The Lost Daughter: A Memoir

The Lost Daughter: A Memoir

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by Mary Williams

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“I always hoped [Mary Williams] would tell her incredible story. She's a writer of uncommon clarity and humor, and the arrival of her memoir is cause for celebration." —Dave Eggers, author of What is the What

As she grew up in 1970s Oakland, California, role models for Mary Williams were few and far between: her father was often in…  See more details below


“I always hoped [Mary Williams] would tell her incredible story. She's a writer of uncommon clarity and humor, and the arrival of her memoir is cause for celebration." —Dave Eggers, author of What is the What

As she grew up in 1970s Oakland, California, role models for Mary Williams were few and far between: her father was often in prison, her older sister was a teenage prostitute, and her hot-tempered mother struggled to raise six children alone. For all Mary knew, she was heading down a similar path.

But her life changed when she met Jane Fonda at summer camp in 1978. Fonda grew attached to the bright girl and eventually invited her to become part of her family, becoming the mother Mary never had. Mary’s life since has been one of adventure and opportunity—from hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, working with the Lost Boys of Sudan, and living in the frozen reaches of Antarctica. Her most courageous trip, though, involved returning to Oakland and reconnecting with her biological mother and family, many of whom she hadn’t seen since the day she left home. The Lost Daughter is a chronicle of her journey back in time, an exploration of fractured family bonds, and a moving epic of self-discovery.

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Editorial Reviews

Superficially seen, Mary Williams has led a life of polarities. Raised in poverty by a fierce single mother of five, she grew up in Oakland, surrounded by Black Panther militants and prostitutes, one of whom was her big sister. When she was thirteen, she received a free pass, an invitation to a children's camp where she met and befriended Jane Fonda. Taken under the wing and then adopted by this mega-celebrity, Mary found herself grappling with the transition even as she was healing from the wounds of her former life. In this powerful memoir and affectionate portrait of her mother, Williams writes about returning to the Oakland she left so many years before and what that return taught her about herself.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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For years I kept my family life a secret from Jane. She knew that I came from a Panther background , but she knew nothing of my mother’s drinking, my shrinking family. When I was thirteen that finally changed. The first person I told my full story to was one of my camp counselors. The camp counselor told Jane. Jane asked me if what she heard was true, and for the first time I opened up to her about everything that was going on back in Oakland.  Soon after telling her this, Jane invited me to come live with her year-round in Santa Monica. I did not ask my mom’s permission. I just left. It was a normal thing in my family to be here one day and gone the next. From my small, run-down house in Oakland, I moved to Jane’s hacienda surrounded by flower gardens and avocado trees. Landing on the moon would have been less disorienting. She sat me down soon after I arrived and said, “I see you as my daughter now. If you want, you can call me Mom.” I also had new siblings, a brother named Troy, and two sisters, Vanessa and Nathalie. Jane became my greatest friend, my cheerleader, and a dedicated mother. Despite being a busy actress and activist, Jane was home most nights and often cooked dinner for us. Everything was new. Even something as seemingly simple as dinnertime was fraught. I had to prepare myself each night for my confrontation with “white people food”—some of it good (baked Alaska), some not so good (artichokes). And I was shocked to learn that people could disagree or dislike one another and still be civil.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"The Lost Daughter is an extraordinary memoir. In fact, this is exactly the kind of story for which memoir was born. Mary Williams has lived more lives than a dozen other women combined. Some of those lives have been brutal and others have been blessed, but she regards every aspect of her remarkable journey with the same sense of clarity, honesty, compassion, and (in delightful outbursts) vivacious wit. I marvel at this book, at this life, at this unforgettable account of a mighty and uncrushable human being."
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed

"I've known Mary Williams for almost ten years now, and I always hoped she would tell her incredible story. She's a writer of uncommon clarity and humor, and the arrival of her memoir is cause for celebration."
 —Dave Eggers, author of What is the What and A Hologram for the King

“I love the way Mary Williams tells her story, The Lost Daughter, of living in and between two worlds—upheavals and miracles, deprivations, and opportunities. A world of mothers lost and found again. It is ultimately a story about acceptance and forgiveness and gratitude, told with the deepest compassion, honesty and, ultimately, love.”
—Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues

“A tender memoir of love and redemption. Born during the civil rights movement to Black Panther Party parents, Williams grew up in a tough neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., [until] actress and activist Jane Fonda stepped in and gave the bright 16-year-old girl a new life. And for 30 years, Williams avoided looking backward to her birth mother and rough beginnings....In heartwarming prose, the author explains how she eventually reunited with her siblings, their children and finally her birth mother. A compassionate tale of soul-searching and family love.”

“William’s attempts to reconcile her two disparate families and lives form the heart of her conversational narrative of a life changed by what looks like chance....A fascinating picture of Jane Fonda in a maternal role emerges but equally intriguing is Williams’s description of life as a small child living in the close-knit Black Panther community. Williams will remind readers that tensions ran high in the 1970s and that sometimes the collateral damage was human life.”
Library Journal

“It is rare that a person has the opportunity to observe life from such disparate vantages as Mary Williams has occupied. It is perhaps more rare still that she would come to possess the self-awareness and desire to explore those observations in a searching and serious memoir. But that is Williams' achievement in The Lost Daughter, her improbable account of leaving impoverished East Oakland for a life of privilege with the actress and activist Jane Fonda....a fairy tale of a bildungsroman that charts the course of Mary's remarkable opportunity and self-actualization.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] remarkable story...Williams offers a nuanced portrait of her two families...Hers is a book of sorrow and redemption, of seeing the gulf between families and the reconciliation that too often fails and sometimes succeeds.... There are fascinating insights into the Fonda clan as well.”
—Linda Diebel, The Toronto Star


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The Lost Daughter 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
TinaP1 More than 1 year ago
This book hit me where very few books have in the past. excellent reading, but not for the faint at heart:)
DonWilke More than 1 year ago
A gripping story. Written with great honesty. At times sadness almost drips off the page.
Shari4 More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully written masterpiece. Five stars!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The writer spent so much of her life keeping secrets, to finally put them out on the page must be almost euphoric for her. I was incredibly moved by this story. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Personable, brutally honest memoir of her life with no short cuts. High/lows, good/bad, Mary takes you through her life of survival, self redemption and forgiveness. You almost feel like you know her and most women can relate to some aspect of her life. I could not put the book down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ignoring the fact Mary is the adopted daughter of Jane Fonda, The Lost Daughter, is an awesome example of a woman who was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape from the dangers of the inner city. She took that opportunity, gave back not only to her community, but saw the need for improved health education to African natives. Mary's compassion and curiosity help her overcome an abusive and oppressed childhood. Meanwhile, looking for other ways to help those who had similar experiences. I also liked the fact she recognized she could accomplish her goals with the help of positive roll models and her tenacity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Honest, thoughtful and hopeful. This book reflects the will to persevere against all odds. It shows we can change the course of our lives if we are brave enough to take the chance. It also shows, "we are our brother keeper".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read thie book after watching an interview with the author on OWN. I mention the book to as many people as I can, so others will enjoy the book as much as I did. I wish there were more stars! Great read. -Bridgettenp
Bobby_Tenison More than 1 year ago
A great book! Not for the faint of heart though. It really speaks to the soul.
ToniSimpkins More than 1 year ago
Jane Fonda's adopted daughter Mary Williams tells a story of survival. It is healing to know she reconnected with the people from her past and forgave them. From start to finish it is a remarkable story. I would highly recommend The Lost Daughter as a quality summer read.
nonfictionrbest More than 1 year ago
I was very interested in this lady that Jane Fonda adopted. I had not heard too much about her even though I am an older lady. I was wonderful to hear how Lawanda's life had improved throughout her life. She led a very interesting one once she got away from her abusive family. It was also nice to see that she did reconnect with her family and find the way to forgive what could not have been any different considering the only way her parents could take care of her. She can be very proud of herself and so can Jane for directing this poor little girl in the right direction. It was a wonderful story and shows how we can all find some good in what is going on around us.
LynnLD 11 months ago
This is the autobiographical sketch of Mary Williams, the African- American adopted daughter of Jane Fonda. She tells of her life in Oakland as a young child and being raised by a single mother. She deals with the pressures of living in the inner city as she watches her older sisters make poor choices and observes as her mother slips in alcoholism. When she is brutally attacked at a tender age, her uncle helps her find a summer camp and she eventually meets Jane Fonda. She becomes close to Jane and her children after Fonda takes her under her wing. She confides in Jane about the attack and a friendship is formed. She moves in with the Fondas and becomes privy to all of the celebrity of being attached to that family. As an African- American youth, she is exposed to the best schools and work assignments overseas in places like Morocco, Tanzania and Alaska. She even takes a six- month hike on the Appalachian Trail and finally comes to the consensus that she needs to reconnect with her Oakland family and roots. Luckily for her, her mother and other sisters were still alive though her older sister had been murdered. She reconnects with her birth mother and other family members after three decades of separation. She, her mother and Jane Fonda do have a meeting as well. This book was an interesting read because if Mary had not met the Fonda family, chances are she would not have been around to tell the story. But thankfully, she does find her way home again; even if for a second look and acknowledgement of her mother’s efforts to raise her children.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. Very well written. A story of love, courage and human emotions. I would definitely recommend it.
WilliamBT More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book Mary Williams has wrote about her growing up with a foster mom. She tells a fantastic story about her up bringing without a biological mother and how her foster mother help to raise her and shape her for todays world. This is a must read for all who are alone and was not raised by their biological mother. William B. Turner Author
missbeverlyann More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I didn't think I would but the writing was so smooth and enjoyable. I never knew this other daughter existed. It's nice that she is out and we were all able to just enjoy her coming of age and maturing and not living in the environment she was born into. A very lucky woman who remains grounded thanks to Jane being grounded as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great reading, interesting, lessons on forgiveness and most important, pursue your dreams and face your fears
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is an easy read that took me on an amazing journey full of emotion. I felt SO sad for the author at times but I admire her for accepting Jane's helping hand, following her heart, chasing her dreams and making the most out of her life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book-MavenTD More than 1 year ago
Look past the cover photo,  for those of readers that recall Jane Fonda's anti-American tirades of the 60's.  This story is about the struggle of a life that persevered. It is a story of triumph of the human spirit. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poor thing should NOT have used that photo for the cover of her book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jane Fonda - PUKE! American Traitor. Hank must be spinning! 0000 rating.