By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Now a charismatic force of nature, Simon crisscrossed the country with his story, which he delivered to tens of thousands of high schoolers a year. From Washington to Massachusetts, from Minnesota to Mississippi, he prowled creaky auditorium stages and dusty basketball courts, recounting his demonic struggles with addiction in a charred, authoritative baritone. His voice soared when it came time to drive a point home. It dropped to a hoarse whisper when it came time to bare his soul.
It was this raw candor that separated him from other redemptive motivational speakers. His streetwise bluntness was the perfect weapon against teenagers' exceedingly fine-tuned bullshit detectors. To the wonderment of the principals and teachers who witnessed his performances, he actually got through to the kids. You could see it in the students' faces. No eye-rolling or sarcastic chuckles.
"He didn't talk down to the students and he didn't talk over their heads," says Marcia Ruis, who met Simon in 1994 while working as a chemical health/violence prevention specialist at an alternative learning center in the Elk River school district. "They accepted him as genuine, as real. Students in alternative learning centers can sometimes be a tough clientele, but when he would finish speaking, they'd gather around him and ask questions."
Also: See a letter Russell Simon wrote us from prison to accompany the story.
Simon spoke free of charge during the initial six months, his only payment the occasional cafeteria lunch. Over one such meal, a Jefferson High School guidance counselor told him that speakers went around the country making their living this way—even those with less harrowing stories and less oratory talent—so Simon decided it was time to join their ranks and go pro.
He sent out brochures to counselors and began charging for his appearances. Gigs started coming in from farther away. He claims to have made over $100,000 in a typical year, usually on 80-90 speaking engagements, and that book sales—in addition to Inside the Walls, he went on to pen No Way but God's Way in 1999—brought his yearly income to about $200,000.
"It came to me naturally," says Simon. "I'm just a guy with an 11th-grade education and a GED. As they asked me questions, I developed my story. It's pretty easy, especially if you're a Christian, because you've got a testimony: How you were lost, how you were found, how your life is today. Same thing in recovery: What was life like when you were using and abusing, how did you recover, and what's life like now?"
IN THE SPRING OF 1996, a friend introduced Simon to Tawnya, a petite, blond receptionist at St. Paul Surgeons Ltd. Their relationship began with a blind lunch date.
"He came in and picked me up at work with his hair all slicked back," recalls Tawnya. "He was kind of cocky, but he had a lot of charisma and was a great conversationalist. So I thought it was worth giving him another chance."
For their second date, the couple attended a Good Friday service at a Lutheran church in Fridley. Things started to click. After two weeks, Simon told her he loved her. After two months, he proposed. They married on April 5, 1997—exactly one year after their first date—and moved into a snug red townhouse in Vadnais Heights.
But before long, Tawnya penetrated Simon's Prince Charming facade.
"I started getting glimpses into his anger leading up to the wedding," says Tawnya. "He was extremely jealous and controlling. If I took anybody else's advice, no matter how small an issue, he'd totally blow up."
It started with verbal abuse. "Fat bitch" and "fat ho," were his insults of choice. Eventually, the abuse turned physical, says Tawnya. When she bought him the wrong kind of hair gel, Simon exploded in a fury and hurled a small stereo at her as she lay in bed. He proceeded to heave the large bottle of hair gel against the bedroom wall.
In November 1999, Tawnya left Simon, at which point, Tawnya says, Simon threatened to kill her and her family. Along with their son and her parents, Tawnya took refuge in a friend's countryside cabin—a locale unknown to Simon—for 13 days. They divorced in June of 2000.
Meanwhile, Simon's public speaking business continued to thrive. He maintains he was clean during this time, that he was practicing what he was getting paid to preach. He says he didn't relapse until 2004—in the form of a rum and coke purchased at Knuckleheads Comedy Club in Minneapolis.
But Tawnya recounts a different chronology.
"I know for an absolute fact he was drinking while we dated [in '96]," she says. "He'd come home reeking of alcohol. After we married, I never physically caught him or smelled it on him, but I have my suspicions."
Simon embarked on his biggest binges while on tour, she says. According to a November 25, 2007, credit card receipt, Simon and two guests walked into an Applebee's in Danville, Kentucky, and ran up a $178.62 bar tab, which included nine white Russians and 12 shots of Jägermeister.
"I don't think he has a conscience, so I don't think it bothered him," says Tawnya, when asked about how her ex-husband could be claiming 100 percent sobriety in classes and then going out to get liquored up. "And he would always use the term 'relapse.' But here's my theory on his speaking career: Even though he's the biggest hypocrite in the world, if his message touched and helped one person in every audience, then I think it was worth it."