Ruth Graham talks honesty, hope and being her father's daughter

The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)March 15, 2014 

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — She couldn't find any razor blades.

She had run home as soon as Sunday morning services had ended to commit suicide.

She had planned this. For years, Ruth Graham had silently suffered the pain of infidelity and divorce. For years, she had put on a smile and told everyone that yes, she had it all together.

She felt ashamed, humiliated and she feared condemnation over her divorce. She felt she had failed herself, her family, her parents — one of whom happens to be the most well-known evangelist in the world — and God.

The pain had become unbearable, and Ruth Graham couldn't take it anymore.

But she couldn't find those razor blades.

What is it like to be the child of a preacher? What is like to be prejudged as perfect by so many, expected to have no problems and be part of a family that seems to have it all together?

What is it like to be Billy's Graham's daughter?

Ruth Graham laughs.

"It's the most frequent question asked," she says.

For Graham it was both a blessing and a burden.

"I think when first asked, I gave this sort of pat answer — 'Oh, it's a privilege,'" she said. "But as I've gotten older and experienced more of life, it was also a responsibility. And it also had its difficulties."

Her father had close friendships with a slew of celebrities and served as a spiritual adviser to several U.S. presidents, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He preached alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and even bailed King out of jail.

But to Ruth Graham, he was just "Daddy."

"He was very gracious, very loving and affectionate," Graham said. "He was wonderful. I don't want to paint an unrealistic picture, but he was a really good dad."

The Grahams grew up out of the public view in a small community in western North Carolina populated by Christian missionaries and retired preachers. They were surrounded by those who understood them and didn't find it odd or extraordinary to have a father who traveled around the globe preaching. When someone saw a Graham misbehaving, they didn't gossip — they prayed.

At age 15, Graham entered boarding school. Classmates treated her differently, and she suddenly realized her family, and her life, wasn't the same as others.

"But different doesn't make me special," Graham said. "Different just makes me different."

At the end of the day, her family was just that, a family — with all that entails.

"We are a dysfunctional family," Graham said. "Before anybody gets on a horse and rides around on that, everybody has a dysfunctional family, even God. Look at his children. We're all dysfunctional."

Graham went on to college and married the son of a family friend. She kept her private life private and concealed anything that might be the slightest bit ugly.

But life was not easy — it was fraught with pain, brought on by a contentious marriage and a subsequent divorce.

As she came to grips with her reality, with her agony, and with God's undying love for her, Graham decided it was time to be herself.

"I have certainly never pretended to be perfect, but I certainly wore masks to make other people think I had it all together," Graham said. "Nobody else knew what was going on." Her derailed suicide plan was an alarming wake-up call. She sought counsel in her brother-in-law, who is also a psychologist. He was the first person she'd told about her divorce.

"I reached out for help and finally broke down and told someone what was going on," Graham said. "That was probably the first crack in the mask."

But her crisis continued. She quickly remarried and another divorce followed soon after. She had three children: One daughter developed an eating disorder, another had two children out of wedlock in her teens, and her son struggled with drug addiction.

Realizing the mistake she'd made with her rebound marriage, she drove to her parents in North Carolina. Her father met her in the driveway, and embraced her in his arms saying, "Welcome home."

Over the years, Graham has helped others by sharing her story.

In 2004, she published In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart, an autobiographical account of her struggles and the hope of healing. She founded Ruth Graham Ministries in 2008 and began holding conferences at churches around the world.

Throughout her own difficulties, she had a pastor who would share some of his own challenges on Sundays.

"I thought, 'If he can do that from the pulpit, then maybe I can begin to share a little bit of myself,'" Graham said. "And so that really gave me a wonderful example. And I will always be grateful to him."

She said she wants to help others be honest and feel safe enough to show the pain they feel inside.

"I discovered that as I told my story, which is a messy story, it gave people permission to tell their story," Graham said.

Her message to those hurting is simple: You are not alone.

"We come with all these broken pieces, but God can restore us and use us for his glory," Graham said. "We are never beyond his reach."

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