The Lost Daughter
ISBN 9781101611067 | 320 pages | 09 Apr 2013 | Plume | 18 - AND UP
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A daughter of the Black Panther movement tells her remarkable life story of being raised amid violence and near-poverty, adopted as a teenager by Jane Fonda, and finding her way back home.
As she grew up in 1970s Oakland, California, role models for Mary Williams were few and far between: her father was often in prison, her older sister was a teenage prostitute, and her hot-tempered mother struggled to raise five children alone. When Mary was thirteen, a silver lining appeared in her life: she was invited to spend a summer at Laurel Springs Children’s Camp, run by Jane Fonda and her then husband, Tom Hayden. Mary flourished at camp, and over the course of several summers, she began confiding in Fonda about her difficulties at home. During one school year, Mary suffered a nightmare assault crime, which she kept secret until she told a camp counselor and Fonda. After providing care and therapy for Mary, Fonda invited her to come live with her family.
Practically overnight, Mary left the streets of Oakland for the star-studded climes of Santa Monica. Jane Fonda was the parent Mary had never had—outside the limelight and Hollywood parties, Fonda was a wonderful mom who helped with homework, listened to adolescent fears, celebrated achievements, and offered inspiration and encouragement at every turn.
Mary’s life since has been one of adventure and opportunity—from hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, working with the Lost Boys of Sudan, and living in the frozen reaches of Antarctica. Her most courageous trip, though, involved returning to Oakland and reconnecting with her biological mother and family, many of whom she hadn’t seen since the day she left home. The Lost Daughter is a chronicle of her journey back in time, an exploration of fractured family bonds, and a moving epic of self-discovery.
For years I kept my family life a secret from Jane. She knew that I came from a Panther background , but she knew nothing of my mother’s drinking, my shrinking family. When I was thirteen that finally changed. The first person I told my full story to was one of my camp counselors. The camp counselor told Jane. Jane asked me if what she heard was true, and for the first time I opened up to her about everything that was going on back in Oakland. Soon after telling her this, Jane invited me to come live with her year-round in Santa Monica. I did not ask my mom’s permission. I just left. It was a normal thing in my family to be here one day and gone the next. From my small, run-down house in Oakland, I moved to Jane’s hacienda surrounded by flower gardens and avocado trees. Landing on the moon would have been less disorienting. She sat me down soon after I arrived and said, “I see you as my daughter now. If you want, you can call me Mom.” I also had new siblings, a brother named Troy, and two sisters, Vanessa and Nathalie. Jane became my greatest friend, my cheerleader, and a dedicated mother. Despite being a busy actress and activist, Jane was home most nights and often cooked dinner for us. Everything was new. Even something as seemingly simple as dinnertime was fraught. I had to prepare myself each night for my confrontation with “white people food”—some of it good (baked Alaska), some not so good (artichokes). And I was shocked to learn that people could disagree or dislike one another and still be civil.
"The Lost Daughter is an extraordinary memoir. In fact, this is exactly the kind of story for which memoir was born. Mary Williams has lived more lives than a dozen other women combined. Some of those lives have been brutal and others have been blessed, but she regards every aspect of her remarkable journey with the same sense of clarity, honesty, compassion, and (in delightful outbursts) vivacious wit. I marvel at this book, at this life, at this unforgettable account of a mighty and uncrushable human being."
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed
"I've known Mary Williams for almost ten years now, and I always hoped she would tell her incredible story. She's a writer of uncommon clarity and humor, and the arrival of her memoir is cause for celebration."
—Dave Eggers, author of What is the What and A Hologram for the King
“I love the way Mary Williams tells her story, The Lost Daughter, of living in and between two worlds—upheavals and miracles, deprivations, and opportunities. A world of mothers lost and found again. It is ultimately a story about acceptance and forgiveness and gratitude, told with the deepest compassion, honesty and, ultimately, love.”
—Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues
“A tender memoir of love and redemption. Born during the civil rights movement to Black Panther Party parents, Williams grew up in a tough neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., [until] actress and activist Jane Fonda stepped in and gave the bright 16-year-old girl a new life. And for 30 years, Williams avoided looking backward to her birth mother and rough beginnings....In heartwarming prose, the author explains how she eventually reunited with her siblings, their children and finally her birth mother. A compassionate tale of soul-searching and family love.”
“William’s attempts to reconcile her two disparate families and lives form the heart of her conversational narrative of a life changed by what looks like chance....A fascinating picture of Jane Fonda in a maternal role emerges but equally intriguing is Williams’s description of life as a small child living in the close-knit Black Panther community. Williams will remind readers that tensions ran high in the 1970s and that sometimes the collateral damage was human life.”
“It is rare that a person has the opportunity to observe life from such disparate vantages as Mary Williams has occupied. It is perhaps more rare still that she would come to possess the self-awareness and desire to explore those observations in a searching and serious memoir. But that is Williams' achievement in The Lost Daughter, her improbable account of leaving impoverished East Oakland for a life of privilege with the actress and activist Jane Fonda....a fairy tale of a bildungsroman that charts the course of Mary's remarkable opportunity and self-actualization.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] remarkable story...Williams offers a nuanced portrait of her two families...Hers is a book of sorrow and redemption, of seeing the gulf between families and the reconciliation that too often fails and sometimes succeeds.... There are fascinating insights into the Fonda clan as well.”
—Linda Diebel, The Toronto Star
"I've been astonished at how natural, conversational and funny Mary Williams is on the page. Her story is incredible, an only-in-America epic, and I can't wait to see it out in the world."
-Dave Eggers, author of What Is The What
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