The highs, the lows and the stars

Wife of Carlos Santana tells of hurts, healing in memoir

San Jose Mercury News/March 1, 2005
By Brad Kava

As the wife of one of the most famous guitarists in the world, Deborah Santana knows what it's like to be overlooked, to be, as the title of her new autobiography says, the "Space Between the Stars."

But when you read her tightly crafted, colorfully written and surprisingly honest self-portrait about her life before and with Carlos Santana, you come away wondering who exerts more force -- the star or the woman who has shaped their lives together for more than three decades.

"When I thought about myself, I realized the space between the stars is what holds the stars up," she says in a phone interview, a few days before the release of the 328-page book, which took its title from a poem she once heard but can no longer find.

While the book certainly has some juicy tell-all revelations about the rock star life, it paints a broader and more interesting picture of a woman's struggle to come to terms with her own spiritual quest amid turbulent historical times.

Through her eyes we see racial issues of the 1950s, when she dealt with being the product of a mixed marriage; the drug-hazed '60s, which she spent as the girlfriend of rock star Sly Stone; the "Me Decade" '70s, during which she followed a transplanted Indian guru; and her more recent efforts to raise a family with an absentee musician husband whose main life was on the road.

A healing process

The seven years she spent writing the book, the 54-year-old Santana says, helped bring the kind of self-realization she had spent her life looking for.

"I have really grown through this writing," she says. "It brought me a healing I had not experienced."

Her own toughest critic, she pulls no punches, and the sympathetic reader can't help but speed through the pages to see how she recovers from traumas that most people would prefer to gloss over -- the abortions she says were forced on her by a rock star and a guru, her drug use, her husband's infidelities.

The goal, she says, was to be "honest and live with integrity and compassion, more than to look good. I don't want everyone thinking I'm all together. I want people to know I'm flawed and I'm standing."

Raised in San Francisco by respected black jazz guitarist Saunders King and his tough Texan wife, of Irish-English ancestry, Jo Frances Willis, Santana thought she was the same as the other kids in her third-grade classroom, until a few of them meanly pointed out the difference in the color of her parents' skins.

It stung her and ended her innocence. She recalled a story about her father refusing to play a club in the South when the owner put a white rope down the middle to segregate the races. "Those kids had tried to stretch a rope down the center of me," she writes, never able to see herself the same afterward.

Her parents broke with the tradition-bound 1950s in other ways. Her mother worked an office job while her father quit his touring life to stay at home and raise his two daughters, including Kitsaun, two years older than Deborah, who now runs Santana's offices.

Despite the strong and loving family, Deborah flew off the rails at 18, falling in love with her neighbor, the rock star Sly Stone. She followed him to Los Angeles, where she ended up trapped in a world of hard drugs and low self-esteem.

She spent the days before 1969's seminal Woodstock concert tucked away in a New York City hotel room with Stone, losing her virginity and taking LSD for the first time. The expression goes something like this: If you can remember the '60s, then you weren't there. But her recollection of even the most drugged-out detail is so strong -- watching the ceiling shake and the drapes breathe -- she can make a teetotaler feel like Hunter S. Thompson.

She had trouble breaking away, even though she writes that Stone hit her and forced her to have a coat-hanger abortion. Finally, the violence got to her and she returned home. She had a harder time forgiving herself than did her friends or family.

The love of her life

A few months later, backstage at a Tower of Power concert, she glimpsed the next star to enter her life. "He looked handsome, his eyes black, his mustache rising and falling on his full, pink lips."

Carlos Santana was the opposite of Stone: He and Deborah meditated together on their first date.

Before long the couple were under the spell of Sri Chinmoy, an East Coast guru, whom they met through guitarist John McLaughlin. Carlos cut his hair and changed his name to Devadip; Deborah began wearing saris and started running marathons. Later, she and her sister established a gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, Dipti Nivas, which she now says was the most gratifying result of following the guru.

Carlos and Deborah married at the guru's behest. Chinmoy's controlling ways also led Deborah to later have an abortion, she writes.

Finally, they realized the guru was manipulating them and coming between them. They left the fold to start a family and take on new challenges.

'Supernatural' success

Deborah Santana began running her husband's business, which in 1994 was tottering, despite the fame and touring. With her help behind the scenes, the musician scored his biggest hit in 1999, the 15-million-copy-selling "Supernatural," which again made him a household name.

Unfortunately, the later years get scant coverage, but Deborah Santana says there will be a follow-up.

Her husband savored the book, she said, thankful that she didn't make him come out "like Ike Turner." Through the toughest times, and not without therapy, the two seem to find their way back to unconditional love.

They wonder what they would do if their children came home with shorn hair, following a guru.

"We knew we would not stand mute and let them follow blindly," she says.

And she has transmitted to them lessons she learned from her own childhood.

She encourages her three children, two now grown, to speak openly and honestly, at times biting her tongue. She and Carlos share their own experiences and try to counsel rather than force their opinions.

"The main thing for me is transformation," Deborah Santana says. "Life happens to all of us, and we make choices. Sometimes those choices are fabulous and sometimes they give us a really hard lesson. But we can grow to be strong and beautiful people who have love at the core of their beings."

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