The Lost Daughter
Mary and Jane at Lauren Springs Children’s Camp. (Mary Williams/Blue Rider Press)

My Adopted Mom

‘The Lost Daughter’: Adopted Daughter Recalls Life With Jane Fonda

Mary Williams’s new memoir on growing up poor and how Jane Fonda took her in and helped her heal.

Laurel Springs Children’s Camp stood on 160 acres in the hills above Santa Barbara. At 2,800 feet above sea level, it offered spectacular views of Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean.

Before I attended Laurel Springs, I had not known I was poor. I brought a light jacket, one pair of pants, two shirts and a pair of shorts that doubled as a swimsuit when worn with a T-shirt. Toiletries? A bar of Irish Spring soap, a worn-out toothbrush and an Afro pick.

I couldn’t believe the stuff coming out of my bunkmates’ suitcases! One girl brought four swimsuits and a fresh pair of undies for every day of the week. (I knew this because the days of the week were printed on the back of each pair.) The other children received care packages from home crammed with food, magazines and books.

When we talked at night around the campfire, I found out many of them had their own rooms and bathrooms at home—and they thought about the future, speculating about careers. Would they understand anything about my life? I doubted it. So I put on a happy-go-lucky front, said little about my background and threw myself into theater arts, writing and performing skits with the other kids.

I signed up to try everything that was offered: arts and crafts, canoeing, swimming, hiking, baseball, gardening; but my favorite was theater. I loved getting onstage and becoming someone else. I played a nurse in my very first play. After a performance, the counselors were always very complimentary as if no other kid in the history of the world could have played a better nurse.

I became close with the head counselor, a woman named Marin. She was a petite brunette whom I saw as a maternal figure. We’d become pen pals when the summer ended. The other camp counselors were a ragtag group of hippies who made everything easy and fun. I felt I could mess up without it being seen as a character flaw.

I was devastated when my first summer at Laurel Springs came to an end. We all stood weeping, kids and counselors, in the world’s biggest group hug. Then I reluctantly grabbed my bag, jumped in the van and headed back down the mountain toward my real life back in Oakland.

When I got home I wouldn’t shut up about camp for weeks. My siblings were not as enamored as I was because they chose not to return the next summer. I went on my own. In fact I returned to Laurel Springs for several summers in a row, and I got to know Jane better. Smiley and chatty, she often wore snug sweatpants and a T-shirt baring her toned midriff, her hair bouncing and behaving. She invited me to her cottage for lunch one day and coached me on monologues. She focused on me, taking in everything I said as if it were the most fascinating thing she had ever heard. She hugged me whenever we crossed paths at the camp, held my hand when we walked together, scratched my back when we sat next to one another. This touch, this healthy loving touch, was a revelation.

I got to know her children, who also attended the camp. There was Vanessa, who was my age. She was a spunky girl with a pixie haircut who seemed even as a young girl to know exactly who she was. Then there was Jane’s son, Troy, who was a few years younger than me. He was spider-monkey thin and full of mischief, but he was a kind boy and seemed drawn to me. I enjoyed his company. They were my readymade summer family and I looked forward to seeing them each year.

***

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School was the closest thing I had to a safe haven outside of Laurel Springs. But it too became dodgy when I entered puberty. I was tall for my age, and to my abject horror I was developing sooner than the other girls. When I started growing breasts, the few girls I called friends singled me out for bullying because of it. On more than one occasion my hall locker was set on fire. The arsonist would squeeze lighter fluid between the air vents in the locker door and follow it up with a lit match. I got into physical fights with the boys, too, who made fun of my developing body. One boy made the mistake of copping a feel in the hall between classes only to find himself gasping for air in a headlock after I wrestled him to the ground. A male teacher also took notice and I had to look out for his groping hands and scanning eyes. I resorted to wearing baggy clothes and a jacket even on the hottest of days to hide the hateful new body that I believed was out to destroy me.

I envied the girls whose bodies remained as curveless as a boy’s. They didn’t have to worry about being betrayed by boobs and hips set on drawing negative attention like a picnic drew ants. My new wiggly parts prevented me from participating in games I loved, like baseball and basketball, because that involved running and jumping. The worst part was feeling that I could not talk to anyone about my problems. Personal problems were not shared in my family, especially if they were related to sex. Having problems that one couldn’t solve on one’s own was a sign of weakness, and I’d learned from an early age not to show weakness. One of the worst things you could be called in my neighborhood was a punk, which was someone incapable of defending themselves.

Mama was drunk nearly every day and I did my best to stay out of her way by heading straight to my room after school or visiting Uncle Landon and Aunt Jan. My remaining sisters looked for more permanent solutions to the problems at home. Teresa was enrolled in college, Louise devised a different plan. When home became unbearable for Louise, she moved out and in the process dropped out of school. I didn’t know where she’d gone and pined for her because she was my best friend. About a week after she’d gone, she showed up at school one day and told me she was living in the basement of an empty house. I could see she was quite proud of herself for finding her own place to live even though it was a basement. I was glad to know she was OK and eagerly accepted her invitation to visit her place after school.

I was expecting a dank, dark basement in a run-down, abandoned house but it turned out to be in a newer home that for some reason was empty. The room was dry and had windows that provided natural light. The floor was smooth concrete and she’d managed to furnish it: stacked cinder blocks and a piece of wood with a cloth over it was a table, she had a few beanbag chairs to sit on, a piece of carpet remnant for the floor and several layers of comforters on the floor for her bed. I was actually jealous of her setup and would have moved in with her, but I was scared of sleeping there at night because she had no electricity. She only lived in the basement for a few weeks, after which she enrolled herself in Job Corps and move out of state, where she eventually would work for a GED and learn a trade.

I had no plan of escape. It was my summers at Laurel Springs that enabled me to get through the stresses of my life in Oakland. Even when I wasn’t attending camp, just looking forward to camp each summer kept me motivated. I was also staying in contact with Jane and my camp counselors via letters. Their communiqués were always encouraging and I relied heavily on them to keep me feeling good about myself because they were always full of praise. They helped to keep me from internalizing the verbal abuse I was receiving from my mother, who was keen to call me worthless, no good and destined to be a teenaged mother.

It was around this time that my half-sister, Clara Jean, who was my mother's firstborn by a different father, came into my life. She was raised by my mother's parents so I never saw much of her when I was a young child. Mama said my father would not accept her when they got married so she left her with her parents in the same little house on Church Street where she met our father, whose family lived next door.

Clara lived in that little house throughout her childhood and the death of our grandmother. She was a young woman in her twenties and taking care of our grandfather, who was called China because when he was a baby he was fat and bald just like the Buddha. China had a lot of health problems. He had diabetes and was paralyzed on one side of his body as the result of a stroke. He was also an amputee, having lost his left leg from the knee down as a complication of his diabetes.

Jane focused on me, taking in everything I said as if it were the most fascinating thing she had ever heard.

The house they lived in was run down and Clara Jean was no housekeeper. The place was infested with cockroaches and mice that stayed active throughout the day and night. When Clara Jean entered college, she found it hard to study, have a social life and take care of our grandfather. While I was visiting with them one day, she offered to pay me to spend the evening with China on the weekends so she could go out with friends. I jumped on the opportunity to make a few bucks and get away from Mama.

Though being in that filthy house and taking care of a cranky old man was a challenge (I had to help him go to the toilet, dispense medication, clean and dress his stump and prepare meals), it was far better than what I had to put up with at home. Soon a few weekends a month turned into nearly every day when Clara Jean got a boyfriend and began spending more and more time with him.

A home health aide took care of China during the day and I relieved her after school. I slept on a worn-out couch in the living room that harbored a family of mice. China and I spent the evenings watching TV and bickering over his cigarette smoking, which his doctor forbid him. Though I knew it was bad for him and for me since I had to breathe his secondhand smoke, I knew he’d keep me up all night banging a cup against the frame of his metal hospital bed if I didn’t get him his smokes.

When summer rolled around, Clara rewarded me for helping her out with China by taking me to see a performance of the musical Dream Girls. It was the first play I’d ever seen and it inspired me to think about becoming an actress and using it as my way out of my mother’s house and even out of Oakland. I’d had a bit of experience acting in plays at Laurel Springs but I knew I’d need more training if I was going to make it as an actress. When I told Clara that I wanted to act, she offered to enroll me in a class at the Young Conservatory, an acting program for young people between eight and 19 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

I was the only black person in the class and initially felt uncomfortable, but the experience I had interacting with other races at Laurel Springs made adjusting easier. Like at Laurel Springs, I was embraced by the class and treated just like everyone else by the teacher—a cheery, openly gay man who used huge sweeping motions with his arms whenever he talked. My secret nickname for him was the Human Fly Swatter.

He selected scenes from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, about the day-to-day happenings in a small American town in the 1930s, as our first group piece. I found the plot and the dialogue extremely boring. The most exciting things going on in the town were people going off to war and eloping, but nothing happened that I thought worthy of having a whole play written about it.

Having problems that one couldn’t solve on one’s own was a sign of weakness, and I’d learned from an early age not to show weakness.

I thought it would be a much better play if it were set in my neighborhood. The play could open with a slumlord getting shot to death in a drug deal gone wrong. There could also be a scene in which a young teenager was arrested for shoplifting and, after a short scuffle with police, was able to break free and outrun the two overweight officers while being cheered on by neighborhood residents. Now that was a play I could have gotten into! Though I would have liked to share my ideas for spicing up Wilder’s play with the teacher, I kept my thoughts to myself.

I was paired with a boy my age to practice a scene. He was kind of nerdy and reminded me of Danny Bonaduce’s character in The Partridge Family, with his flaming red hair and annoying personality. He was a talkative fellow who, were he born a decade or two later, would have been a good candidate for Ritalin. After working with him a few times, I got the feeling he had a crush on me. Because he was so nerdy and I’m sure I could have kicked his ass if I had to, I didn’t feel too threatened by his attentions.

Then one day during a break, he sneaked up behind me and grabbed me playfully by the waist. It startled me, and instinctively I turned around and punched him in the chest hard enough to send him pinwheeling backward a few feet. I was so angry I called him a stupid n--ger. I was using “n--ger” as a generic term, not to describe a black person but in place of a word like “jerk” or “asshole”; the white folks who saw me gave me the oddest looks. Looks that said to me, “We thought she was different, but it turns out she’s just like the rest.”

I immediately regretted my overreaction. I apologized to my partner and later apologized to the whole class at the behest of the teacher, but they never looked at me quite the same. I didn’t blame them. I knew I was slowly becoming a product of my surroundings. The constant stress and need to protect myself was causing me to have a short fuse. I was having trouble controlling my temper, which could be set off by the slightest insult eliciting a very violent response. It was a defense mechanism that was necessary for survival in my hood, but I was learning it would serve me ill anywhere else. If I didn’t get away soon, this side of my personality would spread like cancer and take me over, leaving me unfit to live anywhere but places like East Oakland. When the course ended, Clara Jean offered to pay for another course. I declined.

When the summer came around, I decided not to go to Laurel Springs. I was focusing on getting my acting career off the ground. I was sure that if I worked hard at it, in a few months’ or a year’s time I could claw my way to Broadway or even motion pictures.

***

The Lost Daughter
Group at Lauren Springs Children’s Camp (Mary Williams/Blue Rider Press)

I was visiting Teresa at UC Berkeley when I saw an ad tacked to a crowded bulletin board in the student union. I almost didn’t see it through the overlapping layers of flyers seeking roommates and selling used furniture. I pulled the flyer down, folded it and stuffed it in my back pocket. That night back at China’s house, I took it out and reread it. It was basically a call for actors to audition for a new acting company. There was a phone number and the first name of the contact: David.

I called the number. The man who answered identified himself as David and seemed pleased when I told him I was interested in auditioning. His voice was warm and had a smile in it. He asked me to share more information about myself—my age, where I was from and my acting experience. I told him everything and was happy to know he was OK with my being only 14.

He told me he was an actor turned director and had done a lot of theater in the Bay Area but had recently decided he wanted to start his own acting troupe that he hoped to fill with actors of different races and ages.

We talked for about 30 minutes, with him asking a lot of questions about my family. I felt comfortable and he seemed sympathetic, so I told him about my problems at home. He listened and said the best actors have had troubled lives because they can draw on those experiences to enrich their craft. He said I seemed like a good fit for his company and invited me to a group audition he was holding the following week. He told me to come prepared with a monologue of my own choosing and apologized that the audition would have to be held at his house in San Francisco because he was still in the process of looking for a theater space to rent. I told him I didn’t mind and wrote down his address along with the day and time of the audition. Before we hung up he asked for my phone number and my address and I gave it to him. I let Clara Jean know I couldn’t watch China that day and she wished me luck.

The next day I was at the library looking for the perfect monologue. I didn’t want anything to do with Shakespeare or Wilder. Since I could choose, I wanted to do something by a black person. I asked the librarian for suggestions. She handed me a book of the collected poems of James Weldon Johnson opened to the poem “The Creation.” I sat down and read it. It is long, twelve stanzas, about the creation of the earth that begins:

And God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

“I’m lonely—

I’ll make me a world.”

And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

Those powerful lines sent chills down my spine. I told the librarian I loved the poem but it wasn’t a monologue. When she told me the husband-and-wife acting duo, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, performed many poems of African Americans as dramatic pieces, I was sold.

The white folks who saw me gave me the oddest looks. Looks that said to me, “We thought she was different, but it turns out she’s just like the rest.”

I spent the week memorizing and performing it. I practiced projecting my voice and infusing it with what I thought was a godlike resonance. My practice was interrupted repeatedly by China telling me to shut the hell up because he couldn’t hear the TV over the racket I was making.

When the day of the audition came, I felt confident. The audition was set for four o’clock, so I gave myself plenty of time to get there and have a bit of time to rehearse beforehand. The address brought me to a pretty Victorian house in a nice neighborhood. I rang the bell and a big white man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt answered. He was clean-shaven, with dark curly hair, well over six feet tall and a bit chubby. He identified himself as David and smiled broadly, waving me in.

The interior of the house was not as nice as the exterior. The wood floors were scuffed and stained, a threadbare area rug did little to hide the imperfections. The only furniture in the living room was a large desk covered in paperwork, a tall bookshelf overflowing with books and file folders, and a large couch blanketed with a tie-dye flat sheet. The arms of the sofa were exposed and spewing bits of foam rubber. The nicest thing about the room was an elaborate cut-glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

David offered me a seat on the sofa, which I accepted. I was about twenty minutes early so I wasn’t surprised not to see any other actors. I’d wanted to rehearse with the extra time but David sat down next to me and soon we were talking about acting and our favorite movies. The next time I looked at my watch I saw it was a little after 4 p.m.

“The others should be coming soon,” I said.

David looked at his watch and shrugged and said, “Actors,” with a long-suffering expression on his face. Being early made me feel as if I’d have a leg up on the others when they arrived. We talked more. I started to feel a little uneasy when 4:30 came and still no other actors. Then David moved closer to me on the sofa, close enough that his outer thigh was pressed against mine. Then he threw his arm around my shoulder, pulling my upper body into him and tried to kiss me.

At first I thought he was trying to reach over me. Then his face was close to mine, I could smell the minty gum he was chewing. I pulled away from him and tried to stand up but he grabbed my arm. That’s when I realized I was in trouble. My adrenaline was pumping and my anger surfaced. I tried to twist out of his grip, cursing and yelling at the top of my voice. He let me go and I was on my feet backing my way toward the door. He stood up showing me the palms of his hands.

“You might have a shiner tomorrow,” he said clinically. “Next time don’t struggle and save yourself some grief.”

“I’m sorry. Calm down. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.

I just kept backing away from him glaring pure hate. Then he lunged at me and got me by the throat, pushing me up against the wall. Anger gave way to terror. I fought him, but nothing I did could get him off of me. He was choking me, with his angry face inches from mine. Then everything softened and went black.

When I came to, I had a hard time taking in breath. I was on my back on the floor with David on top of me. I couldn’t feel anything, just the weight of him. I was numb. I just lay there pinned to the floor and looked up at the chandelier, the last pretty thing in the world.

When it was over, he watched while I got dressed, which weirdly was the most shameful part of everything that happened. After I was dressed, he lifted my face and examined it closely.

“You might have a shiner tomorrow,” he said clinically. “Next time don’t struggle and save yourself some grief."

The words “next time” exploded in my head, but I didn’t say anything. I just wanted to leave. He grabbed some keys from his coat pocket, took me by the upper arm and walked me out of the house. It was dark out. I got in the passenger seat of his car and he drove me to the train station. Before he let me out of the car, he kissed me and said he’d call me later.

I went home. Not to China’s house. I went to Mama’s house. She was in her bedroom watching TV. I went in and she looked up at me with alcohol-clouded eyes then turned her attention back to the TV.

I took a hot shower. Afterward, when I wiped the condensation from the mirror, I didn’t recognize the girl staring back. That’s when the tears came. I saw David a couple of times a week for the next few months. Sometimes he’d pick me up. Other times I’d come to the Victorian. I always left hurt in some way. When school started up, he told me it was over. I was relieved but a part of me also felt abandoned.

It took a long time for me to understand how it was that I had switched so quickly from a self-assured girl into a passive victim. Despite the cloak of specialness I’d pieced together for myself from the kind words and encouragement I got from Jane, camp counselors and others, I had been subtly groomed to be a victim all my life. Experience, in my family and in our community, had taught me that being a girl was to be vulnerable. I had witnessed firsthand attacks on my sisters, friends and strangers. From the moment I showed signs of sexual maturity, I was forced to be on constant vigil even from people a young person is taught to trust. When I was finally brutalized, I believe I experienced a feeling almost of relief, that this unavoidable event had finally caught up to me. I had been a hamster on a treadmill trying desperately to outpace the inevitable. So when it happened I was resigned to my fate. I gave up the fantasy that girls like me could aspire to anything more than early pregnancies, violent relationships and welfare. My attacker rendered me sullied and unredeemable. I gave up on myself and gave myself away.

***

I gave up the fantasy that girls like me could aspire to anything more than early pregnancies, violent relationships and welfare.

The following summer I went back to Laurel Springs. On the ride up the mountain, I stuck my head out the van window and breathed in the fresh, cool air. Being in the mountains made me feel clean again. I’d forgotten how beautiful the world looked from a mountaintop. When we arrived at the lodge, my friends were there to greet and embrace me. There were some new faces but many of the original counselors and some of the original campers were still there. I luxuriated in the feeling of being in a safe place again. But I was not the same girl. I could not bear to be touched, had nightmares, didn’t like being surrounded by lots of people and wanted to sleep constantly.

Unbeknownst to me, the counselors began reporting to Jane the strange changes they saw in me. I was not as vibrant as I used to be; they told her I was a candle on the verge of flickering out. When pressed about what had caused the change, I told my counselors about the rape.

When the news got to Jane, she came to have a heart-to-heart talk with me. I told her everything, even revealing my desire to get pregnant so that I could finally have someone to love and someone to love me. Jane was appalled and told me I’d be better off getting a puppy. “Having a baby and being a single mother at your age would be a disaster. You have to think about your future.” I told her I hardly ever thought about the future. I simply assumed I’d lead a life similar to my mother’s, sisters’ and other women in my community. My sad confession would later inform much of the work she would go on to do with adolescents in Georgia for her nonprofit organization, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (GCAPP).

After our talk, she told me she’d help me get out of Oakland. What she needed from me was to spend the next school year getting my grades back up. If I did, she would welcome me to come live in Santa Monica with her family for as long as I needed. She also wanted me to tell my family about the rape. I agreed to it all.

When I left camp at the end of summer, Jane kept in close contact with me via letters and phone calls. She also began helping financially. I was stunned by her kindness. Stunned that someone was giving me an opportunity to get away. I had given up on myself and my grades at school suffered, but Jane’s proposal renewed my interest in school. She threw me a lifeline and I grabbed it.

A few weeks after my return, I got up the nerve to talk to Uncle Landon and Aunt Jan about the rape and Jane’s proposal. They were heartbroken to hear about the abuse. Uncle Landon told me I should have told him. I told him I was sorry I hadn’t. He said I should have told my father too. “He’d kill for you, you know.” I could see the sadness in his eyes when I responded that I didn’t have any faith in my father coming to my defense. They both said they would miss me when I left but both agreed living with Jane was a great opportunity for me. Next I told Mama. She asked a few questions, then never brought it up again. Her response, or lack thereof, did not surprise me.

Jane paid for me to see an Oakland therapist. I visited her twice a week over the course of the school year. I never felt comfortable talking to her in detail about the rape, which is what she wanted. I simply wasn’t ready. Instead I spent my time with her talking about superficial things, refusing to go any deeper than which subjects I was taking in school. But I stuck to the appointments out of respect for Jane.

By the end of the school year my grades were up and, as promised, I sent my report card to Jane. In return she sent me a plane ticket. It had been an eventful year. I had unburdened myself from a painful secret and was finally realizing my dream of leaving Oakland with the blessing of my Uncle Landon, but I was far from happy. I hadn't experienced a moment of happiness since the rape and I wasn't convinced that a therapist's couch or a change of scenery was going to change that, but I was up for an adventure. At 16, I packed up my few belongings and took my first plane ride to Los Angeles and into the care of Jane Fonda.

Copyright 2013 Mary Williams, courtesy Blue Rider Press

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