'Thicker than Water': Kerry Washington opens up about family secrets, struggles in memoir

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Kerry Washington wanted to be perfect.

In her memoir, "Thicker Than Water" (312 pp, out now from Hachette Book Group), the Emmy-nominated actress known for her roles in ABC's "Scandal," "Django Unchained" and "Save the Last Dance" writes about her life, her career and her lifelong journey to find herself.

She opens up about her family and early life, finding her footing in acting and her personal struggles, such as facing her insecurities and being what she wants and not what she thinks others want her to be.

Here are some of the top revelations shared from Kerry Washington's memoir:

Kerry Washington's father and other family secrets

Washington's memoir brings family secrets to light. She talks about her grandparents and her parents, for whom she is an only child.

Her family was one that "colored inside the lines," she writes. "We were innovators, entrepreneurs, but we were not rule breakers." They were also great pretenders, to each other and to the world. They acted like the family wasn't suffering, that everything was fine.

Actress Kerry Washington at the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2021.
Actress Kerry Washington at the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2021.

She also talks about the fraught relationship between her parents, Earl and Valerie Washington, and what they dreamed about, fought about and carried as burdens.

At a young age, Washington began to feel anxiety around her parents' expectations. She decided she wanted to be perfect because she thought perfection was what would make her parents happy.

While she didn't lack for much growing up, she writes, Washington longed for "an authentic connection with my parents."

But, "one of the consequences of growing up in a household with half-truths is that there is no space for trust to thrive."

She learned her father was the subject of an IRS investigation involving real estate, drug dealers and tax evasion for which he planned to plead guilty – all because they wanted her to write a letter to the judge hoping it would help with the case. She wrote the letter, despite feeling her parents' attorney knew more about them than she did.

In April 2018, Kerry Washington's parents called her and said they had to talk, that it couldn't wait.

As she began that year to record an episode of the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" with Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., her father began experiencing panic attacks.

Actress Kerry Washington's memoir "Thicker Than Water" is available now.
Actress Kerry Washington's memoir "Thicker Than Water" is available now.

With the appearance looming and unable to avoid the truth any longer, her parents sat her down and told her the truth about her conception: They had struggled to conceive so they opted for artificial insemination and they didn't know – and didn't want to know – anything about the man except that he was healthy and Black.

But her parents' clear pain in the revelation made Washington feel something else, she writes: "Excited, elated, alive, electric."

She liked the truth about it, she liked that this secret would force them to push aside false pretenses.

It would make room for unconditional love, she told her parents.

Kerry Washington details abuse and learning to protect herself

When Washington was a child, she knew something had happened to her at a sleepover, but she wasn't sure.

She pieced clues together over a series of other sleepovers and realized that a boy she didn't know very well who was new to her friend circle had been inappropriately touching her while she slept. She calls him the "frozen boy" for his response to when she caught and confronted him.

She decided to not tell the story until now because she realized that while she doesn't blame the perpetrator she had been prioritizing "his youth and innocence ... his emotional vulnerabilities" over her own and that she owed the little girl she was more, that she deserved to have her story told.

She realized that she was struggling to trust herself, too.

'Being an actor is a great blessing'

Even if Washington was struggling in her own life, with insecurities or disordered eating or thoughts of suicide, she could find freedom and power in her roles.

She writes about how she would study the characters she was cast as, she would imagine their boundaries, their background. Her dedication to her craft is what gave her hope.

Even as she worked to not become stuck in roles as "the white girl's best friend" and instead a leading lady, it was the want of characters who were in a story of their own and less about being a star.

"Being an actor is a great blessing," she writes "because you get to step into a character, usually at the most pivotal points in their life – you learn their biggest lessons, integrate them into your own understanding and, if you're lucky, move on to another character in another transformative moment."

Why 'Scandal' was so important

"Olivia Pope became an icon," Washington writes. For many in the Black community, this character "represented a version of Black excellence that allowed us to see ourselves in our smarted and most powerful forms. … She was smart, she was beautiful, she was messy."

Washington said the complexity of this character was so human, while also being an aspirational role model.

"Scandal" was also when Washington says she broke a self-imposed embargo on watching herself. She would tune in during regular watch parties and live tweet along with others.

Washington credits social media with helping build the show into a must-watch event during its first season.

She also details how "Scandal" was the first crew to be allowed to shoot footage of the Truman Balcony of the White House – where so many scenes would take place, such as the final conversation between Olivia Pope and Mellie about the future.

Washington learned life lessons from her characters

Even with the early success of "Scandal," Washington says she was feeling lost.

When she wasn't Olivia, who was Kerry Washington? She felt like she had become "an avatar for progress and inclusion and fashion and fame." Her circle of trust, she writes, became smaller, as did her worldview.

But while she struggled to settle herself, to be more open and honest with herself and her colleagues, she turned to her character to become a better leader, to believe in herself, to put aside any imposter syndrome or fear of vulnerability.

One role at a time, Kerry has been finding her truth.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kerry Washington opens up about family secrets, insecurities in memoir