When she was just eight years old, Melissa Francis landed the role of a lifetime joining the 1970s/80s hit prime-time soap opera Little House on the Prairie as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls. Having acted since before she can remember, Francis was now working with Michael Landon and Jason Bateman. It was like a dream come true. Right?
Although Melissa loved acting, she was often forced into it as the subject of the parenting of her highly neurotic and dangerously competitive “tiger mom.” Years later, Melissa left Hollywood, went to college and took a serious interest in serious news. Now the anchor of the FOX Business Network’s MONEY with Melissa Francis, she has taken the lessons she learned as a child and developed them into a very successful career and shared many of them in her new memoir Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter (Weinstein Books). In it, Melissa talks about her young life in Hollywood and the rigors of growing up with such a demanding stage mom in a story to which almost anyone with a chaotic youth can relate.
DOWNTOWN had the chance to speak with Melissa about her new book, her life and how she got to where she is today. To see Melissa, be sure to attend her book signing on Thursday, November 15 at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble on 86th Street.
DOWNTOWN Magazine: I was hoping we could focus on your new book and the things you’ve been doing recently. Maybe you can tell me how you decided to write this book?
Melissa Francis: I always wanted to be a writer and I’ve tried to write fiction in the past and in fact I’ve fictionalized my own story and tried to sell it to publishers and they told me that the writing style really grabbed them but the story wasn’t believable, which was ironic because it was true. I realized that I just had to sort of own it and put myself out there, which is so hard to do because you’re just exposing your whole life to other people but when the Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother came out and sort of reached critical mass, it made me cry because I felt like my childhood had been fueled by a very aggressive exaggerated version of the tiger mom. And while that kind of pressure-packed parenting can make a child at least outwardly successful, it can also do all kinds of damage, which is what happened to my sister … and our family really came to an explosive and shocking end – maybe it works for some kids, but it can also be incredibly destructive.
DTM: So how do you think personally you were able to come out unscathed?
MF: I think that kids are really born with different personalities; I have two sons and they respond totally differently to the same kind of parenting and the same sorts of discipline. I have one child who needs to feel like he can win before he even starts. He’s such a perfectionist that he needs to feel confident before he gets out there or he doesn’t even want to try, so that kind of very aggressive parenting with a child like him wouldn’t be effective. It would end up making him feel bad about himself. And I think it was the same thing with my sister and I that we were just hardwired very differently from birth. And I don’t blame our different outcomes necessarily on the way we were parented, but I think that we were just born differently and that a parent has to customize their approach to their child. And I would never tell anyone how to be a parent because it’s the hardest job in the world, but I think that any time you constrict to this certain specific philosophy, it is very dangerous.
DTM: So this book is a memoir, but do you also find it to be somewhat of a possible story of warning?
MF: More than anything else I love reading and I wanted it to be the kind of book that sucks you in. It reads very much like fiction, there’s a lot of dialogue—in general I think memoirs are incredibly boring. People just sit there and they go on and on saying, “I did this, then I did this.” This is written in a very unique, different style—it’s similar to The Glass Castle in that I went out of my way to write it in a fiction format with a story line and with dialogue and with a lot of action. I’ve had a great response from people who say they just got sucked into it, read it in 24 hours, were shocked by the ending and were left walking around for days after thinking about it. And more than anything else, I wanted to give people a story that they could wrap their mind around and get involved in and would move them emotionally. I’m the type of person who reads a book a week and I read fiction, I don’t generally enjoy memoirs. So I would say the main thing that I would want people to think about before they read it is that it’s a story that reads like fiction and will really grab you and that was my goal more than anything else. But then I think at the end, you know, the takeaway is a sort of meditation on parenthood. Now looking back at my own life and how I was parented and now I have two sons its sort of the lessons that I learned from my childhood that I carried over to my own kids.
DTM: But just to be clear, it is non-fiction, right?
MF: Every single word is true. It is my story. It is definitely my memoir, and I didn’t have any assistance—it’s all me.
DTM: From what I understand, your life in Hollywood is interesting in that you were a child star and then went away to school but then kind of came back in a completely different setting. You came back, but to work in news, and I was wondering if that timeline in any way has formed your understanding of the dangers of show business?
MF: I grew up in Hollywood and for my first job I was less than a year old. I was in a Johnson & Johnson’s shampoo commercial before I was even conscious of what was going on around me. I did more than 100 commercials, and so many movies and series of stuff, and I worked really steadily until high school and by the time I was making the decision to go off to college I felt like an old soul—I already had a whole career and one that I enjoyed so much but didn’t choose for myself. So I wanted to go away to college, somewhere where I couldn’t go and audition, and decide for myself, what did I really want to do for the rest of my life. So I went away to college and did a couple internships in news and it got me hooked and I thought this is something that I want to do and I moved around all local stations and started that career. It was sort of like I had a whole career with one thing and then I had the opportunity to make a dramatic career change with college.
DTM: Going back to the memoir specifically and how you wrote it, can you tell me about the process and kind of going through your life to write it and also why you decided to do it now?
MF: I have two young sons and I haven’t had a relationship with my mother for about 12 years, and she is not part of our life at all and now my sons are growing up and they are starting to ask questions. And I had thought that I was going to have to explain to him where my mother was, and I didn’t want to lie to him but I also didn’t know how to tell him the truth, so I was thinking about it for a long time and I realized that I’ve gotten very good at avoiding directly answering questions about my family. I could answer a question without lying, but without telling anyone what the truth was. And it’s just not a healthy way to be resolved with your own life when you’re trying to create a life for your family.
So I just sort of decided to do it and I wouldn’t say that it was therapeutic—a lot of people would say it must be cathartic to go through and sort of reconcile yourself with everything in your life; it wasn’t, it was just painful. But I’m glad I did it and now I just feel like I’m a lot more honest. It’s out there, it is what it is, and in a lot of ways it’s embarrassing to put yourself out there and tell your family story but I think there’s value to it, I think the story has a somewhat happy ending; I mean there’s a lot of heartache but I think the other lesson that maybe people can take away from it is that a difficult childhood is actually a wealth of experience to draw upon.
Like so many people out there, every family has a story; every person has the heartache that they’ve been through. But you learn from it and in my case in particular, it teaches me what not to do. I know how I want to parent, I know what I want from life now because of what I’ve been through. So in a lot of ways it’s the opportunity for you to make a choice to make your life different and move forward.
DTM: You mentioned the end of the book and the end of the story but there are still a lot of things that you are doing with your life. Sometimes a memoir implies that that’s the whole thing but obviously there’s still things coming up. Do you think you would ever write another book?
MF: Oh yeah. I would like to do fiction, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And I looked around my life for my next subject and I’ve even joked with my in-laws that they better be nice to me because they’re next—they’re the sequel. But it’s hard to find the next subject because in being honest you say both flattering and unflattering things about people. So I’m definitely going to write another book but I haven’t figured what my target is next. I might just go with fiction.
—Compiled by Matt Essert