol would embarrass him, my drinking was probably worse.

Or I think it was; there’s little I remember from that night outside of being mercilessly teased about my inability to hold my liquor and being carried over Donald Rumsfeld’s shoulder down the stairs and flung into a cab like a sack of potatoes. 

It was not as romantic as it sounds. 

In retrospect, I think controlled substances were his love language. He treated the first time I smoked pot with him like a religious sacrament. Later, he made an effort to get me to use other, scarier drugs but my desperation for his approval was thankfully not that bottomless. My fear of that stuff was always very strong.

I hated smoking pot. It hurt my lungs, it made me cough, it slowed the laps I liked to swim at the pool. After we broke up, three-plus years later, I immediately appreciated my exoneration from these noxious fumes and I haven’t smoked pot since. 

But me and booze? Alcohol became the low-dose roofie I self-administered for another 20 years.  

It took a long time after we broke up for me to stop obsessively thinking about him, but for 15 years now he’s been mostly off my mind. Until recently. 

Would I have started drinking if it hadn’t been for him? That’s possible. Plenty of people start drinking in college for lots of reasons. But I also think there’s a chance I wouldn’t have, particularly if I would have clung more closely to the nicer, nerdier friends I cut loose for his benefit. I feel a sense of loss for those other, sober, truer-to-myself decades I could have had. 

I feel angry at my late-teens self for taking my precious and powerful determination and misspending it on him so extravagantly and for so long. I am trying to forgive her as I extract this final Donald Rumsfeld demon and buff my spirit clean of his grubby fingerprints. I am trying to celebrate that I’m free. 

Still, when I refuse a drink I say to myself sometimes, silently of course, “No thank you, Donald Rumsfeld. Not anymore.”

joy manning