BOOK REVIEW: 'Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter': The Dark Side of a Child Actress's Tiger Mother

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter': The Dark Side of a Child Actress's Tiger Mother

I recalled my love-hate relationship with memoirs as I sat down to review Melissa Francis's "Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter: A Memoir" (Weinstein Books, 304 pages, glossy photo insert, $26.00).

 

Melissa Francis, born in 1972, and already an experienced child actress, was chosen at the age of eight to play Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on the iconic "Little House on the Prairie" TV show. Her character and the one played by Jason Bateman were adopted by Michael Landon's character. The two years she was on the show was the happiest time she had with her micromanaging stage mother, she writes. Much of the rest of the time during her commercials and acting career was pure hell, as Melissa describes the abuse she and her older sister Tiffany endured from their mom.

In my review of Kambri Crews' "Burn Down the Ground" (link:
http://www.huntingtonnews.net/24553) I wrote:

 

"For a book reviewer who has been vocal about his distaste for memoirs, I'm also aware that a powerful mysterious force draws me to this literary form. I searched the websites where my reviews appear and I discovered that I've read and reviewed many memoirs. I missed Jeannette Walls' bestselling 2005 memoir, "The Glass Castle," partially set in southern West Virginia. Perhaps my dislike of the literary form was in reaction to the faked memoirs of James Frey ("A Million Little Pieces" published in 2003) and Margaret B. Jones -- really Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman from the San Fernando Valley pretending to be a mixed-race L.A. ghetto dweller in "Love and Consequences" (2008). For a list of the top 10 fake memoirs -- including these two -- click: http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs/. The site includes at least two fake Holocaust memoirs and gives a capsule account of each book. The Wikipedia entry on faked memoirs --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_memoirs -- uses the phrase "misery lit" to describe this literary genre.

Melissa Francis
Melissa Francis


"In a telephone conversation from her cabin in New York state's Catskill Mountains Kambri Crews told me that Walls' memoir was one of the inspirations for her book. Kambri Crews and Jeannette Walls both managed to find their new lives and careers in New York City."

Coincidentally enough -- or maybe it's not a coincidence -- native Californian Melissa Francis -- often credited as "Missy" -- also found salvation in New York City, where she now lives and practices her second career as a television journalist, hosting two daily business shows on the Fox Business Network. She lives in NYC with her husband Wray T Thorn and their two young boys.

 

From the start, Melissa Francis's story grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go until I was finished reading it. In that respect it was a lot like Melissa's mother and her violent mood swings. Melissa and her older sister Tiffany were each separately ordered out of their mom's car and left by the side of the street in the San Fernando Valley as punishment for real or imagined sins. They were later retrieved, but the shame must have been extreme to two children who wondered what they did wrong.

 

The publisher's description of Mrs. Francis describes her as "neurotic". I'd go for "psychotic" in a San Fernando Valley minute. Melissa's description of how their mom took their neighbor's dog Coco from their Porter Ranch neighborhood and dropped her off at a pound in Simi Valley was particularly appalling to the reviewer who was a resident of the west San Fernando Valley from 1977 to 1992: Simi Valley is a long way from Porter Ranch and Coco, stripped of her ID collar, was doomed, Melissa writes.

 

In her memoir -- which I recommend without reservation -- Melissa Francis reflects not only on her past but on the subject of parenthood and the impact of relentlessly driving a child to succeed, an approach that sent Melissa's sister into a deadly spiral.

"What I have learned from a difficult childhood is that, no matter what has happened in the past, you can take charge of your life and be happy. Your life is your own. In fact, a tough past is actually a richness of experience to draw upon. You know what doesn't work," she writes.

 

That's basically a rephrasing of Nietzsche's famous saying: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I found a British news story that gives scientific validity to that saying: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2075908/So-Nietzsche-WAS-right-What-doesnt-kill-makes-stronger-scientists-find.html

Both Tiffany and Melissa went on to college, but their experiences with higher education were radically different. Tiffany studied at UC Berkeley and earned a law degree from San Diego State, but her addictions and inner demons doomed her. Melissa eventually left acting, earned a degree in economics from Harvard University, and went on to a successful career as a broadcast journalist.

 

Today, Melissa Francis lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She anchors two daily shows on the Fox Business Network, including "Money with Melissa Francis", which covers the intersection of Wall Street and Main Street. Prior to her role at FOX Business, Melissa spent nine years at CNBC, where she anchored shows such as Power Lunch, The Call, and On the Money, and made regular contributions to the Today show and Weekend Today.

 

Publisher's website: www.weinsteinbooks.com

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