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  • Chrishaunda Lee Perez

How Viola Davis' "Finding Me" Cemented My Relationship with Memoirs on Audible

Updated: May 12, 2023

I am a proud, avid reader. Have been since I was a little, little girl. Golden Books, encyclopedias, Dr. Seuss, and the Bible excited me (and scared me at times, too). Shell Silverstein and Judy Blume further developed my mind. As a teen and adult, Toni Morrison and Gustav Flaubert, Garcia Lorca, Michael Singer, and David Sedaris and so on strapped me to their passenger seats, and carried me through time periods and worlds, and in and out of myself. I LOVE turning pages and taking notes about spiritual books, and novels, and poetry as I pour over the text. Sometimes, while reading a good book I sort of create a solo workshop for it in my head and on paper- breaking down the story, writing down my ideas about it. Talk about inspiring. My share of rabbit ears on corners of pages have been and are continuously made (sadly, even the ones borrowed from the library), and if you borrow a book from me, please know that you might find entire paragraphs singled out with arrows pointing to a scribbled word, “YES!” or “Note to self”, “EXACTLY”, or even, “WHY???”

For much of my early years, I escaped in other people’s bright ideas and stimulating, created communities to run away from my own. Sometimes I think reading stories saved me from being fundamentally influenced by what I saw everyday as a child. I believe that one of the reasons why I chose to write as part of my profession is because of what some other person’s words of “getting by”, or self-discovery and an imagined world of promise did for me. Today, I get to help or inspire someone else. I heeded the advice of the Great Toni Morrison she once gave to the world: “If there is a book that you want to read and it has not been written yet, then you must write it”. So I wrote. I penned my beloved novel, We Come as Girls, We Leave as Women, magazine articles, essays, screenplays, memoirs for other people, like, what I call the “incredible declaration of miracles” – Share The Dream, I even have a little side service where I write people’s love stories for their children and/or grandchildren to savor when they are old enough to grasp. I don’t use emojis, I don’t abbreviate my expressions via text or emails. I treasure the written WORD.

But when I discovered (ever the late bloomer) the power of memoir story telling through Audible only a few years ago, whew chile, my game was changed. To be fair, the bookworm in me still purchases the physical book, as I cannot help but to take notes. But hearing someone share their life story in my ear feels like someone telling me all about themselves while we are hanging out- except I don’t get to interrupt and ask questions. And I’m cool with that. When listening to an Audible memoir vs. reading it, I don’t have to imagine the author’s real emotions given a certain time in their life, because I can feel the joy or tension in their voices as they remember. The author isn’t shielded by paper, nor is he or she protected by a sword-like pen. Literally, what is offered is the truth from their mouth to my ears. I have been moved by a number of Audible memoirs during my short time of getting on board with this brilliant manner of taking in someone’s life, but none has been more riveting for me than that of Viola Davis’ remarkable testimony called, “Finding Me.”

She had me at “Cocksucker mutherfucker.”

I, too, was a little dark-skinned, nappy-headed, smart, very poor girl being bullied at 8 years old, residing in a city that was near water in the north, which meant winters were exceptionally cold. Like Viola, I also lived in different places throughout my growing up. Unlike Viola, my frequent moves were not always with mom and dad and siblings, or mom, or dad, or siblings. I lived with grandparents, on the sofas of family friends, we’ve slept in a car, and I have even spent a little time in foster care. But all throughout moving from here to there, I had bullies for the same reasons Viola was plagued by them: I was poor, Black, and considered ugly. But Viola had courage and was bold enough to call her detractors “cocksucker mutherfuckers”, and I remember telling mine things that my paternal grandmother imparted to me, which were sayings like, “Jesus loves everybody.” Using this line of defense got my stomach punched in enough. If we existed in the same time and space back then, I would have wished for Viola to be my friend, and she would have served as that voice in my ear that reminded me to “tell ‘em!” Even if in the end, we both were forced to run.

So many details of her story sounded like my own. Her father was a violent alcoholic, my mother was a very depressed one. You can sense the pain in the little Viola as the adult one described witnessing her father hit her mother other over the head with a glass. I watched in horror my mother’s friend’s boyfriend break a bottle over her head, splitting it with blood gushing everywhere. I shuttered as Viola carefully confided that she was inappropriately touched by teen boys when she was a little girl. So was I. Her family even shopped at Zayre’s- and when they did, it was a big deal. I relished going to Zayres.

So much of Viola’s childhood was jarring, and she makes no apology about saying exactly what it was and how it was. This might sound cliché, but where she has arrived continues to empower others like her (including me) to dream bigger for their lives and not feel confined by the bad things that has happened to them. At the same time, not feeling embarrassed by what has happened, and coming to know that bad things don’t always have to happen to people for them to feel fueled or build grit and resilience is also part of her consciousness. Viola talks about how she gives her daughter all the love and resources she can give- as championing her will not hinder her ability to thrive. With this, I swaddle my own children in my arms without abandon. For them, no matter what, there can never be enough love, affection, and support. Especially in the unstable and uncertain world we are living in today, it is LOVE, not withholding or withdrawing it, that will help build the solid sense of self needed to see someone through.

I appreciate that for a woman who has had such extraordinary success despite the harsh and grueling cards she was dealt as a child has grown to become, on the opposite end of the spectrum, an equally compassionate adult human being. It is clear that Viola is so appreciative of her hard work and forthcoming blessings, and she made the conscious decision to maintain an endearing heart towards her father, perhaps her greatest source of childhood trauma. Based on what he exposed her to, for some who do not yet hold the spirit of Agape in their hearts, it can be hard to believe or understand why she could retain any love for him at all. The same has been said about how I can celebrate a woman, who began motherhood as a teenager, who abandoned me twice when I was a child. For me, my mother never made me feel that any of her behavior was my fault, rather, she was constantly apologetic about it and proved it by drowning me with affection whenever she was present. Viola also never doubted her father’s love for her. Love, though seemingly complicated, does, in fact, go a long way. The love Viola has in her heart is so real that regardless of what her father had done, what she hoped for from him never died, and I believe this is in part why she was able to see that hope manifest before her father passed away. With each telling of a different traumatic incident, I still deeply felt the compassion she had for her dad. With this, she reminds me not to give up on those I claim to care about.

Viola is a celebrated actress, but another raison d’être of hers in my belief is to inspire people to think deeper about healing. She said, “successful Black women almost normalize overachieving”, and for many of us, ‘there is an expectation about perfectionism without the knowledge of emotional well-being’. I, like many Black female achievers understand the plight of striving to excel at all costs, even at my own emotional expense. I thank Viola for not mincing words when it comes to Black women getting the emotional balance so many of us desperately need. Throughout her memoir, she sprinkles this message along the way with the power of a megaphone.

If all the previous wasn’t enough to make me feel kindred to Viola’s experiences, I learned we both graduated with a theatre degree, 10 years apart. She from Julliard, and I graduated from Wesleyan University. Her senior thesis was a one-woman show, mine was a two-woman show that I wrote about my trying childhood. And her feelings about “playing second” in a lover’s life also rang true. I know that role all too well. I am grateful to Viola for shining a light on the woman’s deserved entitlement to love and tenderness. So often in our roads to success, taking care of home and children if we have them, we allow our romantic relationships to be devoid of sweetness. And we shouldn’t have to demand it either, because for any human being who engages in a romantic relationship, I believe they have the capacity to not only ‘say love’, but ‘show love’, too. Viola told about enduring a connection with a man who did not value her as she should have been honored. And she made a serious choice during that neglectful, long affair. Though she was impacted by it, she did not bury the possibilities for her future. Remaining open is in part why, at the right time, her future husband, Julius could walk through her door with ease. With this, I am fortified about my continued unwillingness to be anyone other than who I am to receive love.

Viola’s level of self-awareness throughout a life of not being affirmed for exactly who she is and her ability to navigate while remaining utterly true to herself astounds me. No easy feat for a Black woman in entertainment. It is like she has been walking on a tight rope engulfed in flames all while building an actual, successful career. There is no schtick, no hook, no hiding, no condescension, nothing contrived. She is aware that her place in the world is the result of her talent + toiling, and a narrow road that was paved as best as it could be for her by those who walked it first. She is not reticent about how proud she is to be a Black woman. The power of her transparency is disarming, the beauty of her being is beyond any label of “good looking” or “gorgeous.” Viola Davis is a whole woman- far more stunning than any physical accolade could deem. Her outward beauty is not determined by the eye of the beholder. It is universal. It is transcendent. That is why when she pulls off the wig and lashes, or even when she is giving the famous “Viola cry” on screen, her beauty resonates the same. All women should be so blessed.

So many unconventional (aka not white) artists compromise their integrity and inner inclinations and decline to express themselves about injustices for those who don’t fit in the traditional boxes set for their craft, fearing they will never gain momentum while speaking truth to power. Again, Ms. Davis, the artistic activist, challenged the well-oiled theatre education system and industry. Offering her logical perspective about race and performance, she declared, “If you were white, all you had to be was good”, acknowledging the fact that Black artists were/are routinely burdened with having to sift through material not intended for them, and as actors, having to adapt to cultures and timeframes where and when the mere existence of being Black was shameful and scorned without fully being able to fully process their feelings about it. Miss Viola has not compromised herself, and if in hindsight she believed she had a lapse in judgement for a choice she has made, she unabashedly cops to it aloud, as if we were her siblings and family to ensure we all remain on solid ground following her lead. Her high capacity for compassion, even those loved ones for whom she has shed tears is not lost on me. She recognizes the challenges some people might have, like addiction, and other mental health issues, and chooses to continue to lift them up as best as she can, rewarding solid effort to encourage more growth, because she does not give up on her people. Viola Davis is a leader, and she knows it. And her power-infused humble beingness shoots her to a top spot on my list.

Referencing the old Laurence J. Peter quote, like me, I feel that Viola Davis does not just believe in luck and miracles, she depends on them. Like her, I too, believe in doing the work, then receiving the payoff of the work. Unlike Viola, a living angel did reach down to pull me up when I was young, and exemplified, through benevolence and action how to be. Like a shooting star, my favor in this way was profoundly uncommon, and in turn, it is infinitely valued, cherished, and appreciated. While I could never repay my living angel for the benevolence and sweat equity invested in me, I proudly pay it forward. These acts bestowed upon me for all my life really did save my life. Like Viola, though, I know that regardless of the strides taken on one’s behalf or those made for oneself, to fully thrive in the world, one must know it in their soul and be proud of WHO THEY ARE. This sense of inner confidence and calm derives from a Godly state of being that external success cannot guarantee.

Viola Davis’ admirable “Finding Me” most certainly gave me pause, pressed me to continue to celebrate who I am today, all the while delighting in anticipation for more of “me” to be revealed.

I thank Audible for serving as the vessel, and I thank Viola for bestowing us this gift.

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