From My Life So Far
by Jane Fonda
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is an excerpt from the Book: MY
LIFE SO FAR by Jane Fonda. Copyright © 2005 by Jane Fonda.
Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random
House, Inc. To purchase My
Life So Far, click
are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and
I believe that to love ourselves means to extend to those
various selves that we have been along the way the same degree
of compassion and concern that we would extend to anyone
else. If to do so is unseemly, then so much for seemliness.
is the ﬁrst thing within the power of the enslaved to
shatter. From that shattering, everything else spills forth.
Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism
21, 1997, the curtain went up on my third act. Ted threw me a
wonderful sixtieth birthday party. Vanessa designed the invitation:
On the front was a yellow road sign reading WORK IN PROGRESS
, and it accordioned out into a series of photos of me in various
phases of my life, ending with “to be continued.” Our
families and friends were there—three hundred in all—and
it was probably the most diverse group Atlanta had ever seen.
a secret is near to impossible for Ted, but he managed not
to tell me what he was giving me as a gift, only teasing me
by saying it was “a gift that would keep on giving.” That
night he stood up and told the guests about how I had often
said I thought he was smart to have set up his family foundation,
because it guaranteed that all his children would be together
with him at least four times a year.
for your sixtieth birthday, Jane, I’m giving you a ten-million-dollar
thought I’d heard wrong. He asked me to come to the stage, and
when I stood my knees buckled. I would have gone down had it
not been for Max Cleland, one of Georgia’s U.S. senators
and a triple Vietnam amputee, who was next to me in his
wheelchair. When I got to the stage, I threw my arms around Ted,
kissed him, and said to the guests, “He told me he was
giving me a gift that would keep on giving . . . but, oh my God!
I had no idea.”
the help of my friend the editor Nick Boxer, I had ﬁnished
the twenty-minute video of my life, and later in the evening
I showed it to the guests. Although they seemed interested, even
moved by it—especially my women friends—it was of
necessity done in such broad strokes that when I look at it today
it seems quite superﬁcial. I now realize it couldn’t
possibly have had the impact on others that making it had on
me, for it changed me in ways that would become apparent only
as my third act began to unfold, and in ways I did not necessarily
the end of the video, over images of my life with Ted, I explained
in a voice-over how eight years earlier I had decided to leave
my life in California and commit to him because I wanted to accept
the challenge of intimacy. I talked about how frightening
this had been for me; how Katharine Hepburn’s advice to
never get soggy had come back to me. And then I said, “Suddenly
it hit me: This was what I was supposed to face, my biggest fear—intimacy,
the one thing that had eluded me, a true, lasting, intimate relationship
with a life partner. If I didn’t make a leap of faith,
this would be the thing at the end of my life that was left undone;
the big ‘if only.’ ”
I was sixty.
I had done the hard work needed for intimacy to become a reality,
at least on my end. The work was bearing fruit: I was beginning
to sense what my marriage could be like if Ted and I really showed
up for each other. Working on my birthday video had allowed me
to see that there was a “there there” within
me after all. It exposed for me the threads of continuity, like
suspension bridges, that had spanned the canyons of change in
my life. I could see that the main thread was courage in everything except my
the weeks went by following my birthday, I became aware of
more like me, a whole being, standing next to but no
longer overlapping into the being that was Ted. I was ready.
But I knew it wouldn’t happen unless Ted was willing to
make some changes in the way he regarded our relationship.
Unfortunately, his tendency was to like things just the way they
were, and despite my growing self-esteem I still wasn’t
able to come right out and ask for what I wanted—even after
I had realized that there could be no truly intimate relationship
between us unless I spoke my truth. I still felt I had to
please him at the expense of myself. The subtle power of
sexist roles and their inherent inequality has been deeply imprinted
in all of us raised under them.
More and more frequently I’d send him subtle signals about
how I was feeling, and when the signals weren’t received,
I would drink to numb myself until the anger had passed. If he’d
bothered to look closely, Ted could have seen the silent me, like
a trout swimming out from behind a rock and coming closer
to the surface. But Ted is not a close looker, especially if what
he might ﬁnd would risk muddying his waters, and I—accomplice
that I was—wasn’t willing to break the surface. One
voice was telling me, Jane, you can’t go on this way, while
another (very strong) voice was whispering, Maybe you shouldn’t
rock the boat. Things are okay. It’s an interesting life.
He’s a wonderful man.
Out of love and respect for Ted and his
children, I will not go into speciﬁcs about what was not
working in our relationship. Quite honestly it is not necessary,
and I have already given you a sense of the issues. What I can write
about (and what is important because of its universality) is
how in spite of everything I remained paralyzed when it came
to actually speaking up for myself in ways I feared might end
And I can write about how it took two more years for me
to get up the courage to do it. I had been unafraid to travel to
North Vietnam in an effort to help end the war; to place myself
in harm’s way; to risk public censure; to stand up to the
government when I thought what they were doing was wrong. But when
it came to a relationship with a man, I still could not raise my
voice. And I wasn’t even dependent on him ﬁnancially!
One speciﬁc problem that increasingly wore
me down was all the traveling. While it had seemed relatively easy
and fun at ﬁrst, I hadn’t realized that it would never
end, that we would be continually on the move, like migrating birds,
always packing, never totally unpacking. First there was one place
in Argentina, and we’d go there for a restful week or ten
days of ﬁshing when it was winter in North America. But
then Ted added two more properties in Argentina, so that even when
we were there we were shuttling from one place to another.
Guilt was beginning to set in when I didn’t want to ﬁsh
every single day, when I didn’t want every hour programmed.
Some days I wanted to do nothing ...just read, think. I wanted
to acknowledge to Ted that I was on a journey and invite him to
join me, but it required slowing down to what psychologist Marion
Woodman calls “soulspeed,” and for the driven, soulspeed
feels like death. Quincy Jones put it well in his autobiography, Q:
I was always running, but every time
I ran I kept crashing into myself coming from the opposite
direction, and he didn’t
know where he was going either. I ran because there was nothing
behind me to hold me up. I ran because I thought that was all
there was to do. I thought that to stay in one place meant to
I thought it was a male thing, until I read Miss America
by Day, by former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, whose
father had committed incest with her from age ﬁve until
eighteen. She writes movingly about how often victims of early
abuse (sexual, physical, or psychological) must stay busy, keep
moving, so as to avoid feelings that might otherwise arise. Ted
had to keep moving so that his demons wouldn’t catch up
with him. I felt empathy for him, but I was becoming aware that
there was no deepening to our life, just a lateral repetition
of scheduled activities. Now that I had started my last act,
I wanted to stop all the doing and start being—to
slow down and show up. Ted couldn’t. When it came right
down to it, I think he was scared.
I began to descend into quiet desolation,
disappearing into sleep much of the time. Ted, I was discovering,
thought that intimacy meant to tell his innermost thoughts to
his signiﬁcant other,
which was odd since he told his innermost thoughts to everyone.
But listening, in turn, to that other? No. I
was becoming aware of how nearly impossible it was to have a two-way
conversation with Ted, unless I was talking about something he
could easily recognize as relevant to himself. There just wasn’t
room in his brain for words other than his own. It’s not
as if I hadn’t seen the warning signs.
Time was ﬂeeting; color was beginning to
drain out of things; the nictitating membrane was settling in;
increasingly I found myself engaging in angry mind rehearsals with
Ted and venting to my closest women friends. I would think, I don’t
want to live laterally anymore, skimming over the surface. Vertical
is how I need to live. Moving so fast through life leaves no time
for the spirit, for mystery, for the existential.
I asked him, “Who are you, Ted? Beneath your worldly successes
and the applause and clamor of the crowd, who are you?” I
tried to explain by using myself as an example: “I have been
an award-winning actor, but that’s just what I did, that’s
not who I am. If that was who I am, I’d have been
miserable leaving it all behind.” I tried to tell him who
I felt I was: a woman in the last act of her life who wanted to
be authentic, whole, to deepen my life, to embody the soul I felt
hovering around me, asking to be invited in.
I love Ted and always will, and I knew that
it wasn’t for
lack of intelligence that he didn’t understand me. Well,
yes, in a way it was—lack of emotional intelligence, the
result of his traumatic childhood.
Perhaps I could have handled the constant
traveling if it hadn’t
been for the other things that hurt me; if I had been allowed more
time on my own every now and then; if I had been able to spend
more time with my emotionally accessible women friends, my children,
my organization. Perhaps I would have been able to return to him
better able to accept not only his drivenness but his enmeshment.
He fears if no one is there to witness him, he will no longer exist.
Then something quite unexpected was thrown
into this unsettled mix: the magic of grandmotherhood. Vanessa
told me she was pregnant,
and I knew that I wanted and needed to be there for her in whatever
ways I could. Ted had always generously gone out of his way to
help Vanessa and me grow closer, inviting her to travel with us,
even offering her a job at Avalon Plantation doing what she does
so well—organic farming. But when I told him she was going
to have a baby and that I wanted to be there for her as much as
possible, he exploded in rage. I think he sensed that my energy
would be drawn away from him for a while. But frankly I was stunned
and disturbed by his reaction.
As the time of the birth approached, I told
Ted I wanted to be with Vanessa for the ten days surrounding
her due date. Although by now he had gotten over his anger, he
wasn’t happy about
my going. But there was no question that this was where I had to
be, and Ted even surprised us by showing up as Vanessa went into
It was a home birth at Ted’s farm outside
Atlanta, with a midwife in attendance. Theoretically we parents
know when our children are grown-ups, yet a part of us is still
awed when circumstances force us to see that they’ve grown beyond us.
I was impressed by Vanessa’s decision to have a home birth,
how she had gone about ﬁnding a midwife (home births are
not legally sanctioned in Georgia) and prepared herself for all
eventualities. I read books she gave me on home birthing, and together
we watched videos of actual home births. I realized sadly how I,
like many women, had relinquished to doctors my ownership of this
ultimate metamorphic experience. This had been true when I
gave birth to Vanessa, but now I was watching her do it right—not
in the sense that everyone must have a home birth, but “right” in
being intentional, fully in charge, informed. In case it might
be needed, we preregistered at a hospital and practiced driving
there. She carefully prepared a birth plan (instructions the mother
gives to the doctors and nurses about what she wants and doesn’t
want to happen to her and her newborn). For instance, Vanessa
was adamant about having natural childbirth, and she speciﬁed
that the baby not be taken from her or given any bottles.
I stayed with Vanessa and Malcolm for four
days after he was born. I was so proud of the brave way she handled
the birth and grateful that I could be there to help her with
him. I would sit in a rocking chair for hours at a time while
she slept, holding Malcolm against my chest, singing the lullabies
I had sung to Vanessa thirty years earlier. A May breeze would
gently lift the slipcovers on the porch furniture, and as I gazed
out over the freshly blooming dogwood, the wild azaleas, and
the lake where two swans held court, I felt that life could never
get any better. No one had prepared
me for the feelings that arose when I held this little boy, Vanessa’s
child. I was utterly broken open in ways I had never been before.
Malcolm had enabled me to discover the combination to the safe
where the soft part of my heart had been shut away for so long.
Depths of feeling washed over me, cleansing me, carrying me too
far down the new path of intimacy for me to ever want to turn back.
Perhaps Ted knew it would be this way and that’s why
he had gotten so upset at the news I would be a grandmother.
With the birth of Malcolm, the Phoenix that
had been on hold for ten years had risen: I also was being born
anew. I knew now that I had to muster the courage to ask for
what I needed in my relationship with Ted. At the time, these
things seemed huge and difﬁcult to me, but looking back,
I see that I was asking for reasonable, bread-and-butter, emotional
things. I knew that if I didn’t speak up, I would end my
life married, yes, but ﬁlled
with longings and regrets—just what I’d vowed I would
not do. Deception is a lousy foundation for intimacy, and sustainability
in a relationship is as critical as it is in the environment.
Then one day when Ted’s business brought
us to Los Angeles, I went to see my therapist. She said, “Jane,
the choice is yours. You like challenges, so I am throwing the
gauntlet at your feet. Take the challenge. Be brave in your relationship,
whatever the outcome will be. Ask him to join you.”
I was acutely aware that there was more
time behind me than in front of me and that I had to shake myself
awake. Maybe Ted would also like to jolt himself onto a new path
but didn’t know
how. Maybe I’m supposed to do this ...for both of
us. I love him enough to try.
It was June. We were up early at his ranch
in Montana. The sun had barely risen above the Spanish Peaks,
yet a sultry air shimmered across the sleeping ﬁelds,
signaling the hot day ahead. It had taken me two years to muster
the courage for this crucial moment.
We gathered our ﬁshing gear, and as we were driving over
the bumpy dirt road to his favorite part of Cherry Creek, I said, “Ted,
I am scared. I feel myself going numb. I need us to try to do some
things differently in our marriage, because otherwise I’m
not sure I can show up for you the way you want me to.” And
I spelled out what I hoped would happen. I don’t remember
what he said, only that a rush of discordant, confused emotions
suddenly sucked up all the air in the car. He was angry, that much
When we got to the creek he said, “Let’s go ﬁshing
and we’ll discuss this later.”
As usual we went to separate stretches of
water and for several hours I attempted to ﬁsh, but my
heart was pounding with dread. Oh my God, I thought. What if
he actually refuses to try? For almost nine years I’ve
made a core part of myself invisible in order to be “good
enough,” and now I’ve put
it out there. What if ...No, it’s too awful to countenance.
For a moment I imagined our marriage going under, like my grasshopper ﬂy
disappearing under a rifﬂe.
From the moment we got back in the car,
I knew things were not going to be as I had hoped. He had not
calmed down; anger was boiling. He was fragmented into little
pieces, and I could get no traction anywhere to slow him down
and explain my feelings in any depth. I should not have been surprised.
As is typical of people who don’t
speak up, I had overwhelmed him by dumping everything on him all
at once—he, who can’t handle change. When we got back
to the ranch, all he could do was bang the walls with his ﬁsts
and his head. I was stunned by his reaction, but I watched him
with detachment. I did what I had to do, and for once I am
not going to “ﬁx it” by backtracking. That
morning I stepped outside the framework that had held me in thrall
most of my life and I could not go back. There was detachment but
also a sense of free fall, similar to the limbo an actor feels
when he or she is morphing into a new character. Only this was
my life, and I had no road map.
Over the ensuing months I tried to ﬁnd ways
of making Ted understand my point of view. But it was as though
something had snapped, as if he had been hijacked by his emotions
and was incapable of hearing me. I was dumbfounded, because I knew
he loved me and that our life together was more important
to him than the few things I had asked him to try—try!
even demanded a “never again.” Yet our life seemed
to be crumbling before my eyes. Was it possible that his male
identity was so inextricably bound up with things as they were
that he would risk losing me to avoid change?
There was another factor that, understandably,
compounded his fragmentation and convinced him I had lost my
mind: He learned that I had become a Christian. Remember Ted’s
abhorrence of decisions made without his consultation? Well,
this was about as major a one as can be imagined.
Several months earlier my friend Nancy McGuirk
had taken me to my “next step.” I hadn’t told Ted beforehand,
because by then I didn’t feel we were on the same team. Alongside
the frantic life we shared, I was living a parallel inner life,
where I took care of my own needs. I was used to doing this.
I also knew if I had discussed with him
my need for spirituality, he would have either asked me to choose
between him and it or bullied me out of it. It was too new. I
was too raw. Besides, it was not for nothing that he’d
been captain of the debating team at Brown University. If I had
discussed it with him beforehand, there was no way I could have
held up under what I knew would be his blistering attack on Christianity,
most of which I actually agreed with. Don’t you know that Christianity, just like Islam,
Judaism, and Hinduism, says women are inferior? What do you think
the Garden of Eden myth means, anyway? Woman was an afterthought,
made from Adam’s rib to serve him, and then was blamed for
man’s fall from grace. And what about the witch burnings,
the Crusades, and the Inquisition? He had it all at his ﬁngertips.
He knew the Bible far better than I did; he’d read it twice,
cover to cover, had been “saved” seven times (including
once by the Reverend Billy Graham). He had even considered joining
the ministry as a young man, in the years before his younger sister
died a terrible, prolonged death from lupus and he had turned from
In hindsight I realize that not telling
him was a wildly unfair thing for me to do. But I felt lost and
empty. I needed to be ﬁlled.
An inner life had been emerging for some time, and I needed to
name it. I named it “Christian,” because that is my
culture. I began to pray every day, out loud, on my knees, and
it was like being hooked up to the power of the Mystery that had
been leading me for the last decade. It wasn’t so much a learning about
the existence of God, because learning implies use of intellect.
It was more an experiencing of His presence, a psychic lucidity,
that was allowing me access to something beyond consciousness.
It wasn’t long, however, before I found myself bumping
up against certain literal, patriarchal aspects of Christian orthodoxy
that I found difﬁcult to embrace. I will address this in
the next chapter. But I discovered that alienation from dogma
doesn’t have to mean a loss of faith.
Ted’s level of rage and stress in
the six months following my speaking up almost incapacitated
him. Marilyn Van Derbur gave me an insight when she wrote in Miss
America by Day that
her early trauma “had literally hard-wired my brain
so that my stress level on a scale of one to ten was ﬁfty.
If someone humiliated me, I had no way to accommodate the additional
stress, so I would go into a kind of craziness.” There had
been too much stress, abuse, and instability in Ted’s early
life. Anyone who knows him knows that he reacts to stress almost
like someone suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. I had
blindsided him with my need to renegotiate our marriage and with
my becoming a Christian—and this double whammy acted as a
trigger to rage over which he had no control.
Ted insisted that it wasn’t normal
to change after sixty. I told him I thought it was dangerous not to.
While I had become stronger, Ted had not, and my speaking up
for myself was a blow from which he could not allow himself to
recover. Maybe he was too invested in his projection of me as
someone who expressed her needs only if they didn’t threaten his and who would
never place another love—for self, for children, grandchildren,
friends, or Jesus—above, or even on a par with, her love
I had started out hopefully. I knew that other very successful
alpha males can, after a certain age, when testosterone levels
drop, make the shift, slow down, open their hearts, and reduce
the need to perform. I felt that he loved me enough to at least try. In
fact, he did say at one point that he would try to do what I had
asked in the marriage. For many months I was ecstatic. I no longer
wanted to leave myself behind; I wanted sexuality to come out of relationship—eye-to-eye,
soul-to-soul pleasure, where everything wasn’t all planned
out to a fare-thee-well. He was happy with sexuality that came
out of performance. The very thing I had feared the most—that
I would gain my voice and lose my man—was actually happening.
It wasn’t how I thought the story would end. You see what
you need to see in another person, and when your needs change you
try to see different things. The problem comes when what you need
and what you see isn’t seen or needed by your partner. It
doesn’t mean your partner is bad; it just means that she
or he wants something else in life. My happiness was short-lived,
for I could see Ted withering before my eyes. Clearly he wasn’t
going to be able (or willing) to make the journey with me. We agreed
It was only after we separated that I discovered
that while Ted was telling me he would try to do things differently
he had turned to his old adage: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the
worst.” He had spent our last year together looking for my
replacement. That was why he seemed to be graying before my eyes:
It was killing him to be dishonest with me. The day we parted,
three days after the millennium, he ﬂew to Atlanta to drop
me off. As I drove from the airport to Vanessa’s home in
a rental car, my replacement was waiting in the hangar to board
his plane. My seat was still warm.
the Book: MY
LIFE SO FAR by Jane Fonda. Copyright © 2005 by Jane Fonda.
Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random
House, Inc. To purchase My
Life So Far, click