Everything we've learned from Kerry Washington's new memoir, '20/20' interview
The special aired Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
Kerry Washington, one of the most private stars of the big and small screens, is opening up like never before.
The Emmy-winning, SAG and Golden Globe-nominated actor sat down with Robin Roberts to discuss her forthcoming memoir, "Thicker Than Water," on shelves Sept. 26, for the "20/20" special "Kerry Washington: Thicker Than Water -- A Conversation with Robin Roberts." The one-hour special aired Sunday, Sept. 24, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC and will be available to stream the next day on Hulu.
Washington got candid about her life and struggles before finding fame, how she's searching for her "authentic self" while also trying to track down her biological father, how she kept her wedding a secret and why motherhood is the most important role she has ever played.
Learning about her family's secret
One of the biggest revelations in Washington's upcoming memoir is when her parents told her that her dad, Earl Washington, is not her biological father -- a moment that she said "shocked" her, but provided a sense of clarity.
"I was born from a sperm donor," the actor told Roberts. "It was amazing, because I was at once shocked, like completely shocked. At the same time, it felt like some sort of weird confirmation. It was like they took glasses off me and cleaned them, and handed them back to me."
Washington said that her parents dropped the bombshell when she agreed to participate in the "Finding Your Roots" series with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Her parents were resistant to a DNA test at the time, the actor said, leading Gates to call Washington's parents to help talk them through the DNA test. After they told Gates they wouldn't do the show, the show's host told them that they "should consider telling" Washington the truth.
Learning about her family's secret was "the greatest gift" Gates gave her family, Washington said.
"When my dad told me, I realized that every time that I have said, 'I love you,' to my dad, that there has been this little part of his brain, conscious or unconscious that has had to have said, 'She loves me because she thinks I am her father.'"
"So I'm saying I love him, from his perspective, on the condition of a lie," she continued. "The moment that he told me, I realized that I had the opportunity to, for the first time, love my father unconditionally. That he got to hear me say, 'I love you, even though I know.'"
The actor said she feels her father "could have taken it to his grave" if he could have.
"I also know that's because, for him, there was nothing to tell, that my dad made the decision early on that I was his, and he was mine, and nothing will ever shake that," she said.
It was like they took glasses off me and cleaned them, and handed them back to me.
Washington said that she didn't feel betrayed by her parents for keeping this secret from her, but that "things just started to make sense in a different way" and that it gave her family space to heal.
With this knowledge, it inspired Washington to want to find her donor. "I just was like, 'I'm so curious,' 'cause I think I knew in that moment that in some way, this was my call to adventure," she said. She added that her father is "open, and curious, and you know, maybe not thrilled, but accepting and supportive."
On his daughter opening up on their family's private life in the memoir, Earl Washington shared, "It doesn't matter how it affects me. It's really important how she feels about how she writes. And I thought it was so well-written."
Her mother, Valerie Washington, shared, "It's been a journey. It's been a few years of a lot of emotion and a lotta sharing, but a lot of growing."
Overcoming struggles and finding an "escape" with acting
Washington writes in her book that she often became "blind with rage" and set to "panic mode" growing up when people casually asked her three seemingly simple words: "How are you?"
She told Roberts, "I didn't know how to answer the question and be true to myself and also give them what they want to hear."
Washington said her younger self was a "ball of contradiction," someone who was both "filled with love and energy and art" but also "afraid and struggling and searching." Part of this stemmed from problems at home, with Washington writing in her book that her father's drinking "played a powerful role in our family dynamics" and feeling that she and her mother "could never compete with the good feelings that flooded those bars" he visited.
Washington told Roberts, "We kind of had this appearance of being this kind of very successful, intelligent, elegant family where everything was perfect -- and that was not the case."
The actor also said that while she felt "some distance" between her and her parents, she wants to be clear that they are both "extraordinarily loving people."
"But in that love there was this veil," she added. "There was this distance."
We kind of had this appearance of being this kind of very successful, intelligent, elegant family where everything was perfect -- and that was not the case.
Even Washington herself said she was putting up a false sense of having it all together, saying she was maintaining a "facade" of being an overachieving high school student" but "acting out" after hours.
The actor also recalled how a boy allegedly touched her repeatedly while she slept during sleepovers. Upon discovering this at 10, she claims she opted to protect him and not tell any parents. "Yes, he was the perpetrator, but I felt that he was not built to withstand the pain of facing the consequences of his actions, so I would hide my pain and cover the truth to keep him and everyone else comfortable," she wrote in her memoir.
"That little girl made the choice to not tell anyone. I have a great deal of compassion for where the choice came from and even a little admiration for that little girl," she told Roberts. "But I also adore her and feel so sad that she carried the burden of that on her own for so long. And so, I wanted to make a choice to tell a truth that she couldn't."
What became Washington's saving grace during this time was the stage. "I was so lucky to find acting. It became an escape … from any of the fear and the anxiety," she said. "I could jump into a character and not have to think about any of that. I could just be this other person."
Her breakout film role was in "Save the Last Dance," which led to many recognizing her. In her memoir, she wrote that her increase in fame came with challenges, including moments when she "experienced a lack of privacy."
She pointed to one moment specifically when she says she was recognized by a nurse while having an abortion. She described that she decided to open up for the first time about her abortion for two reasons.
"We stay in our circles of shame because we don't talk about it," she explained during the special. "So, I challenged myself to try to write about my experience having an abortion to sort of let go of the shame about having an abortion and say, like, 'This is what -- this happens. A lot of women do this. This is a form of health care. This is OK."
"And then, to also share that I experienced a lack of privacy, and … how hard that is," she added, "and I'm saying we have to value our right to privacy and to free agency, and to choice."
A new lease on life
The actor said she hopes that by opening up on additional battles she's faced, including her mental health issues, an eating disorder and more, she'll be able to will help others.
"I've never wanted to share my private life for the sake of fame or for the sake of attention -- but I feel like this sharing is with purpose," she said.
In her memoir, the actor opens up about the depths of an eating disorder, which she says she developed while in college. She writes that she would find herself "secretly binge eating for days at a time, often to the point of physical pain, sometimes to the point of passing out."
I've never wanted to share my private life for the sake of fame or for the sake of attention -- but I feel like this sharing is with purpose.
"The first time that I actually got on my knees and prayed to some power greater than myself to say, like, 'I can't do this; I need some help,' was with my eating disorder," she told Roberts. "The behavior was just so abusive toward myself with food, with exercise, with starving -- with bingeing, with -- it just was -- I could not control it."
Washington said that the struggle with the eating disorder led to thoughts of suicide.
"It's so funny 'cause, as I say that to you, I'm like, 'That'll be the headline,'" she told Roberts. "But the behavior was tiny, little acts of trying to destroy myself."
"I could feel how the abuse was-- was a way to really hurt myself," she added. "As if I didn't want to be here. Like, it scared me that I-- that I could-- that I could want to not be here because I was in so much pain."
Speaking to how she has changed her relationship with food from years ago, Washington said it's "different now."
"It's not to the extreme," she said. "There's no suicidal ideation. That is not where I am anymore."
Keeping her family at the center of it all
While speaking to Roberts, Washington also discussed what she considers the most important part of her life: her family.
The actor is a mother to three children with her husband Nnamdi Asomugha, whom she married in 2013, and said she is "so lucky."
"Even the hard stuff is so good," she explained. "I say to my husband all the time, I'm like, 'Nnamdi, we have such great kids' … I feel so lucky to have the husband that I have, to have the kids that I have."
She said that although she and Asomugha are "still fiercely protective" over their children, she feels they're "a lot more open" than they used to be.
"You know, I took both my girls to the Taylor Swift concert with lots of friends, and we were all out there … they go places. We do things … we're much freer than we used to be," she said. "But we are careful."
As Washington lifts the veil on private battles from her past and continues her search for identity, she is confident in who she is and who she is becoming.
"Who is Kerry Washington today? Kerry Washington is an author. That's new. Kerry Washington is on a quest to find her donor. That's new," she said. "Kerry Washington is a little more open and free than she's ever been before, but it's still gonna be on my time and on my terms."
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or NationalEatingDisorders.org.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national lifeline at 988.