Viola Davis recalled a teacher who was the “face of compassion and empathy” in her youth, a time when the actress felt shame and was shamed by others due to her family’s lack of resources.
During Oprah + Viola: A Netflix Special Event, the Oscar winner opened up about the various difficulties she faced during her childhood, which saw her family living in poor conditions, including a home with rat infestations and without utilities like gas or electricity. Davis admitted she knew she was poor while growing up, describing the house with “the plaster coming off the walls and always being hungry.”
Davis’ hygiene also became a painful source for understanding her own circumstances, she told Oprah Winfrey, including one day that she and her sister, Deloris, were called to the school office due to their “smell,” something she “didn’t know what to do about.”
“I think that people just automatically assume you just clean yourself. Well, not if anyone doesn’t show you,” she explained. “A lot of times we didn’t have any soap. A lot of times we didn’t even have any clean clothes.”
The actress went on to explain that her family hand-washed their clothing, but that would mean they either had to hang them outside — where icicles might build on them due to the cold — or inside, where they wouldn’t always fully dry.
“The next day if they’re not dry, they’re wet, but then if you’re not clean, you’re putting on wet clothes,” Davis recalled. “People don’t realize that if no one shows you, you have to figure it out on your own, and I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. Then I was ashamed that I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. All I had, all I could do, was swim in the shame.”
During one particular time, when the family was living without gas or electricity during a Rhode Island winter, the film and TV star said she and her family had left the house and were spotted by one of her schoolteachers. When she approached, she asked Davis’ mother why she hadn’t been in school, to which her mother explained the degree of their hardship — including frozen pipes and hunger.
“She had tears in her eyes, and she was touching our faces, and she said, ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Davis. I’m so, so sorry. You let us know whatever we can do for you,’” the First Lady star recounted.
That support came in the form of calling Davis to the office and giving her a “bag full of the most beautiful clothes that were hand-me-downs from her daughter” — an act of generosity that was like giving her “jewels.”
“When you are in the face of compassion and empathy, it’s amazing how it kills shame,” Davis said. “Because you’re seen, and you’re seen for something way more valuable than your circumstances.”
The special sees Davis candidly discussing other elements of her childhood with Oprah that she broaches in her memoir Finding Me, including growing up with an abusive alcoholic father as well as sexual abuse in her home. Speaking to the latter, the SAG and Tony winner touched on the culture around how girls were casually sexualized, enduring harassment and even abuse.
“You know, it’s just not that dirty old man on the street who wanted to give you a quarter, but then wanted a kiss? No one knows what boundaries are with little girls, especially back in the day,” Davis said. “So if a guy said, ‘Give me a kiss,’ someone said, ‘Oh, give him a kiss. It’s not a big deal.’ Or someone leaves you with a male babysitter because that male babysitter is a friend of the family, and then your parents go out, and they leave you alone.”
Davis added, “They don’t think anything of it. We didn’t have social media back in the day where people would talk about statistics of how many girls are molested.”
Earlier in their discussion, Davis opened up about why she chose to talk about these issues and more in the memoir, as well as what prompted her decision to write the book. It was a choice that was “exacerbated” by the pandemic but grounded her “hitting the top.” That was a time she felt like she’d know the meaning of her life. Instead, she had feelings of exhaustion, of imposters coming into her life when it came to friendships, people overstepping their boundaries and people feeling like she was a commodity.
“All I knew was that it wasn’t it,” she recalled of her trajectory. “So the question is, ‘Viola, what is it?’ What’s home to you, and how do you get at it? I didn’t know the answer to that. The only thing I could think to do was to go back to the beginning of my story because I think that once you tell your story over and over again, you start to hear it and you start to think, ‘OK, how did I get here?’”