The relationship between Vanessa Williams and her mother, Helen, was often fraught—and their new mother-daughter memoir, You Have No Idea, written with Irene Zutell, takes us inside that relationship with candor, truth, and very little gilding.

The book contains so many near-perfect photos because Vanessa has been a star, or preparing to be one, for most of her life. Mother of four children, actor, dancer, singer, beauty queen, she was blessed with a loving, supportive family that encouraged and challenged her to be a performer, teaching her music at home. (Both parents—elementary school teachers—gave music lessons to supplement their income.)

They were the only black family in a working-class suburb of New York’s Westchester County, and. theirs was very much a Father Knows Best household. Vanessa’s dad, Milton, the ultimate self-improver, repaired everything himself, often with his daughter and son learning by his side as he tinkered.

Milton was the more demonstrative and loving parent. Helen Williams could teach the Tiger Mother a few tricks.  Reserved and straightforward, Helen loved both her children, but she never hesitated to speak her mind. “A lot of parents think it’s important to be their child’s best friend.  When Vanessa was growing up, I didn’t care if she liked me. She could hate me as far as I was concerned—and sometimes I think she did.” Smart and talented, Vanessa loved breaking the rules. Another rule her mother stressed was, “Never pose nude for anyone.”

At the time Williams became the first black Miss America, she was a college student studying theater at Syracuse University; she had come late to the pageant world, for the scholarship money. Her historic win surprised everyone. She served in the role for eleven months before she was forced to renounce the title in light of the scandal over nude pictures in Penthouse magazine. Amidst the maelstrom of shame, regret, and a media storm, the family bonds proved stronger than the attacks.  Some of the best scenes in You Have No Idea are the alternating narratives of how the parents and the daughter pulled together and coped with the onslaught of hate mail, terrifying phone calls, and public rancor that accompanied the win, the scandal, and the aftermath.

When Vanessa marries and becomes a mother, she comes to understand the strength and power of her mother.  Through four children, two marriages, two divorces, a bicoastal life before such was fashionable, and the death of her father, her birth family loves and sustains her.  Although she parents in a very different way than Helen did, the two forged a bond, and their love and respect for each other never wavers.

Poised as many of us are between caregiving—whether to spouses, children, or elderly parents—and fresh memories of being cared for, the Williamses offer valuable perspectives from both vantage points.

 

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