On this episode of Unlocking Us
This is an incredible conversation with none other than the amazing, singular Viola Davis about her new memoir, Finding Me. This book, and this conversation, are gifts—deep reflections on a turbulent childhood, the journey to overcoming trauma, and how she found her voice in the often brutal entertainment industry. She shares some extraordinary experiences that have changed her, and because of who she is, they’ve in turn changed us.
Listen to the episode
Finding Me: A Memoir, by Viola Davis, is Viola Davis’ story, in her own words—a much-anticipated, emotionally charged memoir spanning her incredible and inspiring life, from her coming-of-age in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to stages on and off Broadway in New York City and beyond.
In the book’s opening pages, Davis details a defining childhood memory—being on the run every day after school from a group of third-grade classmates taunting her for being ugly and Black, and suffering a devastating assault one day when they caught up with her. She goes on to describe an aha moment decades later, on the set of Suicide Squad, when a question from Will Smith brought that memory to the surface once again. Despite all of her success and the awards and accolades she had achieved, she felt she was still on the run, trying to heal that 8-year-old girl. It was only recently that she realized that that little girl inside—a survivor who fought back—was in fact the key to healing her.
Far more than a rags-to-riches tale or a Hollywood tell-all, Finding Me is the story of how Davis overcame incredible odds as she sought to find her purpose but also her voice in a world that didn’t always see her. It’s a true hero’s journey of survival that is at once deeply personal, brutally honest, and unforgettably riveting.
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: I have an incredible conversation for you today with none other than the amazing singular Viola Davis. Just what a… You know, talking about tough and tender and brave and vulnerable. She’s got a new memoir out called Finding Me. I just read that it debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is so exciting for her and so well deserved. We’re going to talk about the book. It is a very deep reflection that takes us on a journey through Viola’s childhood, overcoming trauma, finding her voice, and what it’s like being in just a kind of brutal industry, to be honest with you, and just some extraordinary experiences that have changed her, and because of who she is, they’ve by turn changed us. I am so glad you’re here for this conversation. Before we go to our first break, I want to… In case you don’t know, I announced on Monday and then we’ve gone up on social this week, I am, for the first time in my career, going on a very serious sabbatical this summer. We’re also doing kind of a critical mass restoration and rest at Brené Brown Education and Research, our company.
BB: And so, we’re going away for a few months. We are taking a hiatus with the podcast, we’re going dark on social for four months. It’s scary and it’s weird, but I’m so driven by this idea. It’s a quote that is often attributed to Viktor Frankl. No one really knows where it comes from, but I think Viktor Frankl’s work is so represented in it that I’m choosing that, but it’s got an interesting history, you can read more on brenebrown.com. But the quote is, “Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space, there’s the power of choice, and with that choice comes freedom and learning.” And so, celebrating 26 years sobriety this month, that’s the first time I ever got a glimpse of that space between stimulus and response. And I’m going to celebrate those 26 years by re-investing in the next 26 with creating some space. So we’ll be gone until September, but I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation.
BB: Before we jump in, let me tell you a little bit about Viola, not that you need it, but it’s very interesting. She is a critically revered actress of film, television, and theater. She’s won rave reviews for her multiple and substantial and intriguingly diverse roles. She has Oscar nominated performances in The Help, Doubt, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and her Oscar winning performance in Fences. In 2015, Viola won the Emmy Award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series for her work on How to Get Away With Murder, making her the first Black woman in history to take home the award. In addition to acting, Viola currently produces alongside her husband and producing partner, Julius Tennon, through their JuVee Productions banner. They have produced award-winning productions across theater, television, and film. Let’s talk to Viola.
BB: Can I just say, “Oh, holy shit. You did it. You went there.” We talked about this.
Viola Davis: At the jump off. [laughter] Yeah.
BB: My friend, you jumped, you spread your arms, and you soared.
VD: Yeah, I tried to.
BB: You did.
BB: Let me just start by saying, “Congratulations.”
VD: Thank you.
BB: It is breathtaking.
VD: Thank you, thank you. I’m feeling really free. I think I was like… You know? Because I’m reading your book and I saw Atlas of the Heart, so trying to use the right language, I feel free. I do. I feel that there is, in a weird kind of way, especially with what I do, I feel like I have brought my representative into rooms more so than myself. [chuckle] I’m always negotiating with my representative and me saying, “You know what, maybe you need to go in there, I need to step up, because if I say A, B and C, then I’m going to just ruin my opportunity. So I’ll be at home and you could go in for me.”
VD: Just say the right thing, do the right thing. So yeah, that’s what I’ve felt.
BB: I want to jump in here and you know, I’m just going to go for it because I’m just going to try to catch you mid-air on this soar. It’s just…
BB: I mean, when you talk about your representative, you talk about the Viola that you send places to say the right things and do the right things. Tell me about your relationship with your representative.
VD: My relationship with my representative has always been very anxiety-filled. And the reason is, because I don’t know what my representative should look like and sound like. So it’s been a fight. And at first, especially, How to Get Away With Murder is a perfect example. I remember entering that TV show the first time, and I remember trying to lose weight, it didn’t work. It really didn’t.
VD: Because I said, I got to look like a leading lady. You know, I was getting in the Jacuzzi, I don’t know what I was eating. I was eating something because I don’t know how to diet. But I said, I got to lose weight, my wig has got to look right, I got to be that woman. I do. Until I couldn’t be that woman, and I saw that I couldn’t be that woman. I was wrestling with her. I’ve always wrestled with her.
BB: Yeah, oh yeah.
VD: I mean, it’s literally like a wrestling match. And even the times when the real Viola won out, the real Viola would embarrass me. She would always shame me. At Juilliard, she would always shame me, she would always come out too angry, too hard, too Black, too much of something that everybody rejected. So I would only bring her out during the Martin Luther King celebrations at Juilliard. [laughter] Every other time, I don’t know, I left her on the subway somewhere…
BB: Good God.
VD: Because no one knew how to deal with her. And I found that everyone thought she was unattractive and too masculine. It’s hard to show up, like you say, especially… I’m not going to say especially, but when you’re a dark-skinned Black woman, it is very difficult to show up. Because a lot of times you can’t even show up in the places where everyone is Black, because colorism is its own different story.
VD: And then people, the only way they know how to deal with it is by comparing it to their own experience, and you want to connect with them, so you say, “Yeah, it’s like that” but it’s really not like that, but you can’t say anything. I found I was always hiding the real Viola. Real Viola just wasn’t enough, ever, ever.
BB: We have talked before. I interviewed you for Braving the Wilderness. We talked when you were working on this book. I was so curious/excited/I don’t know what… I had all these big feelings about what would happen when I opened to the first page, whether I was going to be able to meet the street fighter, scrappy kid Viola in this book, and very first line, very first chapter, I met her.
BB: Kid’s a fighter.
VD: Well, I tried to make the first chapter sort of my handshake.
BB: Say more.
VD: Sort of my introduction into, “This is me, straight no chaser. This is me.” [laughter] I tried to make it that. Here’s the thing, if I were to be so bold to say.
VD: It’s another thing in our profession, you’re always thinking about what you say because you don’t know how it’s going to blow up out there. But I always compare it to the first man who was ever on the earth, and he’s standing in front of the ocean, and the sky, and the mountains, and this is before language, before psychology, before people were given names, before anything. And he’s trying to make sense out of his existence. He’s trying to find the words to say, “Who am I? What am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do with this heartbeat? How do I find companionship? What is companionship? Who do I thank?” That’s how I feel at times, that I don’t know what to do. That my life is sort of like, “Tell me how to dress, tell me who to be, tell me who I’m supposed to love and how to love.” So I can get to a place of what my therapist calls home, because otherwise I feel just alone and confused, that’s it.
VD: Until I realized something that my first therapist said to me, which is, “Viola, if your life never, ever changed, if you kept all the attributes that you have right now, if you always felt awkward and you always felt all of these things, but it didn’t really shift that much, would you be okay?” And I was like, “I’m paying you $100 an hour to tell me this shit?” [laughter] But I thought about it and it took me the longest time, and I said, “I would.” And that was my a-ha moment with the first chapter, that the wetting the bed, the domestic violence, the sexual abuse, the being tough, the winning, all is taking place on the same plane that you have to count in all joy, you have to. There’s no other negotiating any other life but yours, this is it. [chuckle] There’s no rewind button. And I’ve been doing this… My other big a-ha moment is, I always thought, once again, life is a relay race. I sort of like saying that too Brené because it was kind of a slick thing as an actor to say, “Life is a relay race. My legacy is to pass the baton on to the next great runner. It’s my job, my legacy to understand what my leg of the race is in life. I pass it to the next generation of runners, and they pass it to the next generation. That’s how you change the world.” And in writing the book, I realized that all those runners know Viola, all those runners are you.
BB: Oh God.
VD: The six-year-old survives her leg of the race. She said a whole lot of cock sucker, motherfucker, she was inappropriate, she wet the bed, she did a lot of things that were not copacetic, as we said back in the day, but she made it.
BB: She fought.
VD: Then you pass it on to the 14-year-old Viola, who discovered, “I want to be an actress. I know that’s what I want to do. I don’t know how to do it, but that’s… I see it, I totally see it.” And the 14-year-old passing it on to the 28-year-old who says, “Oh my God, now I’m a victim of all this trauma, I really am my mom’s daughter. I’m the orchestrator of my own faith. I got to go into therapy.” And then that Viola passing it on to the 34-year-old Viola who gets married, and now I have to deal with this marriage. I have to step up. And then that Viola passing it on to the 45-year-old Viola who becomes a mom. And now the 56-year-old Viola has the baton. And what the hell do I do with that at this stage? How the hell do I then… It’s not even a redefinition of yourself, it’s how do I make sense of this part of my life with all that I know? And now, played the huge part in me writing this book.
BB: Is part of the leg of the race that you’re in right now, the 56-year-old Viola, is part of this gift to us of this book?
VD: I like the word gift. Yeah, it is. It is because I want to show up, I do. I want to show up. I want to say what I want to say. I feel like I’ve earned it. I’m tired of saying that I wasn’t traumatized, I really wasn’t, I know how to deal with it, I don’t even think about it anymore. I want to be able to say that, but I can’t. I want to be able to say that I was traumatized and sometimes you know what? Memories during the course of the day, they hit you differently. Sometimes it’s a great memory and it’s like, you’re like, “Oh wow, I forgot all about that.” And sometimes it’s a horrific memory. And for a minute it levels you and then you’re back up again, and then you’re still surviving, but they’re deathless, they’re constantly there. But I feel that once my dad passed, I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I had the courage to read the hospice page online.” I read the hospice page once he had passed and it was horrific, it was real bad. He died of pancreatic cancer which was a bad one. And he was in a lot of pain, he wasted away to 86 pounds. And I remember once again, not knowing what to do. Who tells you what to do with dying?
VD: Everybody’s going to die, and nobody talks about it, and so I don’t know what to do. And so I had to tell him to go. And everybody, you see that in movies, right? When you tell someone to go and it’s a beautiful scene, there’s swelling music in the back, I couldn’t even do it. My mom’s crying at his bedside, I didn’t know how to do it. But I say all this to say, when my dad was dying, I didn’t see anyone yelling at him saying, “You did A, B and C, and I’m not going to forgive you.” I didn’t hear my dad say anything other than, “Mae Alice, you know that all the things I did to you all those years, you know, I’m sorry, right? You know I’m sorry, Mae Alice.” There was nothing but forgiveness, there was nothing but, at the hospice page, what they say is, just hold their hands, make sure their lips are moist, give them water, tell them that they can go. The most simple things exist, and I feel like that sort of defines life, right?
VD: That, that’s it, that all those things that we carry, and we sort of… It’s the big weight, it’s the big weight of being afraid of how people see you, so you don’t say A, B, or C. So you just sort of throw yourself as a sacrifice in relationships, in rooms where you’re just sort of a big fat lie showing up. But people love you. [laughter] They love you, and then you have to go home, and in the middle of the night, you say… You know this is me anyway, in the middle of the night, you’re like, “I should have said this, I should have said that. I didn’t do that and I didn’t do this.” And then finally you’re asleep. I feel like I’ve earned the right to introduce the world to the real Viola. I think that I have enough courage to say, “This is me, straight no chaser.” And I mentioned a lot of things that I’m not going to lie, it took me about nine, 10 months to put in the book. I took it out, put it back in, took it out, put it back in, because I sort of want people to love me, I do, but I sort of want to love myself finally. So, I did put it out there, but I think that the book is my elixir.
BB: For me, there is a part of the book that is this incredible invitation to watch the transition of a woman who chooses to disappoint others before she betrays herself. That is a really hard transition for most of us. Tell me, was there a moment, a collection of moments, how did you get to, no matter how this lands, the last thing I’m going to do is betray myself.
VD: I don’t know if there’s one moment Brené.
BB: Yeah, I don’t either. It seemed like a collection of moments.
VD: You know what, I’m going to say this, if I were to think about it. People always ask me big questions; can I just say that? And I’m always like, “Umm… Umm… ” The reason why I’m umm… Umm… Is because I don’t want to give a bullshit answer. It’s the fame thing that happened.
BB: Say more.
VD: Okay. I think it’s like when I went to Africa when I was 25, they have rituals, they have myths. They have a way of doing things that connect them to the larger mysteries of the world, like going from being a girl to being a woman, a boy to being a man, someone who is infertile, who wants to have children, who’s saying, “God, why are you not giving me a child?” There’s a ritual for that, there’s a way of connecting to a larger meaning. They dance, they sing, people join with them and connect with them. We don’t have that.
VD: Our only sort of ritual and meaning is, for me, going to school, getting a degree, and finding a profession that you love. And so, for me, I wanted to be an actor and the bullshit is, my year book, I said, I want to be rich and famous. I tell people, don’t look at that, but I wanted to be an actor. And so, then what happens? I hit it, I’m an actor. I get an Oscar nomination, I win an Oscar, I get an Emmy, I’m like… And all I am is exhausted, disillusioned, the pressure of being on top, the pressure of sort of dealing with your doppelganger, which is a Viola in social media, and the Viola and the V who’s at home. What you begin to see is you’re like, “This is it? This is it? Are you shitting me?” Until you realize that the final step is not success, it’s significance, it’s transcendence, it’s living a life bigger than yourself, but you know that within yourself, but there’s no way of figuring that out.
VD: That’s what I found. And so then every single day you’re showing up, you’re doing interviews about movies that you’ve done, which some of them have been… And I’m grateful for all of them, but for all of them, it’s just the standard response. Standard response, someone dresses you, puts make up on you, you want to stun on the red carpet, you’re always nervous, you’re always… Have rumblings in your stomach until you figure out, how do I exist on this very public plane as me… [chuckle] On my terms, how do I live a life of significance? I don’t know how I can do that.
BB: What a question.
VD: I don’t know… You know what, I don’t know how to do that necessarily. I don’t know how to always put it in words, but I do know this, that I want to go to bed, and I don’t want to have a constant inner dialog of railing on myself, or feeling like a piece of shit because I didn’t say that, or I didn’t look a certain way, or I gained 15, 20 pounds. And I’m not a classical beauty, and how do I become one? And why didn’t I take that role? And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and maybe I’m a shitty mom or maybe I’m not, I just didn’t want to feel that anymore, and I figured that whatever the meaning is, that’s got to be in there somewhere. Some level of self-love has to be in there somewhere.
BB: Yes. Yes.
VD: And you know what else has to be in there? I have got to have some real friends, man. I have got to have my tribe of people who just love me. How do I find that? I want to feel less alone, I want to love myself, and I want other people to feel less alone because it’s a really screwed up way to live, so… I forget what the question was but for me, that’s what drove pleasing myself, it’s… Glennon Doyle says it, when it comes down to disappointing other people or disappointing yourself, choose other people all the time. First of all, that was a revelation to me, but that’s what played a part in it, I was tired of going to bed with two hours of the worst dialog. I was tired of it.
BB: I want to go back to a conversation we had, I don’t know, maybe three or four years ago and you said something I think about it, I swear to God, I must think about it every day. You said something about the hurtful criticisms and barbs that come your way as a very public person.
BB: And that… You said that the advice was, you need thicker skin, and you tried that, but then you realized you couldn’t feel anything. I think about that all the time, because sometimes when I come off social media, I think, “I’m not built for this, I can’t do it. I’m like, “I’m hurt, I feel hurt.” I feel like I can fill the barb in my shoulder, in my face, in my stomach, I need thicker skin. And then I remember you saying, “Fuck that, I’m not going to live with thicker skin, because then I can’t.” You said you wanted to have translucent skin. Do you remember that?
VD: Yes, I do. [chuckle] I do. I want it. I do want to have translucent skin. Sometimes I fantasize about having thick skin, but it’s not possible.
BB: What’s the cost?
VD: Listen, it’s my entire childhood was about having thicker skin, Brené, okay? It does not work. I remember a day when I was 14 so clearly, when my mom and dad were fighting all night, and I was sure my father was going to kill my mom, I really was, and I remember I didn’t sleep ever. I didn’t sleep at all that night. And I had a field trip the next day that I was looking forward to. I went to school, I said, “I can’t do it.” Now, I look back on it, I had all the signs of having PTSD. I couldn’t speak. I could barely walk. I remember the whole day, I couldn’t speak, and I remember a teacher sitting down with me and saying, “Viola… ” And I remember being sort of on another realm, “Viola, what’s wrong?” “Nothing.” “Viola, come on, you have got to go on the field trip. We’ve been planning this for… ” And I remember I couldn’t hear him, because what I was trying to do inside internally was pray my feelings away.
VD: Pray my heartbreak away. Pray my… Any instinct that I had to reach out and say, “Help me,” because it was weak. Pray away every human instinct in my body. I felt like I was going to explode my entire childhood. Absolutely made me a bed wetter up until 14. Absolutely played a hand in my fibroids and ultimate infertility. And I think that you said it best too, “If you harden yourself so much, yeah, nothing comes in, but also nothing comes out,” and I wanted to have love in my life. I did. And I also am an actor, and it’s sort of a boss ass thing to be vulnerable. It is. That’s how you’re introduced to anyone’s humanity, is what they do in private, those private moments where they kind of feel like, “I’m only going to do this in the privacy of my room because if I open the door and I show people this, it’s going to be my downfall,” we relish that as actors, but then as human beings, we don’t want to do it? It didn’t work for me. All I did was keep secrets, all I did was have a childhood rife with anxiety and pain and trauma, and I didn’t want the rest of my life to be like that. It was a choice that I made.
BB: Tell me what therapy has meant to you in your life.
VD: Alice Walker… I always use this example. Alice Walker in the beginning of Color Purple, which is a great book, has a Stevie Wonder quote, which is, “Show me how to do what you do. Show me how to do it.” I needed someone to show me how… Now, I’m going to cry.
BB: I’ll go with you.
VD: I needed someone to show me how to do it. It’s like I said, the first man who ever lived, it just… That’s how you feel, that you’re sort of thrust into a life where… How the hell are you supposed to live? How are you supposed to talk? How are you supposed to live through trauma? How are you supposed to sort of look in the mirror and say, “You know, I feel like I’m a beautiful woman,” if no one’s telling you that? What tools do you pull out when you don’t have a tool kit? A therapist is a guide, is almost… It’s sort of like the original trailblazer. Joseph Campbell tells you that when you’re going down that path of radical transformation, you don’t have to go alone because the heroes of all time have gone before you, the labyrinth is fully known. That’s what he says. Meaning the labyrinths of life, there are people who’ve lived a life, and they’ve lived a life with nicks and scrapes and obstacles, and lions and dragons, and they’ve lived a life, so they could tell you. They’re there at the summit telling you how to live. That’s what therapy meant for me. It was someone who lit my path and my God, there were some gems in there that unlocked in my life, and I needed it because I had a life where there was a complete absence of it, and then it was up to me, [chuckle] and it really is always up to you in the end.
BB: Ask for the help. I think about how lucky your daughter is. You tell your story. She knows her story. She knows your story. How important has that been for you as a mom to raise a daughter who knows that owning our story is brave and essential?
VD: Well, it’s been a process. My daughter is adopted, and by the way, she celebrates that the day she was adopted, she looked up at the sky and she said, “My name is Genesis Nivea Tennon and I am adopted,” I love that. But I felt like I had to be liberated from holding on too tight because I feel a lot of times, we make our kids an extension of ourselves because we don’t want to be seen as a bad mom. My role as a good mother is sort of I want to take to my grave. So sometimes I want to hold on too tight until I realized that for me… It’s like I tell her, “Genesis, I just want you to have the tools to live better.” I remember I told her so clearly, I said, “Genesis, whatever you want to know from Mama, I’m here to tell you, “But I said, “There’s some things Mommy doesn’t even know the answers to, but I’ll just sit with you, and I’ll hold you, I will, but some things that I simply don’t know.”
VD: I do know that she does not owe me anything. She owes me absolutely nothing. That if there is any definition of love, the purity of love ever, it’s got to be a parent and child when it really hits it, because it’s the willingness to completely let them go.
VD: With love and guidance. Knowing that life is, like you say, a shit storm; can we say it’s a shit storm?
VD: But I’ll give you my story so that you know that when you’re in the midst of it, that you’re not feeling anything that anyone else isn’t feeling.
BB: That’s it.
VD: No one else, okay? So just know that.
BB: That’s it.
VD: And the knowing of that… Here’s the thing for me that it would have helped me with, it would have helped me with the scourging. That’s what it felt like. It’s a scourging and a whipping, sort of the idea that there was a better version of me. And by God, you failed at achieving that. The best version of me is exactly me, right now.
BB: That’s it. God!
VD: That’s sort of my big discovery now. I feel like I have a daughter that sort of already knows that, but… [laughter] I tell her she looks beautiful and she’s like, “I know, right?” But, yeah.
BB: Finding Me is such an offering. It’s a real offering. I don’t think you signed up for this, and we may have talked about this before, [chuckle] but you’ve become quite a teacher in the world. I mean, I see people on your social media pages, I see your willingness to speak out on hard issues, I see your reality checks about the bullshit we believe about ourselves. Does it surprise you that, at least for me, there’s so much deep wisdom and teaching in your offerings is that… What do you make of that?
VD: That’s a hard one to embrace because… [chuckle] It’s a hard one to embrace the teacher because I’m like, “I need someone to teach me,” until I realized that the teacher… I don’t know if the teacher is this sort of big Buddha in the room that absolutely knows and sees everything and is all powerful and all knowing. I think the teacher is just brave enough to share their truth.
BB: That’s it.
VD: And that’s it. I always use the example of… For 30 seconds, I’m going to be the theater geek, for 30-seconds.
BB: Do it! Do it!
VD: The story of Agamemnon’s son, Orestes; he kills his mom in Greek tragedy, you learn this in drama school. He kills his mom, Clytemnestra. Why does he kill his mom? Because his mom killed his dad. Why does his mom kill his dad? Because the dad killed his daughter, Iphigeneia, because he wanted to win a very famous war that led to the Trojan War, and he killed her for a sacrifice so he could strengthen his army. So, you have a whole family of the son killing the mom, the mom killing the father, the father killing the daughter, so now Orestes is on trial and what happens? The most powerful thing happens as he says, “I was wrong, it’s on me,” and then the furies are released, which are… Both can be angels and demons. They’re the furies that exert a great punishment in Greek tragedy, or they can release great blessings, and in this instance, the blessings are released because, what is it? What happens in that moment is accountability.
BB: Oh, God.
VD: And for me, I feel that the moment you take accountability for your life, the minute you know that at 60 years old, your life is on you, I think you can become a teacher, because then I think that that’s when the real introspection, self-examination happens. I think it’s the resistance of the accountability that keeps you in a state of inner turmoil all the time, that’s why I think what my dad did at the end of the day, even with his second grade education, even though he was an alcoholic, he was, that the greatest miracle that happened was accountability. That moment that you realize that you are the orchestrator of your own demise and your own blessings. And that simply is it. In that sense, I can be a teacher, because I always say that even when someone comes to my house, they want me to be a mentor, I’m like, “I got to tell you the truth, but I’m going to love you, I’m going to feed you while I’m telling you the truth, and you can come to my house any time you want to, but I got to tell you the truth, even if it’s hard, but I’m here to hold you.”
VD: And I’m going to be present enough when I’m living… As I’m living my life, so that I can saturate information and then give it to you instead of walking through my life asleep, walking through my life with no receptors in terms of friendships, no revelations, no big sort of a-ha moments. I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned. So in that sense, I can be a teacher. I’ll accept that.
BB: I’m glad because you’ve taught me so much, and I think it’s interesting when you say walk around with receptors, my sister’s in the room because we do the podcast together. And I remember telling her one day, “I can’t do it anymore because in order to do my job, I walk through the world with all these receptors open, and there’s too much hard stuff coming in now. So I’m just going to shut them down.” And I could literally hear you in the back of my mind, pissed me off, but I could literally hear you saying, “Whew, that thick skin is going to cost you, but give it a shot.” [laughter] And this book, not only is it beautifully written, and the storytelling is, again, I’d have to use the word “breathtaking.” I saw all of us in the pages. The way that truth lives in pages, yeah, it’s extraordinary.
VD: Yeah, there were a couple of things in the book that I didn’t want to really put out there, but I did. And I’m going to mention one of them because it’s in the book. So it’s out there. And I find that the part of the book where I talk about my abortion when I was 28 years old, that was the part that I completely took out and then I put back in, and then I took it out and I put it in. And I realized one of the reasons why I put it in is that no one talks about it.
VD: No one. I think that sexual assault, which is brutal, is easier for women to talk about than abortion. And I have to say that I really didn’t even know how to write it. And the reason why I didn’t know how to write it, really, it’s simple: Because I wanted to write what people wanted to hear, about that part of my life, not what I experienced, because I felt that made me a weak woman. That I wasn’t on top of it. That sort of social media and the public had bogarted certain definitions of being a feminist, of being a strong woman.
VD: And I’m sorry. It’s just an experience that left me traumatized. I wish it were different. I do. I wish that choices were different. I wish that they were only easy noes and easy yeses. But there’s some hard yeses and there’s some hard noes. And there’s some hard choices. And there’s mistakes. And there’s regrets. Arthur Miller has a famous quote. He says, “Maybe what life is all about is living with the right regrets.”
BB: Oh, yes.
VD: That’s a hard statement, but…
BB: It is.
VD: I felt with the abortion, once again, how can you explain ambiguity? How can you explain the relief of being pregnant, loving children, loving life, but having no idea of how to nurture this child? Then making a decision and the decision playing out like that, being in a room filled with women screaming at the top of their lungs in pain, are you kidding me? Nobody talks about that. So that’s what I have to get through, to get… To make this choice. And then to bleed for two weeks afterwards? I don’t know what to do with that. But at the same time, what I realized is I would be in the room with so many women who had had abortions, and that’s the one story we never shared. Oh, there’s a lot of stories we never shared.
BB: But that one shut down really quick.
VD: So are we really connecting if I’m always hiding that? And that’s a big part of my life. So what happens with that information? Do I hold it in and use it as a weapon to just once again scourge myself, or do I put it out there? And first of all, for me, releasing it was really, really good. It’s sort of like people do it in therapy. Sometimes they write their prayers on a piece of paper and put it in a box, just because they just want to know that the prayer is going somewhere. I just want to know it’s going somewhere.
BB: I do it, I have a box. Yeah.
VD: Yeah. [chuckle] And that’s what I did with the abortion story. I just want to know it’s going somewhere. I want to release it. I do. But at the same time, I want women to feel less alone. I do. I think it’s sort of a shitty, sort of a sentence, life sentence, to live in shame about something that we’ve all experienced. And it’s all a part of the human experience. I think it’s a shitty sentence.
BB: It is. It’s a prison sentence. It is a prison sentence.
VD: It is. And so, it ended up in the book.
BB: And did you pray over this book?
VD: Oh, yeah.
BB: Yeah, I just wonder because…
VD: I did, I prayed over the book.
BB: I can feel it when I read it.
VD: I did pray over the book. I do not believe that there is a punishment for truth. I don’t. I do not believe it. I think that the only punishment is self-made. I’m just going to say it and I’ll tell you what’s self-made. Because I remember someone actually saying this to me. I’m not mad at them for this too, it just came to mind, I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m mad at you for this, it just came to my mind, which is, “Viola, when you walk into the room, I want to see you own it, I want to see you owning it,” and I thought to myself, oh, wow, because they said, “When you walk in the room, you just walk in the room, I just don’t see you just taking up the full space and owning it,” and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m going to own it. I’m going to own the room.” [chuckle] And so I started walking in the room, like really walking in the room, putting it in my body, putting it in my face and my dress, because that’s the profession I’m in. Saying the right thing. I’m on top of it with JuVee Productions. Me and my husband, we run a production company, we have A, B, and C going on and we’re just… We go for the greatest writers and blah, blah, blah, blah, then I realized, that doesn’t have shit to do with anything. [laughter] I mean, that doesn’t mean anything. First of all, I failed miserably with that.
VD: The only thing you have to do is you have to walk in the room.
BB: God, you don’t have to own the room, but you have got to walk into it actually.
VD: It’s like… I’m forgetting her name, I’m so sorry. But her website is Lisa 2 Motivate, but Lisa, what she says is you have got to go through you to become the new you.
BB: Mm-hmm, God.
VD: And… And I forget the question that you just asked me.
BB: I just asked if you prayed over the book, if you were prayerful and intentional and…
VD: Nobody can hurt me. No, I’m serious with that… I feel that.
BB: I can tell.
VD: I do feel that. I do feel that with any journey of even any superhero, there’s always that kryptonite that they have to overcome before they get to a position of really tapping into the true superpower. My superpower is my courage to be me. And all of me, and I know for a fact that a lot of people don’t have that. In my 56 years of life, I’ve seen it rarely and when I see it, I never forget it. It becomes a portal. I saw it with Ms. Tyson, but when I see it, I bask in its magnificence, everything else is just status-oriented.
BB: That’s true. I mean, God… Wow, yes. I basked in the book, that’s that feeling I had.
VD: That’s good. I’m glad.
BB: It’s good. [chuckle]
BB: Okay, are you ready for the rapid fire?
VD: Oh my God, I’m so bad with rapid fire, I feel like I am… Go ahead, yeah, go ahead…
BB: You’re going to crush this. This is rapid fire Viola-style. You’re going to love it. Okay, ready? Fill in the blank, vulnerability is…
VD: Vulnerability is strength, power, badass.
BB: You, Viola, are called to be very brave, but you can feel and taste the fear in the back of your throat. It’s real. What’s the first thing you do?
VD: The first thing I do is [chuckle] kiss my daughter and kiss my husband.
BB: What is the last TV show that you binged and loved?
BB: Oh God, so daring. Okay, favorite movie.
VD: Oh man. Favorite movie is Network by Sidney Lumet.
BB: A concert that you’ll never forget.
VD: Oh my God.
BB: I know.
VD: I’m going to say… I’m going to say Adele.
BB: Okay. You saw her in concert?
VD: I did. [laughter]
BB: Favorite meal.
VD: Now, that’s a hard one, Brené, that’s hard because… And there’s no food I don’t like. There’s no food I don’t… Sushi. I’m going to say sushi.
VD: I can eat hundreds of dollars of sushi, yeah.
BB: What’s on your nightstand?
VD: Your book is on my nightstand, Atlas of the Heart. Atlas of the Heart is literally on my nightstand.
BB: I love that. Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment that brings you really true joy.
VD: Oh God, that’s a hard one. You know what, it’s a snapshot of me kissing my daughter’s cheek at her baby shower. Yeah.
BB: Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
VD: I’m deeply grateful… Three things, my mom… That my mom is still alive and here, I get to love on her, and I’m so grateful for my husband and my daughter. They are the loves of my life. I love them.
BB: Okay, we asked you for five songs you can’t live without to make a mini-mixtape for you.
VD: Oh, my goodness.
BB: Here’s what you gave us. I just smiled when I read it. Okay. And I’ll be listening to this mixtape, here it is. “Off the Wall,” by Michael Jackson, “Nice for What,” by Drake, “Summer Breeze,” The Isley Brothers, “Jimmy Lee,” by Aretha Franklin, and “You Are My Friend,” by Patti LaBelle. In one sentence, what does this playlist say about Viola Davis?
VD: That she… In one sentence?
BB: One sentence. God. Actors and writers really try to give me run-on bullshit three paragraphs. One sentence.
VD: Oh my God. That I am everything and all of the things that you know and don’t know. How’s that?
BB: That’s amazing.
VD: Oh, okay.
BB: That’s amazing. [laughter] That’s it. That’s it. You crushed the rapid fire. I just want to say thank you for the gift of Finding Me. Your courage is contagious.
VD: Thank you, thank you very much, Brené, and thank you for everything that you’ve done too. All of your work, I appreciate it. And it’s really meant so much to me in my life, Brené, just want to tell you that.
BB: Thank you. Oh man, my quote for the week is, “It’s a boss ass thing to be vulnerable,” that’s… Yeah, that’s sheer Viola Davis. I also love how she said the teacher is just the one brave enough to share the truth, I’m going to think about that for probably the rest of my life. Finding Me came out on April 26. You can find it wherever you buy books, it is incredibly rewarding and tough read. She just goes there, and she takes us with her, and she holds our hand, and we hold hers and… Yeah, it’s an incredible memoir. Don’t forget, we have an episode page on brenebrown.com where you can find resources, downloads, transcripts, everything you need. Y’all stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
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