Kerry Washington is opening up about a long-held family secret that completely changed her life when she discovered the truth. In her emotionally charged new memoir, Thicker Than Water, the 46-year-old actress shares the moment she learned that her dad, Earl Washington, is not her biological father. She discovered that, after struggling with fertility issues, her mom, Valerie Washington, conceived her via an anonymous sperm donation.
Thicker Than Water is a startlingly intimate view into the beloved artist and activist’s private world, which she previously kept quiet as she evolved from breakout star to leading lady and powerhouse multihyphenate. The memoir chronicles Kerry’s struggles with disordered eating, suicidal thoughts, having an abortion and childhood trauma.
Kerry learned the truth about her father after she agreed to participate in the Finding Your Roots series with Henry Louis Gates Jr. She explains that her parents were resistant to a DNA test at the time, leading Gates to reach out in an attempt to help talk them through the DNA test. When they told Gates they wouldn’t do the show, the host recommended that they “consider telling” their daughter the truth.
In an interview that aired on Sunday with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts on ABC, the Scandal star unpacked several of the biggest revelations in her memoir, including the truth of her paternity.
Learning about her family’s secret was “the greatest gift” Gates gave her family, Kerry said.
“When my dad told me, I realized that every time that I have said, ‘I love you,’ to my dad, there has been this little part of his brain, conscious or unconscious, that has had to have said, ‘She loves me because she thinks I am her father.’ So I’m saying I love him, from his perspective, on the condition of a lie,” she noted. “The moment that he told me, I realized that I had the opportunity to, for the first time, love my father unconditionally. That he got to hear me say, ‘I love you, even though I know.'”
The actress said she feels her father “could have taken it to his grave” if he could have.
“I also know that’s because, for him, there was nothing to tell, that my dad made the decision early on that I was his, and he was mine, and nothing will ever shake that,” she said.
Speaking to Roberts again on Monday morning, Kerry told the daytime talk show host that she and her parents feel “so grateful that we get to tell our story in this way.”
Although Valerie and Earl were initially resistant to Kerry revealing their journey in her memoir, the actress said her parents have come around to respect her decision.
“It’s a big shift for our family, but we’ve also had many years to acclimate to this information and to move closer to each other,” she shared of her family’s reaction to their secret being out in the open. “I think because we’ve been in this process of really just being closer with each other and in more truth and more love and more intimacy, we’re all feeling really good, feeling very free, feeling very excited to not have to keep any secrets.”
Reflecting on how far she has come with her parents, Kerry explained how their relationship inspired one of the most pivotal elements of her book — the title. “One of the things I say in the book is that we always say that blood is thicker than water, but I think that love is thicker than blood,” she said. “And that’s one of the big awakenings that we’ve had in our family, is the reality that we’re family because we’re family. Nothing is ever going to change the fact that my dad is my dad, you know?”
“After we watched the special, we all stood up and did like a big family hug, and I just thought, ‘Wow, [look at] how far we’ve come from them being so afraid to tell me this thing to me finding out and having all my feelings.’ But we’re such a unit now,” she added.
During an appearance on the On Purpose With Jay Shetty podcast on Monday, Kerry delved further into her reaction when she learned about her parents’ secret, telling the podcast host that the news “made so much sense” to her.
“This was shocking to me. And also not… It made so much sense to me because there had been this sense… I felt like I didn’t know myself,” she explained. “I felt a disconnect to my parents and I felt a disconnect with myself. I never knew what to ascribe that to, I never knew why. Suddenly the pieces all fell into place. It was like there was this beautiful puzzle on the wall of our home that had this one wrong piece in it but it was close enough that everyone just pretended that the painting was perfect.”
“When my parents told me it was like somebody finally took that wrong puzzle piece that had been jammed into place and pulled it out and we all got to be honest,” she recalled. “And we don’t even know what the missing piece is because I don’t know who the donor is but at least now the painting is honest.”
The Little Fires Everywhere star revealed that her mom had originally planned on revealing the truth to her in a note and leaving it in a safe after she and her husband died. But Kerry reiterated that she was happy to have learned the truth while both her parents were still alive, calling the discovery “an opportunity for healing.”
Kerry still doesn’t know the identity of her birth father despite expressing a desire to dig deeper into his identity.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
The news of her paternity is just one of many revelations in Kerry’s memoir, which will hit bookshelves on Sept. 26.
Speaking with ET’s Rachel Smith at a book signing at Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club Gymnasium, in her hometown of Bronx, New York, on Saturday, Kerry admitted that she wasn’t always sure she wanted to bare her most profound secrets to the world, but she doesn’t regret it.
“I think every day I sat down to write, I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ because I’ve been so private. But it just felt like if I was gonna tell this story I wanted to tell enough of the story to feel as true as possible,” she confessed. “I was really, I think in a lot of ways, just trying to make sense of my journey, so the parts that I’m sharing are the parts that I think are important to put the puzzle pieces together.”
Reflecting on her tumultuous and emotional journey through childhood and adolescence, the actress mused on how her memoir became about more than providing readers with an intimate look into her public and private worlds; it became a journey of self-realization for the Little Fires Everywhere star.
“I think in a lot of ways, the book is really about me just beginning to understand who I am and in a lot of ways I’m on this kind of adventure of learning who I am,” Kerry told ET. “I still have lots of mysteries ahead of me [and] I think what’s exciting about where I am right now is that I am willing to explore and be in the unknown and have the courage to be asking the big questions and not needing to be able to answer any of them perfectly or in succinct, easy ways.”
She added, “I think a lot of what I’m exploring in the book is this idea of, you know, when we sometimes get put in situations that we’ve never been in before, it’s a real opportunity to discover ourselves. But getting to that place of discovery might start with feeling lost, so I just was living an adventure that I’ve never been on before. I never even imagined being on a rocket ship like Scandal, so that kind of disorientation was thrilling and also it’s sometimes overwhelming.”
For all the bumps she’s encountered on her journey, Kerry said she’s in a place where she doesn’t “necessarily have to have the missing puzzle piece to feel fulfilled.”
Araya Doheny/Getty Images
Her family is the most important part of her life, which includes her parents, her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, whom she married in 2013, and her children.
After a past filled with secrecy, Kerry said that she ensures her children are raised in a place of honesty.
“In our home we really value honesty — it’s something we think about a lot. We also don’t want to overwhelm our kids so we try to build a culture in our home where it’s OK to ask questions,” Kerry said when asked how she approaches motherhood. “You can ask questions about anything at any time, there’s no bad questions [and] there’s no wrong questions. But then we kinda meet the kids where they are, right? We talk about things with our 17-year-old very differently than we talk about things with our 6-year-old. But having sort of an environment of truth is important.”
Thicker Than Water will be released on Sept. 26.