But ‘Thicker than Water’ is more sincere than sensational
BY SABRINA FORD
Nights were tough for a young Kerry Washington. At 7 years old she started having panic attacks. Once, while she was in bed, attempting to fend off an episode, the familiar sound of her parents arguing flowed from the other room. Reaching a breaking point, Washington ran out, faced her parents and yelled at them to stop.
“I can count on one hand the number of times that I have seen my mother cry,” the actress writes in her new memoir, “Thicker Than Water.” “This was the second.”
The next morning, Washington’s mother smiled as she made breakfast, as if nothing had happened. It was a familiar scene for the only child who describes her experience growing up as playing the role of “good girl” for parents intent on projecting a picture-perfect image to their daughter and the outside world.
The family history informing this dynamic is complex and specific to Washington, but Black Gen Xers and millennials — those of us born to parents who came of age during the civil rights era — might find the holding of secrets to protect family from social scrutiny or personal shame particularly relatable. (Anyone raised by one or more Black women of that generation knows there is no greater sin than embarrassing them.)
At the heart of “Thicker Than Water” is the story of a daughter who loved and felt loved by her parents but yearned for genuine connection inside a facade. She didn’t fully understand where that yearning might have come from until she agreed, at age 41, to appear on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s series “Finding Your Roots.” Only then did her parents admit that she had been conceived using a sperm donor — that her father wasn’t biologically related to her. The news was a shock, but even Washington seems surprised at how well she took it, managing to comfort her parents as they struggled to divulge a secret they had planned to keep forever. “Dad,” Washington recalls saying. “Dad. I knew what he needed to hear: ‘Nothing is going to change between us. This won’t impact our love.’”
But this revelation is a relatively minor part of a memoir that is really the story of an artist leaning into the emotional truths of the characters she built, because she never fully trusted her own.
Maybe that explains her impressive success. Washington, 46, was raised in the Bronx and began acting as a young teen with a local educational theater group. After starring in her breakout film, 2001’s oft-memed teen drama “Save the Last Dance,” she would go on to co-star in Oscar-winning films (“Ray,” “The Last King of Scotland”), headline Broadway plays (David Mamet’s “Race”) and, most famously, embody Olivia Pope on the ABC drama “Scandal.” That series, which aired for seven seasons, was culturally significant not only because it was the first network drama led by a Black woman in four decades but also because Olivia Pope was a messy, flawed Black female protagonist — an anomaly when it premiered in 2012.
“Every day, I would get out of bed and head to set, and it felt like swimming out into a body of water that I could not control. I knew my job was to get on top of the waves and ride them, but I was in the storm that comes with rising fame,” Washington writes of the dizzying early days of “Scandal,” when her celebrity grew and her friend circle shrank. “Rehearsed as I was in the performance of perfection, I tried to keep my struggles mostly private, below the surface of the waves.”
As she looks back at her career, Washington completely avoids the familiar beats of celebrity memoir — the name drops, the gossip, the reveals. Instead, she focuses on the work of acting, which she first viewed as a job when she was a teenager looking for a means to contribute to the high cost of her private-school education. She considers the media frenzy that accompanied “Scandal,” and her ascent to becoming a household name, more of an annoyance than anything else, a consequence of being good at her job. Rather than revel in fame, she relishes a title that her cousin bestowed upon her: “the longshoreman of acting.” That name “has a special resonance for me,” she writes, “because our grandfather was a longshoreman on the docks of Lower Manhattan. He died in 1953 in the middle of a nor’easter. I like to think that I’d go into any storm to get the work done, too.”
At times, reading “Thicker” feels like a tease, as Washington glosses over intriguing episodes without divulging the whole story. For instance, she devotes only a few paragraphs to the wild period in high school when she was staying out all night, hooking up, getting lit on whiskey sours and attending Manhattan parties like the fabled Soul Kitchen. What was it like being a kid roaming free in adult spaces in the 1990s, before cellphones and location tracking were commonplace? Who were the characters she encountered? What was the DJ spinning? Where’s that memoir?
Instead, Washington illuminates a very narrow and specific slice of her life — avoiding the sensational in favor of the sincere — and the result is very affecting. The secrets aired here, revolving around Washington and her family, may not be particularly salacious or earth-shattering, but they are crucial in helping the author make sense of herself, her place in her family and her connection to her craft.
Sabrina Ford is a Los Angeles-based culture writer and researcher.
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