“Finding Me: A Memoir” by Viola Davis (HarperOne)
Brutally honest and frankly brutal, actress Viola Davis looks back on her childhood as a victim of a disaster that is still confused by the experience, but remembers every horrible moment.
Her alcoholic father routinely beat and bled her mother. Viola and her five siblings lived in a rat-filled house that lacked reliable heating and plumbing. Often unwashed, they went to school in dirty clothes. Breakfast at school was their only reliable meal.
Other children in the predominantly white city of Central Falls, Rhode Island, harassed Viola, shouting anti-black epithets while chasing her after school and throwing stones. All the school children saw the day the fire trucks came to save her home from a fire. The humiliations were endless. Later, sexual abuse came on the list.
Today, Davis is a famous actress, winner of an Oscar (“Fences”), two Tony’s (“King Hedley II” and “Fences”), an Emmy (“How to Get Away with Murder”) and many other awards. Yet her self-image as a fugitive 8-year-old – ugly, stupid and unwanted because she was told – never disappeared. What changed for Davis was how she looked back, saw that child now as a survivor and valued the adult she became as someone who had found joy, love and achievement.
For an observer, Davis had the courage, even though she did not know it at the time. The introvert was given space for himself in school theater. The troublesome student was given a scholarship to college and then a place at Juilliard. The theatrical but small-town girl endured life in New York with all the auditions and rejections that an actor faced. Work with the best when she was unsure of herself – Meryl Streep! – took some picking. And when love finally opened its door, she stepped inside.
And now Davis is writing a blistering memoir, not a sad recollection told in the kind of polished prose that suggests, well, that was not so bad. “Finding Me” is raw in its anger, shocking in its honesty, often downright vulgar – and wonderfully vivid with Davis’ passion poured in on every side.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).