Kerry Washington’s true nature was revealed on a pink cardboard box of croissants.
“I have to get them back to the office,” said Ms. Washington, 46, sitting cross-legged in a wingback chair at the Spence School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “No, really. Absolutely.”
We’ve already spotted her graduation photo on her wall (Class of 1994), marveled at the weather (scorching heat), and admired the reception room decor (Oval Office meets “Masterpiece Theatre”) was doing. We laughed when the person who delivered the pastry called it a “performance croissant.” No one eats during the interview. Snacks are also part of the set.
The point is, even as the conversation turned to heavier topics, Washington decided the fate of those baked goods with a conviction and calm that set the tone for the next 90 minutes. (Spoiler: The croissant didn’t go to waste. By noon we were on his No. 6 train downtown.)
For years, Washington has guarded her private life with the same tenacity she imbued characters like Olivia Pope in Scandal and Mia Warren in Little Fires Everywhere. His wedding to Nnamdi Asomugha in June 2013 was a secret. She never posts photos of her three children. It was she who chose her alma mater as the venue. She had no intention of inviting curious strangers into her home in Los Angeles.
And now, with the release of her memoir on September 26th, the Emmy Award-winning actor is opening the door to her inner sanctum. “Thicker Than Water” is the story of a black girl from the Bronx who makes her way into white Hollywood, feeling as if she doesn’t belong in her own family.
Before delving into the reasons for this disconnect, let’s give credit where credit is due. Shonda Rhimes years ago advised a friend of hers to write a book. “The act of writing alone makes you grow. It’s a powerful way to reclaim yourself,” said the famed producer and “Scandal” creator, who published a memoir in 2015.
But Washington felt at the time that he was too young to reflect on his life. She said: “I always had this feeling that there was something fraudulent about me. I didn’t know myself well enough.”
In early 2018, after seven seasons on “Scandal,” Washington filmed her final scenes for the show. (Due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, she was careful not to say that name during our meeting.) I was going to write a book about the lessons I learned from Way fixer Olivia Pope. She made Washington the first black woman to star in a network drama since 1974.
“I felt a sense of accomplishment,” Washington said. There was also a sense of readiness for new projects, adventures, and unexpected events.
Thinking it was the perfect time to learn about her ancestors, Washington agreed to appear on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” To begin her research, she needed DNA samples from her parents, who are in their 70s.
“I said, ‘Spit in this tube,’ and they started freaking out,” Washington said. “Her mother was like, ‘I never thought this would happen.'”
Shortly after, the father began having panic attacks. Believing that his breathing difficulties and insomnia were related to concerns about his relatives’ soon-to-be-revealed bad behavior, Washington told Gates that he had to leave the show. “I said, ‘I don’t think they’ll agree to that. Dad’s really uncomfortable.’
Gates offered to speak to the parents privately to ease their concerns. A few months later, Washington heard a little about the conversation from Gates. “They asked Skip, as if it were a hypothesis, ‘Let’s say there’s a chance she’s not our biological child.’ Will that come up on a test?'” he said. I assured them it would happen.
Gates recommended divulging such information while everyone involved was still alive, without explicitly telling parents what to do.
On April 3, 2018, Valerie and Earl Washington finally revealed the secret they had kept from their only child for over 40 years. The idea was that they used her sperm donor to get her pregnant.
Washington’s initial reaction was a combination of excitement and relief. Now, at least, she has an explanation for her own struggles where, in her words, “she doesn’t quite belong.”
She said: “I always had a strange relationship with my father, but I thought it was my fault. I thought I wasn’t a kind person. The thought never occurred to me. It was just, why can’t I be better to him? Why can’t I be closer? Did I do something wrong, even wrong? We What happened to?”
But Mr. Washington continued. “I immediately felt guilty because I saw how much his parents, especially his father, were suffering.”
Her empathy had a side of resentment. “I was born a lie,” she said. “I was playing a supporting role in my parents’ story.”
Washington added: “It felt like I’d been wandering around the library my whole life, looking for a particular book about myself. My mom and dad were librarians, and they said, ‘There’s a room we haven’t shown you yet.’ ”
By now, we’ve all come across sitcoms, movies, documentaries, podcasts, and books inspired by 23andMe’s discoveries. You probably know someone who has deposited or withdrawn money from a sperm bank. Perhaps you’ve helped her choose a donor with 20/20 vision or a Ph.D.
But the mid-1970s were a different time. As Washington noted, her mother’s doctor on the Upper East Side could probably count on one hand the number of black women who came into his office to discuss donor insemination. The Washingtons sought a healthy, black donor. (Despite Kerry Washington’s best efforts, there is still no way to determine his identity.)
“I know their intentions were to protect me, love me, take care of me, and keep my world simple,” Washington said. “I wasn’t told this for years, but I’ve been an adult for over 20 years.”
Her mother explained that she doesn’t think there was ever a good time. Washington understood that: “When I was in treatment for an eating disorder, it didn’t seem like a good time to drop a bomb like that. Then I was in a tumultuous relationship and it didn’t seem like a good time to drop a bomb like that. And then I had my own child – her intentions were in the right place.”
The plan, the mother said, was to leave a note in a safe deposit box.
“I thought, ‘You’ve had cancer three times and you’re almost 80 years old,'” Washington recalled telling her mother. “‘When were you going to write that memo?'”
She added: “I will be forever grateful to Skip Gates.”
While processing the news, Washington tried to “cultivate” his life “as high-functioning people do.” She kept her promises, took care of her family and generally did everything that was required of her. But Washington’s autopilot had its limits. Suddenly, the book she signed up to write seemed to be in a different library.
“It felt impossible to sit down and try to write about my life without including this new information,” she said. “I tried to return the money to the publisher.”
Tracy Behar, editor of Washington’s Little Brown Spark magazine, encouraged her to put that thought aside and take a moment to think. “After six months or a year, she came back and said, ‘I want to write a memoir of her intimate family,'” Behar said.
Washington started by recording memories on her cell phone. Then she started writing. She wrote no more than 1,500 words per day, which she wrote while standing on an island in her closet admiring her shoes and sweatshirt. Washington had no co-authors. She said, “She felt it was really important for her to sound like me.”
She describes her parents’ fighting, her father’s drinking, and other secrets that filled the family’s apartment on Pugsley Avenue: her father’s legal problems, her mother’s first marriage and stillbirth, her sexual abuse from a family friend. She wrote about her own fear and confusion after undergoing the procedure. When Washington confronted the boy, he said she was “out of her mind.” He then stopped because she threatened to expose him.
She found solace at a local pool, writing that “being in and moving through water felt much more natural than walking on land,” and of becoming a formidable student. Masu. By the time Washington arrived at Spence, whose commute took her an hour and was a world away from her home, she had become an experienced performer in every sense of the word. She suffered from insomnia, depression, and an eating disorder. She never felt safe, but she always kept fighting. By the time she arrived at George Washington University, she had become an actor. More information can be found on IMDb. The rest of the important things are written in her memoirs. It’s a rare combination of integrity and resourcefulness, combined with Washington’s restraint.
Considering the origin story of Thicker Than Water, the actor’s own origin story is a fairly small part of the book. What’s interesting is watching Washington figure out for herself that being a sperm donor doesn’t even rank in the top 10 most interesting things in her life.
“I still miss that part of not knowing where half of my biology comes from,” she said. “At least there are no more wrong pieces to the puzzle.”
For the cover, Washington pitched the idea of shooting it underwater, and Behar thought of Leisha Perlmutter, an artist who specializes in watercolors.
For her first book project, Perlmutter took about 10,000 photos of Washington at her parents’ pool to create a portrait of her face looking back at herself. The effect is reminiscent of her 1980s school photos, where the subject’s profile floats in the background. Only in this case the spectral image is merged with the world-facing image. The first one is unforgettable. The second is hauntingly beautiful.
Perlmutter said this approach “worked well for Kelly’s memoir, which is a deeper exploration of herself.”
Washington said her parents “haven’t done somersaults” about the book, but have been “supportive.” When she asked if they were willing to discuss it, she replied: Even if this was our family’s story, each of them would have written a separate book. ”
Valerie Washington, a retired professor, returned an early manuscript marked in red pen. “Part of it was grammatical,” Kerry Washington said. “There were some small inaccuracies. this Not that street, but the street. this Not that beach, but the beach. ” Her mother is proud, she said.
By late July, Earl Washington was still working on his memoirs. “It was tough,” Washington said. “He handles a lot of things with my husband.”
Recalling a conversation with her father, Washington said: Now when I say I love you, it’s not because of who you pretend to be in my life, it’s because of who you are. ”
Ms. Washington knows that once her book is published, she may be inundated with stories from readers who see themselves in her and want to tell her family secrets. She seemed unfazed by the prospect. “I never want to tell people, ‘You have to tell your kids the truth,'” she says. “I think it’s extraordinary how few rights I have as a donor child. But I want you to be careful about that dissonance. When we don’t let people trust their own instincts… , know that you are depriving that person of some key tools they need to function in the world as a confident person.”
By writing “Thicker Than Water,” Washington appears to have taken those tools back.