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Book Review

In new memoir, Viola Davis shares feeling ‘invisible’ growing up in poverty in Central Falls

The actress found her calling when she saw Cicely Tyson appear in ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,’ launching a career that led from Rhode Island to Hollywood.

Viola Davis discusses her book "Finding Me" at the 92nd Street Y on April 27 in New York.Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

You’ve likely heard that award-winning actor Viola Davis grew up poor in Central Falls, R.I.

That is the story in a G-rated nutshell.

In her new memoir, “Finding Me: A Memoir,” Davis shares a more candid and graphic account. Her story is at times shocking. The trauma and hurt still feel raw.

The Oprah’s Book Club pick, peppered with swears and off-color language, reads like an unfiltered and deeply intimate diary of Davis’s life.

"Finding Me" by Viola Davis. Courtesy of HarperCollins

Born in 1965 in her maternal grandparents’ home in St. Matthews, S.C. (“it was and still is a plantation. Not a farm,” she writes), Davis was the fifth of six kids. Her father, Dan Davis, was a horse groomer, and he and Davis’s mother, Mae Alice Davis, moved the family to Central Falls when Viola was a baby “because two of the biggest racetracks in the country were in Rhode Island,” Davis writes.

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In Central Falls, the family lived in squalor at 128 Washington St., and Viola enrolled in kindergarten at Broadstreet School.

To this day, “128 is code for Hell,” she writes. In Rhode Island, “We were ‘po.’ That’s a level lower than poor,” she writes. The “food stamps that were never enough to fully feed us … I don’t ever remember toilets working in our apartments. I became very skilled at filling up a bucket and pouring it into the toilet to flush it. We would either go unwashed or would just wipe ourselves down … I never, ever went into the kitchen. Rats had taken over.”

They later lived on Park Street. At the local grocery, Gabe’s Store, the family could run a line of credit, but things got “complicated” because parents often asked the owner for cash loans. “When we were really hungry, though, Gabe’s was the easiest store to steal food from,” she recalls candidly.

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Violence went hand-in-hand with poverty for Davis. She recalled her father beating her mother often, she writes, detailing a time when he smashed a glass against his mother’s head.

“I grabbed my sister Danielle with one arm and put my other arm between my parents,” Davis writes. “Up until this time, we had never tried to stop them.”

It didn’t work. “He just swung his hand and smashed the glass on the side of my mom’s head and I saw the glass slice the upper side of her face near her eye and blood just squirted out.”

Their apartment building “caught fire so many times,” she recalls. Once, Davis was too scared to jump from the fire escape stairs and stood there, frozen, after the rest of her family had escaped.

“We stayed at 128 for another two years. And yes, it remained a firetrap. But in my mind, no one cares about the conditions in which the unwanted live. You’re invisible,” she writes.

Davis “found her calling” as an actor when she saw Cicely Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

She acted for the first time in a skit with her sisters in a contest at Jenks Park, sponsored by the Central Falls Parks and Recreation Department. “It was a big deal,” she writes. “The whole city was buzzing…Reporters and photographers from the Pawtucket Times were there.”

But she really fell in love with acting through Upward Bound. “Usually there were 48 students from various communities in Rhode Island,” she writes. ”We were all first-generation, higher-education-bound students … each with their own crosses to bear.”

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After graduating from Central Falls High School, Davis received a full scholarship to Rhode Island College. Terrified of living in poverty if she pursued acting as a career, she took up English, and fell into a major “depression about trading in my dream.”

One night her freshman year, her pregnant sister, mother — bloodied and bruised — and little sister who “reeked of urine” showed up at the dorms. They asked her to take the girl in for the night.

“I barely had money for weekend meals when the dining hall was closed, but I somehow fed her. That’s all I could do. I was trying to find my way, get my foothold, and also throw a rope to my family.”

Davis found her way back to acting, graduating from RIC with a degree in theater in 1988.

In her memoir, as Davis explores what shaped her life, she recalled an “aha” moment on the set of “Suicide Squad,” when actor Will Smith asked her, “Viola, who are you?”

“I just blurted it out. ‘I’m the little girl who would run after school every day in third grade because these boys hated me because I was not pretty. Because I was Black.’” she told him.

“This is the memory that defined me. More than the bed-wetting, poverty, hunger, sexual abuse, and domestic violence,” she writes. “I defined myself by the fear and rage of those boys. I felt ugly. I felt unwanted.”

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“There is an emotional abandonment that comes with poverty and being Black,” she writes. “The weight of generational trauma and having to fight for your basic needs doesn’t leave room for anything else. You just believe you’re the leftovers.”

After RIC, Davis attended The Juilliard School in New York before returning to Rhode Island to do shows at Trinity Rep. A role in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” took her to Chicago and Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.

Davis has gone on to win Oscar, Emmy, and Tony awards. By 2012, TIME named Davis one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. The street near her old high school was renamed “Viola Davis Way” in 2016. But she counts playing Annalise Keating on Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away with Murder” as a major turning point in her life.

“That beautiful moment of finding out that I got the lead role in ‘How to Get Away’ was mixed with a f—up moment of feeling that I didn’t deserve it.”

Still, she reasoned, she had two choices: Try to change herself to fit the ideals of others, or stay true to herself.

“I was at the point in my life where I chose me,” she writes. “I was finding me.”

FINDING ME: A MEMOIR

By Viola Davis

HarperOne, 304 pages, $28.99


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.