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 six 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.
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Mary Williams is a writer based in the Southwest. She is the author of the children’s book Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. She has also written for McSweeney’s and O, the Oprah Magazine.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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.
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