Finding Me Viola Davis Coronet, €17.99
When Viola Davis, the brilliant, award-winning actor (an Oscar, an Emmy, two Tonys), star of How To Get Away With Murder, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Help, Fences and more, was nine she told her mother that she was being chased after school daily by boys who would hit her, hurt her, call her “ugly… Black f**king n****r”. Her mother’s response was to tell her to walk, not run. To stand up to the boys and fight back: ‘Don’t you come back here crying ’bout those boys or I’ll wop yo ass.”
The truth was, her mother, with six children and a violent husband, living in shocking poverty – the kind of poverty we can still be slow to associate with the United States – did not have time to fight Viola’s battles.
She had no time to protect her, to baby her. Her daughter needed to grow up fast and stand on her own feet if she was to survive.
The next day, Viola walked home “extra slow”. She let the boys catch up with her, and when one grabbed her, she whispered to him: “If you don’t get your hands off me, I’ll jug you.” In her pocket was a crochet needle her mother had given her. The boy let go. They never chased her again.
This is where Davis begins her memoir, Finding Me, a compelling, often-shocking account of her childhood, and the remarkable career she has forged since.
The Davis family lived in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Viola’s father, who worked as a groom in a racing stable, begins the book as an alcoholic and a deeply divided character.
Often loving and kind, he also beat Viola’s mother so badly his children frequently thought he would kill her. He would disappear for months at a time, then return, and pick up where he left off.
There were happy moments, many, but these were always followed “by trauma – the rage of my dad’s alcoholic binges, violence, poverty, hunger and isolation.”
They were, she writes, “po. That’s a level lower than poor.” It meant no phone, very often no hot water or gas, toilets that didn’t flush, an apartment so infested with rats that Viola “never, ever went into the kitchen.
Rats had taken over the cabinets and the counter”. There was nowhere and no way to wash clothes, and all Viola’s siblings were bed-wetters. She writes about being too afraid of rats to get up in the middle of the night and go to the toilet so she wet the bed, night after night.
She couldn’t wash – except in freezing water, often without shampoo or soap because there was no money to buy it – and so went to school smelling of urine.
One day, a teacher she adored whispered in her ear: “You need to tell your mother to get some soap and water and wash you! The odour is horrible.” Viola was, she writes, “numb… No one asked if we were OK or if anything was wrong.” No one offered to help.
There was also sexual abuse which “back in the day didn’t have a name… It was shrouded in silence and invisible trauma and shame”. It came from neighbours, strangers, baby-sitters.
At one point, Viola writes that even as a successful adult, she knew almost no women who hadn’t been abused. She herself fared better than many, but was certainly not unscathed.
Alongside Viola’s candid account of her family’s poverty and dysfunction, there is a second narrative – of the determination and ambition felt by herself and her sisters, who she calls “my platoon.
Each of us was a soldier fighting for our value, our worth”. She describes their excellence at school, the year they entered a talent competition – writing their own skit, producing and directing it themselves – and winning. “We approached the skit like it was Shakespeare.”
She brought the same approach when she began to study acting, aged 14, at a federally funded summer camp. Drama, she found, provided an escape and a release.
She applied – one of thousands – for a national drama competition, and was one of 30 winners. She got a scholarship to Rhode Island College, and later to Juilliard.
Her trajectory was far from simple however. While she was at college, her family would occasionally appear at her dorm, bloodied and too scared to go home because their father had again beaten and threatened to kill their mother.
Viola would be stuck trying to care for them, when she could scarcely care for herself. Yet, as the years passed, she began to get work, first on stage, gradually moving into TV and then films. She was able to send money home, bring her parents on trips to visit her and see her perform.
And they too changed. Her father mellowed, from the violent man he had been, to someone “docile, loving”.
This is one of the great beauties of the book. This is not solely a narrative of trauma and suffering. Neither is it just a story of escape. It is proof of how complicated life is – parents can be loving and kind as well as angry and hurtful; people can change; love is complex; forgiveness is astonishing.
All of this Viola manages to contain and convey so Finding Me is, as well as a hard read at times, an uplifting one. “My biggest discovery,” she writes, “was you can literally re-create your life. You can redefine it. You don’t have to live in the past.”