Kerry Washington sat down with NPR's Juana Summers to discuss her memoir and her family.

Kerry Washington sat down with NPR's Juana Summers to discuss her memoir and her family. / Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR

In her new memoir, Thicker Than Water, Kerry Washington explores how a shocking discovery about her identity changed her relationship with her parents.

Who is she? Washington is an acclaimed actress, activist and author, known for her roles in TV shows like Scandal and Little Fires Everywhere, and films like Django Unchained and Ray.

  • Born and raised as an only child in the Bronx, New York, Washington's upbringing allowed her to be immersed in the things she still values today: the performing arts and political activism.
  • Her career in film and television has also greatly impacted her personal life, chiefly an offer to appear on the PBS series Finding Your Roots, which she ultimately didn't go through with.

What's the big deal? As Washington prepared for her appearance on the show that traces the lineage of well-known public figures, her parents realized they would have to share a family secret kept from her for her entire life.

  • Upon discovering her DNA would be collected for her appearance on the show, her father began to panic, Washington told All Things Considered host Juana Summers.
  • "He started not being able to sleep and he got really irritable. And my parents suddenly were changing their mind and saying that they weren't sure that they wanted to follow through with this, and I couldn't get to the bottom of it." 
  • As it turns out, Washington's parents had used a sperm donor in hopes of conceiving, which they revealed to her in her early forties. Washington later confirmed her dad, Earl, was not her biological father through a DNA test.
  • "It really was the beginning of a process that I think we're still on," Washington says. "But this is a very kind of transformative process for my family."

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What's she saying? Washington sat down with Summers to reflect on how this watershed moment has allowed her to process her life in a new context.

On sharing this deeply personal process in print and in conversation:

It's very strange, you know, it's so funny because I'm doing so many interviews right now and appearances in support of the book and I'm really used to a press day, right? Like, I'm used to talking about other people's stories and other people's narratives. So to have these conversations really centered around me and my family and my parents in particular has been strange, but also, I think liberating.

I wanted to really examine the story of who I am, and how I came to be, and how this fact of my conception actually impacted the way that I've dealt with truth and shame throughout my entire life.

On not knowing a large part of her own genetic history:

Well, I'm on the search. I have a really phenomenal team that's out there looking for the identity of the donor. The truth is, I have a dad who I love very much. And so the information about this person is like an added bonus in the puzzle of me.

So I know that the information about the donor will come in at the right time, and I'm looking forward to it, but I don't have a lot of attachment about it, needing to fulfill some kind of emotional idea.

But listen, that's what I say, sitting here, right? Like, I might figure out who the person is and go meet them and then be like, "Why don't you love me?" I don't know, I don't know. It's all easy to say in the moment.

On the moment her parents finally decided to tell her the truth:

I think if they could have taken it to their grave, they would have. But they, and this is what's so extraordinary about my parents, they made the choice that they thought would be best for me by telling me, even though it was so uncomfortable for them. 

And I think about that a lot, because I think that's so much of what parenting is. It's that willingness to think about what's best for the child, right? Like, not to think that the kid is here to fulfill our dreams and be who we want them to be. But that we need to be who we need to be, in order to be of service to that evolving human.

I think my parents were innovators. They were groundbreakers. This was the mid '70s, this was a highly experimental medical procedure, artificial insemination. And they took this risk because they really, really wanted me. And I think I'm so lucky to have that love.

Now, the relationship that we have is so much more intimate and honest and open. It was like all the veils came down, all the walls came down. There's no longer a sense that there's anything I can't ask my parents or that they can't ask me. Like, my parents have read the book, they've given me their blessing, they're incredibly generous and supportive.

You know, my dad is like, "It's not the book I would have written." Which is fine, because it's my book, right? But the fact that he remains supportive and loving and understands why it's important for me to be on this journey, I think all of that is part of the grace that we've learned to give each other in the unpacking of this truth.

So, what now?

  • Washington says she has grappled with the pain of telling one's truth throughout the process of this book:
  • "Every time that somebody says the book is brave, I have to navigate this dual reaction. There's a part of me that says, 'Oh, that's such a beautiful compliment.' And then there's a voice in my head that says, 'You've done something wrong.' When I hear, 'You're so brave', I hear, 'I wouldn't have done that. That's not OK to do.'"
  • Washington also examines how this has impacted her own children and how it connects to the family structure they have grown up with, telling Summers:
  • "I'm reluctant to put words in their mouth ... but I was thinking, you know, this is not strange for them. They're like, 'OK, got it.' You know, we're a blended family. They get it. A person can have more than two parents. No big deal. And I love that for them and I love that that ease gets to be witnessed by my parents."
  • You can listen to part one of the conversation by tapping the play button at the top of this page; and you can listen to part two here.
  • Thicker Than Water is out now.

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