Inside Actress Marlee Matlin's Silent World

Read an Excerpt of Matlin's New Memoir "I'll Scream Later."

ByABC News via via logo
April 13, 2009, 12:29 PM

April 14, 2009 -- Actress Marlee Matlin opens up about her past in a brand new memoir. Matlin's book, "I'll Scream Later," highlights the Academy Award winner's life in the Hollywood spotlight as a hearing-impaired performer, as well as a surprising past spent pushing limits and defying expectations.

Check out a sneak peek below.

February 2, 1987, it's nearing dusk when my plane lands in Palm Springs. No one in my family is there to meet me. No friends. Just a stranger, an old man with a face that looks as if it has traveled a thousand miles of bad road. He smiles and waves in my direction. I'm sure he's seen countless like me before.

He seems kind, tries to be reassuring, but it still takes all of my strength to move toward him and his aging station wagon. He is a volunteer, the transportation of lost souls now one of his missions in life – maybe a way to direct a little good karma back in his direction. I understand, I could use some myself.

I have never, ever felt more alone or more frightened in my life; it's as if sadness and despair have seeped deep into my bones.

He doesn't try to talk to me, and I wonder if he knows I am Deaf or just senses that I'm too emotionally fragile to talk. Either way he's right. I have no words right now. I am as close to broken as I've ever been. We head out into the fading light for a fifteen-minute drive that feels endless, the one that will take me to the Betty Ford Center, specializing in treating alcohol and drug addiction, in nearby Rancho Mirage.

My name is Marlee Matlin, and at this moment I am twenty-one years old and at the very beginning of an unexpectedly promising acting career. I've also managed to pack a few other things into those years – among them a serious addiction to both pot and cocaine. Then there's my two-year relationship with actor William Hurt, which has gone from passionate and troubled to dangerously difficult and codependent.

The sun sets as we pull up to the front of the Center, BFC to anyone who's spent time there. The building looks imposing, not welcoming, but I can see through its expanse of windows that there is a light on inside.


IT SHOULD HAVE been the best time of my life. And in a surreal way it was. Almost exactly forty-eight hours earlier and a world away in the bright lights and red-carpet glitz of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, I had won a Golden Globe as Best Actress for my performance as Sarah Norman, the profoundly Deaf and profoundly angry young woman who finds herself and love in the film "Children of a Lesser God."

I stood on the stage that night in a simple black dress I'd found a few days earlier, no speech, looking down into a sea of faces. So many of the actors whose careers I'd been awed by were applauding me. I had won in a category that included Anne Bancroft, Sigourney Weaver, Julie Andrews, and Farrah Fawcett – all Hollywood veterans. I was dizzy with happiness. I felt humbled, unable to quite believe this was truly happening. To the rest of the world it must have seemed that everything was going my way. My very first film had come with a celebrated costar in William Hurt, who quickly became my mentor and my lover, and not in that order. For the most part the critics had been exceedingly kind to the film, it was doing good business at the box office both in the United States and overseas, which always makes the studio bosses happy, and now the Golden Globes had officially launched the movie, and me with it, into the Oscar race.

Though much of my life was falling apart, for that one night I was able to put all the problems and the pain aside and let the extraordinary evening wash over me. I don't know whether it's fate or karma or just me, but for every momentous time in my life – good or bad—it seems the gods always throw in something for comic relief. On the way up to the podium to accept my Golden Globe, I looked down and realized that one of the Lee press-on nails that I'd glued on and painted bright red earlier that day had come off. Instead of thinking about what I would say, my only thought was how in the world could I sign and hide that broken nail!

But once I hit the stage, that thought flew from my mind. All I could think about was how grateful I was to be recognized in this way. And that is essentially what I signed. Short, simple, heartfelt.

The walk backstage to the pressroom, Golden Globe in hand, was amazing, overwhelming. My heart was pounding, I swear I could feel each beat, hundreds of strobe lights were going off in my face, photographers were screaming my name until Whoopi Goldberg flung her arms around me, gave me a squeeze, and said with no small irony to the crowd, "Hey, guys, she's Deaf, she can't hear you."

But photographers are a hungry bunch – a really great shot puts steak on the table and a Mercedes in the driveway – so it didn't take long for them to figure out the trick to getting my attention. So the shouts were replaced by waving hands and I twisted and turned and smiled as the hands in front of me waved wildly.

That night I went back to my room at the L'Ermitage Hotel and closed the door on Hollywood – at least for a time.

On the other side of that door, the Oscar campaign for the movie was getting ready to kick into overdrive. I had no idea how Oscar season worked in Hollywood, all that it entailed. There was publicity to do, photo shoots to line up, magazine covers to consider, TV talk shows to book. There were calls from the studio, the media, old friends, new friends, agents.

The calls would go unanswered, the interviews would all be turned down, the photo shoots nixed. I had decided I was going to quietly disappear, leaving it to Jack Jason, my interpreter and increasingly the person I relied on to help with the business details of my life, to run interference for me. I told him to say no to everything—though I was pretty much oblivious of how much that would be-- but to tell absolutely no one where I was or why I wasn't available. No exceptions.

I was lucky. Today in the world of rabid paparazzi and TMZ such discretion wouldn't be possible. But in 1987, only a handful of people knew where I was going – my immediate family, Jack, and, of course Bill, whose own stint at Betty Ford was barely finished by the time I checked in.

It was hard enough to go into rehab, it was harder still that I had virtually no support for my decision. Bill was the only person encouraging me. Everyone else thought whatever problems I might have with drugs weren't all that serious, and, besides, didn't I realize my career was at stake?

In a seven-page letter, that was typical of the pressure I was under from those closest to me, my dad wrote:

"So you smoke pot -- big deal -- do you understand you are just starting a career and by checking into a hospital, can ruin your life…. Don't go to the Betty Ford clinic. You have something going for you -- don't throw it away -- don't waste it. You missed a lot in life but maybe this little bit of fame can make up a small portion of what you missed."

This letter came as a follow-up to a huge fight my mother and I had over my decision to go into rehab. Even Jack, who was spending hours a day with me interpreting interviews and meetings, thought the timing was wrong and the problem wasn't that severe.

But it was. Consider January 9, 1987, one particularly memorable day of my life on drugs.

I was in Chicago at my parents' house and due to fly to California the next day to be with Bill at Betty Ford during Family Week as part of his rehab therapy. I knew deep inside that during the counseling sessions they would bust me about my drug use, so I tried to finish everything I had.

Here's an inventory of that day: I had a gram of coke, a half-ounce bag of pot, a pipe, rolling papers, and a bong. All by myself, I finished the coke but couldn't finish the pot, though I really tried, there was just too much. That doesn't even touch the emotional issues I had that were fueling my drug use.

I remember cleaning up my desk in a haze, finding anything that I could that was drug related and throwing it all away. It was in my gut that this would be the last time I would ever use. But I knew, no matter how determined I was to keep drugs out of my life, I needed help.

Looking back on it now, I realize everything in my life up to that point-- my childhood, my family, my deafness, the obstacles, the opportunities, the friends and lovers, the molester and the abusers, the doctors and the teachers, and always the acting-- had all meshed to buy me a ticket on that forty-eight hour rollercoaster ride in1987. Forty-eight hours that delivered an amazing, drug-free high at the Golden Globes and an immeasurable low as I faced the entrance to Betty Ford and the hard work I knew I had ahead of me if I was to build a life of sobriety.

The intersection of these two events would change the way I would navigate life -- and the life I would have to navigate -- forever.

IT ALL BEGAN for me on August 24, 1965, at 12:03 a.m. when Marlee Beth Matlin came screaming into the world. I was not then, nor was I ever, a quiet, retiring child. As my mom describes it, "None of my kids were quiet, they cried, they screamed--they were anxious to get grown, Marlee most of all."

My family lived just outside of Chicago in Morton Grove, one of a string of upper middle-class suburbs filled with newly minted bilevel homes to accommodate the growing families with disposable incomes who wanted a comfortable lifestyle, separated from the poverty of the city. My mom and dad, Libby and Don Matlin, definitely wanted to put the grit, grime, and hard times of their childhoods growing up in Chicago behind them.

When my mother talks about her early years, it is a story of abandonment and disappointments. An aunt and uncle had helped Libby's mother, Rose Hammer, and Libby's older sister, Sara, and brother, Jack, who changed his name to Jason, emigrate from Bledow, Poland–a village about halfway between Warsaw and Lodz– in the late twenties, saving them from the almost certain death they would have faced as Jews had they been there for Hitler's invasion in 1939. Libby, the family's last child, was born in 1930 in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a new world full of possibilities. But the family would soon begin to fracture.

By the time Libby was nine, her family had moved to Chicago, where her parents ran a small baked-goods store, though that didn't last long. Libby's father, Paul, diagnosed with tuberculosis, soon moved into a treatment facility in Denver, her brother eventually left to live with the aunt and uncle in Yakima, Washington, who'd helped the family emigrate and Libby's sister moved in with another family as a boarder. That left Libby and her mother to make their way alone.

Rose, who spoke Yiddish and little English-- barely enough to get by-- mostly found work in the Chicago sweatshops sewing dresses for little money and long hours each day. Rose and Libby lived in rat- and roach-infested tenements in the city's worst areas, a life that Libby remembers as "soul-destroying."

Her one good memory is of an uncle, a shoemaker who one day put taps on a pair of her shoes. She loved to dance in them for hours, but worried that her overworked mother might take them away or see them as frivolous in their hardscrabble life. Libby would sneak off and find a little bit of bare flooring away from the apartment where she could make the tap shoes sing.

She says she had no real dreams for herself as a child, it wasn't a life that allowed for dreams, but there were those tap shoes and somewhere along the way the hope that maybe, just maybe, she could be the next Shirley Temple.

More disappointments followed. When Libby was twelve, her mother found out that her husband, by then getting his TB treatment in San Francisco, was involved with another woman. Rose divorced him and Libby felt she had lost her father forever. I never knew any of this until after Grandpa Paul passed away.

He would come into Libby's life again when she was nineteen. By then, her sister had tracked him down and reconnected him to the family. He was living in Los Angeles and running a small dry cleaner's on Vernon Avenue, and the next time Libby was in town she went to see him. Maybe it was more out of curiosity than anything else; she said she could never forgive him for emotionally devastating her mother.

A few years later he came through Chicago and asked to stay with our family, but it was awkward and tense. My mother remembers one day going downstairs to the basement with a knife in hand to retrieve some ribs from a fridge down there. On the way down the stairs she stopped and, unable to shake off the rage she felt for the father who abandoned her, rammed the knife into the wood paneling along the stairwell. They rarely spoke again, and when he died in the nineties, she didn't go to the funeral. I happened to be in L.A. then and went to the service, the only one in my immediate family there.


MY DAD'S CHILDHOOD was just as bleak. The Matlin family traces its roots back to Russia, where my great-grandfather was a blacksmith in Gomel, which sits on the banks of the Sozh River in what is now Belarus. By all accounts it was a thriving city in the early 1900s with a large Jewish population. But wars would transform it.

Five of six sons in the family were lost to the fighting during World War I. My great-grandfather died in 1908, before World War II would claim his wife and six daughters along with more than 2 million other Jews during the German occupation of the region.

Edward, my grandfather, the youngest child, was around twelve in 1914, and his mother knew if he stayed, he would have to go into the army like his brothers. She refused to lose another son. So with little more than the shirt on his back, he headed for the United States.

My grandfather made his way to Glenview, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where some other families from Gomel had settled. He went to work for a family that owned a barbershop/pool hall and soon started to learn the barbering trade, sleeping on the pool tables at night.

By the time my dad came along, the real business at the barbershop was a backroom bookie joint my grandfather ran. Eddie was a heavy whisky drinker–my dad would pour him shots throughout the day. The legend in our family was that Sammy Davis Jr. showed up one day for a shave and a haircut, but Eddie wouldn't let him in because he didn't cater to blacks. I wonder what Eddie would think when years later when I would count Sammy as a friend and mentor.

By his count, Eddie gambled away four barbershops over the years with a string of bad bets on the horses. He became a Chicago character, leaving more than a few customers with towels steaming on their face, while he ran to make a last-minute bet before post time. When a reporter asked why, after forty years, he kept betting when he kept losing. Eddie just shrugged and said, "I'm trying to get even."

The relationship between my grandfather and my grandmother, Ann, was just as sketchy. My dad hated to talk about it to me no matter how hard I tried. My grandparents would marry and divorce four or five times over the years and have one more child, my uncle Steve, who is nineteen years younger than my dad.

When times were bad, and they mostly were, Don was passed around from aunts to grandparents. He never knew where he would be living from one day to the next. He never made it out of high school–"I never took home homework, nobody was there to say I should or shouldn't." An alcoholic father and a mother who was easily distracted by the other men in her life, at sixteen my dad tried to join the Marines, a decision that his mother approved. But after three months, the Marines found out that he and two other boys in the company were all underage and sent them back home.

Don kicked around at odd jobs for the next few years. He had a serious girlfriend that he lost tragically that we would hear about over the years. Near Christmastime, they had argued, leaving things in a mess. That night she went out with another guy. As they were driving back home from their date, another car plowed into them. She was killed instantly. To this day, when Don says her name–and he rarely does unless pushed–he still cries. Another twist of fate; who knows what would have happened had she lived, my brothers and I might not exist.

My dad and my mom dated off and on, from the time they were fifteen, though as my mom says, "We did a lot of breaking up, too."

My dad tells this story of why they finally got married:

"We'd been engaged quite a few times, and Libby finally said she didn't want to hear from me again unless I wanted to get married. I knew she was out visiting relatives in California and heard that there was a big earthquake. I called to make sure she was alright and she said, 'I suppose you want to marry me since you called…' "

So the Kern County earthquake in July of 1952, a 7.3-level shaker that would twist highways, crumble buildings and do more than $60 million in damage, triggered what would become my family.


THE WEDDING ON November 2, 1952, was at noon on a Saturday at the Belmont Hotel in Chicago. Around a hundred guests were invited. On their wedding day, my dad was in a dark suit, and my mom wore a powder blue dress that she bought at a department store for $17. The veil she borrowed. With a rabbi officiating, they said their vows, Don crushed a wineglass and they both dared to dream a little.

The couple settled into a nice, bright apartment on Chicago's north side, furnished with $5,000 that Don's bosses had given him as a wedding present–a fortune at that time. My mom was soon pregnant with my brother Eric, and four years later my brother Marc was born. Not long after, the family moved to Morton Grove, to the house I would grow up in.

My dad, by then, was selling used cars, a business he would stay in for the rest of his working days. It was hard work, long hours, but the money was enough to afford us a comfortably solid middle-class life. My parents developed an active social life–Wednesday and Saturdays they always went out, Thursdays my dad played cards with the guys…all night.

Over the next few years, my parents would try without success to add to the family. My mother had one miscarriage, and more devastatingly they lost a baby, a boy, who was premature, born the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

By the time my mom was pregnant with me, Libby and Don were hoping for a girl, but, like most parents, what they really wanted was a healthy child. Eric was twelve and Marc was eight when I came home in August 1965.

My grandmother Rose is indirectly responsible for my name. She wanted Libby to name me after Molly, her half-sister, the aunt who had helped bring Rose and her two oldest children here from Poland. Although my mother really despised this aunt, she agreed–sort of. Sometime before I was born, she attended a luncheon where the speaker was a British woman named Marlee. The woman was attractive, self-possessed, and impressive and was kind to Libby when they met that day. My mother came home and told my dad that if the baby was a girl, Marlee would be her name ... close enough to Molly to satisfy my grandmother's request.

For a time there was a nurse-- I guess that was 1965's version of a nanny-- to help take care of me, although in my brother Eric's memory, her main function seemed to be to keep him and Marc away from me. But she soon left and my care and feeding reverted to the family.

To Eric I was just the baby in the background. He was busy becoming a distant teenager, out with friends as often as he was allowed, which was a lot. Marc, though, remembers he was fascinated by the new addition to the household and hung around to help out:

"I remember being intrigued with Marlee's tongue. In those first few weeks when she'd cry, it would curl up on both sides, just a perfect little bow. I learned how to hold her, how to check the temperature of the milk on my wrist, and how to feed her. I remember Marlee always wanted to know who was in the room; even before she could sit up, she'd be laying in her crib but always looking around. I used to think she had radar in her head.

"Oh, and I remember she had regular diapers, I guess it was before disposables. My mother would put them in the toilet to soak and I used to go in there and pee on them."

Just what brothers are for...

Life went on and I grew into a babbling toddler–"What's that, Marlee?" "Apple." "And that?" "Dog."

"She wasn't putting sentences together, but she had very clear speech," Marc remembers.

Everything seemed fine. Except it wasn't.

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