book reviews

Double repost: Missy Francis grew up with the mother from hell… and Review of Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show

Here are two book reviews I wrote in 2015 and 2018 respectively. They are based on books by Melissa (Missy) Francis, who was a child actress on Little House on the Prairie and countless commercials in the 1980s. She is now a correspondent for Fox News. I am reposting my reviews of her books here, as is, so if you read them, pretend it’s 2015 or 2018.

Missy Francis grew up with the mother from hell…

Like so many people my age, I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie.  I also used to watch a lot of Saturday morning cartoons.  Both of those television related activities exposed me to a child actress named Missy Francis.

Those eyes are unforgettable…

Not long ago, I read a “where are they now” article about Little House on the Prairie.  Missy Francis, now going by the more formal name, Melissa, was featured in it.  Toward the end of Little House’s run, Missy Francis had played an orphan girl named Cassandra Cooper on the show.  Though she was not one of the main cast members, I did remember her and was interested when the article mentioned that Francis had written a book about growing up a child actress.  I am a sucker for those kinds of books, so I quickly downloaded Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir.  I just finished it this morning.

Melissa Francis calls her mother a “stage mother”.  Maybe that is an accurate description of what her mother was when Francis was growing up.  However, I would also call her mother a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder.  As I read page after page about her mother’s shocking antics, I recognized the behavior all too well.  Melissa’s mom, who had a long suffering husband and two beautiful daughters who starred in television commercials and shows, exploited and abused everyone close to her.  Francis writes of how her mother would shuttle her and her sister to auditions.  When Missy would land a part, her mother would brag to everyone who would listen… and when the paychecks rolled in, her mother would pocket them for herself.  Meanwhile, Melissa’s mother never held down a job herself and would spend other people’s money like there was no tomorrow.  Like all narcissists, Melissa’s mom didn’t have any empathy.  She saw other people as tools to manipulate and use.   

Woe be unto anyone who dared to cross Missy’s mom.  In one heartbreaking chapter, Missy writes of how some neighbors complained about a few feral cats who lived on her parents’ property.  Animal control had apparently tried to address the issue, but got no results.  So they took the Francis family’s dog.  Missy’s dad went to fetch the pooch from the pound.  Meanwhile, Missy’s mother stole the complaining neighbors’ dog, removed the canine’s collar, and deposited her at an animal shelter miles away from their neighborhood.  Since the dog had no collar, no one would know where she belonged.  Her family would never think to look in the shelter so far from home.  And since she was elderly, it was unlikely anyone would want to adopt her.  Missy knew the dog would soon be euthanized.  She wanted to tell her neighbors, but knew if she did, her mother would make her pay for her disloyalty.  So she kept silent and sealed the dog’s fate.  I almost had to stop reading her book after I read that passage.  While I understand why Missy felt she had to be quiet, I was also rather disgusted by her silence.  But then, I am also a dog lover.

Missy’s sister, Tiffany, eventually outgrew acting.  Smart, beautiful, and talented, the older girl eventually went to Berkeley, where she dabbled heavily in drugs and alcohol.  Melissa writes movingly about her relationship with her sister and her sister’s many clashes with their mother.  While Missy was able to make straight As and flourish despite her mother’s excessive control and sniping, Tiffany slid into an abyss of addiction which eventually made her very ill and cost her her life.  Unfortunately, Tiffany was not as resilient as her sister was.  If their mother is narcissistic, and I am certain she is, then Tiffany was probably the scapegoat, while Melissa was the “golden child”.

Surprisingly, Missy’s father, who owned his own company and worked very hard, managed to tolerate his wife’s craziness and be a rock to her daughters.  Perhaps “enable” is a better word for his behavior  than tolerate.  I often wondered why he didn’t do more to save himself and his daughters.  Missy’s dad once told Missy she could be anything she wanted to be if she put her mind to it.  So Missy took control of her life and went to Harvard University, where she was on the polo team and majored in economics.  She met and married her husband, Wray, and eventually became mother to two sons.  When she finally stood up to her mother, who exploited, abused, and stole from her, she found that there was no more relationship.  I am assuming that they are now on a no contact status. While I don’t take pleasure in learning about people who are estranged from their parents, I totally understand why Francis hasn’t spoken to her mom in over a decade.  Unfortunately, when it comes to narcissists, going no contact is the only way to protect yourself from the damage they can wreak. 

Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter is not long on details about Little House on the Prairie, so anyone looking for juicy tidbits about that show will likely be disappointed.  However, the book will likely interest anyone who is fascinated by toxic mothers.  Some of the stunts Melissa’s mother pulled are just outrageous.  I often found myself pissed off for Missy Francis and others who were victimized by her mother’s ridiculous behavior.  And, once again, I found myself feeling some empathy for my husband’s daughters, whose mother also displays many of the same abusive, exploitative, hateful, sabotaging and insane behaviors.   

Melissa Francis is now better known as a news reporter.  She currently works for the Fox Business Network and has a show called Money with Melissa Francis.  From what I can see, she has managed to make the best of her life.  I applaud her for that.  I wish everyone raised by a toxic parent could do the same. 

I recommend Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter.  It’s basically well-written and a fast read.  I think a lot of people may even find it inspirational.  I do want to mention, though, that Melissa Francis apparently has a now abandoned blog.  The writing in the blog is not nearly as good as the writing in the book, which makes me wonder if it might have been ghost written.  Either that, or Missy’s book was very well edited.  Either way, I think the book is worth reading.  I’d give it three and a half stars at least.

And just because I’m sweet that way, here’s a comment from the original post, apparently left by Missy’s “mom from hell”.

SHAME ON HEROctober 25, 2015 at 4:00 AM

It is amazing to me how someone who has no idea of the truth can write such an ugly review. There are no affairs, drugs, drinking, etc. on my part? R u blind? Missy’s upbringing was quite the opposite but I am sure you do not care. Her father is a convicted felon and has been arrested for drink driving. This can be proved. He was a nightmare. He introduced Tiffany to drugs, drinking and smoking. He is a fall down drunk. Every cent the girls made was spent on them. Missy graduated from Harvard debt free..TIFFANY ditto from Berkeley and law school. Do u notice that there is absolutely no witnesses to anything? EVER? Missy spent most of her teenage years showing her Champion horse Flying Colors. Tiffany’s horse was Duchess. There never was a dognaping. She wrote this tale for financial gain, period. Do some solid research. I never spent one cent on myself. I made sure my girls had excellent educations and everything their hearts desired. I am sure this is falling on deaf ears. Yes, this is all my fault; I should have left him. I had no idea what was wrong w TIFFANY until I asked TIFFANY how her drinking had started and she told me that she used to finish her father’s vodka when he passed out. Why did Missy find it necessary to drag her sister thru the mud? She and I know the truth; she has painted herself into an ugly corner and has no way out. Early on, she admitted the book was fiction only changing it when she could not get a publisher.  

I have five wonderful rescues and shame on you believing such a terrible lie. 

I love my daughters with every fiber of my being. Always have and always will. Pray for Missy, she is lost. 

I have lost a child, for Heaven’s sake! 

knottyOctober 25, 2015 at 8:09 AM

If you are Missy’s mom, I’m not sure this comment really does you any favors. 

And now for reposted review number two…

About three years ago, I read a book written by Melissa Francis, current Fox News commentator and former child actress.  The book was entitled Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir.  Melissa Francis dared to write about what it was like to be a child actress with an extremely overbearing mother.  I enjoyed most of her book, although it made me very sad to read about the abuses she and her late sister endured at the hands of what sounds like their very narcissistic mom. 

I don’t follow Melissa Francis on Fox News.  For one thing, I don’t really have access to it here in Germany.  For another, I wouldn’t watch Fox News even if I was able.  However, I did like her fist book enough to read her second, 2017’s Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show.  This book is yet another memoir, loosely based on Melissa Francis’ experiences on the hit show, Little House on the Prairie

Melissa and Jason on Little House…  Melissa writes about her ability to cry on demand.  Apparently, that made her a hot commodity as a child actress.

Melissa Francis is a Harvard graduate and is no doubt smart enough to know the connection to Little House would probably be more of a hook than is her Fox News connection.  This book does include some juicy tidbits about what it was like to be on Little House, working with Jason Bateman as her on screen brother, James.  I just recently watched the whole series, so the episodes Francis and Bateman were on are still fresh in my mind.  As a kid, I loved watching Little House on the Prairie.  In those days, TV was a lot more important than it is today… and we also had fewer choices as to what we could watch.  Melissa (then called Missy) and Jason were brought on to inject some new “kid” blood to the cast, since all the other kids who were on the show for years were becoming adults.  Ultimately, neither Missy nor Jason stayed on the series during its final season. 

This book is not just about Little House, though.  It also about Melissa Francis’ life.  She writes very candidly about how difficult her two pregnancies with her sons were.  Her husband, Wray, wanted one more child, but Melissa has an unusual genetic condition that makes her blood pressure shoot up during pregnancy.  A doctor told her in no uncertain terms that she shouldn’t give birth to any more children.  That’s how Melissa and Wray turned to a surrogate mother for their third child, a girl named Gemma.  It’s very clear from Melissa Francis’s book that she and her husband are extremely grateful to the couple who helped make their daughter’s life possible.  Although some people might judge them for turning to surrogacy, it sounded to me like the whole experience was very rewarding.  She even includes a picture of the two families at the end of the book, along with a few photos from her days on Little House

Melissa Francis also writes about how she decided to give up acting in favor of news reporting.  She explains that she didn’t enjoy being someone she wasn’t.  Acting requires convincingly portraying someone who isn’t authentic.  Francis writes that she found that process exhausting and much prefers telling true stories as herself.  As I mentioned previously, I don’t watch Fox News, so I don’t have an opinion of how good Francis is at her job.  However, she has been working for Fox News for some time now and her career has taken off.  Having been a child star, she was no doubt used to rejection.  Francis did experience a lot of rejection as she entered the field of network journalism.  She had to convince people to give her a chance and then prove herself.  It looks like she’s been successful.

There were a few times in her book that Francis hinted at her conservative political leanings.  I would imagine that working for Fox News requires her to at least sympathize with Republicans.  I didn’t necessarily agree with a few of the ideas she presented, most notably her thoughts on the Affordable Care Act.  Francis has a degree in economics and, I’m sure, sees healthcare strictly as a business.  She writes about how requiring insurance companies to cover anyone and everyone was bound to be more expensive. 

As someone who has a health administration background, I see affordable healthcare as something that should be a priority in any community, especially in a so-called “first world” nation like the United States.  Many countries have affordable healthcare.  It’s not just about more coverage being more expensive.  Healthcare does not have to cost as much as it does, and it shouldn’t.  What needs to happen is that the businesses involved with healthcare delivery need to be reined in and not allowed to charge outrageous fees.  Healthcare should not be about pleasing investors and building stock portfolios.  I think it’s morally wrong to force middle income people into insane debt just so they might have the hope of surviving or not having to live in pain.  I don’t know exactly how Melissa Francis feels about all of this– she’s clearly well off herself and probably doesn’t have to worry about going bankrupt if she gets sick.  But to a lot of Americans, this is a real problem and it shouldn’t be.  That’s just my view.

Francis offers a few tidbits of advice.  A lot of her insights are pretty obvious.  I was more into her anecdotes than her advice on good living.  Frankly, I don’t think too many people are legitimately qualified to offer advice.  Some of Francis’ jokes are kind of obnoxious, too.  Sometimes, it seems like she tries a little too hard to be funny or cool and she kind of fails.  I think she was trying to go for a tone that made her seem like a friend, but the reality is, her readers aren’t friends and never could be.  This observation kind of flies in the face of Francis’ comments about wanting to be “authentic” and not liking acting because it forced her to be fake.  I don’t think her writing necessarily comes across as authentic.  Some of it seems trite and kind of overly cutesy.  Also, I thought it was interesting that Francis writes about the absence of God on television, yet uses quite a lot of profanity.  I’m not offended by profanity, but it did seem like maybe she was trying to pander to two different groups of people. 

Overall, I didn’t hate this book.  I see on Amazon that some readers were really turned off by it.  I can’t say I was turned off, per se.  It probably helped that I have just recently seen the episodes of Little House that featured her and could relate to some of the comments she made about how ridiculous some episodes were toward the end of the series.  I didn’t mind some of her snarky comments, either.  However, I liked her first book better than this book, which I think probably could have used another run with an editor.  Also, it’s pretty clear that the title is sort of “click bait” for readers.  It’s a bit misleading, since most of the book isn’t really about Little House at all.  I’d probably give it three stars.

Here are the Amazon links… as an associate, I will get a small commission from Amazon on orders placed through my site.


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book reviews

Sometimes daddy issues can lead to rock stardom…

Bill is away this week, so I’ve busied myself by watching movies, reading, and, as of yesterday, listening to my very first audiobook courtesy of Audible. Two of the works have really stuck with me, because they involve rock stars with “daddy issues”. The stars in question? Elton John and James Taylor– both claim they had fathers who were absent in some way. Both are major rock stars dating from the 1970s.

On Sunday night, I finally watched Rocketman, a movie musical loosely based on Elton John’s life. Yesterday, I listened to James Taylor’s brand new audiobook, Break Shot, which is his version of the story of the first 21 years of his life. “Break shot” refers to the first shot in a game of billiards, the one that breaks the balls and scatters them in different directions.

I was already somewhat familiar with both stories because I had read lengthy books about both James Taylor and Elton John. In Elton’s case, I read his recent book, Me, which was his autobiography about his life. In James’s case, it was an extremely long winded book by the late Timothy White called James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away, published in 2003. I remember not enjoying White’s book very much because it was so long and exhaustive, and included a lot about Taylor’s genealogy, which wasn’t something I was interested in at the time. However, years later, I’m kind of glad I read it, because it gave me insight into one of my favorite performers that has stuck with me all these years.

One thing that struck me about both of these men’s stories is that they have a lot in common. Both are extraordinarily talented musicians whose talent became obvious during childhood. Both are recovering addicts; James to alcohol and heroin, and Elton to alcohol, cocaine, sex, and food. Both are now living sober lives. Both have suffered from depression, perhaps even to the point of being suicidal. And both had very difficult relationships with their fathers. While I would never say that one has to have a difficult childhood with an absentee father to become a famous musician, it was an aspect of both of their stories that really stuck out to me. Actually, it seems like they both had difficult relationships with both parents, although in both of their stories, it was their fathers who were painted more as “bad” and unsupportive. James Taylor goes as far as to say that fathers can be “replaced”, but mothers have to be “there”. I can’t say I agree with his comment on that, but maybe it’s a relic from the generation he grew up in.

Rocketman wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I hadn’t read much about it before I sat down to watch it. I guess I thought it would be more like Bohemian Rhapsody, as in, more of a biographical tale about Elton’s life. It was kind of biographical, but it really appeared to be more of a set up for an eventual Broadway show. I enjoyed it, for the most part, although parts of the movie made me groan a bit.

I wouldn’t go to Rocketman to learn about Elton John’s life, although I did think parts of the film were very entertaining. Taron Egerton is very talented and he captured Elton’s essence in his performance on screen. Elton’s book was revelatory enough. He wrote about growing up in working class Pinner. His father was strict and cold to him. Later, when his parents divorced, Elton’s dad apparently left his life. Although they shared a love of music, according to Elton, his dad wasn’t particularly supportive of his son’s talent. Elton’s mother was apparently exploitative and short tempered, even though they mostly stayed in contact until she died. I have already reviewed Elton’s book, so you can read my thoughts on it here. Today, I’m going to focus on Break Shot.

James Taylor’s story is a bit different, in that unlike Elton John, he grew up in an upper class family. James’s father was Dr. Isaac Taylor– otherwise known as Ike– and there was plenty of money. His mother’s name was Gertrude– Trudy– and she was from Massachusetts. Ike moved the family to Chapel Hill, North Carolina when James was about four or five years old. James grew up in North Carolina, because his father was the dean of the medical school at Chapel Hill. Trudy didn’t like living in the South, and James sort of implied that she resented Ike for forcing her to live there, particularly since Ike was often gone. He spent two years in Antarctica with Navy Seabees when James was a young man, and by the time Ike came home, he had become a stranger to his family. Ike also came home with a terrible drinking problem.

Evidently, addiction is a scourge in the Taylor family. James says that drinking and drugs helped him take a break from himself. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on addiction, especially since alcoholism is a scourge in my own family. He made a comment that really surprised me– that addicts see their drug of choice as a “key” of sorts. Eventually the “key” changes and the substance becomes harmful. Ike’s alcoholism was bad enough that he experienced delirium tremens, which meant that his body had become physically hooked on alcohol to the point at which he needed it to be normal. Nevertheless, Ike Taylor was reportedly a very “functional” alcoholic, much like my father was.

James is one of five very musical siblings, although he also has three half-siblings from his father’s second marriage. He doesn’t speak about his other siblings, probably because he’s old enough to be their father and likely has little contact with them. As someone who grew up in a family with no divorce and no “steps” of “halfs”, it’s hard for me to fathom not having any relationship with my siblings. On the other hand, now that I’m a “stepmother” to adult children my husband hasn’t seen since 2004, I guess I understand it more now than I would have twenty years ago.

Trudy Taylor was very “left leaning” in her politics, which is another reason why North Carolina was probably a difficult place for her to live in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, James says that she was a very involved mother, and she busied herself with raising the children and making a beautiful home on Morgan Creek for them. At the beginning of his audiobook, James mentions his siblings and says he won’t talk much about the ones who are still living: Livingston, Kate, and Hugh.

James’s brother, Alex, died on James’s 45th birthday in 1993. Since Alex is no longer living, James feels free to talk about him. According to James, Alex and their mother, Trudy, fought a lot. Alex had embraced being southern, even adopting a southern accent. James says Alex had a southern accent until he died. Alex was, like James, an addict. He was particularly hooked on alcohol, much as their father was. The night before he died, he’d polished off almost an entire of vodka by himself, which his brother, Livingston, said wasn’t a particularly large amount of booze for him. However, although Alex was never as famous as James or even Livingston was, he was regarded as every bit as talented.

Wow… what a blend… We have lots of musical people in my family, too.
The Taylor siblings perform together… some serious genetic talent here.

Meanwhile, Trudy did all she did to keep the children connected to the North. She’d take them to New York every couple of months and they’d spend summers at Martha’s Vineyard, where James met dear friends who would play major roles in his life. That’s where he met Carly Simon, his first wife and mother of his two oldest children, Ben and Sally, although she only gets a passing mention in Break Shot. James has more to say about his current wife, Kim, whom is apparently the great love of his life who got him back on the path he was destined to be on… back in Boston.

James went to high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he was forced to go to church three times a week. He chose the Episcopalian service, since it was closest to his dorm. It was there that he was first exposed to hymns, since he grew up agnostic. Really, he describes it as agnosticism, but it sounds more like his family was atheist, which was no doubt even weirder for the Taylors in Chapel Hill. Ike was a man of science and had little use for God. The hymns resonated with James and influenced his songwriting, which was a great thing for us. But being in boarding school was depressing for James and he was soon legitimately mentally ill with major depression. He wound up going back to Chapel Hill for his junior year, but he hated being there, too. So in 1965, he started high school at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility where the likes of Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles and two of James’s siblings also sought inpatient treatment and finished their high school years. He said that was then he finally stopped feeling so much like he had to live up to expectations of others. Everyone else in his family had wound up being doctors or lawyers, but James and his siblings obviously took after their very creative mother, who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Depression continued to be a problem for James. At one point in the audiobook, James writes about times when Ike was “there” for him. He called home once, out of money and prospects and feeling desperate, and Ike could hear it in his son’s voice that he was feeling desperate. So he drove all the way from North Carolina to Massachusetts to get James and bring him home. That was where the song, “Jump Up Behind Me” came from, on James’s wonderful Hourglass album, which also has a beautiful eulogy to his brother, Alex, “Enough to Be On Your Way”.

Some time later, James was in marriage counseling and the therapist noticed that he seemed to have a lot of “daddy issues”. The therapist recommended that James have his father join one of their sessions. Much to my surprise, James says his dad cooperated, and during their session, Ike apparently talked a lot about how much he disliked his ex wife, Trudy. The therapist asked Ike why, if he hadn’t liked Trudy much, he’d had five children with her. Ike’s response, which James said was supposed to be kind of a sarcastic “fuck you” to the therapist, was something along the lines of “My mother died after giving birth to me, so I figured that was the best way to get rid of my wife.”

I won’t go into the whole story about Ike Taylor’s upbringing because I really think it’s better to listen to the audiobook for that. Suffice to say, I can kind of see where the issues stemmed from in Ike, and how they passed down to the Taylor children. In any case, as I listened to the audiobook, I was a bit shocked by a couple of revelations, at least at first. James clearly had a very complicated relationship with his parents, but especially his father. However, unlike Elton John, James does seem to have a basic level of respect and empathy for the man. It sounds, though, like that empathy was a long time coming, especially since James spent so many years dulling his pain with alcohol and opiates. He says that he’s a different person now, with his wife, Kim, and their twin sons, Rufus and Henry, although it sounded to me like he still aches over his relationship with his dad. He muses that here his father was this high level doctor, much renowned and admired by so many people. And yet, several of his children graduated high school while locked up in a mental hospital.

Having read Carly Simon’s book, Boys in the Trees, in which she wrote of the hurtful way he treated her during their marriage, I can see that there was a time when James was legitimately an asshole. However… I think he came by being an asshole honestly, because as much as he has to say about his father, he also says that he felt pressured and tried very hard to be a “good son” to his mother, especially when she was in a bad mood. It was as if he felt required to be the balance between Trudy and Alex. And he says that he now realizes that children should not be expected to take care of their parents, nor are they responsible for their parents’ problems. He’s definitely right about that.

While I was surprised by some of Taylor’s blunt comments, I also think they kind of made him seem more like a regular person, with foibles like everyone else’s. Throughout my life, I have been comforted by both Elton John and James Taylor as they sang their original, exquisitely crafted songs. I was similarly comforted by Pat Conroy, another famous artist whose work has always spoken to me on many levels… and another person who had some serious “daddy issues” that he parlayed into art. Taylor said that he feels like he’s written the same six or seven songs over and over again throughout his life, meaning that the same themes keep coming up. I can relate, although my work will never reach as many people as his has…

I think Pat Conroy basically wrote the same story repeatedly, too. I still relate on many levels, as do so many other people. So many of us have parental issues that follow us throughout life. It’s just that some people are lucky enough to turn those issues into something that soothes the souls of the masses. Being able to articulate and translate that pain into music, art, dance, drama, or the written and spoken word is a tremendous gift… although, as is the case for so many brilliant artists, that gift comes with a price. It seems that depression, anxiety, and addiction are the scourges that most often plague creative people. Those who are lucky enough find ways to work through the pain. The unlucky ones tend to die young.

Maybe the most surprising comment James had was that for much of his life, he was known as Ike Taylor’s son, James. Eventually, there came a time when Ike Taylor was known as James Taylor’s father. I’m sure that was quite the mindblowing experience for James Taylor, particularly the first time he realized it while sober. I definitely recommend listening to Break Shot, especially if you’re a James Taylor fan. And I liked Rocketman alright, too, although I learned a lot more from Elton John’s autobiography.

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