In the early years of their marriage, Michael Coen and his wife spent most nights at home. “I remember countless nights when we couldn’t get out” because of an illness, Coen recalled. “She’d get so bored that she’d ask me to tell her stories about my time in San Francisco.”
So he did, detailing wild parties, rampant drug use and one-night stands. He told her about his beating at the hands of a huge, deranged man, about raucous rock concerts and cataclysmic fires.
“She was just awestruck at some of the things we were doing,” said Coen, who lives in Paso Robles.
Coen—whose self-published book, “The Langford: Check Out by Checking In,” chronicles that wild time — is among a handful of local authors whose autobiographies delve into life’s deeper side.
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Pamela Barrett’s book, “Tales of the Titmouse: One Woman’s Journey Out of Darkness,” describes how a youthful love affair led to marijuana smuggling, crack cocaine addiction and the occult. And in “Searching for Soul: A Survivor’s Guide,” Bobbe Tyler talks about relationships, religion and getting older.
“It’s like a tapestry,” Barrett explained. “You have all these little parts that you don’t see until you’re looking back in hindsight.”
For Coen, writing “The Langford” meant revisiting one of the wildest periods of his life.
In July 1975, Coen, then 18, moved to San Francisco to study at the Academy of Art University.
He settled on a dingy but affordable residence hotel in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. For 14 months, Coen ate, slept, worked and partied alongside 130 other people, including students, travelers, retirees and mental asylum outpatients.
“It was a harsh reality … but I just loved those people,” Coen said. “They had tough lives. They had their personalities, but you accepted them for who they were.”
Coen first shared his stories about life at the Langford with his wife, Jackie Hickman, as she recovered from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. They also helped when Hickman was dealt another blow— her brother’s death.
“Every time I remembered something I’d write it down,” said Coen, who finished the first draft of “The Langford” in 1995.
At the time, he held back from releasing the book, mindful of his senior management job with a Silicon Valley publisher. But in November 2001, Coen and his wife sustained major injuries in a multiple rollover accident in Los Gatos.
Forced to retire, the couple moved to Paso Robles six years ago. There, the book was reborn.
Coen split his 900-page narrative in half at the suggestion of his editor. The second volume chronicles his transition from stock boy to businessman.
“It was a crazy two years of my life,” he said.
Coen hesitated to include some of “The Langford’s” racier subject matter — such as illegal drug use and an orgy.
“I really sugarcoated it at first, but (my wife) was like, ‘Put it in the book,’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘This is what happened before you knew me. This is who you were. This is what you did.’ ”
Pamela Barrett faced a similar quandary while writing “Tales of the Titmouse,” she said.
She wanted to be open about her drug-addict past, but didn’t want to oversensationalize it in the manner of James Frey’s controversial memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” an Oprah’s Book Club selection that was later found to be partially fabricated.
“I was really questioning whether I should write this as a fiction book,” said Barrett, who consulted two attorneys about the legal implications of her self-published book.
In the end, she decided, “It was better for me to tell people this was the absolute truth.”
While attending beauty school in the San Gabriel Valley at age 23, Barrett met “The Boys,” a group of drug smugglers led by the handsome, charming Cristobal. That was her introduction to the dangerous world of drug trafficking.
At age 30, she said, Barrett hit rock bottom. She found salvation in the form of her faith.
“God has changed me 180 degrees,” said Barrett.
Over the years, Barrett has shared her story with youth groups, church members and clients at her Paso Robles beauty salon. Still, she felt compelled to do more.
“What I really want to do is get (my book) into the hands of people who are in addiction right now,” she said. Barrett also hopes to reach young people experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
“I just want them to understand this is what will happen if you make these choices,” she said. “It might start out exciting. It might start out interesting. But it ends in one place: death, physical, mental, spiritual.”
Helping others was the purpose for Bobbe Tyler’s book, “Searching for Soul,” published by Ohio University Press affiliate Swallow Press.
“I wanted other people to have what I had to keep me glued together,” the Cambrian said.
A writer by nature, Tyler found her inspiration when her friend Roberta Forem handed her “The Harvesting Wisdom Interview” — 17 questions about friendship, family and self. “Her only instruction was, ‘Take as long as you like and go as deep as you can,’ ” Tyler wrote later in “Searching for Soul.”
“It took me five years to finish,” recalled Tyler, who endured chronic back pain to do so. “I really worked on it night and day. … There were times when I wanted to go out and burn it all, I was so sick of my own childhood.”
Still, she persevered, creating 17 essays that deal with deeply personal issues from a philosophical perspective.
One passage examines Tyler’s complicated caretaker relationship with her mother. Others touch upon her Depression-era upbringing, her two marriages and her career with Lucasfilm Ltd. and the Times Mirror Co.
“The gift that you get at the end of doing this exercise is that you get to see your whole life,” Tyler said. “It’s a process of coming to consciousness.”