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Actress Melissa Gilbert of “Little House on the Prairie” was America’s sweetheart and many presumed she enjoyed a blessed childhood. But in reality, the talented star’s home life was a far cry from the idyllic life she portrayed in the popular TV show. In her new memoir, “Prairie Tale,” Melissa Gilbert shares her story of growing up in front of the cameras, dealing with a complicated family, overcoming addictions, and how she finally learned to move on. An excerpt:
My mother was nearly a month past her husband’s funeral when she turned her attention back to my desire to write a memoir. It wasn’t just a desire; there was an actual book deal, and she was against it. If the book were on any topic other than myself, she would’ve already been circulating word that “Melissa is writing the best book ever.” But this was different. It was about me. Which meant it was also about her. And she was against telling that story if she wasn’t the one doing the telling.
She had tried numerous times to talk me out of it, but her efforts were interrupted by the death of my stepfather, Hollywood publicist Warren Cowan. Now she was back on point.
She showed up at my house one afternoon carrying a large box packed with news clippings, ads, letters, and diaries of mine. She set it down on the kitchen table with a thud and announced with a smile as deadly as a pearl-handled Derringer that the contents would be helpful.
“For your book,” she said, pronouncing the word ‘book’ as if were a Petrie dish containing the Ebola virus that I was going to let out in the world.
I marveled at her gamesmanship — and at her. She looked a decade younger than her age, which, if revealed, would be taken as a bigger crime than revealing Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. Her hair was blonde and coiffed. It’s sufficient and necessary to say she was strikingly attractive. She looked great whether going to her weekly appointment at the hair salon or movie night at the Playboy mansion, which she and my step-father had attended for years.
I also cringed at the layers at play here in my kitchen. I thought, thank goodness I have four sons. The mother-daughter relationship is one of mankind’s great mysteries, and for womankind it can be hellaciously complicated. My mother and I are quintessential examples of the rewards and frustrations and the joys and infuriations it can yield. By and large, we are close. At times, though, she had rendered me speechless with her craftiness. Now was one of those times.
While I sifted through the box packed with sacred bits from my life, my mother offered sly commentary and full-on reinterpretations of the contents. Ah, the contempt and fear and anger she hid behind her helpful smile.
To me, at forty-four years old, my book was a search for truth and identity. To her, it was — if only you could have seen the look on her face, you’d fully understand — the ultimate betrayal.
I moved on. I made tea. We talked about some of the condolences about Warren that continued to stream in. We mentioned which friends checked on her, the dinner invitations that kept her busy as ever, and of course the latest comings and goings about my husband, Bruce, and my sons. Finally, after we had caught each other up on everything, she returned to the book.
“You can write the book if you want,” she said with a nonchalant shrug.
“Thank you,” I replied. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“I can understand why you want to write it,” my mother said. “You write it and get it all out of you.”
“You have my blessing.”
“Thank you again.”
“But,” she said, “the classy thing would be to burn it after you’re finished.”
* * *
My life was a mystery even as I lived it.
Several months earlier, I had called my mother and asked if I’d ever had a conversion ceremony to make me officially Jewish. Although I was raised Jewish, my upbringing didn’t include any formal religious education or training. We celebrated Passover, and other major Jewish holidays. But we also celebrated Christmas and Easter. It’s why I always emphasized the “ish” in “Jewish.”
As I got older, though, I grew more observant and intrigued by a more personal relationship with God. One day as I discussed this with a friend who had converted to Judaism as an adult, she asked if I recalled my conversion ceremony.
“Huh?” I said.
My friend explained that adults wanting to switch to Judaism from another religion had to go through a conversion process. It included reading and discussion among friends; a deeper course of investigation with a rabbi; then study, immersion, and approval by a board, culminating with a public ceremony and celebration.
Even though I was just a day-old when my parents adopted me, my friend explained my parents would still have needed a rabbi to perform a ceremony and a blessing to make me officially Jewish. That’s when I asked my mother if she recalled doing the ceremony.
“Why do you need to know now?” she asked.
“Because if I never had a conversion ceremony, then I’m not really Jewish,” I replied. “And if I’m not Jewish —”
“But you’re Jewish,” she interrupted.
“Who says?” I asked.
“Mom, believe it or not, you are not the final authority on this issue.”
“I’m your mother,” she said. “And I’m Jewish.”
“But my birth parents” —
“We adopted you at birth.”
“Was there a conversion ceremony?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“You don’t remember?”
When it came to my childhood, my mother’s memory was more reliable than the Apple-S command on my laptop, so I knew she had the information filed away somewhere. I switched tactics. I asked if she remembered what I did for my second birthday. She did, and described the party she threw me. I then asked if she remembered my first birthday party. She recounted that, too, including the flavor of the cake and the bakery where she bought it.
“Mom,” I said with a dramatic pause worthy of the best courtroom lawyer, “you can remember my first and second birthday parties as if they happened an hour ago. But you can’t remember whether you hired a rabbi and had a conversion ceremony for me. How is that?”
“Maybe I didn’t have one,” she said. “I don’t really know. What’s the big deal?”
“It means I’m not Jewish,” I said. “It means I’m not who I thought I was for all these years. It changes everything.”
* * *
OK, I exaggerated. It wouldn’t change everything. When I hung up the phone, I was still going to be me: dressed in sweats, juggling car-pool duties, going to meetings, planning dinner, trying to wedge more into my day than twenty-four hours permitted. In one sense, my life would be fundamentally unchanged.
However, in another sense, my inner compass had already started to spin wildly out of control. Was there a conversion ceremony? That was a simple question. Was I who I thought I was? Not such a simple question.
Welcome to my not-so-simple life. My mother, whom I love dearly, has continually revised my life story within the context of a complicated family history that includes more than the usual share of divorce, step-children, dysfunction, and obfuscation, and I’ve spent most of my adult life attempting to deconstruct that history and separate fact from fiction, especially as the facts pertain to … me!
For example, my mother was at the helm of everything, including my career, my food intake, and how I dressed — my whole life. I never questioned her or rebelled. Speaking out against the family was the ultimate form of disloyalty, and disloyalty was not tolerated. It was like the mafia. Although I never feared getting whacked, I was always just a little afraid of being sent back to wherever it was I came from.
So an interview back when I was ten years old is likely to have me saying that everything is wonderful, everyone in my life is fantastic, I am happy, and life is perfect. But most of that was untrue. Just as in an interview three months after my mom’s second husband suffered a brain hemorrhage I told a reporter that I had my crying moments, but I was pretty tough about that sort of thing.
The truth is that I never cried over my mom’s second husband. I was never close to him. I never liked him. I didn’t have any relationship with him. I was dragged to the hospital when he was sick to add cachét so the nurses would take better care of him. I know it was difficult for my mother, but I don’t remember being upset about anything at the time.
Could I say that to the press? Absolutely not.
A large part of my life has been an illusion — not an illusion crafted through carefully controlled media, but more like light going through a prism in that there’s one story bent in numerous directions. There’s my mother’s version, there’s the one in the press, there’s the one I lived, and there’s the one I’m still trying to figure out.
However, there are some facts. For instance, I am a twice-married, now-sober former-child actor and mother of four. I acquired all those hyphenates by living the way I wanted to or needed to, hopefully with some grace and dignity. I made my share of mistakes, which I think of as the stones I stepped on to get to where I am today, and through luck, hard work, serious reflection, and a desire to face the truth about myself, I ended up at a place where now I enjoy the peace that comes from allowing myself to not be perfect.
Such was not always the case. My mother, beautiful, delicate, and deluded, saw me as the pillar of perfection — and told me that I was the world’s best actor, the best wife, the best … at everything. I knew I wasn’t, but I lived my life as though I had to be the best lest I disappoint her.
Today, I just want to be my best and I don’t fear disappointing anyone other than myself and my family. I’m in love with a good man, and my children are brave, funny, and compassionate people. I love the lines around my eyes, but I hate the way my cheeks are falling; I’m carrying around an extra ten pounds and enjoying it (most of the time). I suppose I am truly fat and happy.
I play drums, surf and meditate. I’m in a peaceful state of mind most of the time. Though I am lucky enough to earn a living at a job I love, I’m also thinking about going back to school to get my RN or LVN in end-of-life pediatric care. I’m much better going forward than backwards or sideways. I have no real plan, just general dreams.
It wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always at peace. I wasn’t always content to let life happen.
For my first couple of decades, there was fairy dust sprinkled over everything in my life courtesy of my mother. According to her, and via her, through the press, everything was sparkly, beautiful, and perfect. Everyone was well behaved. We didn’t have any problems. We never had colds.
In reality, things were quite different … and not okay. One of the first times I recall opening my eyes to this was when Rob Lowe and I were planning our wedding. Our plans were becoming ridiculously overblown and we were even talking about renting a sound stage. Oh, then there were the doves. Doves? Oy! It was a whole production.
One day my mother and I were in the car, going to meet the wedding planner and the florist. I was anxious about everything from the wedding details to the commitment I was about to make to Rob. I was a kid living a big life and growing up fast. Those years I spent in the “Brat Pack” (I really hate that stupid name) running with Rob, Emilio, and Tom, that was my equivalent to college. I didn’t have the confidence of a bride-to-be. Nervous and near tears, I was a babbling river of anxiety and fear.
“I’m so scared about this,” I told my mom. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Am I doing the right thing? Am I making a huge mistake? Can this work?”
My mother gave me a look full of calm and wisdom. “Sweetheart, don’t worry,” she said with total sincerity and earnestness. “Rob will make a wonderful first husband.”
I heard that and something inside me clicked. It was my first allergic reaction to my mother’s fairy dust. I thought, That is a really tweaked way of looking at life, and I knew something was not right. And such were our issues, my issues.
Like so many women I’ve met, my issues eventually caught up with me. I got to a point in life, somewhere into my second marriage and during my effort to get sober, where reality tapped me on the shoulder, demanding attention, asking questions I’d never stopped to consider: Who are you? How’d you get here? What does it mean to be a wife, a mother, a woman? What will make you happy? What does a peaceful life look like to you?
Sometimes life is like an uninvited houseguest. It shows up and refuses to leave until you deal with it. Call me a late bloomer, but I didn’t feel eighteen until I was in my twenties, and I didn’t start putting my life together until much, much later.
Furthermore, I still get letters from women whose lives were and often still are truly horrible, victims of physical and sexual abuse. These women say the one escape they had growing up was Little House on the Prairie. They wished they had Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life the way I played her. What I don’t ever tell them is that I’m also among those who wish I had Laura’s life the way I played her.
For me, work was a fantasy where I was a happy-go-lucky kid with a larger-than-life surrogate father in Michael Landon. There were people I could talk to and count on, and horses and cows and other animals I could play with in an idyllic outdoor setting. In real life, I struggled with the mythology of my existence — the story of my birth grew from the fairy dust my mother sprinkled on the truth, whatever that was.
I always knew I was adopted. I was told that I was the child of a prima ballerina and a Rhodes Scholar; my mother was a beautiful dancer who wasn’t able to give up her career, not just yet, and my father was in the middle of some project, and though I was the product of a loving relationship between two brilliant individuals, the timing was simply off, so they gave me up for adoption, this wonder-child endowed with the gifts of both Margot Fontaine and Steven Hawking. My mother recognized in me the potential to not just be good but the most exceptional, and, well, that story was perpetuated over the years, told and retold like some sort of fairytale or legend, and so on.
Finally, I reached the age where I was able to fact check the story and found out my mother the dancer was in fact a dancer. What kind of dancer was never clear. She wasn’t a prima ballerina, though. That much I figured out. And my father the Rhodes Scholar was a sign painter and stock car racer. They were both married to other people. They each had three children. They ran off together, got pregnant, moved in together with six children, and decided they couldn’t afford a seventh.
So they gave me up for adoption, a child who would eventually end up wondering who I really am, who I’m related to, if I have a predisposition for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, any history of cancer or personality issues. f that’s asking too much, I’m willing to settle for finding out who gave me the nose I disposed of at eighteen.
The latest twist in the story of my birth was brought to light a few days after my stepfather died. Close family and friends were at my mother’s, and my godmother, Mitzi, started in about the day my parents picked me up at the hospital. She was hilarious as she described my parents and their first day with a newborn. Out of the blue my mother said, “Well, imagine what a shock it was for me!”
Everyone turned toward my mother, including me. She wasn’t joking. She looked as if she were reliving that shock.
“I mean, we had no plans to adopt a child,” she said.
As I had many times throughout my adult life, I cocked my head and flashed a quizzical look at my mother. What?
“We weren’t even looking,” she continued. “Then I got a phone call that there was a baby available and did I want it?” She turned to me. “I called your dad. He was on the road and he said, ‘Yes, that’s the one. Go get it.’”
“It?” I said. “You keep referring to me as an it.”
“Well, actually, you weren’t even born yet.”
This was news to me. And I would have explored it further except new people arrived at my mother’s and she switched into hostess mode.
A few days later my mother came over to my house and we talked about my step-dad’s death. I walked her through it because she didn’t remember much; by contrast, I remembered everything in detail. I had brought in a superb hospice team and used my training to turn into a patient advocate, which allowed my mother and the love of her life to have a peaceful goodbye.
I told her who had come to visit those final days, and then I described how she had spent Warren’s last day alive laying in bed next to him, sharing her strength and comforting him through his final moments. I told her what I saw as I watched him take his final breaths wrapped in her arms. I thanked her for letting me be a part of something so private, so spiritual, and so profoundly moving.
After a good cry, I reminded her of the story she and Mitzi had started to tell about my arrival in this world. I still wanted clarification. Tired and vulnerable, she opened up and said that she and my father had been trying to have a baby and were actually going through fertility treatments when she got the call. The strange part was, until then, they had not spoken about adoption — or so she said.
A few weeks later I was replaying that conversation and realized something. My father had a daughter from a previous marriage. I’d met her once. And my mother was pregnant twice after me, once with a baby she lost at six months and once with my sister Sara. Both of my parents were fertile. So why couldn’t they — Obviously more was going on than I knew. Once again, the beginning of my life was defined by a question mark.
Excerpted from “Prairie Tale” by Melissa Gilbert. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.