BERKELEY -- When writer Mary Williams sits down with author Dave Eggers at a Berkeley Arts & Letters presentation to talk about her recently released "The Lost Daughter" on April 23, she won't be telling a fairy tale.

Yes, there will be a character in distress, warlike foes, heroic figures, travel to distant lands and a daring rescue. And yes, the tale will end with a sure sense of living happily ever after.

But a synopsis for her new memoir would read more like a horrific contemporary screenplay that spirals miraculously into a real life docudrama peppered with tremendous luck, unbeatable courage and tenacious commitment. Happily ever after arrives in beautifully told fits and starts: a rocky road, despite the upswinging trajectory.

Williams grew up in Oakland, the daughter of a single mother struggling with substance abuse, and a father who was either in prison or otherwise absent.

Her siblings unraveled early, lost to prostitution and addictions. A "tutor" raped her when she was a teenager. The Black Panthers, who once embraced and armed her with a "black is beautiful" message, fell into greed and internal warring that eventually pushed Williams and her family away.

Remarkably, instead of remembering the isolation she felt as a child, Williams is grateful.

"The Black Panthers gave me just enough protection, enough self-love to get out of there when the opportunity arose," Williams said in an interview.


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But it wasn't just self-love that saved her from a community that preyed on its own members; turning teenagers into pimps and prostitutes and reducing a rich, African American culture to a bedrock of crime and carnage.

Williams was first loved by her Uncle Landon, who led her to the Laurel Springs Children's Camp and to her second, greatest messenger of love, actress Jane Fonda.

The theater arts camp run by Fonda and her then-husband, Tom Hayden, opened its doors during summer months to underserved children. Fonda and Williams clicked.

As simplistic and improbable as that sounds, Williams' life is defined by impossibly bad and incredibly good luck.

Fonda took Williams into her home. The actress and activist raised her as her daughter and stuck by her despite awkward, distancing episodes of teenage push-away, a young adult testing and grappling with having two mothers.

Writing her memoir was one way to settle with the past, Williams said.

"My desire was to change what I consider my ugliest trait. I love people, but I don't let it run so deeply that I would be devastated if I were to lose them," she said. "I was taught that as a child: Get out before someone or something leaves you. Run away before it's taken away."

The impulse she considers ugly also saved her, and that irony doesn't escape her. Patterns and extreme contradictions run throughout her life: dire poverty/extreme wealth, black mom/white mom, risk/security.

"While writing the book, I saw the polarities in my life. I bounce between extremes and there's little time in the middle," she admitted, laughing.

Williams said interviewers often ask about the period of time when she lived in the home of media mogul Ted Turner (Fonda's second husband) and was served by black employees. Some people even suggest she should have stayed in her dysfunctional biological family.

"I think of myself as bicultural," she said. "Being raised in a white family opened up opportunities. I feel blessed that I can feel secure in any culture. I wish everybody could have that experience because they'd see that race is a superficial thing. Actually, classism is the real thing. People can't see the common fight because of race."

After college, she moved through a series of jobs and eventually, founded the Lost Boys Foundation in 2001.

It was while running the organization that she invited Eggers to come and learn about the orphaned Sudanese boys she was helping relocate to America. Hoping he would write an article, she gained a friend and sparked Eggers' heart-rending book, "What is the What," recounting the story of one boy, Valentino Achak Deng.

Through getaway sojourns as far-reaching as the Appalachian Trail and Antarctica, Williams worked her way home, to Oakland.

She reunited with her mother in 2012 and their relationship remains "up and down."

"When I was writing the book, she thought I'd be lashing out at her, which I was not," Williams said. "The number one person I did not want to hurt was my birth mother. It meant a lot to me that she loved the book and thanked Jane for helping me when she could not."

Williams said her mother still "has issues with alcohol." Catching her mother at low points is "horrific," but at high points, it's "beautiful." She occasionally feels the urge to run away, but has set a new course: "I'm staying present in the face of something or someone who terrifies me. I'm letting things come to me. It's amazing what shows up."

If you go
What: Berkeley Arts & Letters presents Mary Williams in conversation with author Dave Eggers at 7:30 p.m. April 23 at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way.
Tickets: $12 ($5 students), available in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/333393 or 800-838-3006. Tickets are $15 at the door.