Kerry Washington is both the most obvious and the unlikeliest candidate for a celebrity memoir. Despite being known as a vocal and insightful public figure, particularly when it comes to politics and issues affecting women and people of color in Hollywood, the Emmy-nominated actress has been fiercely protective of her personal life throughout her two-decade stage and screen career.
That tension between Washington’s outspokenness and guardedness runs through her beautifully written memoir, Thicker Than Water, out today.
In all fairness, it’s naive to expect one of Hollywood’s most in-demand Black actresses and producers to spill her guts in a salacious tell-all. Instead, Washington, 46, meditates on the pivotal moments of her professional career (her television role on ABC’s Scandal being the most notable accomplishment) with intimate flashpoints weaved throughout. Despite remaining somewhat tight-lipped about her marriage to former football player-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha, her biggest revelation, which bookends the aptly titled memoir, is all about family ties.
In 2018, Washington discovered that she was not biologically related to her father.
Washington opens the book by recalling an urgent text message she received from her mother in 2018, telling her to stop by the L.A. apartment where her parents were staying. By the time readers get to one of the memoir’s final chapters, titled “Revelation,” one can guess that Washington’s father, Earl Washington, is not her biological dad. “Forty-three years ago, we were having a really hard time having a child,” Washington recalls her mother, Valerie, saying. “So we used a surrogate.” (By a surrogate, her mother meant a sperm donor.)
“I am not who I had been told I was from the beginning of my existence,” Washington writes. “But somehow, the gift of finally knowing the truth outweighed the pain of what that truth was. At that moment, I was liberated by the revelation. They had never, I suddenly realized, been fully honest with me, not until that afternoon. They had entered into an illusory contract with each other to lie to everyone, including the reality of my origins. And now here we are, forty-one years later, the original lie between us exposed, the truth laid bare.”
In a particularly heartbreaking passage, Washington writes that she was sexually violated by a childhood friend she calls “frozen boy.”
In an early chapter titled “Frozen,” Washington says she was touched multiple times in her sleep by a male friend during neighborhood sleepovers as a child.
“He was not an adult predator taking advantage of a younger, more vulnerable girl,” she writes. “He was not a pedophile. The truth remains that there were things done to me—while I was sleeping and without my consent—but the perpetrator was a child himself. It is partly my compassion for him that has kept these incidents a secret, locked in the vault of my mind. But by choosing not to tell this story—to the adults in my life when I was child and publicly until now—his youth and innocence has been prioritized. His emotional vulnerabilities have been protected over my own.”
After multiple instances, Washington eventually gathered the strength to confront the boy, but still kept the secret from her parents.
She helped her father avoid a prison sentence as a child.
Washington’s experiences with the criminal justice system probably explain her latest television role, in the 2023 Hulu series UnPrisoned. In her memoir, the actress writes about her father’s former alcoholism and inability to keep a job. When she was a teen, her parents told her that her dad had pleaded guilty to charges from an “IRS investigation involving real estate, drug dealers, and tax evasion” that could have resulted in time in prison. The actress submitted a character reference for her father, who ultimately avoided jail time.
In college, Washington says she would oscillate between binge-eating and starving herself for days to deal with stress.
“By the time I got to college, my relationship with food and my body had become a toxic cycle of self-abuse that utilized the tools of starvation, binge-eating, body obsession, and compulsive exercise,” Washington writes. “I would—when seeking to stuff my feelings— stuff my face, secretly binge-eating for days at a time, often to the point of physical pain, sometimes to the point of passing out.”
She claims that her eating disorder led her to get on her knees and pray to God for the first time.
“Late at night, all alone, away from home and hiding from all those freshmen, I found myself on my knees, begging for guidance,” she continues. “Although I had grown up in a family that occasionally attended church on holidays or for special occasions, this was the first time I’d ever made a direct request. Please, God, help me.”
She opens up about the time she was recognized by a nurse while having an abortion.
While Washington felt confident in her choice to terminate her pregnancy when she was in her twenties, she says it was the moment she discovered her loss of privacy as a public figure.
“She said that I looked like Kerry Washington, that girl from the movies, that girl from the magazines,” she writes about the nurse. “In that moment, I didn’t know who I was or where I stood. I only knew that my name belonged to public spaces in a way that made privacy unavailable to me.”
As a native New Yorker, she hung out in the same circles as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez.
Washington recalls acting with Paltrow in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the prestigious, all-girls Spence School in Manhattan. “This production, incidentally, is the only time I have had the delight of working alongside another Spence girl, Gwyneth Paltrow, who was cast in the role of Queen Titania.” She also went to the same Boys and Girls Club in her native borough, the Bronx, as Jennifer Lopez.
She thought her role in the 2004 film Ray would earn her her first Oscar nomination.
Washington wasn’t as excited as most actresses would be about her Academy Awards prospects for playing Ray Charles’ (Jamie Foxx) ex-wife Della Bea Robinson. On a car ride back from the Palms Springs International Film Festival, she overheard two producers saying she had a good chance at a Best Supporting Actress nomination—which ultimately never came.
“I’d been in and out of sleep for most of the ride but had heard that,” she writes. “I wish I hadn’t. It made me immediately anxious because I felt the pressure to please and achieve. I felt that now there were expectations for me to be something other than an artist. Now I had to be a winner. Now I had to be in the race.”
Her role in Django Unchained was a lot more graphic until her co-star Jamie Foxx (maybe) stepped in.
When Washington signed on for Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 slavery film Django Unchained, she was hesitant about several scenes in the original script involving her character Broomhilda, including a scene where she “escaped abuse running naked down the street” and a “terrifyingly brutal rape scene.”
“Jamie and Quentin stood in the corner,” she writes. “Both men were looking down at the dirt floor, and as I walked toward them, Tarantino announced that we were all going home. The scene would be cut from the script. Maybe it was something Jamie had said to Quentin days before that had finally seeped in, maybe something shifted for Quentin standing in that cabin. Either way, it was the answer to the prayers I had been whispering on my knees.”