By Nancy Erikson
The Gospel of Luke’s prodigal son has nothing on Joe Eszterhas.
A self-described “Hollywood animal,” Eszterhas is best known for writing such adult-themed thrillers as “Basic Instinct” and “Jagged Edge.” He is a guy who seemed to live his earlier life as if the seven deadly sins were a personal to-do list.
But then Eszterhas found God. Or as Eszterhas writes in his latest memoir, “Crossbearer,” God found him.
Today, the man who once was the centre of attention at exclusive Hollywood restaurants, enjoys the easygoing community spirit of sharing a meal with his wife, Naomi, and the couple’s four sons at a Lenten fish fry at Holy Angels Parish, in suburban Bainbridge, where he often carries the cross at Mass.
A screenwriter who describes his younger self as arrogant and full of hubris now reads the works of Trappist Father Thomas Merton and Dutch-born Father Henri Nouwen for spiritual guidance. On the coffee table in his comfortable but humble home is the latest book about Jesus’ life from former vampire novelist Anne Rice, another notorious writer who reclaimed her Catholic faith.
Days that once started and ended with cigarettes and gin, now are filled with prayer and quiet walks in nature.
“I have to tell you overwhelmingly, in the seven years since God has entered my heart, or since I opened my heart enough for God to enter it, I wake up in a totally different way,” Eszterhas said in an interview with the Cleveland Universe Bulletin, the diocesan newspaper.
“I have a great sense day to day of inspiration,” he said.
Born in 1944 in Hungary, Eszterhas grew up in a post-World War II refugee camp before moving with his Catholic parents when he was 7 to Cleveland’s near west side, where he often served as an altar boy at St. Emeric Parish.
His father was editor of a Hungarian Catholic newspaper and his mother grew beautiful roses and had a strong devotion to Mary. Still, life for his family in what he calls the “strudel ghetto” was difficult.
He attended Catholic high school, but acknowledges his near misses with juvenile delinquency.
Early in his writing career he worked as a reporter in Cleveland covering the crime beat, witnessing some of the grisliest, most violent stories in the city. Those tales, coupled with what he witnessed in the refugee camp, were the fodder for his lucrative screenwriting career.
Meanwhile, Eszterhas had become what he called a functional alcoholic. He began smoking at 12, drinking at 14. He used tequila and gin and four packs of cigarettes a day to “fuel” his writing.
He also experienced deep pain in his life. His mother suffered from mental illness and later died from cancer, an event that further distanced him from God. Eszterhas was close to his father, but their relationship was never the same again after his father was exposed as having been a writer of Nazi propaganda during World War II.
He never was deported, Eszterhas said, but he couldn’t help wondering if his father’s hateful words inspired someone to commit violent acts against others.
“I really couldn’t forgive him, even as he died,” Eszterhas said. “I think I finally forgave him when God came into my heart.”
Seven years ago – after living in California, Hawaii and elsewhere – he and Naomi, also a Catholic with a special devotion to Mary, decided to move to Geauga County, east of Cleveland, to raise their sons with more traditional values. They also wanted to get away from what he felt were Hollywood’s negative influences.
It was home, so to speak, and it became the setting for his new relationship with God.
Shortly afterward Eszterhas was diagnosed with throat cancer. Surgery left him with a tracheotomy and unable to speak, and his doctor warned him he could never smoke or drink again.
To fight his cravings, he started walking every day, which took the edge off. But after a month, he knew he needed something more. One summer day in 2001 on his walk, the cravings were terrible. He became filled with frustration and despair, sat down on the curb and started to sob.
“I heard a voice inside me that said, ‘Please, God, help me.’ And even as I heard it, I thought to myself, ‘What is this?’” he said. “But then I heard the voice again and I realized it was something inside my own heart that was praying for the first time since I’d been a boy.”
Describing himself as a “baby Catholic,” Eszterhas said after that day battling addiction didn’t become easier but he felt renewed strength.
At first, he was cautious about rekindling his relationship with God.
“I didn’t even ask God for a while to save my life and to let me be around my family,” he said. “I asked God to help me with my addictions. And he did.
“But then I thought to myself finally after weeks and maybe some months that God did truly love me and that I felt that I could ask God to save my life,” he said.
Since then, he has fought against glamorizing smoking in movies. He also has campaigned to bring more family-oriented and faith-oriented entertainment into the movies.
At home, he has devoted his life to being the best father and husband he can. He also strives daily to deepen his relationship with Christ.
“I am generally moved when I carry the cross and I carry it at Holy Angels a lot because I feel it’s a real honour to carry it,” he said. “I do feel like I’m carrying Christ on the cross.”