Monday, November 22, 2010

GILLEAN SMITH: The BrooWaha Interview

Gillean Smith with Helen Thomas (2010) writer and owner of GS Consulting, Gillean Smith shares her thoughts on life lived in the shadows of fame, and what it means to live in and out of the light. 

A Bill Friday interview.

BILL FRIDAY: Just to let you know, I’ve spent quite a few days going over your decidedly intimidating family history.

GILLEAN SMITH: Funny. In school, no one knew of my family and who they were. I was just another student.

Gillean’s famous relatives include her late father, Albert Merriman Smith, known to most as “Smitty,” who was Dean of the White House Press Corp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for his written account of the death of President John F. Kennedy and the man who ended every press conference with, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Her step-brother also happens to be General Stanley A. McChrystal (ret.), the former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, until he was relieved of his command by President Barack Obama in July of this year.

FRIDAY: Before we go any further, is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?

GILLEAN: First you should know that I am directionally, technologically and mathematically challenged. I don't like needles. I don't do well at the sight of blood...

FRIDAY: Growing up, did anybody know about your family background?

GILLEAN: I suppose maybe a teacher knew who my father was. But truthfully, kids my age didn't care at all. Or, I suppose it wasn't a topic of conversation with girls I wanted as friends. Somehow, a Pulitzer Prize doesn't come across as cool, at least not at 13 or so.

I’m not quite sure the boys and girls knew in school. But like I said, by the time I was a high school student, I was just happy to be attending the same school for more than one year before moving.

We moved a great deal. I simply begged to be allowed to attend high school at the same school for all four years. I was able to do just that.

To listen to Gillean talk, the first impression you get is that her early life might have been like a fifty/fifty cross between the films “The Wedding Crashers” and “Gardens Of Stone”. As you listen further, you understand what you’re hearing isn’t that easily defined.

GILLEAN: Well, as I was three when he died, I truly have no memory of him. So, anything related to my father was of interest or intrigue to me. It makes such psychological sense to hold him in such high regard. I did not know the true man. So, I took who he was and the legend became my father. I learned from his tough style of reporting and asking questions others were afraid to ask.

FRIDAY: What did you learn from asking those questions?

GILLEAN: Well just this past year, I discovered that as an infant, I was born to be a cure, if you will, to someone fighting for his life. I was supposed to save my own father. And shouldn't anyone who has any sense know that a baby is not medicine but a human being...a new life? The truth and then the tragedy, lies and betrayal continue to be just another new discovery about my supposed role in my own family. There are still many more questions to ask. You just have to have the courage to ask them.

With new information, such as an entire box of letters, legal documents and much more, what I always thought to be true or had as my starting point in life, if you will, is nothing like I thought it was.

I have a hard time thinking it through. Imagine going through life knowing only what you can understand from a child’s perspective. You take what you know to be true. And you live that life because it’s all you know.

FRIDAY: How did that affect you later?

GILLEAN: Well, take what you have learned and walk back through your life with an adult's eyes. The betrayal, the lies, the secrets...and when my mother died when I was 16 years old, I uncovered another shocking blow. What does it feel like when the weight of a cement block hits your soul? If you can try to imagine, the day I went through boxes of our things and came across a little book that was a diary, well, it changed my life.

But the truth of it all was that my life had already been altered time and time again. When one is left without an adult who cares about your well-being, many things can happen. And in my case, many things did happen but not for my benefit. It was always to benefit someone else.

FRIDAY: You were 16?

GILLEAN: Yes. I was 16 when my mother died. We were not living together. She moved back to D.C. I stayed behind in North Carolina.

FRIDAY: Really...?

GILLEAN: The last memory I have of her is hearing her scream and cry bitterly as I made my way down to my plane. I looked back once. I was so embarrassed.

I found out she died about a year later after I visited her. I was so mean that last time. The phone rang and when I took the call, a doctor asked for me by name. He introduced himself as a doctor from George Washington Hospital. He said he was calling on behalf of my mother. I still remember saying, ‘what did she do now?’

I think the doctor was a little surprised by my answer. He went on to say that he regretted to inform me that my mother had died. I remember hearing the phone crash on the kitchen floor. I had no family. I was completely and utterly alone.

FRIDAY: Why did you stay behind?

GILLEAN: I thought I could escape the bad, which primarily was an alcoholic mother. Her fits of rage and what she did... it took me many years to forgive her.

FRIDAY: After the fact?

GILLEAN: Yes. I think I began to forgive her in college years after she had died and years after my black patent leather shoes sunk in the mud at Arlington National Cemetery where she was buried with my father.

I never knew what happened to those shoes.

FRIDAY: What can you tell me about the "reason" for your birth?

GILLEAN: As I said, I was supposed to help heal a broken man. I was born to make things better. I was brought in this world to help improve a man's life... my father's life. And then three short years later, I must not have done too well because before we were to go out to eat Chinese, he went into his bathroom with one of his guns from his gun collection and shot and killed himself.

Things don't always turn out the way you plan.
She asks me if what she’s told me is “too much” for me, and I tell her it’s not. I think maybe I lied. Then I ask her if she’s okay telling me. She smiles.

FRIDAY: You’ve written about your family on Broowaha,  but your story isn’t just about famous relatives, is it?

GILLEAN: I have told people for years that my life story would make a great ABC miniseries. Of course, those aren't around anymore. Now, it would be more an HBO special. With the violence, language and sexual content, I doubt anyone else would touch it.

I will share something else with you. With all of the violence, both physical and emotional, I was never prepared for what happened after I decided to run away at age 12 to live with a family in the town where I went to school. I thought I had finally escaped the bad. But I had walked into the worst.

I really can't remember when it started. I only know that it didn't stop for a long time.

FRIDAY: So, that was 30 years ago. How did you move past that? Did you move past that? Can you?
She went on to talk of worse things than the loss of a parent, or the adolescent struggle to find one’s own identity. About bad things that can happen to a young girl, living with strangers. I make a note to leave that story for her to tell, at a time of her own choosing.

FRIDAY: A recurring theme I'm encountering when I interview women is the bad (early) circumstances made for bad choices later in life. Did that play a part for you?

GILLEAN: Yes. Unfortunately you can add me to that category.

I had always talked about sharing my story. So last year, I met with former Dean of the White House Press Corps, and family friend, Helen Thomas.

We discussed the idea of me writing a book over dinner one night. She gave me some ideas on how to begin and asked that I put a chapter together with an outline. Within three days, I had everything prepared for her review. I sent it her way and didn't hear back. The following week, I called her. Helen answered the phone and then asked me to wait a minute.

Helen Thomas, a woman who had covered 10 Presidential administrations in the White House put everything on hold for me so that she could read my first chapter and review my outline. I was so nervous. And the five to ten minutes it took for her to read every word seemed like a lifetime. A best-selling author, a national icon was reading my piddly first draft. I heard the phone move a bit.

And then she cleared her voice and said,

"Gillean, you should do this. It is well-written.”
So the book became a reality. It was no longer just a talking point or an afterthought. It was now a quest. And that is where you find me today.

Sometime during my interview with Gillean... I couldn’t decide exactly when... I found myself pulling for her… liking her… not for the amazing stories she told me of her childhood, but for just how normal she was, even after spending her life living through them.

GILLEAN: One day I asked my mother if she believed in God. She said that she believed in a higher power. She had been handed down a deck of tarot cards and wanted to pass them down to me.

I declined.

I remember praying to God that no matter what happened in my life, I didn't want riches but only safety and enough money to meet my needs to survive. I sense He planned to have me write this book so that others experiencing such senseless horrors would be able to stand up for themselves once and for all and be heard and take back their lives, their hopes and their dreams.

That's what I get from Gillean. I get the overall feeling that she's really okay... as okay as okay can be.

FRIDAY: And how is that different from other things you've done in the past?

GILLEAN: In high school, I would go to the back room where I was given a bed and turn on my radio and listen to music. I would find a song to relate to and cry it all out. Music was my emotional outlet. It cleansed my soul when all around me was confusion and chaos.

FRIDAY: And then...?

GILLEAN: When I left for college my freshman year to attend Johnson & Wales University, I swore I would not be called a 'Christian' or state anything of the sort until I truly believed in such a thing or person or whatever it was. My faith began to grow my freshman year and grew even more when I returned to NC to attend UNC Greensboro.

FRIDAY: So now that you've begun the process of writing "the book", how do you see yourself once you're done, and the story has been told?

GILLEAN: I can say that I feel wholeheartedly, that with this book comes the need to share my story and allow others to discover their voice. With the book complete, my hope is to share my story, share how I am beginning to introduce who I am to my own self and let my voice be heard...loud and clear so that others can find their own voices to resonate loud and clear above all of the monsters that can never take the essence of who they are as a person.

I want others to know they are not alone.

Copyright © 2010 Bill Friday


  1. Totally off topic, you should know that I specialise in messing with heads.

  2. Everyone needs to have a specialty.