Jeannie Out of the Bottle
A decade later, I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden speaks out about her son’s tragic overdose.
Few names are more synonymous with American pop culture than Barbara Eden. Her starring role in I Dream of Jeannie from 1965-1970 firmly entrenched her as one of the most popular icons in television history and she also enjoyed success in the 80s sitcom Harper Valley PTA. But fame and fortune did not leave Eden immune to the effects of drugs on her personal life. Her son, actor and bodybuilder Matthew Ansara, waged a decades-long battle with heroin addiction before finally dying of a heroin overdose in 2001, at the age of 35.
Since then, she’s actively spoken out about drug abuse and addiction, and recently took part in drugfree.org’s “You Are Not Alone” viral video campaign. In this exclusive interview, Eden reveals for the first time how she recognized her son’s drug use and why, more than a decade after her son’s death, she still blames herself for it.
When did Matthew start getting involved with drugs?
I only know what he’s told me. This is all information he shared with me when he was an adult, so he certainly had no reason to lie to me at that point. He was eight years old when he first started experimenting with marijuana. Matthew said there were children in our area that had pot growing in their backyard. I had no idea that any of our neighbors were smoking pot, let alone growing it! I don’t know when the real hard stuff started to happen, but it was probably when he was 18. He lived with his dad from ages 13 through 18, so it probably began in high school. I don’t think he was injecting heroin, though. It was in pill form. But I never saw any evidence of a drug problem. I would take him on two or three-week vacations and he seemed perfectly fine.
My mother respected my personal space growing up and I simply did the same thing with my son, but we can’t afford to do that these days.
Did you notice any changes in his behavior when he was in high school?
I didn’t recognize the changes. You tend to think young people really do just sleep a lot. His friends seemed normal and none of them appeared high, but now I realize he wasn’t interested in the high. He was seeking a low. I first recognized he had a problem when he came to live with me. He was 18, so this was about 1983, and he said he was going to City College in the Valley. He would go to school in the morning and came back late in the afternoon. There was one morning when he forgot his books in his room and I was so worried for him that I raced down to the campus with the books in my car. I asked students on the campus if they had seen him and everyone said they had never heard of that student before. When I went to the campus office, they looked up his name and it showed that he had never registered there. I confronted him about it that night and he became extremely angry. He started throwing things and threatening me. It was such a change from his normal behavior and it really frightened me. He ended up leaving the house and didn’t come home for three or four days. I called his father and said that I didn’t know what to do. We put on a united front and searched everywhere—the freeway, under bridges…you name it and we looked there. When he finally showed up, we told him that he needed help and he agreed to go into rehab.
Did he respond to the initial stay in rehab?
When we went to have our meeting with the doctor, Matthew became quite agitated and kept telling him, “Don’t tell Mom and Dad that, it’s going to hurt their feelings.” He checked out before completing treatment. When he checked out, we were told to not let him back in the house and we didn’t. That was the start of a long series of rehab stints for Matthew. Even when he really wanted to become clean, it was still extremely difficult for him. He would have two or three months of sobriety and then literally disappear for months at a time, then eventually come back around and agree to go into treatment. Up until the day he died though, I thought he had a shot at making it. As far as I know, he had sobered up again for about a year and was about to get married to a lovely girl.
When did he die from his drug use?
I’ve blocked that out of my mind. It was around this time of year. I don’t even remember how old he was when he died. I just prefer to remember the day that was he born. (Pause). Hold on, let me get my books. He died on Monday, June 25, 2001. I was devastated. Even to this day, I still blame myself for my ignorance. It wouldn’t have happened if I had been more alert or knowledgeable because I would have seen the signs earlier. But his father and I simply didn’t know about drugs. There was one day when I saw a bong in his room and actually thought, “What a pretty little thing this is.” I had no idea. Drugs weren’t our world and you don’t think that world can intrude on yours. But it does. It can happen to anyone.
Did you talk to anyone afterwards or reach out for guidance?
I started to go to Al-Anon meetings. I had a writer-actor friend take me to me my first meeting and then he went upstairs to his AA meeting. And I discovered that I had more friends who were in the same boat than I realized. I literally had no idea until I would go and see these friends there. And I gained knowledge from those meetings. I had a chance to learn about all the treatments that Matthew went through when he was in rehab. And what I learned from the whole experience of Matthew’s drug use is that I had a wonderful group of girlfriends in my life. When Matthew would go into rehab, they were the ones who at times would physically pick him up and put him in the car. And he was big! None of the men in my life were around to do that. (Laughs).
What advice would you give to someone who has a relative or loved one currently struggling with drug addiction?
To me, that’s a two-part question. I would say be alert. If it’s your child, don’t have any guilt about going into their drawers or closet. I honestly believe they should not have privacy in those areas. My mother respected my personal space growing up and I simply did the same thing with my son, but we can’t afford to do that these days. Once they’re in their drug use, I would reach out to other people for support. Al-Anon was my first step with that. The most important thing to realize is that even though you want your child sober, they may not want it. If they’re under 18, you don’t wait until they want treatment. You throw them in. But if the person is an adult, there is no way you can get them to go if they don’t want to. It’s painful and frustrating—it’s still painful and frustrating to me—but you just have to accept it.
McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among other topics, for The Fix.