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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

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Most of us tend to think of famous women as having it all. They’re rich, admired, accomplished. What could be the problem? But as we read about the lives of female celebrities, we come to understand that each of them has lived a life that was not always a bed of roses.

YOU HAVE NO IDEA is the memoir Vanessa Williams has written with her no-nonsense mom, Helen Williams (with an assist from Irene Zutell). Helen and her late husband, Milton, were both music teachers in Westchester county. They raised their daughter Vanessa, and their son Chris, in an affluent small town devoid of a community of African-American families. Vanessa was always smart, gifted, and a handful. She and her mother take turns telling their story. Although they didn’t often see eye to eye, Vanessa knew that Helen would always be there to support her with her own brand of tough love. Every year she was in high school, Vanessa worked to earn money during the summer. One fateful evening, she stayed late at a photographer’s studio, and foolishly allowed herself to be talked into doing nude photos. She never signed a release, and the matter was all but forgotten- until she became the first black Miss America in 1983. Suddenly, she found herself enveloped in an epic scandal, and turned to her family for help. Her battle became a cause that drew the Williams clan even closer. Vanessa gave up her title, and doubted she’d ever have the life and career she’d always desired. Now, of course, she’s a well-respected actress, singer and dancer; and we wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. While I enjoyed Vanessa’s honesty about her ambition, accomplishments, and gaffs, I was really moved by Helen’s story. Raised in an abusive home after being separated from her own mother, Mrs. Williams married young, was devoted to her late husband, and was determined to be a parent who gave her children rules and responsibilities. Her clashes with her headstrong daughter were at times daunting, but she never stopped being the rock of the family for her children and grandchildren. Helen Williams is now retired from her work as a music teacher, and is considered not only “Vanessa’s mother,” but also a pillar of her community.

Actress Kristen Johnston is best known for her comic Emmy Award winning tour de force as Sally Solomon on “3rd Rock From The Sun.” Tall, blond, and oozing confidence, Johnston seemed invincible. But appearances can be deceiving. In GUTS, which she’s subtitled “The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster,” she tells of the pain and misadventures which led to a medical emergency five years ago in London. As she puts it, “My intestines ripped open.” Now sober, Johnston writes candidly about her addiction, pulling no punches. Her memoir is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, and enlightening.

Rachel Dratch is the quintessential Funny Girl. Even the title of her memoir, GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR, makes us smile. After all, this is the woman who gave us the original Debby Downer (cue the trombone: Waaah Waaah), a phrase that’s entered the English language as the definition of a party pooper on a grand scale. Dratch knew, even as a young child in suburban Boston, that her destiny was to make people laugh. She performed improve in college, then moved to the prestigious Second City Mainstage. And then, her dream came true when she joined Saturday Night Live; she was a valued cast member for seven seasons. What naturally was involved were long nights in the writing room, lots of partying, and of course, copious amounts of drinking. However, what seemed a natural progression, being part of the hit series “30 Rock,” just didn’t pan out; and Dratch had to read it was because she wasn’t good looking enough. She began to feel that “ By Hollywood standards, I’m a troll, ogre, or woodland creature.” In addition, she found dating more than a little difficult, and when she least expected it, she became pregnant with her son, Eli- at age forty-three. Nothing was as anticipated; the books that were recommended weren’t for her, and her infant-care instructor swore constantly. Dratch writes humorously and emotionally about her life, which she considers a study in second chances.

I’m not exactly sure why learning about the problems of these successful women lets us feel better about ourselves, but I do know that their candor and perspective in these books makes for really good reading.

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle.

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