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Weinstein Books
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updated 11/9/2012 1:50:33 PM ET 2012-11-09T18:50:33

Fox Business Network anchor Melissa Francis, known for her role as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie," writes about how her success was fueled by pressure from her mother in her new book. Here’s an excerpt.


She pulled to the side of the road and told me to get out. “Find your own way home. And another place to live while you’re at it.”

With a deep breath, I pushed the release button on my seatbelt and slowly tumbled out. This had been coming for years. I almost welcomed it. I was relieved that it had finally happened, and I wouldn’t have to wonder when anymore. I’d watched my mom throw my older sister out of the car countless times. Tiffany would walk sadly, pathetically, along the sidewalk until my mom finally circled the car around and picked her up, waiting longer and driving farther each time, to intensify the humiliation.

Now it was my turn. I was eight years old.

I watched the car disappear into the distance and then around the corner. I had mouthed off. Even as I did it, I knew I was baiting the shark.

The moment the brown station wagon was out of sight, I ran up onto the golf course that bordered the suburban street and lay down behind a bush. This was my turf, where my sister and I had stolen golf balls in play and then hidden while their owners searched furiously for them. The same spot where we’d sold watered-down, bitter lemonade to initially charmed, then disappointed players. I knew every blade of grass.

Mom took her time, but, eventually, she circled back looking for me. No, I was not slowly walking along the sidewalk, sulking the way Tiffany did.

My face slowly flushed as I saw Mom drive by a second time, looking increasingly frantic. She circled the block a third time as I lay there, paralyzed. I wanted to run out from my hiding place, but I knew she would be so furious, there would be no happy ending. What did I want? An apology from her for throwing me out of the car? Maybe just an end to the domination. It didn’t matter. I was hiding in the grass of the Porter Ranch Golf Course, and I couldn’t picture how the deadlock would end.

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The station wagon stopped circling. I looked at the empty street with a rush of victory. I didn’t know what to do next, but then again, neither did she. I drifted off to sleep, then awoke with a start, and the bizarre reality of what had happened flooded back. Without a watch, I had no idea how much time had passed since I’d left the car, but it was growing dark and I was starving.

The long walk home stretched out in front of me, with an uncertain reception at its end. I turned homeward anyway. I had no money. I didn’t have a jacket. I hadn’t planned to run away from home.

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Pausing at the mouth of our quiet cul-de-sac, I racked my brain for other options. There were none.

As quietly as I could, I turned the painted gold knob on our large, brown oak Spanish-style front doors. If you held the doorknob and pushed at the same time, the door swung open silently. I wasn’t ready to announce my return. I heard both my parents talking in the kitchen. I decided to show myself and get it over with. Whatever “it” was.

Casually I strode through the narrow doorway into the kitchen, my father to my right, in his usual spot, drinking a glass of wine and talking. Mom was straight in front of me, facing him with her back to the sink. Dad didn’t really look in my direction as my sneakers squeaked across the tile floor, but kept talking as if he didn’t notice the sudden electric charge in the air, as if he didn’t know that his younger daughter had been missing somewhere in the California suburbs for the better part of four hours. Clearly, he hadn’t been informed.

I walked to the fridge, as casually as I could, my pounding heart muffling Dad’s words in my ears. Mom locked eyes with me. A look passed over her face, a mixture of relief, anger, and what I chose to interpret as a shred of respect.

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“What are you doing?” she asked in a voice laced with so many other questions. Who was going to tell on whom?

“I’m hungry. I’m going to take a sandwich to the TV room.” Drunk with fear and triumph, I felt my fingers tremble as I smeared peanut butter on an English muffin. I hated the prospect of cold bread, but I didn’t have the stomach to wait fifty years for the toaster to work. I slapped a lid on my sandwich and walked out of the room before my legs crumbled beneath me.

No. I was not Tiffany. I was not the same.

This was half my life. When we were at home, my sister and I lived in a state of constant wariness, always reading Mom’s mood and bracing for impact when that mood turned ominous. She was mercurial, domineering, but also devoted. She took her job of molding us into outstanding examples of young American girlhood very seriously, and she brooked no nonsense when we resisted her efforts. We were treated to riding lessons, skating lessons, the best schools my parents could afford. But her vigilance was also a leash, one she could pull tight enough to strangle.

In the other half of my life, Mom and I were allies. She had established for both Tiffany and me thriving careers as child actors, and in that context her ambition for us — her unrelenting desire to see us succeed, and release our family from the banality of middle-class life — felt more like a warm rush of motherly support.

When Mom and I worked together, we were an unbeatable team. “The other kids wasted their gas” was the rallying cry I invented for auditions. The routine was the same. Mom would pick me up from school, OshKosh overalls hanging in the right rear car window paired with a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Add red bows to the ends of my long braids, and that was the uniform that had landed dozens of roles already.

When I saw the outfit swinging in the window, I knew I had no choice — it was time to shine. But I also knew I would be treated like a princess to make sure I was prepped and happy to perform.

The routine had given birth to a natural competitive spirit. I wanted to win. The pushing, the priming, had taken hold. I loved to succeed, in school, at auditions, anywhere Mom wound me up and set me loose.

On one unremarkable afternoon just weeks after I’d been thrown out of the car, the day’s audition was for a part in a successful television show set in Midwest in the 1800s. We went through the usual motions: show up, sign in, wait with a dozen other eight-year-olds to be called in and asked to read a few lines of script. But this time, as Mom sat beside me, she seemed unusually alert and expectant.

When I came out of the audition she was particularly solicitous, which perversely made me hold back. “Was Michael Landon in the room?” Her eyes were wide with hope.

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I had no idea who that was. Clearly the right answer was “yes,” but why not make her work a little? “Who is that?” I asked.

“You know! Brown curly hair, handsome...”

This meant nothing to me.

“He’s Pa!” she exclaimed.

I honestly didn’t know whom she was referring to. I was still trying to figure out why the people in the audition room had made me speak the way they did. Who says “reckin”?

The day I won that part may have been the highlight of Mom’s life. Our two years on Little House on the Prairie were without question her happiest. There was no reason for me to talk back, or for her to take a scissor to my favorite shirt in front of me in response. I cried on cue, the adoration on the set enveloped me. Rebukes from Mom were short-lived, lest I show up for work uncooperative. But in truth, we were both so happy there was nothing to struggle over. She woke me at 5 am to make an early call and we worked well into the evening, but I loved the sense of purpose an acting job gave me, as well as the sense of accomplishment, and, of course, feeling so very special.

Still, as I look back at those long days when the two of us lived one gilded life, I know that not everyone in our family basked in my limelight. My sister fell deeper and deeper into shadows. I had no idea how she got to and from school during that time. We never saw her.

Excerpted from Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter: A Memoir. Copyright © 2012 by Melissa Francis. Excerpted with permission of Weinstein Books.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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