The 56-year-old actress bares it all in the emotional book; looking back on a traumatic childhood filled with poverty, abuse and heartbreak. The Tony, Oscar and Emmy winner recounts living in a condemned building, vicious bullying by boys who threw rocks at her for being Black, enduring more racism as she made her mark within the predominantly white entertainment industry and eventually finding joy in the life she built with her husband, Julius Tennon.
Speaking with ET's Kevin Frazier, Davis admitted that reliving her past for the book was "ultimately very cathartic" and it helped her understand herself from a new perspective.
"I felt like I was in the middle of a really weird existential crisis during the pandemic, a crisis of meaning," she shared. "Like, 'What is this supposed to mean?' And by revisiting my childhood, the purest form of who I was, I sort of began to understand just who Viola was from the very beginning before the world touched her. When I had dreams and hopes even with all of the trauma going on. The thing about it is the Viola of yesterday, even as hard as it looks, she survived. She made it through [and] I needed her now."
Keep reading to see some of the biggest bombshells from Davis' memoir.
She was born on a plantation.
The actress was born the fifth of six children in St. Matthews, South Carolina, in her grandparents' house, where her grandfather was a sharecropper on a plantation. They lived in a one-room house with no running water or indoor toilets.
"And yes, it was and still is a plantation," Davis writes. "Not a farm. Drive down the long, dusty road leading into the 160 or so acres and you’ll come to the big, white, beautiful plantation home. Drive a little farther and there’s the tiny, one-room church. An even farther venture will deliver you to the doorsteps of the sharecroppers’ houses, outhouses, outdoor showers, and a well. My maternal grandparents, Mozell and Henry Logan, like the other sharecroppers, had a one-room house with a big fireplace."
She adds, "Their daughter, MaMama [Davis' mother], the oldest of eighteen children, left school after the eighth grade because she got pregnant, but also because she was beaten a lot in school. I mean beaten to where it broke skin and she bled... My mother pushed on with her life, nonetheless. She was married and had her first child, my brother, John Henry, at age fifteen. She had my sister Dianne when she was eighteen, Anita at nineteen, Deloris at twenty, and me at twenty-two. Years later, at age thirty-four, she had my sister Danielle."
Her father was a serial cheater and abusive to his family.
Davis witnessed her father, Dan, regularly abuse and cheat on her mother, whose real name was Mae Alice, during their 48 years of marriage.
Describing herself as "a keen observer of the world," Davis recalls seeing her father take his rage out on her mother, a man who endured years of abuse in his childhood home and went on to suffer indignities at the hands of the racist horse owners he worked under.
"What I saw in my father was a man who, alone and single, could’ve kept his check and spent it all on women and booze. But he wasn’t alone," she shares. "During my childhood my father had five children to feed (minus my sister Danielle who is almost twelve years younger than me). Every penny he worked for had to go to us. Even with the hard labor, enduring the disrespect from white horse owners, it was never enough. So, he raged."
Davis reveals that her father had multiple affairs that he made no attempts at hiding, vividly recalling meeting one of his mistresses, a "large woman" named Patricia. She tells readers, "The affair with Patricia ended when MaMama found out he was at the local bar with her. She told us that she would be right back. She left our apartment and went down to the bar and slapped the piss out of Patricia, who fell right off the barstool. My father was livid and slapped my mom."
"Ironically, Patricia wrote my mom a letter explaining what a 'no good a**hole' my daddy was. She kept the letter under her mattress for a long time and would pull it out to read. It would always make her depressed," she adds.
Davis admits that she and her siblings hoped their father would leave, but MaMama didn't want him to. The How to Get Away With Murder actress recounts her older sister Dianne's retelling of a fight their parents had where their father asked their mother to tell him if she wanted him to stay or leave.
"My sister was sending telepathic messages in her mind, 'Please tell him to go! Tell him to go, Mama,'" Davis shares. "But MaMama just screamed, 'I want you to stay!' It was a choice that had resounding repercussions. Abuse elicits so many memories of trauma that embed themselves into behavior that is hard to shake. It could be something that happened forty years ago, but it remains alive, present."
The actress notes that her mother has a heart "that simply is loyal" and admits she hoped that MaMama would someday leave her father.
"I wish that MaMama could have acquired the tools to imagine a life free from that sort of pain. Rejecting everything her family had instilled in her about marriage and never giving up, never leaving your man even if he cheats, putting up with abuse," she writes. "I imagined that if she had the language and the wherewithal, she would’ve simply said, 'Help me.' 'Guide me.' But even grown with multiple children, she was still that little fifteen-year-old Black girl from the backwoods of South Carolina who got pregnant and married before she could legally drive."
She was relentlessly bullied for being Black and poor
Davis grew up in the predominantly white town of Central Falls, Rhode Island, where her family moved two months after she was born. The Fences actress defines their life of poverty as "po."
"That’s a level lower than poor. I’ve heard some of my friends say, 'We were poor, too, but I just didn’t know it until I got older.' We were poor and we knew it," Davis writes. "There was absolutely no disputing it. It was reflected in the apartments we lived in, where we shopped for clothes and furniture -- the St. Vincent de Paul -- the food stamps that were never enough to fully feed us, and the welfare checks. We were 'po.'"
Davis recalls a childhood spent in a dilapidated, condemned building infested with rats, almost never having a phone, living without hot water, gas and proper plumbing. She admits that the family would either go unwashed or try to wipe themselves, and laundry would go unwashed "for weeks."
"That period of my life was filled with shame," the actress writes. "The feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have stage fright or humiliation, that was the shame of 128. Shame completely eviscerates you, destroys any sense of pride you may have in yourself."
She adds, "But in my mind, no one cares about the conditions in which the unwanted live. You’re invisible, a blame factor that allows the more advantaged to be let off the hook from your misery... There is an emotional abandonment that comes with poverty and being Black. 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."
The actress reveals she was bullied "constantly," referring to it as another bit of trauma she experienced as a child. It made her angry and that anger birthed an attitude and competitiveness she called "my only weapons. My arsenal."
"And when I tell you I needed every tool of that arsenal every day, I’m not exaggerating," she writes, recounting how a group of her white classmates made it a ritual to chase her after school, throwing whatever they could find at her. Another classmate, a boy from the Cape Verde Isles who was Black and Portuguese, "and as Black as I was" but didn't like to be associated with Black Americans, would lead the crew.
"When that end-of-school bell rang, it was off to the races, running literally to save my life," she shares. "For the gang of boys, it was sadistic-fun time. Every day it was the same madness. The same trauma. Me, taking off like Wilma Rudolph or Flo-Jo, and them tight on my heels. While chasing me down, they would pick up anything they could find on the side of the road to throw at me: rocks, bricks, tree branches, batteries, pine cones, and anything else their devious eyes spied. But running me down and throwing projectiles at me wasn’t enough for them. Their vitriolic screams were aimed at the target of their hate. They threw, 'You ugly, Black n****r. You’re so f**king ugly. F**k you!'"
The chase eventually ended when Davis took her mother's advice and threatened to "jug" one of the boys with MaMama's sewing needle, but the trauma of being hunted and humiliated has never left her.
She and her sisters were sexually abused by their brother.
"Sexual abuse back in the day didn't have a name. The abusers were called 'dirty old men' and the abused were called 'fast' or 'heifers,'" Davis writes, a concise summation of the victim-blaming and shaming that still occurs today. "It was shrouded in silence and invisible trauma and shame. It is hard to process how pervasive it was. What made us sitting ducks was our lack of supervision and lack of knowledge. It was a different time."
The First Lady actress explains that the abuse ranged from "random old men on the street" who used children's love for earning a quick quarter to old men taking advantage of unsupervised kids left alone during a party.
"Making matters worse and even more confusing, I was the one being humiliated, not the man who felt me up in front of everyone," Davis writes of a specific incident that resulted in her being teased by other kids after being assaulted by a stranger. "I was just eight but felt dirty, spoiled. Even more insidiously painful, I was ashamed at how I felt, not just what happened."
She goes on to recount being left alone with her older three sisters, Deloris, Anita and Dianne, and their brother in the family's apartment where "sexual curiosity would cross the line."
"He would chase us. We would lose. And eventually other inappropriate behavior occurred that had a profound effect. I compartmentalized much of this at the time," she writes. "I stored it in a place in my psyche that felt safely hidden. By hiding it I could actually pretend it didn’t happen. But it did! Once again more secrets. Layers upon layers of deep, dark ones. Trauma, sh*t, piss, and mortar mixed with memories that have been filtered, edited for survival, and entangled with generational secrets. Somewhere buried underneath all that waste lives me, the me fighting to breathe, the me wanting so badly to feel alive."
"When I look back at what I’ve seen, my only thoughts are that it’s amazing how much a human body can endure," she adds.
She was constantly battling colorism and sexism at the beginning of her career.
Once Davis graduated from Juilliard, already signed to an agent, she did as artists do and followed her passion. Despite already being a decorated and acclaimed actress, she was constantly losing roles because of her appearance.
"My other 'aha' moment was the power, potency, and lifeforce of the one-two punch of colorism and sexism," she writes. "Almost every role I auditioned for were drug-addicted mothers. I auditioned for a few roles that were low-budget for a woman of color, but all of them were described as light-skinned. All! The others were soap operas where I would be sitting in the audition waiting room with models."
She explains, "Black rom-coms were happening. There were awesome shows on TV that displayed the cute Black girl who had autonomy and material wealth. But none of those women looked like me. An agent told me the word all the casting directors used when on the phone: 'interchangeable.' That means even if you are a little darker, you have to have smaller, classical (read whiter) features. That wasn’t me."
Davis notes that it wasn't just white executives with this ideology but also Black artists and producers who adopted the same way of thinking because "it becomes the key to success."
"Culturally speaking, many believe it and they have adopted the belief that if you are dark, you’re uglier, harder, more masculine, more maternal than your lighter-skinned counterparts. It’s the paper bag test mentality that many still refuse to believe," she says. "Studios weren’t churning out great roles for Black actors, at least not Black actresses my shade. It was either a great role or a good payday or a good profile or just a friggin’ job. You have no leverage if you do not work."
Davis explains that her agent would send her in to audition for roles asking for Black actresses that were described as "pretty" or "attractive," and she would "never, ever get those roles, even if the producers were Black."
And then she landed the part of Vera in Seven Guitars, the 1996 play that would shift the tides.
She struggled with uterine fibroids and had a hysterectomy
Following the success of Seven Guitars, Davis was finally able to afford health insurance. Before that she was only able to afford cheap clinics that could handle the comprehensive care that she needed for her fibroids, anemia and alopecia.
"My fibroids were so bad I looked six months pregnant," she recalls. "I was so anemic from constant bleeding that I would fall asleep standing up in the subway... Finally, I decided my fibroids needed to be removed. I had them removed during Thanksgiving and I had nine of them. They were enormous."
The operation offered her an opportunity to conceive naturally -- something that she had a finite window to achieve in her early 30s.
Earlier this month, Davis revealed in a New York Times profile that after her initial fibroid surgery, she later had both a myomectomy to remove 33 fibroids and a hysterectomy while being operated on for an abscessed Fallopian tube. She recalled telling the doctor, "If I wake up and my uterus is still here, I'm going to kick your a**."
She met her now-husband just when she needed him.
When speaking with ET, Davis said she found Tennon after being advised to pray for what she wanted in a man.
"When I got down on my knees [and] I had done enough work that when I asked God for what I wanted, I knew what I wanted," she said, adding that she asked for "a man who was accountable and a man who just loved me."
"I don't think there is any way to go through life without having someone by your side that loves you," she added. "I was just watching Brené Brown's [HBO Max docuseries] Atlas of the Heart and her big thing was you have to connect but you cannot walk in front of someone and [you] can’t walk behind them. You gotta learn to walk side by side, and that’s how it feels to have someone in your life who loves you. That you're walking side by side with someone because that is all you have in the end."
The couple married (the first of three ceremonies) in June 2003 and adopted their daughter, Genesis, in 2011. Davis is also stepmother to Tennon's two children from previous relationships.
In the book, Davis writes, "Julius is and was a protector and an awesome life partner. He is motivated by his love for me and his fierce protectiveness of our life. I see that in him even now, after twenty-one years. Toni Morrison in TheBluest Eye says that 'a person’s love is only as good as the person; a stupid person loves stupidly, a violent man loves violently.' The love of a man who puts you first, who is evolved and who always wants to be better for you, is Julius’s love capacity."
She says 'there is no out' when it comes to your past
Davis recounts a moment when her friend, Edwina, asked how she got to where she is today.
She writes, "How did I claw my way out of poverty?... There is no out. Every painful memory, every mentor, every friend and foe served as a chisel, a leap pad that has shaped 'ME!' The imperfect but blessed sculpture that is Viola is still growing and still being chiseled."
She explains that her growth comes from letting go of the shame that consumed her for so long.
"I own everything that has ever happened to me. The parts that were a source of shame are actually my warrior fuel," she says. "I see people -- the way they walk, talk, laugh, and grieve, and their silence -- in a way that is hyperfocused because of my past. I’m an artist because there’s no separation from me and every human being that has passed through the world including my mom. I have a great deal of compassion for other people, but mostly for myself. That would not be the case if I did not reconcile that little eight-year-old girl and FIND ME."
"I’m holding her now. My eight-year-old self. Holding her tight," she concludes. "She is squealing and reminding me, 'Don’t worry! I’m here to beat anybody’s a** who messes with our joy! Viola, I got this.'"