Story and photos by Ken Stone
In 1988, it would have been the biggest scoop of the GOP primaries. Republican hopeful Pat Robertson, the televangelist, told associates at his Christian Broadcasting Network: “I believe the Lord may want me, as president, to usher in the Second Coming of Jesus.”
As Danuta Pfeiffer recalls in her new book “Chiseled,” Robertson suggested at his West Virginia retreat that he would be a new John the Baptist.
Having announced to gasps that “I believe the Lord wants me to be the next president of the United States,” Robertson inspired what Pfeiffer called “a holy moment. … God was in this.”But Pfeiffer — who had gained local celebrity status as co-host of KFMB-TV’s “SunUp San Diego” talk show — didn’t report the revelation. She was working for CBN and Robertson as a co-host of “The 700 Club.”
Instead, she held on to that amazing story — and dozens of others — for decades.
Some shocking tales involved her own life.
Self-published in late February, “Chiseled: A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity and Divine Wine” for the first time publicly discloses:
- As a high school freshman in Alaska, Danuta was raped by a senior classmate — and gave birth to a son, Paul, who the family portrayed as Danuta’s brother. Raised by Danuta’s mother, Paul wouldn’t learn his true mother until he turned 21.
- Shortly after graduating from high school, Danuta gave birth to another boy — but was pressured by her 21-year-old boyfriend, the father, to give the baby up for adoption. (He told her: It’s the baby or me. Your choice.) “Though I never touched him, I called my lost son Matthew,” she wrote.
- As co-host of “The 700 Club,” Robertson’s flagship show, Danuta in 1984 was compelled to marry a twice-divorced Swedish friend 22 years her elder — for the sake of appearances. Her husband, Kai Soderman, was a suicidal alcoholic, causing years of pain.
- Robertson’s Virginia-based network — a nonprofit “ministry” — took in close to $300 million one year. “We were rock stars for Jesus,” she wrote, and quoted Robertson as saying: “You see, if we ask God for anything, the Bible says He’ll answer.”
- Danuta, once called the “Christian version of Barbara Walters,” was expected to travel and give speeches — and miraculously heal some of the network’s 16 million daily viewers. She writes: “I was a placebo, a spiritual sugar pill used to bolster their own faith.” But when “The 700 Club” brought on examples of healing, they had to be telegenic. No ugly souls allowed.
- Wrestling with her own demons, Danuta briefly considered suicide from the Coronado bridge. (She had rented a one-room Coronado Shores apartment during her “SunUp” days.)
Now happily married and helping her husband, Robin, at his boutique winery near Junction City, Oregon, Danuta Pfeiffer at 66 is enjoying an eight-day “hard launch” of her book in San Diego. (The “soft launch” was in Eugene, Oregon.)Tuesday night, she read excerpts of her book at the Casa Guadalajara restaurant in Old Town. The event was sponsored by the San Diego Press Club and drew 30 people, including Kathi Diamant, Danuta’s successor at “SunUp.”
Another public event is 4 p.m. Sunday, June 7, when she’ll do another reading and book-signing (and serve her winery’s signature pinot noir) at the Women’s Museum of California in Liberty Station.
The last time Pfeiffer was in San Diego was September 2013, when she spoke at the funeral of longtime “SunUp” host Jerry G. Bishop.
“Chiseled” has several meanings, she said. Her father was a master sculptor, with large religious pieces in various churches. But she also was a victim of chiseling — including CBN (which had originally promised her a job as Jerusalem bureau chief).
Despite being a Democrat (who now backs Bernie Sanders for president) and a feminist, she adopted the persona of a conservative Christian after her Escondido conversion by the late Harald Bredesen, whose North County Christian Center in San Marcos brought in speakers such as Ruth Carter Stapleton (the president’s sister).
(Bredesen visited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s, and Pfeiffer says Bredesen “tried to lead Sadat to the Lord” — convert him.)
Her book was conceived as a tribute to her father, who died at 50 and left behind many hours of reel-to-reel audio tapes. The biography was to be called “The White Pole,” a reference to his story of being a Polish Olympian in 1936 who wore all white while winning a silver medal in cross-country skiing.It served to distract her from her own marriage and other woes. “This took me away from my life,” she told Times of San Diego. “I could get into his life.”
But the story of her father, John Rylko, didn’t pan out as a Polish version of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken.” So she decided to write her own memoir.
Twenty-five years in the making, the 414-page book is being printed “on demand,” Pfeiffer says, but is being entered in book festivals (including London, New York and Mexico City) in hopes of gaining a major publisher for sake of distribution and promotion.
It’s not the first time Pfeiffer dished on “The 700 Club.” She first exploded the show in a March 1998 essay for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, writing: “Robertson sees himself in an exaggerated role as spokesman for God.”
Now Pfeiffer sees herself on the silver screen.
She ackowledged after a reporter’s prodding that she pictures Meryl Streep playing her in a movie version. Husband Robin (a real-life Alec Baldwin lookalike) playfully thinks Matt Damon could portray him.
Although the book doesn’t disclose it, at least three names were changed, Pfeiffer says. The classmate rapist (now dead) isn’t “Steve.” Danuta’s flaky 21-year-old beau isn’t “Will,” and the close friend who took a 2,200-mile life-changing bike ride with her isn’t named “Tilly.”
Robin is very real, however, as is Terry Heaton — a CBN producer who agreed to be named in the book.
Danuta met Robin via a newspaper personal ad in Oregon. They wed after a whirlwind courtship.
Robin, who attended the school that became UTEP as well as the University of Oregon, is a former high school and college sportswriter who also has penned some short stories.
He says he didn’t read the chapter about himself until after it was finished — and wouldn’t have asked her to change anything anyway.
Also in the book is “angel” Suzanne Manuel, who befriended Danuta when the broadcaster worked as a liberal talk-show host on KSDO in the late 1980s after being laid off at CBN.Depicted only as “Suzanne” in the book, Manuel was an Albertson’s checkout clerk in Coronado when she spotted a depressed-looking Danuta, whom she knew from “SunUp” and perhaps a San Diego Magazine cover proclaiming “Danuta’s Back in Town.”
Manuel, now president of the Rotary Club of Coronado, lives in South San Diego and is hosting the Pfeiffers this week. She attended the Press Club event and said she hasn’t had time to read the book. (She plans to during a flight to Brazil, she said.)
“But I know the story,” Manuel said. “I’ve been with her for 25 years. We’ve gone through it together,” including visits with her late husband to the winery.
She said Danuta’s ordeals “would have killed the average person, but “she has a tremendous amount of strength and resilience. … I felt a blessing that I just happened to be there (at Albertson’s). So I noticed and was persistent” in connecting with her.
Also hearing Danuta was Diamant, now an adjunct professor at San Diego State University. She didn’t know Pfeiffer when she first started at “SunUp” in 1983 and was being called “the new Danuta.”
But Diamant, who also worked many years at KPBS, has become close since their shared association with Bishop and the show, which ended in 1990.
Pfeiffer finished writing “Chiseled” last November — four months after her mother, Patricia, died at 86 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and living with her daughter in Oregon.Pfeiffer uses a lot of dialog in the book but concedes some scenes are a “combination of memories.”
“It’s always a tricky business to come up with dialog,” she said of certain passages, including a few going back 50 years. “But some of the dialog is pretty burned in my head.”
Other dialog came from transcripts or published articles, she said, including the time in 1995 when Hurricane Gloria was bearing down on CBN’s offices but suddenly weakened before striking New York, killing eight.
Robertson took credit for the storm being steered away by his prayers, and referred to New Yorkers as “termites,” unlike Christians the builders.
“All I can say is [New Yorkers] didn’t pray hard enough,” Robertson is quoted as saying.
Although she kept her friendship with Bredesen, the North County pastor, Pfeiffer dropped her Pentecostal faith after leaving CBN.
“I let go of Jesus. He’s gone,” Pfeiffer said. “I have a greater sense of my spiritual base.”
She also forgave Robertson and CBN for its bait-and-switch hiring and then firing of her.
“Because I understand them,” she said. “I’m not bitter. I have no regrets. I don’t go to bed at night [gnashing] my teeth and thinking: He done me wrong.”
She doesn’t attend church anymore, but “I have a cathedral of a vineyard — much more resonant with me. I sense a great power there. … I just don’t deify it.”
Calling herself comfortable and at peace with herself, Pfeiffer hopes her book serves to free others up with similar buried family problems.
Pfeiffer also thinks a fellow broadcaster can be saved — one whose lies and exaggerations have shattered his career.
“Nothing is unforgivable,” she said of NBC anchor Brian Williams. She says he shares some of the same character flaws as her father.
“There’s a sense of insecurity,” she said of Williams. “He needs more [affirmation]” and isn’t satisfied with who he is, wanting to be “bigger than who you are.”
Williams’ redemption may be in a talk show, said the talk-show veteran, “in which he talks about flawed characters and people coming back from where they’ve been.”
“I think the public is willing to forgive.”
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