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Book Review Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic

By DWIGHT HOBBES

Luke Longstreet Sullivan’s memoir, Thirty Rooms to Hide In: Insanity, Addiction and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Shadow of the Mayo Clinic (University of Minnesota Press), brilliantly written, does not make for particularly pleasant reading. In fact, it’s the kind of the experience, especially being a true story, that, beyond depressing, can make you get up on a grey, drizzling morning, look out the window think about slitting your throat. Sullivan, in this wholly engaging, wryly irreverent, cynically bittersweet account of tragic trials and tribulations, recounts how helplessly he, his five brothers and their mom suffered through years of being ruthlessly abused by dad and husband, a raging drunk whose binges eventually, one might say thankfully, saw him out of their lives and into his grave.

Proof positive that money can’t buy happiness, the family transcends a threadbare existence to live in the luxury of a thirty-room mansion, patriarch Dr. Charles Roger Sullivan ascending to the prestigious, well-paying position of Mayo Clinic surgeon. It’s the late 50s into 60s, before AMA  diagnosed alcoholism as a disease, predating AA-inclusive rehab in Hazelton and such institutions, before women even thought of standing up to domestic abuse. Accordingly, all Luke, his brothers and anguished, miserably beset mother and wife Mya could do was take it. And take it. Day after day into night after night. An inexorable erosion of anything near normal lives, as they go from wondering whether something’s wrong, to realizing there’s a problem to their beloved head of the family transforming, degenerating into a monster who scares them half to death. 

The opening strikes one as oddly matter of fact for the depiction of a funeral. “We six surviving sons of the doctor have been seated in the pew. …The people sitting the row behind us can see our shoulders heaving in sobs. …They hear our sniffling, yes, but at least one…has figured out that our runny noses and shaking shoulders are actually the result of an attack of wild but stifled laughter. …[Our mother] sits. She is gazing up through her black mantilla at the sunrays pouring through the high stained glass windows. Her lips are moving. Perhaps they think she is praying, but she is not.”  By the time you get to the end of the book, you understand the boys’ behavior, fathom their mindset. And wonder what Mya was thinking and feeling. It hits hard, at the end of that chapter, when Sullivan solemnly shares, “As the coffin rolls past, each one of us realizes as if for the first time, ‘My father is in that box. He’s dead. He’s never coming back.’ And our tears of laughter are replaced with the other kind.”

Thirty Rooms details a hideous family portrait and sordid saga of going through increasingly unspeakable, sheer hell. Sullivan does it with bittersweet wit that at length becomes gallows humor as we understand the stoic character of these kids and this woman that sees them through subjugation by a vicious tyrant. It’s a fascinating read. Richly fascinating. And painfully sad.


Also written by Luke Longstreet Sullivan
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!

This classic (and very irreverent) bestselling guide to creating great advertising, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, has inspired a generation of ad students, copywriters, and young creatives to make their mark in the industry. Students today need new guidance to ply their craft in the digital world and this updated fifth edition explains how to bring brand stories online, in addition to traditional media like television, radio, print, and outdoor. Now in seven languages and used in colleges worldwide, Whipple will help sharpen your writing chops, unleash your creativity, and raise the level of your work whether you’re new to the business or a practicing professional.


EDITOR’S NOTE: An Introduction to Luke Longstreet Sullivan and “Thirty Rooms to Hide In”

For about a year, Luke Longstreet Sullivan was the second Editor of The Alley beginning in 1977, after graduating from St. Olaf College. He parlayed the passion for advertising that he discovered at the “small neighborhood newspaper”,
The Alley Newspaper, into jobs with small and large advertising agencies and eventually to his current position as Chair of the Advertising Department at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

In Luke’s words from his book: “I majored in psychology. But after college I couldn’t find any businesses on Lake Street in Minneapolis that were hiring skinny chain-smokers who could explain the relative virtue of scheduled versus random reinforcement in behaviorist theory. I joined a construction crew.”

“When the opportunity to be an editor/typesetter/ad salesperson for a small neighborhood newspaper came along, I took it at a salary of $80 every two weeks. (Thinking back, I believe I deserved $85.) But the idea of sitting at a desk and using words as a career was intoxicating. Of all my duties at the little newspaper, I found that selling ads and putting them together were the most interesting.”*

Luke Longstreet Sullivan is one of hundreds of people who have collected, told, assembled, and passed on stories and information in the pages of The Alley Newspaper. They all had unique abilities to hear, to sense, to repeat stories and information.

His book, “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Ads,” is about much more than advertising as it describes and advises the creative process in any endeavor. It gives ample evidence of the merits of being able to know what any audience wants to hear and how they will be most receptive to hearing any message. Older readers will recall the source of the book’s title as the fictional supermarket manager featured in TV, radio and print ads for Charmin toilet paper in U.S. and Canada for 21 years with various scenarios but typically Whipple would scold customers, “please, don’t squeeze the Charmin!” while hypocritically entertaining such actions himself when he thinks no one will notice.

*“Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads,” Luke Sullivan and Edward Boches, 5th Edition, John Wiley and Sons, 2016, page 11.

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