Book of the Month: Finding Me by Viola Davis

I am excited to break the fiction streak of Book of the Month for THE Viola Davis. Her memoir, Finding Me, had a sixteen-week wait or thereabout at the library. And trust me when I say this book was worth all of that and more. 

This book tells the story of Viola Davis’s life from a crumbling apartment in Rhode Island to the world’s stage. In a lot of ways, it shows a path that normally wouldn’t make sense but can only be connected looking backwards. There is a lot about her life growing up, and the abject—and this is putting it mildly—poverty she and her siblings grew up in. This is a deep reflection of her life, a validation of her life, and an affirmation to 7-year-old Viola (who literally ran home every day from school because some boys chased her with sticks calling her the n-word and such). This is not a juicy book as much as it is a truly inspiring—if somewhat heartbreaking—memoir. It is a testament to resilience, hard work, and struggle. The honesty in this book is the best part of it. There are hard truths about her life, her family, and her mistakes that she sheds and presents to us. Yet, all of what she writes in this book only makes her more alluring, and you, more in love with her. In this book, her vulnerability is her power. 

Sometimes, I wonder about calling stories like this inspiring because in truth—and this may be the pessimist in me rearing her head—how many people who grow up under the same circumstances as Viola ever make it out? Even among her sibling, not everyone made it out. But then you think, she did? She did, right? Maybe someone else can too. Needless to say, there is so much despair, abuse, POVERTY, sorrow, depth, lack in this book. For instance, they were so poor, so so poor that their apartment had rats that ate the faces of their dolls. They wrapped clothes around their necks for fear the rats would eat their necks. And the most heartbreaking of all was having to go to school smelling of pee because they had no running water or heat to wash up after they wet the bed at night. My heart broke, not just for little Viola, but for the many little boys and girls across this world for whom this is their reality. How can we say we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet, in one corner of that country little children are going to bed hungry?

What an absolutely authentic book! 

What strikes me as even more powerful is Viola’s ability to forgive her parents. In all of it, she is now able to see that they did the best they could under the circumstances. And that freedom renders her even more powerful. I keep asking myself if I would be able to forgive parents who let their kid to school smelling, who were so careless that they didn’t know their kids were being sexually abused, who fought and drank so much that their kids had to grow up in absolute chaos, who could hardly provide shelter for their kids, who failed their kids in every sense of the word. But that’s just it, those parents needed help just as much as the kids and deserve all our empathy. Viola doesn’t just show us the bad, she also shows us how they evolved, individually and as a family—e.g. her father later becoming a phenomenal husband, father, and grandfather. 

I always say to people that our childhood affects us way more than we acknowledge or want to accept. Viola Davis grew up without food and it’s fascinating to see how much food means to her. I don’t even think she realizes it, but it was a subtle thing I picked up on. Even as a big star, when she narrates when something changes her life, she points to the food. How fabulous it was. If she goes to a place there was good food, she remembers. She talks about it a lot. It was just a thing I noticed. 

Every time I flipped a page I kept thinking, but how? How does one go from such dirt, such despair, such abuse to being one of the biggest stars in the world? She shows us every step of the way: the little miracles of winning one-off competitions; getting into Juilliard; having random advocates along the way; the determination; the striving; the commitment to her craft; the dreaming; the grit; all the NOs she got; the HARD WORK. She tells us everything, but it still feels like a miracle. Because that’s what it is.

I think it is also her strength; it is why she is able to evoke such depth of emotions no matter the role; it is why she has RANGE; it is why she remains one of the best actresses of this century.

I hope this does not come across as a cliché, but Viola’s story IS a story of human triumph. It is that once-in-a-while reminder that if  someone sets their mind on something, there is almost always no stopping them.



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