Writer Mary Williams & Actress Jane Fonda

The writer and her Oscar-winning actress-mom describe how an encounter at a summer camp many years ago transformed both their lives forever.

To say Mary Williams grew up in a troubled family in Oakland, CA, is an understatement. But, at age 13, she started spending summers at a children's camp run by Jane Fonda and her then-husband Tom Hayden and was eventually adopted by Fonda and went to live with the family in Santa Monica, CA. There, she thrived and lived a life of opportunity and adventure. The author of a children's book, Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and articles for McSweeney’s and O magazine, Williams chronicles her journey of identity, redemption and forgiveness in her new memoir, The Lost Daughter.

An award-winning actress, political activist, fitness guru and former fashion model, Jane Fonda has been in the public eye since the 1960's. She's won a Tony nod, two Oscars and an Emmy and, after taking a 15-year break, returned to the screen in the box office hit, Monster-in-Law, and in a recurring role on HBO's The Newsroom. She's also produced and starred in over 20 exercise videos. Passionate, outspoken and controversial, she co-founded the Women's Media Center, helped establish the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at Emory University and penned two memoirs.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with author Mary Williams and the woman she considers her second mother, Jane Fonda.

In a new fascinating memoir, Mary Williams writes about her challenging childhood in Oakland, California, and how an encounter with Fonda put her life on a very different trajectory. It’s an incredible story, mixing seemingly opposite worlds of struggle and privilege.

But before we get to that conversation, as we’re celebrating our 10th anniversary and approaching our 2,000th episode, we’re introducing you to some of the folk who make our program possible.

Joining me now, our audio engineer Jerry Zelinger, so that would make him my JZ. He’s been with me from the very beginning of this program 10 years ago, and he’s the reason you’re hearing me right now.

Jerry, I’ve been delighted to have you on this program all these years, making this audio thing work.

Jerry Zelinger: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Yeah.

Zelinger: One of the things, I’ve been in broadcasting a very long time, and one thing I learned over the years was that content is the most important thing, and that’s why I’m proud to work on this show, your show, because that’s what it’s about – the intelligent, thoughtful, compelling dialogue, sometimes funny, but always very important. Thank you for letting me be part of it.

Tavis: No, it’s our show, and it wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t there making the voices project. So speaking of voices projecting, take it away.

Zelinger: Sure. We’re glad you joined us. A conversation with Mary Williams and Jane Fonda, coming up right now.

Tavis: So it sounds like a fiction story – a teenager struggling with the harsh realities of a difficult upbringing in Oakland, California. She spends an idyllic interlude at a summer camp run by a major movie star, who then decides to do everything she can to change the young girl’s life for the better.

But that’s exactly what happened to one Mary Williams and the woman she considers her second mother, Jane Fonda. Mary has written a very frank memoir about her difficult upbringing, including the physical trauma she suffered her (unintelligible) estranged her from her family, and her efforts to find her place in the world.

The book is called “The Lost Daughter.” Mary Williams, first of all, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Mary Williams: I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: And Jane Fonda, delighted to have you here as well.

Jane Fonda: Big fan of yours. (Laughter)

Tavis: Big fan of yours, as you well know. Let me start, Mary, with this. I’ve been dying to ask you this one question, which is given that your story is so unique from what most Black girls will ever encounter, what you hope, what you wanted or want the takeaway to be for the reader. Because your story is just that different.

Williams: Yeah, it is very different. It’s different, but I think it’s also relatable to a lot of people. A lot of the feelings and experiences that I’ve gone through, maybe not all together, but separately I think a lot of people have gone through. The takeaway for me would be in terms of family, in that forgiveness is very important in any family in terms of healing.

And maybe not healing the relationship, but healing yourself. So for me, a big part of it is forgiveness, and also keeping faith in yourself through all obstacles is huge. Part of that actually started with my very first family, which were the Panthers.

So I was lucky to have been a Panther and got the tools that I needed to kind of blast me through some very difficult periods until I got to safe places. The book is about that as well – finding a safe place.

Tavis: You’ve said a few things now that I could spend hours just having you unpack just on this first statement, but let me just take a few of them right quick and get you to kind of again, unpack them for me.

I was so fascinated and so just riveted and quite frankly pleased with your telling this story about your connection to the Panthers, because as you know, we live in a nation where when you say the Black Panthers –

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: – all you get is punitive and pejorative and nasty and angry and ugly rhetoric. Yet that’s not your story, that’s not your experience.

Williams: No. No.

Tavis: So say a word to me about the relationship with the Black Panthers.

Williams: You’re absolutely right. I think they’re misrepresented a lot. For me, the Black Panthers were my very first family. The Black Panthers, for people who don’t know, were a militant organization in the heart of the civil rights movement.

For me, they were a family, and they protected us and shielded us. I lived in Panther housing, I went to a Panther school, I called the older Panthers around me “comrade,” they called me comrade. We were told as children that we were part of something special and something big, and we were meant for something powerful in the world.

Not just for Black people, but for all people who were oppressed. It wasn’t a Black separatist group. We cared about everybody who was oppressed. So as a young child, I felt empowered, I felt important, and I felt appreciated.

Which was important, because at the time, if I were outside of that Panther bubble, everything in America, in the media, was telling me that as a Black person I was dirty, I was ugly, I was stupid, I was shiftless, and I was a criminal.

So in the early formative years of my life I was shielded from that, and I was given the opposite messages, and that was important to have as a young girl, especially, at that period in time.

Tavis: Yet that didn’t stop you from having run-ins – my word, not yours – with your own immediate family.

Williams: It didn’t, because once we left the Panthers and I was being raised by my mother alone, my father was in prison – he was also a Black Panther – because of activities with the party. But my mother eventually left the Panthers and it was the six children and her.

She was 23 when I was born, and I was her fifth child, so it was a single mother trying to raise us, and she did well initially. She actually went to training and became the first female welder in Oakland, but she had an injury and lost the job, went on welfare, struggled with alcohol addiction and depression, and our family started to fall apart at that point.

Tavis: So tell me how you end up in summer camp.

Williams: Well, my beautiful, incredible uncle, who was also a serious Panther, just a real amazing man, knew Jane Fonda, and because Jane Fonda was also a supporter, my mom, of the Panthers. I think you guys were on a trip to Africa?

Fonda: We went to South Africa together.

Williams: Yeah. You want to tell that part? Because you were there. Actually, they were talking and my mom, Jane Fonda at the time, was starting a children’s camp, and she said, “I want this camp to be a place for all children – Black, white, rich, poor, everybody – to come to this camp and learn how to get along with one another.” She said, “How about why don’t you send some Panther children?”

So my uncle sent me and two siblings, and we went to this summer camp. It was my first time outside of Oakland.

Tavis: Jane, where did and why did the idea of a summer camp for children come into the picture?

Fonda: Well, I was married to Tom Hayden, who later became a state senator, and we just wanted to have a place where the children of our friends, and that included members of the Black Panther Party, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Para Los Ninos here.

We had kids that came through parole officers, we had kids that couldn’t speak English, we had kids that had never had a room to themselves rooming with kids who had maids and never made the bed themselves. That’s what made it work.

Fonda: So there were a lot of different kind of kids, and there was this one girl, this one, (laughter) who just – she had a spark, a sparkle, a laugh, a presence that everyone who came in contact with her knew that she was a special person.

My husband and I spent a lot of my, we spent all summers up there with the camp and my son grew up with the camp, so a few summers went by, and it’s interesting to me that she kept coming; the siblings didn’t.

Has to do with resilience. Then one summer, she didn’t come. It was like, “Where’s Mary?” Next summer she came back, and she was a different person. She was shut down.

She didn’t want to be touched, she didn’t want to be in a crowd, she had nightmares, she just wanted to be alone in her room. Then she admitted that she had been sexually abused.

We could see before our eyes that this child was going under. She’s so smart, and she was getting Fs. I knew I could help her, and I wanted to help her because I knew what was inside this precious human being, and I said, “If you bring your grades up, I’ll take you out of that situation.”

By now, her mother was having a lot of trouble – quite understandably, when you look at her conditions. I said, “If you, at the end of the year, you bring your grades up, I’ll bring you down to live with us if your mother approves, and you can finish your school down here,” and she did, and we did.

Tavis: It’s obviously part of your story, and if you’re going to write a book like this, you might as well be honest about it and be transparent.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: But that’s a difficult decision to make, to tell that kind of story publicly. Tell me about what the experience was like enduring that, and then years later having to tell that story in a book.

Williams: The community that I grew up in, and I think there are lots of communities like this everywhere – initially, I talked about as a young girl I felt very empowered. I was probably the uber-tomboy. I played in the creek, I wandered out alone, I explored, and it was amazing.

But then as I approached puberty, everything changed. The minute that I entered 11, 12 years old, all of a sudden I felt – I went from being empowered to feeling like prey. The men in my community, some of the men in my community, would cruise by the bus stop as you’re on your way to school, and propositioning me and touching me.

I began to kind of retreat into myself. I tried to wear baggy clothes; I tried to only go outside when normal. I stopped exploring and doing that thing because I just felt so frightened all of a sudden of what my body was – what was being attracted to me.

It wasn’t just me; it was a lot of girls. It’s amazing, because I saw a documentary film that was just made last year, and they’re still talking about that going on in Oakland today, this mentality.

So in a way, I kind of thought it was normal because I knew it was happening to other people and I knew it was happening to me, and I just thought I would be smart about it. I’ll do everything I can to avoid it.

When I was finally, in my mind, caught, the funny thing is I took that onto myself because I felt like oh, I got caught. It wasn’t something – a crime that happened to me, it was just that I was stupid and I made a mistake, and I wasn’t strong enough to protect myself.

So I just gave up, and I said – I almost felt like going to that summer camp where it opened up a world to me and I was around people who thought about the future and going to college and making a life for themselves was amazing.

It opened my eyes, and it made me think that I could be that too, because my plan was I’ll have a baby who can love me and I’ll find a guy who can protect me from the other guys. (Laughs)

So when that finally happened to me, I thought how stupid of me to think that I could be different. Why did I think I was better than other people that had similar experiences? So when I finally – the reason that I finally told was that someone wanted to know what was wrong with me.

At home, no one ever said, “How are you?” and “What’s going on with you?” and “How are your grades?” and “How are you at school?” My mother was battling her own demons, and my sisters – I have five sisters who are older than me – were gone. My older sister was a prostitute and a drug addict, another sister was a teen mother and then just left the family and we didn’t know where she was.

Another sister was also struggling. So everybody was out for themselves, and so I didn’t think to tell anyone. I didn’t think that it was something that you report. It’s just something that happened, and you try to not make it happen again. So when I went back to camp and they wanted to know and they saw the change in me, I told them.

Tavis: There are all kinds of Black kids as we sit for this conversation right now, disproportionately Black kids, who are waiting to be adopted. There’s a great conversation that has been ongoing for years now – not as great as it ought to be – about why there are so many Black kids waiting to be adopted, even by Black people.

Yet here’s a story where there’s a Black girl who for whatever reasons, and you’ve articulated some of them now, you decided essentially to adopt, to bring in, to raise as part of your family, even though you know there’s some baggage here, and that’s my word, not hers.

There’s some baggage here, there’s some trouble here, there are some demons here, there’s some bad experiences here, and yet you and Tom, your then-husband Tom Hayden, decide to bring her into your family anyway, and she’s an African American child. Why’d you do that?

Fonda: Because I felt I could help her, and that she deserved being helped. You asked Mary at the very beginning the takeaway from the book. My takeaway is a little different. It’s a twofold takeaway. As a young person, a young disadvantaged person of any race, any ethnicity, know when you’re in the presence of a love, and metabolize it.

There’s a lot of young people that I have reached out to that couldn’t take it. They weren’t able to take it in. So this is just a reminder that you have to be on the lookout for who can help me.

Number two, people who are in a position to be able to help, do it. Do it. And do it knowing the chances are you’ll get more out of it than the person you’re helping. I’ve learned more that’s informed the work that I do from her than she ever has from me. It’s a two-way street.

So that – it ain’t rocket science. Love is the answer. If you’ve got it, give it. If you can, take it in.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because now I want to ask a question, the second question, that’s a bit more provocative, and I could not concur more with the statement you’ve just made, so understand I’m playing devil’s advocate in asking this question.

I suspect this is the kind of story, in a place like Hollywood, where we sit right now, this is the kind of story that might one day become a movie. Why not? It’s a juicy, brilliant, wonderfully told story that happens to be connected to a real-life celebrity named Jane Fonda.

The story itself is wonderfully redemptive, but Jane Fonda’s connected to it, so it’s the kind of stuff that could become a movie one day. If this were to become a movie one day, there’ll be Black folk in the community, and I confess I’ve had this critique of Hollywood from time to time – you know where I’m going, Mary – about here comes another movie of another Black child, another Black person being saved by some white people. If Hollywood gives me one more of these stories, if I get “The Blind Side” one more time, if I get – and I could do this all day. There’s a whole bunch, there’s a long list of them, so I’m not trying to cast aspersion on “The Blind Side.”

Even though there is love here and it’s worthy, how do you respond to people who will say this is just – I want you and Mary both to respond –

Fonda: Yeah.

Tavis: This is just another story of some white folk rescuing some Negroes.

Williams: Right. I – can I go first?

Fonda: Yeah.

Williams: I also think this is a story of me saving myself as well.

Tavis: Okay.

Williams: Because like you said, there are a lot of people – it takes two. There’s somebody who’s reaching out a hand, and there’s somebody who’s grabbing a hand. I too know people who for some reason don’t know how to accept the help, or see it as a weakness on their part to admit that you need the help.

So for me, it’s not about Jane saving me, and I’ve seen that in articles – “Jane Fonda saves her.” But I think I saved myself as well. I could have easily stayed with my family. That was all I knew. But I had the courage to step into the unknown.

I didn’t know what was going to go on here. That takes a lot of courage, to leave your family to go somewhere where you don’t know.

Tavis: Yeah.

Williams: So to me, it’s not the story of the Great White Savior, and I know those stories, and I’ve made comments about those stories before, believe it or not. But I think in my situation, I think it was a twofold situation that went on.

Tavis: Jane?

Fonda: Well, we didn’t live this with the idea that it was (unintelligible) –

Williams: No. (Laughter)

Fonda: We’ll put out a book and a movie.

Williams: Yeah.

Fonda: I don’t know. What do you – as a Black man, what do you think? Should – God, now I’m feeling –

Williams: Should she not have done it? Because, you know –

Tavis: No. But these are the kind –

Fonda: I understand what you’re saying.

Tavis: But these are the kinds of questions, though.

Williams: Yes, yes.

Tavis: That’s a legitimate question.

Williams: Can I tell you –

Tavis: Should she not have done it? Of course she should have done it.

Williams: Right.

Fonda: Yeah.

Tavis: Is Jane right about the fact that love is real? Absolutely. Is she right about the fact that if you’ve got love, give it? Absolutely.

Williams: Right, right.

Tavis: Yet there is this – so I think the critique –

Fonda: Yeah, so maybe more Black people should reach out.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Fonda: Maybe they do and we just don’t know about it because it doesn’t end up in a book.

Williams: That’s it – I think they do do it. I think they do do it, because my uncle is an example of that as well. But there’s something I read on a blog and it blew my mind, and someone said, “Oh, I’m just so sick of this story of this white woman. They should have left that girl where she was, and who knows? She could have been something amazing if you left her.”

So it was basically saying leave her in a dysfunctional, abusive situation and see if she sinks or swims rather than give her a sure opportunity to go somewhere else.

To me, again, it’s about love, and it’s about someone helping another person, and in this country, I don’t know if we’ll ever get past this race thing, but if that’s the first thing you focus on when you see that someone has been helped, you look at the race of the person who helped them, that’s kind of sad, and that’s a statement about what’s going on.

Tavis: That’s why – I think that’s why I wanted to couch it in the right context –

Williams: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: – by first saying I absolutely love this story.

Fonda: You’re being the devil’s –

Williams: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: But Hollywood.

Williams: Yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: I think the critique is more of Hollywood. The stuff, to your earlier point, you and Jane, the point you both made earlier – there are Black folk who do this every day.

Williams: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: But Hollywood ain’t making those movies.

Williams: Right, right, right, right.

Fonda: Right.

Tavis: This is the kind of stuff that will be turned into a movie, and I think it’s more a critique of the industry, the kind of stories that we get, the kind of books that can get written, the kind of movies that can get made that don’t tell the other side.

So I digress on that point, but it’s a fascinating kind of conversation, I think, to have.

Williams: It is, it is.

Tavis: Having said all that, Jane – I ain’t never been to Jane Fonda’s house. Maybe one day I’ll be invited. (Laughter) But I have to assume that Jane Fonda’s house ain’t like being in Oakland.

Williams: No, it’s definitely not like being in Oakland. (Laughter)

Tavis: So how did you make the transition, Black girl that you were, from the family in Oakland to Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden’s house?

Williams: It was interesting, because people say, “Wow, you have all these different families.” Not just my Panther family and my single mother family and my Fonda family and my Turner family that came later, but what people need to understand is that at the heart of all of them, they were the same.

These were, like, militant people who care about the broader political things that go on in this country. But when I went from my Oakland family to my new home in Santa Monica, California, something that I didn’t know until much later is that it was a beautiful home, it was nothing like what you see on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

It was more modest, but beautiful compared to where I came from. But there was also a safe room. (Laughs) There was also a –

Fonda: A place where you could go if you were being shot at, which we were sometimes.

Williams: Or a home invasion. There was a wall around it; there was a remote control to start the car in case there was a car bomb in it, because of the people who were –

Fonda: We were controversial.

Williams: We were controversial people.

Tavis: Sure, yeah.

Williams: But it was beautiful, and the thing, it wasn’t –

Tavis: I think Oakland might have been safer than Jane’s house.

Williams: I know. That’s what I’m trying to say. (Laughter) Because –

Tavis: Now that I think about it.

Williams: Yes. So it was different but similar – different but similar.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Williams: But the thing that made the biggest difference for me wasn’t necessarily the physical environment.

Tavis: Right.

Williams: It was the way I was treated and the way I was accepted, and that was the biggest difference for me.

Fonda: And it was a learning experience for me. I could see that sitting at a dinner table with a family, using a knife and fork and “How did your day go” was not part of Mary’s life.

She was just soaking it in and learning every day. One day I asked her, I said, “Why was the camp so important to you?” She said, “I’d never met people before who thought about the future.” That changed my life, that sentence.

Because I work with young people. I have nonprofits, and I know you give people a sense of future, and they don’t engage in risky behavior. Hope is the best contraceptive, for example. So I realized that her being with us and being at the camp was profound in ways that I never had anticipated before.

Privileged white people, we just take it for granted everybody thinks about the future.

Tavis: Yeah.

Williams: Mm-hmm.

Fonda: That was one thing, and then another thing, after being there a few months with us she said to me one day, “This is embarrassing, but I didn’t know mothers wouldn’t beat their children if the children disagreed with them.” I got some feisty kids, and they disagree with me a lot. (Unintelligible)

Williams: Yeah.

Tavis: Your mom and your mama have finally met.

Williams: Yes. How was that?

Tavis: I saw some pictures in the book. How did that go?

Williams: But can I mention one more thing?

Tavis: Sure, sure, please, please.

Williams: Another amazing thing that Mama Jane did that I thought was really interesting, especially during that period in time, is when I came into the home I had this sense that she was like, you are going to stay Black, first of all. Because a lot of kids do get adopted and they kind of forget where they –

Tavis: Try to assimilate.

Williams: Yes, yeah. She made sure I had – every Christmas, birthday, whenever there was gift-giving time or the holidays, I always got afro-centric things, afro-centric books. (Laughter)

Fonda: You still do.

Williams: I still do. Even last Christmas I got this beautiful dashiki. (Laughter) She also took it upon herself – not that as a Black Panther I would forget – but really took it upon herself to make sure that I retained who I was culturally.

Fonda: Yes.

Tavis: How’d the meeting of the two – there’s a wonderful picture on the screen now. I love this picture.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: How’d that meeting go?

Fonda: I was nervous, needless to say.

Tavis: Yeah.

Williams: She cried, too.

Fonda: Yeah, I did, I cried, because I know that – I just put myself in her shoes, and how hard it is. I’m thin and I’ve got plastic surgery and I’m – a lot of money goes into looking like this at my age, 75 years old, you know? If I was her I’d feel pretty angry about that, or bad about it, and I didn’t want her to.

I thought, this must be really hard for her, and I was nervous that she’d be mad at me. She wasn’t. She had a sense of humor. We joked, we laughed, we had lunch together. There happened to be a photograph at one point, but Lulu had been with her mother before then.

Williams: Yeah, I was two months – I stayed for three months (unintelligible).

Fonda: She had been working it.

Tavis: Right.

Fonda: Then the photographer went away, and we were together, the three of us, all afternoon. Then I went to her house and looked through her photo albums and saw her dog and kind of hung out there for a while.

Williams: Yeah.

Fonda: So it was okay.

Tavis: I can do this for hours and hours and hours. I’ve got about 45 seconds here left. Mary, tell me what – I want to end where I began, with the takeaway. What do you say to those young girls in Oakland or South Central or in Harlem or any other place right now who find themselves in the same situation as you did years ago, where they feel not like a person but like prey?

Williams: Right.

Tavis: Everything around them is collapsing and there ain’t no Jane Fonda standing on the corner to save them. What do you say to them right now?

Williams: I say – probably I’m going to repeat what you said, is that look for someone out there, whether it’s a teacher, whether it’s a relative that’s more distant from the family that you presently have, look for someone who is willing to open their heart.

I could have Jane Fonda the celebrity, but what if Jane Fonda the celebrity was an awful person? So it really isn’t about Jane Fonda the celebrity to me. It’s about someone who cared enough to care about me.

Look for those people who care, and tell somebody. It’s not your fault if someone has abused you, and it’s not right. It’s not right when a stranger does it, it’s not right when someone genetically related to you does it.

Family isn’t always genetics. Family is where you’re loved and you’re respected and you’re taken care of. So I would say to those girls, look for –

Fonda: And boys.

Williams: And boys, definitely boys. One in three girls, one in six boys are – look for – save yourself. You’re the hero in your story. I hate to say that they’re focusing on my mom. I worked too, to save myself. Yeah.

Tavis: That’s why I celebrate the book and I celebrate the work you have done, and I’m honored to have had you both on this program. The book is called “The Lost Daughter.” It’s a memoir written by Mary Williams.

As rich as this conversation was, I’ve barely scratched the surface. So I highly recommend you get the text. Congratulations, and good to have you both on.

Williams: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Fonda: Thanks.

Tavis: My pleasure.

Williams: Yes.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: July 22, 2013 at 6:20 pm