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Viola Davis Shares Painful Childhood Memories Of Living In Poverty, Including Being Called To The School Office Because Of Poor Hygiene

By Gina Florio··  3 min read
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Powerhouse Viola Davis is known today as one of the great actresses in Hollywood who can play a wide variety of emotional characters, from "The Help" to "Fences." Her latest project is playing Michelle Obama in "First Lady."

While you see a glamorous, successful woman today, Viola Davis didn't exactly have an easy start to life. In fact, she grew up in poverty, and her family struggled with basic things like putting food on the table. Davis opened up to Oprah about her childhood experiences in Oprah + Viola: A Netflix Special Event, and she revealed that the home she grew up in was infested with rats and often lacking gas or electricity. In fact, "the plaster was coming off the walls" of her home, and she remembers "always being hungry."

Viola Davis Says She Was Called to the School Office Because of Her Poor Hygiene

There's one painful memory in particular that Davis recalls, and it involves her hygiene. When you grow up in a home where everything is provided for you, you don't really think much about your hygiene, but that's not the case for many families who are struggling to make ends meet.

“I think that people just automatically assume you just clean yourself. Well, not if anyone doesn’t show you,” she said. “A lot of times we didn’t have any soap. A lot of times we didn’t even have any clean clothes.”

Davis said that after hand-washing their clothing, the family had to hang the clothes out to dry, but because of the cold the clothes would accumulate icicles. If they dried the clothes inside, they never fully dried, so either way she was putting on clothes that were still wet.

“The next day if they’re not dry, they’re wet, but then if you’re not clean, you’re putting on wet clothes,” she told Oprah. “People don’t realize that if no one shows you, you have to figure it out on your own, and I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. Then I was ashamed that I didn’t have the tools to figure it out on my own. All I had, all I could do, was swim in the shame.”

Her poor hygiene became so noticeable that she and her sister were even called into the school office at one point because of their "smell." They "didn't know what to do about" it, and it was humiliating.

There was one teacher who showed compassion for Davis' family and their hardship. She brought a “bag full of the most beautiful clothes that were hand-me-downs from her daughter," and Davis said she'll never forget this act of kindness.

Davis wrote about these experiences, plus more (her father was an abusive alcoholic, and she was sexually abused), in her new memoir Finding Me.

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