An alcoholic mother, a Black Panther father in jail, and a sister who was a teenage prostitute: Mary Williams saw a grim future ahead of her. Then she was adopted by Jane Fonda. In this Zola Q&A, the writer and activist discusses her new memoir about her miraculous upbringing, The Lost Daughter.
Zola: If Jane hadn’t taken you in, what do you think would’ve been your fate?
Mary Williams: The person I am today would not exist. I would have not known anything better than to reflect the community I lived in. Early pregnancy, defensiveness, under-education, violent dysfunctional relationships, drugs, alcohol, poor health… I didn’t have the necessary role models to pull me up. My world would have been incredibly limited. My belief in my value and potential? Nonexistent. Without the occurrence of some other dramatic twist of fate I would be just another lost girl living in survival mode.
Zola: Jane has jumped between acting, volunteering, modeling, politics, and advocacy. Do you think your own diverse interests—teaching, nonprofit work, hiking, research, travel—were inspired by her?
MW: Mama Jane has been my mom for 30 years of my life. She has definitely rubbed off on me. I feel she has greatly influenced my outlook on life and encouraged my curiosity about the world. Like her, I don’t feel normal unless I am challenging myself. Mama Jane and my Black Panther family made me a person who wants to be a positive influence in the lives of others and contribute to the betterment of the world. Despite her chameleon-like existence I think it unnerves her to see me not settled down with a family. Flitting around the globe with innumerable interests. She is a mom after all. She worries about me traveling alone, not having a steady job with retirement and health benefits. She wishes I had a life partner. She lets me know it. But…she is more concerned about me being happy and pursuing the life I want for myself, and she lets me know that more.
Zola: You remember such details—the food you ate at the prince’s palace in Morocco, the names of hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Did you keep journals or was this really all from memory?
MW: I kept a journal the entire time I was on the Appalachian Trail, in Antarctica, and while I was reconnecting with my Oakland family for the first time. I only kept a journal/blog on the trail and while in Antarctica to keep my friends and family informed, not to remind myself. I took notes while reconnecting with my birth family for the first time because I was simultaneously writing the book.
In general I do not journal. I have a very clear and vivid memory for the most extraordinary things that have happened in my life. I remember every sight and smell and taste from that dinner with the Prince of Morocco because I knew I was experiencing something truly wild. In those moments, something inside says, “Look! See! Feel!”
I can re-experience interesting people I have met, strange food, awkward moments, intensely painful and intensely joyful moments that happened decades ago as if it were yesterday. I think this is partly because I am an introvert and tend to observe more than interact. While having this recall is good for writing, the accompanying emotions that come up with the unpleasant memories were at times painful beyond belief.
MW: I don’t regret not contacting my mama sooner because I had such hatred in my heart for her. Because of my overwhelming hatred I was blinded to those family members who were good to me like Uncle Landon and Aunt Jan. Oakland had become the symbol of all things bad. I had not processed the pain of my childhood which left me emotionally stunted in regards to my mama. If I had gone back even a few months sooner than I did, I would have confronted her in anger rather than approached her with an open heart and open ears. I needed every second of those nearly 30 years to get to a place where I could process my life (writing the book really helped me do this) and reconnect in a way that was not hate filled and misguided.
I spent this year’s Mothers’ Day with Mama again and I was amazed how comfortable it felt. It thrilled me how proud she is of the book. My goal was to write my truth without making my mama out to be a monster. Circumstances and poor choices led to pretty bad things in my birth family but I no longer blame her. Mama is an amazing woman who achieved a lot with very little and for that she has earned my respect and admiration.
As for the rest of the Williams clan? I will be joining my uncle and cousins on the yearly camping trip again this summer. By the end of the year I plan to visit Oakland at least three times.
Zola: You refer to David Eggers as your book’s “baby daddy,” and he’s said that he “always hoped” you would tell your story. Did he give you writing tips? What’s your favorite book of his?
MW: Shortly after Dave and I met he suggested I consider writing a memoir. I said I’d rather stick a needle in my eye. At the time I had zero interest in writing or sharing my story. Despite my initial distaste, the seed was planted.
Years later, when I was ready, I sent my first piece to Dave. To my surprise he liked it. He told me I was a natural writer with a pleasant conversational voice. I was thrilled and shocked by his assessment because I did not consider myself a writer. (I am an avid reader.) That article was the first serious thing I’d written since writing term papers in graduate school. Dave’s skillful editing helped to create a pretty good first piece.
Dave would go on to edit and publish a second autobiographical article I wrote about working in Antarctica featured in McSweeney’s. When I finally decided to take on the challenge of writing a book, he was kind enough to introduce me to my agent.
I did not send Dave early drafts of the book. I didn’t send anyone a draft until it was in galley form. The writing of my memoir was an intimate and personal process. I felt too fragile to share it with anyone other than my amazing editor. The first time friends and family saw it was when it was in galley form.
Dave’s incredibly generous and positive reaction to my finished book was one of the top three reviews that have meant the most to me. The others were the great feedback I got from Mama Jane and Mama.
My favorite Dave book is, and always will be, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It is in my mind damn near perfect! I think I embarrass him every time I gush about it in front of him.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.