book review

“Finding Me” by Viola Davis

Finding Me by Viola Davis

  • HarperOne, 2022
  • Hardcover, 304 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-06-303732-8

Highly Recommended

The book is not so much a triumphant tale of overcoming adversity as a howl of fury at the injustice of it all.

the Guardian

In this candid memoir Viola Davis details her journey from desperate childhood poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to becoming one of the finest actors working today. “I learned from writer Joseph Campbell that a hero is someone born into a world where they don’t fit in. They are then summoned on a call to an adventure that they are reluctant to take. What is the adventure? A revolutionary transformation of self” (p. 9).

As a child, Viola lived in rat-infested apartments without electricity, heat, or running water. She shoplifted and dug through the contents of Dumpsters in search of food. Her alcoholic father routinely beat her mother savagely. The lack of running water meant she and her siblings were unable to bathe or wash clothes. They were teased and shunned at school because they always smelled bad. 

One night, watching a television connected to an electrical outlet in the next apartment by an extension cord, “a new world opened up before my very eyes” (p. 61). Young Viola saw Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. “She had a long neck and was beautiful, dark-skinned, glistening with sweat, high cheekbones, thick, full lips, and a clean, short Afro” (p. 61). “At that moment,” Viola writes, “I found my calling” (p. 62).

Through much of the first part of Finding Me the narrative is hard to follow. Events are juxtaposed without much analysis, leaving the reader to make emotional rather than logical connections between them. The language of journeys and warriors and battles suggests that the writer is working too hard to fit her life into Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey. Yet such writing accurately mirrors the experiences of a young child seeking to make sense of a world she cannot yet understand.

The writing smooths out once Viola begins narrating events of high school and later, as she continues the journey of discovering herself—or her self. By the end of the book she understands the significance memory has played in her story:

There’s the factual part of memory that has to do with details, timeline, but the other part of memory is abstract. How did I feel when this was happening? What did I want at that time? If the memory is bad, you try to forget it. Or you change the memory in order to survive. (p. 289)

And, by the end, she has reached the conclusion predicted on the inside front flap of the book’s dust jacket:

Finding Me is a deep reflection, a promise, and a love letter of sorts to self. My hope is that my story will inspire you to light up your own life with creative expression and rediscover who you were before the world put a label on you.

Finding Me won several awards:

  • Audie Award for Audiobook of the Year and for Narration by the Author (2023)
  • Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2022)
  • NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction (2023)

Bonus Notes

‘I just EGOT!’ Actor Viola Davis wins at 2023 Grammys

What Makes Viola Davis’s EGOT Win So Special

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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