“It’s so vulnerable, right?” says Kerry Washington, whose revelatory memoir Thicker Than Water delves into intensely personal subject matter including an abortion in her early twenties, history with disordered eating, and a family secret regarding the identity of her biological father. As she told Vanity Fair’s editor in chief Radhika Jones at the newly-opened Perelman Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, the day of her book’s release, this is the first time she’s had no character to hide her confessions within.
“If people don’t like the movie, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, talk to the director.’ If I’m the director, I’m like, ‘I know—the studio didn’t give me enough money,’” Washington quips. This time around, “there’s nobody else to blame,” she says. “It’s much more vulnerable than any other creative endeavor I’ve ever taken on.”
The most headline-making revelation from Washington’s book is how she discovered that the man she believed to be her father, Earl Washington, was not her biological parent. Faced with DNA tests after Washington signed on for an episode of PBS and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots, her parents finally shared that she was the result of the use of a sperm donor. At the time, Washington was crafting her proposal for a book she planned to write about what she learned while playing political fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s Scandal.
“I was like, ‘Cool, cool, cool. I’m going to compartmentalize that and I’m going to sell this book,’” Washington recalled with a laugh. The only problem? “Every time I sat down to write it, all I could think about was this life changing revelation. It felt like I was not being fully honest. So I called my publisher and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I have to give you your money back.’ Thank God they would not take my money back. Eventually I did tell my agent what was going on and she said, ‘Would you ever write that book?’ I said, ‘No way.’ And then I did.”
Washington, who has three children with her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, has largely kept her personal life private—that is, except for her parents, Earl and Valerie, who were both in attendance at Tuesday’s event. “I’ve been very public in my dynamic with the two of them. So when I got this information and it felt like the new rule was going to be we told you, but you can’t tell anybody, I was like, now I’m complicit in this false narrative,” Washington explains. “I had spent four decades being the supporting character in their narrative and I was ready now to ask them to be supporting characters in my narrative. Where I’m lucky is that I have phenomenal parents who agreed to do that, despite the discomfort.”
In compliance with the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, Washington couldn’t reflect on her Hollywood career, but couldn’t help drawing parallels between her lives as actor and author. While writing the book, which she did without a ghostwriter, Washington focused on unraveling herself like she would a fictional role. “Suddenly I was allowing myself to be in the process of making me, Kerry, as important as any other character I’ve played in my life,” she says.
The process also allowed Washington to reframe her parents’ decision to keep her roots in the shadows. “I love to say my parents were renegades. They were so badass. They were innovators. It was this highly experimental procedure, artificial insemination,” the actor said. “It wasn’t like my girlfriends now who we flipped through catalogs together. It was cloaked in secrecy and shame. There were only a few doctors in the city who did it, and my mother doesn’t remember seeing any other women of color in the office. They were really ahead of their time and I get to be the product of that courage.”
Throughout the writing process, Washington often found her memories centered on water—the beach in Brooklyn that bookended her parents’ first date, a spot on the high school swim team that inspired a Scandal storyline. “My most authentic self is when I’m swimming, when I’m underwater,” says Washington, who enlisted aquatic artist Reisha Perlmutter to paint her photorealistic cover. “There’s no makeup, my hair’s not done, there’s the metaphor of embryonic fluid,” Washington says while gazing at the image onstage. “And I love that it’s me kind of navigating a confusing reflection of myself because that’s a lot of what the book is about, trying to figure out who I am.” And when you turn the book sideways, it becomes a mirror, an idea Washington credits to her daughter, Gracie.
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Washington shared her first draft with a tight circle that included her husband, parents, and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes. And although there are behind-the-scenes tales from that show, as well as Ray and Django Unchained, two Oscar-nominated projects made with Jamie Foxx, many more show business stories were scrapped from the final version. “At some point, I might need to write a book about what belonging in Hollywood means or what inclusion looks like,” Washington says. “I have a Harvey Weinstein story, not a terrible Harvey Weinstein story, not at all. There was no abuse, but I worked with him.” But even if there is a second book, Washington assures the audience, “I won’t be writing about him, though, no matter what.”
As her memoir is launched into the world, Washington is trying to tune out the noise that can come with a splashy book release. “I used to be much more focused on external validation of success. I have to be on the cover of this magazine. I want to get a nomination. I want to win this award,” she says. “And then the pendulum swung entirely in the opposite direction, where I really rejected a lot of that stuff. I can’t have that stuff matter because I don’t want to want things that are not in my control. So then I started to shift my definitions of success entirely to things that I could determine, like work ethic. Because I can’t control how many people tune into the show, but I can control how hard I work on the show.
Washington is still a work-in-progress when it comes to this philosophy. Just that morning she had awoken early and braved the rain to see a billboard of her book in Times Square, only for the image to never appear. “I am of the spiritual belief that things don’t happen to me, that they happen for me,” Washington says. “So I asked myself, why did this happen this morning? And I felt like it was God inviting me to remember that this is not about a picture in Times Square and a billboard. It’s about a conversation and honoring my beautiful parents. Don’t get caught up.” She adds with a sheepish, knowing smile, “So I might try to get the picture tomorrow, but…”
Before the evening’s conclusion, Washington explained why now was the time to share parts of her closely-guarded life with the world. “In the Scandal years I could never have written this book. Because there was all of this attention on [the fact that], it’s been almost 40 years since a Black woman has led a network drama. I was in my early thirties at the time, so not in my lifetime had I seen it,” she says. “There was this sense that if we didn’t get it right, it was going to be another 40 years before they let a Black woman be the lead of a drama. So I felt like I had to maintain a level of excellence that said, we are capable, we are leaders, we are perfect.”
Washington continued, “Olivia Pope was, in many ways, an anti-hero. So, off the show, I felt I had to be an upstanding citizen because there she is sleeping around with the president, right? So, this vulnerability comes at a time where I feel like we have so many narratives about what Black womanhood is. It felt safer to enter this space and tell this truth and not have it misunderstood as all of what we are.”
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