Robert Scheer and Barbara Williams Talk Tragedy, Fame and Fortune (Audio)
On this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence, Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer sits down with acclaimed Canadian actress, musician and author Barbara Williams. She discusses her memoir, “The Hope in Leaving,” and describes her tough childhood as the daughter of a logger living in poverty, before eventually achieving success as an actress through a series of lucky breaks.
“I don’t think I could have written this book at any other time,” Williams says. “I needed the perspective.”
Listen to their entire conversation below:
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is another edition of Scheer Intelligence, my podcast featuring American originals. And they are the people who supply the intelligence. My guest today is actress, singer and activist Barbara Williams. Barbara, welcome.
Barbara Williams: Thank you.
RS: Let me explain how this all happened. I was at the [Los Angeles Times Festival of Books]; I’ve known Barbara Williams for years, admired her work in film and theater. She was very well known for being in John Sayles’ ‘City of Hope’ and in ‘Thief of Hearts,’ and in a movie called ‘Mother Trucker.’ She’s also a terrific singer; she’s Canadian by origin, and she was at the book festival and I just thought, wow; Barbara would be—you know, not quite an American original, but I guess a North American original. And she has a new book out, a memoir called ‘The Hope in Leaving,’ basically about the first 20 years of your life, right?
RS: Twenty-four. And as usual, I had a lot of other things going on, so true confession time—I stayed up all night reading the book on my Kindle. And was pleasantly surprised—I would have loved to do a podcast with you anyway, whether I liked the book or not. But it is a terrific book. It’s about growing up, the daughter of a guy who makes his living in logging camps, topping off trees and working in the lumber industry. Part Native, indigenous, maybe, what, about a quarter—
RS: Sioux. And I’ve met your father, an interesting guy; he comes alive in this book, and you clearly like him, for all of his complications and strengths and weaknesses, you know, his drinking and his not being with the family at critical times. But there’s a lot of love there for your father, for your mother, for your siblings. It’s a tale of poverty, extreme poverty; struggle, living in logging camps, living in fabricated homes that float on the water, and things of that sort. And there aren’t very many moments of joy. You know, I don’t want to give away the whole book, but you’re molested as a five-year-old or so; you’re raped at a point. And it’s not a self-pitying book; it’s a book of survival. And the surprising thing is that it’s not a bummer. It’s an insight into life as lived, I’m sure, by many people; people have a lot of struggles in their life, poverty and so forth. So why don’t you tell us, is there a reading from it or something you want to say about the book that conveys that spirit?
BW: Well, why don’t I begin at the beginning? My book begins with a very disturbing dream I had about my brother, on a day that I was leaving; I was planning to go the East coast to do a play. But really, I wanted to leave my brother, because my brother had been mentally ill for many years, and it was a burden on me. But I had incredible guilt about it, because I had opportunities and he didn’t. And then I woke up in the morning, and my car had been stolen. So this is where I begin. ‘By 5 am, I’m standing at an impound station on Skid Row, where my car was towed after it was found parked on a sidewalk. Probably some teenage joyride, and I’ve done worse, but it’s unfair that I have to pay the ninety bucks to redeem it. The rain is still coming down. An old man too long in his cups has thrown up on the sidewalk and I can’t be sure he didn’t splatter my sleeping bag, so I give it to him. He wanders away singing. I don’t mind drunks, they’re harmless, as long as they aren’t raising you. We used to come here when I was little. It’s my Dad’s turf, where he gets his logging work—Skid Row hotel bars are his hiring halls, since you have to be drunk to sign up for the kind of work he does. We would sit in the car outside darkened doorways while Dad ran in ‘for just a minute.’ Then we’d wait for hours with scary faces leering in at us, skinny men with mashed-up noses and cuts over their eyes, and women with pasty skin and dark-red lipstick smeared around rotting teeth. At closing time they would slither by our car, cursing, crying, and hitting each other. Finally Dad would stagger out and we’d hold on tight for the blackout drive to wherever we happened to be living at the time.” I’ll stop there.
RS: You know, the thing is, it’s a certain kind of poverty that’s captured in this book. It’s the poverty of the adventurer worker who goes off to—this is all taking place in the Northwest, up in Canada and over into the United States somewhat. Lumbering, it’s people who, you know, have a wanderlust. In the case of your father, I gather he never had any real formal education.
BW: He left school when he was 15; it was a little scandal he got into, he had some affair with a—it was actually the wife of somebody he was tutoring. Because he was tutoring, he was actually a very smart guy, my dad; he read a lot. But he, you know, he was 15, she was in her mid-20s or something, and was a big scandal. And he took off, and he rode freight trains with his friend Red, and they worked in the mines, they worked on the railroad, and then they came to logging on the West coast.
RS: Yeah, and he’s a Jack London type character—
BW: Type of guy, yeah.
RS: For sure. And you love him. I mean, clearly that comes off in the book. He has his failings, but somehow he comes through. I mean, he’s somebody who is actually capable of love, capable of caring, he has smarts, and he screws up all the time. But much of that is informed by the way he makes his living. It’s paycheck to paycheck, it’s feast to famine, it’s a job here and the job pans out, and so forth. And it struck me in reading this book, this is probably more typical than we’d like to believe of a lot of Americans now; a lot of people in North America. The Canadians, you know; they go off to some oil field to get a job, where there’s some other opportunity, or a store is opening, or you know, an auto plant is opening that had closed up in Michigan and now it’s opening in Alabama and they want to get that job; or maybe it’s just a job at Target or Wal-Mart. And what the book is really about, to my mind, it’s very much about the struggle for survival, going paycheck to paycheck, and worrying where you’re going to live. I think you said you lived in 27 different houses. And I think the book is a reminder, not of a distant past, but rather—you know, because when your father was doing this, one could have been an auto worker in Detroit and belonged to a union and had stability and so forth; that’s not the life that he led. He was a logger and up in the camps and so forth. But now his life is much more typical of what people are experiencing and the kinds of jobs they get; they’re often temporary, they’re sometimes poorly paid, much of the time.
BW: No security.
RS: No security. You mentioned no health care at the time—
BW: At the time, yeah.
RS: Canada’s famous health care system hadn’t quite kicked in. And the book captures that uncertainty, you know—actually living in a car, as you did at times. So maybe you should capture that; I mean, what would you say, what is the takeaway from that description?
BW: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because I don’t think I could have written this book at any other time. I needed the perspective, you know; I had a lot of breaks in my life, and you know, but it was all sort of—I just had angels come down and help me at certain times in my life. And I feel very, very fortunate. But I’m the only person in my family, really, who had that kind of opportunities or good fortune or luck, or whatever it is. The thing that I really regret about my family is that they never put an emphasis on education. They never felt that we could do better than they did, because back then, an education mattered. And now I think [laughs]—we’re back to, you know, to work logging would probably be a good job for many people now. You know? That an education doesn’t always make the difference; it’s not going to give you security.
RS: Well, one of the takeaways I had from this book is, first of all, the discovery that you never graduated high school.
RS: Right? [Laughs]
BW: But you see, there was another—I had a, the guy who was the principal, vice-principal when I was going to school, said that I graduated. Because the school had burned down, and he just—he knew I hadn’t graduated, but so I could get into theater school.
RS: Right. And I’m talking to actress and author Barbara Williams, the author of ‘The Hope in Leaving,’ about—her memoir of growing up in the Canadian Northwest in the logging camps and so forth, and then going on to become a successful actress and singer. But what’s interesting in your tale is, education is of the Jack London variety. It’s on the road, it’s—
RS: It’s experiential; it’s in the camps. And as you mentioned, you hadn’t graduated from high school; you got into a lot of difficulty with drugs and personal problems and depression, and all sorts of things. Which I guess is more typical than one would like to believe; life on the road in the logging camps and so forth, there’s a lot of disarray. And then you get your break because you turn out to be a very good actress, and you win an award performing in what, the Vancouver—
BW: The, yeah, well, I got to go to a—I went to the provincial drama festival with ‘Suddenly Last Summer,’ which was, you know, just such a perfect play for me at the time. I’d never acted before, but at the time my brother was in a mental institution, and I just had gone through some very self-destructive behavior after, as you mentioned, I had been raped. And I just felt I had no voice, I had no—I had just sort of shut down; I had tried to commit suicide. And then this teacher offered me this play that—you know, and I had left school by that time, but he was just a person who believed in me. And I thought I didn’t know what he was talking about, but when I read it, I went—I knew I could do this. I just, I just connected with the idea of a woman who had been suppressed; you know the story of ‘Suddenly Last Summer,’ she’s been quieted, she’s been put in a mental institution, and finally she gets to tell her story. And it was, for me, it was the chance to tell my story even though it was in somebody else’s words, you know? And I’ll never forget, you know, standing in front of the school, because that was the only stage in town, performing for the first time. And it was like being heard for the first time in my life.
RS: And then you’re at this ceremony where they’re announcing the winners—
BW: Oh [Laughs].
RS: Why don’t you describe that, because that’s really an emotionally rags-to-riches tale.
BW: Well, you know, we went to Dawson Creek. And I was just thrilled to be there because I was meeting all these people that were in theater. And it was very cathartic just performing and meeting people who were, you know, doing workshops and things. And then the night of the awards, I was sitting way back in the theater just enjoying the atmosphere—
RS: This is the regional acting—
BW: The provincial drama festival. And I was with the company, which was all made up of teachers; teachers who I realized had always held my back, you know, that had my back. I didn’t understand at the time, but they wanted me, they saw something in me. And they were announcing the—I wasn’t even paying attention, I was just kind of tripping on being in the theater. Then they were suddenly shaking me saying, Barbara! Barbara! You won! [Laughs] And I was like, it was, like, the longest walk, walking from my seat to the stage; it was just, it was absolutely surreal. And then I got to go to theater school because of that.
RS: Yeah, but the condition for going to theater school was that you had to—
BW: Was that I had graduated.
RS: –and you hadn’t, in fact; you were a dropout, a high school dropout. And then when you applied for theater school, you had to basically lie about having a high school degree. They checked with the school, and the guy who had been, what, the assistant principal who had—I couldn’t quite get the description—
BW: He was the vice principal, who actually gave me the strap one time. Um—
RS: Tell me, what is ‘getting the strap’? Because when I went to high school, they were [Laughs] disciplinarian, but we didn’t get the strap. What is—is that a Canadian tradition? —not in public school, we didn’t, no, no—
BW: We got the strap! It was—didn’t you get the strap? It was like a strap—it was like, it was a leather and—it was a brutal little thing.
BW: And you would just, you know, depending on how bad the crime was, you would get, you had to hold out your hand. And I remember holding out my hand, and I was supposed to get the strap twice on each hand, and I kept ducking my hand away. But yeah, I was playing poker with a bunch of guys when we were supposed to be in the annex studying.
RS: Everyone’s complex in this book, but in ways in which they’re, for most of them there are redeeming qualities, including your mother, whom we haven’t talked about. But you describe your own birth, as it gets told to you; you slip out accidentally, there’s a—
BW: Coming into Esperanza.
RS: Yeah. Well, describe that scene.
BW: Well, my mother went into labor; they were living on a float house, and she already had one child—
RS: Float house was temporary housing for loggers.
BW: Float houses were—yeah, you know the booms, the logging booms? They were little shacks on these logging booms so that they could tow them to different camps. And so that, you know, mom lived on those in the early part of my life. Very dangerous, you know, especially with little babies who are learning to crawl, because you could slip off or you would get crushed between the logs. It was very, it was difficult; you know, no washing machines [Laughs] or anything like that. Anyway, so she had my brother, who was almost a year old, and she went into labor. And they took her by tugboat to the only hospital on the coast there. It was run by some Baptist missionaries called the Shantymen, whose mission was to convert the loggers and the Natives. But she gave birth on the tugboat, and it was kind of scary for her. Then they kept her at the hospital; they didn’t want her to go back to my dad.
BW: Ah, because they knew he was a drinker, and he was Native. And you know, the Natives—or indigenous; we didn’t use those words. That was a big deal when I was writing the book, the editor said, can you say Native? Can you say Indian? And I said, that’s what we said back then. I, you know, I didn’t attempt to write this book with political correctness in mind.
RS: No. But it’s interesting, you capture the texture of all that, and your father appears as an indigenous person and then as one who’s contemptuous of indigenous people in some ways. Making jokes about them, and assuming they’re all drunks, and so forth. Then he is a drunk. And I wondered whether in your book, the image of the indigenous is not too harsh.
BW: I worried about that. You know, I did, because they—you know, and it had been suggested that I reach out to different indigenous groups, if they would, that this book would be of interest to them. And I felt like I portray indigenous people as I saw them at the time. Sympathetically, but there was a lot that I saw that was quite pitiful. You know, there was a lot of alcoholism; there was a lot of brokenness. And my dad used to always say, ‘There are no prizes for being Indian.’ And you know, the worst thing my mom could ever say to me was, ‘You’re just like your dad.’ And I saw that as being, you know, the Indian part of me. You know? So of course now, I think it’s—nowadays too, everybody takes great pride in any drop of indigenous blood they may have. But at the time it was not something to be terribly proud of.
RS: Now, let me ask you about your mother, who was actually the opposite, right? She’s the ultimate white, in a way, who almost stumbles into this. And your mother—it’s a sad tale about your mother, what she endured and how she ended up. And I mean, my goodness; I say the book is not depressing, I want to encourage people to read it—no, because it isn’t, it isn’t—
BW: Well, it’s a book of survival.
RS: It is a tale of survival, and no one’s a cartoon or cardboard character. They’re all real, and you care about them. And that comes through. None of them are to be discarded because they’re poor, or you know, dysfunctional or anything else; they all have aspirations, they all matter, they’re not throwaway people. But tell us about your mother, because she’s very central to the whole tale.
BW: My mother was the youngest of three sisters, and her father was a British army man who had been in the First World War, had damaged his lungs with mustard gas, but was very heroic, very disciplined. And I loved my grandfather, even though I barely saw him. But his wife, who was French, suffered from depression. And when my grandfather was gone a lot, and my mother was—and her two older sisters had left home, my mother kind of got the brunt of her mother’s disintegrating sanity. You know, she had terrible, terrible depressions, and then she killed herself, and my mother was the person who found her. And she was traumatized by that, and then she was sent to live with a family, and the father molested her. And so she ran away, and she met my dad. And my dad was—many people referred to him as Handsome Jack; he was a handsome guy, he was very charismatic, and she just got swept off her feet by him, and suddenly she was having babies one after another, before her dad even knew where she was, you know? And she had a lot of unprocessed trauma that she never really got any help for, and I think she just, she did her best; you know, I am very sympathetic towards my mom. I never thought what she did was wrong, she just was overwhelmed, and just didn’t have the tools.
RS: But let me ask you about, you know, it’s funny, you played Joan Baez in one theater thing, and I think it’s Joan Baez who sings a song, ‘there but for fortune go you and I.’ I don’t know, somebody does—
BW: She did sing it, yeah.
RS: Yeah. And reading your book, that kept coming through my mind, you know, there but for fortune go you and I—
BW: Oh—show me—it’s a Bob Dylan song, but she sang it, yeah.
RS: What are the lines?
BW: ‘Show me the prison, show me the jail, show me the prisoner whose life has gone stale, and I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why, there but for fortune go you or I.’
RS: I’m talking to Barbara Williams, who’s written a terrific book, ‘The Hope in Leaving.’ And I say ‘terrific’ having finished it just a couple of hours ago and staying up all night, and really a joy to read, even though it was a depressing tale; it’s extremely well crafted, excellent. Really, I say forget acting and singing and just do writing. ‘The Hope in Leaving.’ But we’ve avoided, really, the main tension in the book, and that has to do with sexual molestation and rape. And I say ‘the main tension’ only because you keep coming back to it in the book. And so why don’t you just tell us about that? And yet again, you do it in a way that’s not self-pitying, even though you have a right to feel, you know, that you were victimized. And you have a right to feel that, but you don’t do that. You almost present it as something that happened; it happened here and it happened there, and then it happened to you. And it’s terrible, but it seems to be part of the fabric of a certain kind of life in disarray.
BW: You know, when you have a mother who’s overwhelmed and doesn’t know where her kids are, or doesn’t have the capacity to be looking after everybody all the time. And it’s hard to say, because I think now, I have a child and I am hypersensitive of anything like that; I always want to be sure that he is safe.
RS: Describe the two [incidents] that are mainly stressed.
BW: Well, when I was five, I had this—there was an older man who used to always make me things in this logging camp where we lived. You know, that’s all I kind of remembered, but I do—he used to make me little, he was an engineer and would make me funny little things and give me gifts all the time. But then I, I just always had this negative sense about him, and I didn’t know why. Because what he did to me, I didn’t understand that it was wrong. You know, I just didn’t want to think about it. And then when I was 15, I was working at a restaurant and I had gone to the city by myself to get fabric to make seat covers for my boss. And I went to the one store I knew, which was on Skid Row, because that’s what I knew when I was growing up; that was the only part of Vancouver that I knew, because that’s where my dad used to get his logging work, in the bars and the hotels there. And this man started talking to me; I was planning to go to a movie, because I had to catch a bus and I had hours to kill. So I was just polite to him, and he kept, you know—I just continued to be polite to him, and then he said he wanted to give me something, or give my boyfriend something—I made up that I had a boyfriend. Anyway, he trapped me in a hotel room and I felt that I was in a dangerous position, and I didn’t fight; instead, I took the alcohol that he offered me and I drank it. And then, after that happened—and it was terrible; I did, you know, I jumped out a window, I broke my ankle, I—
RS: This is the Greek man?
BW: So then, after that happened, I had a memory of what happened to me when I was five.
BW: It had long been repressed, or just not—I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what had happened to me, so I never talked about it. And it was just, you know, I realize in my family we didn’t talk about things. And that’s what my book does, you know; a lot of my book is about how we don’t talk about things.
RS: Yeah, and you also say in the book, when you were raped the whole assumption was you wouldn’t go to get any help, you wouldn’t talk about it, you wouldn’t make an issue.
BW: Yeah, I just suffered in silence. And you know, then I discovered that a week before my brother died, that he finally told my mother that he had been molested when he had been put in a detention center. And I think it was—he didn’t have the tools or something that I did. You know, I was able to somehow get through it all, you know? I mean, I almost didn’t survive, and my brother didn’t survive.
RS: Your brother is a major figure in the book in an interesting way. You clearly felt that he was the pride of the family, he was the smartest, he was the most appealing—the most responsible, took care of the other kids. And then just was overwhelmed by, what, reality or mental illness, or—
BW: Mental illness. That’s one thing I will never be able to figure out, if it was events that happened—certainly events triggered his mental illness, but whether it was there dormant. But after he came back from this detention center, that’s when his illness manifested. And he was finally institutionalized, and then he disappeared from the institution; he was gone for a couple of years, returned, and I, you know, tried to help him. And I couldn’t. And it was finally, you know, the day that I decided I couldn’t help him anymore is when he took his life. I was leaving, and driving my car over to my mother’s place to give it to him with all my possessions, and he took his life.
RS: And the message there, and we’ll wrap this up now, but the message really is, again, that these are not throwaway people. Your brother was smart, he was sensitive, he was caring.
BW: He was talented.
RS: Talented. He kept the family together when the parents couldn’t. Your father was a complex figure, but in some ways brilliant, almost; I mean, his perceptions and so forth. Your mother, again, the best of intentions, ends up life an incredible mess. And whether it’s through mental illness, and to what degree that’s induced by social conditions, the book is a reminder, a reminder that most people in this world have a hard time. You mentioned Skid Row, and—did it start in Vancouver?
BW: It started in Vancouver.
RS: And it was originally Skid Road, right?
BW: Yeah, well, the corduroy skids that they used to slide the logs into the inlet, right, because Vancouver has these two inlets—that was where Skid Road came from. But then, because the loggers were all housed there, and when the Chinese indentured servants were brought over to build the railroad, they had in Canada at that time, they had Asian exclusion laws. So they could only be housed in that area, so it was all these men working in one area, and the Chinese brought opium. And single men working hard, working, drinking men, that brought prostitution. And then with the invention of the hypodermic needle, it was all accelerated. And that’s, you know, so it became Skid Row; it was associated with being scuzzy and—
RS: But this is where, you think, the term actually came from?
BW: It did, from Vancouver’s Skid Row, yeah.
RS: And this was the place, this was sort of the cradle of your life in a way. I mean, you—
BW: Well, that was where my dad got his work. That was a very familiar place to me, yeah.
RS: Well, thank you, Barbara Williams. Actress, songwriter, singer, and now established as a really important author of an incredibly well-crafted, interesting book that I would highly recommend. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. And the producers of Scheer Intelligence are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. I am Robert Scheer. Thanks for listening.’TIS THE REASON…
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