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The Rayners: Writing as real-world therapy
Former DEA agent draws on experience for the couple’s books

CYMBALTA, Lexapro, Effexor. Honestly, these things sound like characters from He Man. Zoloft, Celexa, Prozac.

Popular anti-depressants, they work for many. But, for a time, retiree Gordon Rayner took these medications without much success.

A former drug enforcement agent, the man who set up Savannah’s DEA office in 1974 and a fluent Spanish speaker who spent decades tracking down traffickers in Mexico and South America, he suffered recurring nightmares stemming from a 1969 shootout.

“It was putting it into a zombie state,” he says of the “alphabet soup” of pills he shuffled through. “It wasn’t curing me but I didn’t give a damn because it was like floating.”

Gordon and his wife of 60 years, Ella Mae, moved to Savannah six years ago from North Carolina to be closer to their daughter. The way Ella Mae tells it, Gordon’s PTSD took the form of unexplained scowls and her having to walk on eggshells.

“He didn’t talk about much of what was going on in his life,” Ella Mae says.

So she encouraged him to write about his experiences. It turned into a 12 page journal. “It’s just my thoughts, real people,” he says of that first, unpublished foray into writing.

It went into a drawer. And then something happened. So did his depression. Not totally. But he was scowling less. “It certainly was cathartic for my system,” he says.

So Gordon decided to see if he could get even better by writing more. He fired up the laptop and a book came out.

This time, he worked with Ella Mae and wrote less about violent topics and more about their shared family adventures doing the nation’s business.

It was the couple’s first book, “Foreign Service, Family Style,” a memoir of their years together, with kids, in Paraguay. It drew on Gordon’s intrepid career on the front lines of America’s drug wars.

“I enjoyed his job as much as he did,” Ella Mae says.

Gordon helped the Paraguayan government establish drug laws at a time when cocaine was sold legally in stores. His work helped convince Asuncion to extradite the Mafioso Auguste Ricord “The French Connection” to the United States.

The family shopped in Montevideo, hosted parties for resident Yankees and ran into all kinds of bumps on South American roads. Divertido! Delicioso! 

“I’m sort of adventurous and into everything,” Ella Mae says. “The kids all have learned to be like that.”

Gordon fought marijuana-running shrimpers during their first stint in Savannah. He always wrote reports about these things and had to unlearn decades of “government speak” when he started writing as therapy a few years ago.

He and Ella Mae credit the writer’s group at Senior Citizens, Inc. for help and encouragement on that front.

“It doesn’t matter if what you write is coherent, intelligent or published,” he says of what happened when typing freed his mind. “The act of writing itself is a treatment.”

The couple followed the Paraguay memoir with a work of fiction about terrorists and genetically modified bulls, called “Taurus, Taurus, Taurus.”

And a third book, continuing on the “national security fiction” theme, this time set in Mexico, is on the way.

As for the depression, Gordon says it comes and goes, but is much better now. “I don’t have nightmares about it anymore,” he says.

Maybe we all can find some therapy in this thing that we do, the Rayners, my Connect friends and I, staring at a page, for hours, crafting stories.

“The therapy worked because I couldn’t stop him from typing,” Ella Mae says. “He finally found a reason for living, really.”

Find their books at The Book Lady and E. Shaver Bookseller.