A Heartfelt Memoir: Finding Me by Viola Davis
Finding Me by Viola Davis
Oprah's Book Club Selection
Published Apr 2022, 302 pages
This is an actress I'm not super familiar with - I know a bit of her work, but as I listened to the book and she recounted movies and shows she's been in, I was reminded how many times I've seen her. I listened to this book on the recommendation of a favorite podcaster, and I'm so glad I did. Viola reads it herself and her distinctive voice carries all the nuances the story needs.
“As Black women, we are complicated. We are feminine. We are sexual. We are beautiful. We’re pretty. There are people out there who desire us. We are deserving. So that’s why I’m very aware of what my presence means. And that’s why I’m also aware of why I need to be emotionally healthy. Because that’s a lot of responsibility. Because you’re coming up against a four-hundred-year-old narrative.”
Davis shares her life experiences in unflinching and disturbing detail. She was raised in an environment that is so foreign to me, I have no basis of understanding. Surviving extreme poverty, agonizing bullying, sexual abuse, and years of watching her alcoholic father beat her mother to within an inch of her life, she still managed to have some good memories of having fun with her sisters or a friend.
“There is an emotional abandonment that comes with poverty and being Black. The weight of generational trauma and having to fight for your basic needs doesn’t leave room for anything else. You just believe you’re the leftovers.”
Her older sister encouraged her to find a passion, set a goal, in order to get out of their family life and have a different kind of life. After seeing Cecily Tyson on TV, she knew that was her path. She wins a scholarship to college, then to Julliard, and works hard at her craft. She details many of the early shows and people she worked with as she learned and developed her skill. As she began to make a barely livable wage, she sent money home to her parents because, OMG, all of her siblings and their kids had moved back home at various times and in a small one-bedroom apartment there would be as many as 15 people trying to live together. The small amount of money she was able to send helped keep the lights on or put food on the table.
Her first acting jobs, her first love, is the theater and she shares her emotions about being on stage and being nominated for a Tony. She does recount many of the movie and TV experiences she had (particularly How to Get Away With Murder) as well as some celebrities who helped or influenced her. She meets a wonderful man and gets married and 20+ years later, is still married to him. She shares an ongoing medical problem she faced and how that affected her. It's an honest and harsh and introspective book.
Honestly, the harsh reality of her life brought me to tears more than once. It broke my heart. She does NOT sugar coat one thing. It's absolutely appalling that families in America live like that. Her struggles through college and Julliard and early acting day were still hard; she still went hungry many days; she was lonely; she struggled to find her self-worth.
The path of this book is from A-Z in a linear way. But every step forward was built on her childhood and her relationships with her parents. Even after some success, the traumas of her childhood would still haunt her (not surprisingly). Friends, therapy, and a loving, supportive husband have helped her arrive at a solid place in her life. While her life has a grim beginning, the journey has an uplifting, inspirational resolution.
There are two very strong, very long threads through her life: racism and shame. She describes the manifestation of racism in many ways - subtle to intentional. She talks about the verbal abuse she endured from students and teachers, to auditioning for roles in Hollywood that she didn't get because she didn't fit the "ideal white" image - she was too dark, too large, too deep a voice to be considered feminine enough to be a leading lady. Man oh man, the barriers she had to break. The snubs she had to endure. And, the shame. The shame that came from poverty, from being hungry all the time, from coming from an abusive home. She talks a lot about that single emotion and how devastating it can be.
Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon
“My biggest discovery was that you can literally re-create your life. You can redefine it. You don’t have to live in the past. I found that not only did I have fight in me, I had love.”
Davis does a beautiful job reading a heartfelt but heart rending story. Her voice conveys disdain, disgust, hurt, sass, and so much more. I don't know if it would be harder to read about her horrific childhood on the page or listen to it described. You decide which will work for you. This is an extraordinary tale told with authenticity and a seemingly clear goal of sharing some of her growth and insights on life.