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After revealing her family secret, Kerry Washington reflects on what was gained

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

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."

Want more on culture? Listen to Consider This explore if we are currently witnessing the death of movie stars.

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:

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

On the moment her parents finally decided to tell her the 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.

Learn more:

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Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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