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How a DNA test inspired actress-activist Kerry Washington's journey of self-discovery

Kerry Washington playing a therapist and single mother in the Hulu series <em>UnPrisoned</em>. Her new memoir is <em>Thicker than Water.</em>
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Kerry Washington playing a therapist and single mother in the Hulu series UnPrisoned. Her new memoir is Thicker than Water.

In 2018, when actor/producer Kerry Washington had an opportunity to appear on the PBS series Finding Your Roots, her parents were initially excited for her. But then they learned the show would need to examine their DNA, Washington recalls, and that's when they sat down to tell her a secret they'd been keeping for decades.

"My parents shared with me that my dad — my beloved dad — is not my biological father," Washington says. "I was born from a sperm donor, at a time in the '70s where ... it was considered risky and important to remain secret."

Washington adds that she was a "very, very prayed for, wanted [and] loved child." Her parents had tried for years to conceive before her mother's doctor suggested artificial insemination. Following the procedure, Washington says, the doctor instructed her parents to go home and have sex so that her father would have "plausible deniability" about her parenthood.

Washington is known for her role as Olivia Pope on the ABC series Scandal. She also starred in the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, and is now playing a therapist and single mother in the series UnPrisoned.

In the new memoir, Thicker than Water, Washington recounts her life as an only child in the Bronx, her acting career and activism, and her journey of self-discovery after learning the truth of her heritage. Growing up, she frequently sensed an "emotional distance" between her parents and herself.

"I didn't grow up feeling that kind of deep emotional transparency and intimacy with my mother," Washington says. "But looking back, I think, 'How could I have?' She was keeping a secret from me that she could not reveal."

Washington says learning the truth has helped her forge a deeper connection with her parents — and that writing about her origin story feels particularly important now.

"Especially in this climate of our reproductive rights being under such extraordinary attack and assault," she says. 'There are obviously parts of this story that are somewhat unique to my family. But there's also just the reality that these are so much of the themes and issues that all of us as women are dealing with. I feel really lucky that I get to be part of the conversation and encourage the conversation."

Interview highlights

On internalizing the distance she felt with her parents

In that period of my childhood, they argued a lot. In order to receive their love and in order to try to maintain the love between them, I thought I needed to be perfect, which, of course, is impossible. And so there was always this sense that I needed to do better and be better and do more and have more and achieve more. I think that the notion of hyper-performance, hyper-vigilance, perfectionism — those things have served me in a lot of ways in my career and in my life, but they've also been really tremendously problematic and painful to navigate.

On the extreme wealth of some of her classmates at the elite private school Spence in Manhattan

I was awed and enamored with the material wealth that these families had. But I also felt this very clear injustice that I was witnessing. I felt the pain of that injustice. I felt angry that there were people who were living this way. And I couldn't have even imagined elevator doors opening up into an apartment. Where I came from, elevator doors opened and there were, like, 12 apartments, and that's what an apartment building was. But for an elevator door to open up into one apartment that takes the entire floor [of the building] felt obscene in some ways. So from a very young age, at 12 years old, I was grappling with the parts of my brain that thought that was aspirational and inspiring, and the parts of my brain that thought that was awful and unfair and unjust.

On the pressure to be exceptional, being a Black woman in white spaces

I guess the first word that pops into my mind is pressure, that when we, as marginalized folks, get invited into rooms as the exception, as the only, as the first, as the one of just a few, there is a pressure to be able to meet the space, to meet the requirements and the cultural expectations of the spaces that we're being invited into, and also to represent the spaces that we originate from with as much dignity, grace and success as possible. So I do think that idea of being exceptional did reinforce this pattern and drive toward perfectionism that had been planted earlier on.

On being an activist and campaigning for Obama — and the hate she received

I started out as an activist in my adolescence. For me, it was never a question of "Is it okay for me to have a voice as an actor?" It was almost the opposite requirement for me. I had to remind myself, as I got more and more successful, that I should not silence myself now because I was reaching a certain place in my career. ...

When I spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2007, it elicited a ton of death threats. It was very scary. I had security teams from the studio, from Disney, sort of helping me, protecting me, because it got very, very scary and what I remember the campaign saying to me was, "A lot of people spoke at the convention, Kerry, and not everybody is receiving this kind of hate. And part of that is because you are an actor. And so you do call a different level of attention, like your ability to capture eyeballs and ears is different. You have that gift. But also part of it is because you were effective up there. ... What you said really stayed with people. And so that's why they're coming for you." And I thought that was so helpful at the time, because it reminded me that doing good doesn't always feel good, but it's not a reason to not do it.

On how knowing the truth about her biological father has changed her relationship with her dad

One of the things that occurred to me when I learned this truth [of my biological father] is that every time I've ever told my dad that I love him, it has always been on the condition of a lie. And so consciously or unconsciously, there must have been some part of him that thought, "She loves me because she thinks I am her dad." ... And I have now gotten the opportunity to love my dad unconditionally, and he has had the opportunity to feel what it feels like to be loved in vulnerability. ... I can't even begin to articulate the value of that in our relationship and in our family.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.