Sela Ward is the quintessential Southern belle. She and her husband Howard Sherman founded Hope Village in her home town of Meridian, Mississippi to give a real home to abused, abandoned, and neglected foster children:
These kids have bounced from one foster home to another. Some have never had a birthday party, never slept in a bed. It’s outrageous! At Hope Village, they have a sense of belonging. They feel safe, valued.
Slowly and gradually, she has been revealing the emotional abuse and neglect she experienced in her own home. Parade Magazine reported on January 23:
At home. . .things weren’t always so peaceful. “My father was a wonderful man ~ until he drank. . .I knew the moment that ice went in his glass he would become a different person, an angry drunk. It was confusing to me, because sober he was very lovable. The atmosphere was tense, heavy. I didn’t understand that he was an alcoholic. In the South you just don’t talk about those things.”
She went on to reveal that her mother didn’t realize she’d married the wrong man until she was on her deathbed. Ms. Ward recalled:
She was a strong woman, but she wasn’t strong enough to leave Daddy. Probably because she feared the unknown. Divorce was still shameful. She had four kids ~ she was overwhelmed. And, you know, she just really loved him.
Homesick: A Memoir
Ms. Ward was more circumspect in Homesick: A Memoir which she published in 2002. It begins powerfully:
This is a story about home.
It is the story of a girl raised in a gentle town in the Deep South, cradled by family and friends, worshipping Bear Bryant on Saturday night and Jesus Christ on Sunday morning, savoring sweet tea and porch swings, corn bread and courtesy and all the tender mercies of a Mississippi childhood.
. . .one day, it snuck up on me that I was well and truly homesick. . .
What I’m talking about is re-creating wherever we now live, the best parts of home, either the home we had growing up or the home we wished for. Home as a place of shelter and comfort, both physically and spiritually. Home as well for which a family draws its emotional strength to face the challenges of the day and the hardships of a lifetime.
Six Generations in Meridian, Mississippi
Ms. Ward was born on July 11, 1956. Her family has six generations of roots deep in the red clay of Mississippi. Her father, Granberry H. Ward, was named for the man who ran the orphanage where his grandmother was raised. He was an engineer who married Annie Kate Boswell in 1954. The couple’s first son David died shortly after his premature birth.
Her father had a sign in his office: “BE REASONABLE. DO IT MY WAY.” In her memoir, Ms. Ward characterized his behavior as “eccentric” and “onery” rather than emotionally abusive and neglectful:
Daddy drank too much. . .loved his bourbon. . .alcohol wasn’t a friend to Daddy. It made him contrary and angry. . . he had a tough analytical mind, and if he got it into his head to prove a point, he had a way of pressing and pressing you on it, often to the point of discomfort. He always seemed so naturally wintry and introspective that I’ve often thought he would have been better off as a flinty New Englander.
She described her mother as a “tough” woman with an “iron will” who “believed in the secret power of manners:”
Grace my mother had in spades. . .Mama had an indomitable sense of pride, a regal bearing and steely dignity that made an enormous impression on me.
. . .I learned from my mother’s example that the only way to get what you want is to keep at it. . .
Annie Kate lived in a time and place that gave her few options for self-fulfillment. She grew up poor and I think secretly ashamed of it, married and had four children in almost as many years. And she learned early how to steel herself against life’s disappointments. . .she must have been like a flowering plant in rocky soil, that could survive but never bloom. . .
Mama. . .worked, and worried, and developed a kind of defensive shell around herself that wasn’t always easy to penetrate. She always refused to pity herself. . .if she had started down that road , she might not have been able to find her way back. Besides, self-pity is a sign of weakness, and she had passed her whole life fighting to stave off weakness.
Mama protected us, and gave us all her native strength. But here is the hardest truth: It wasn’t given to her to nurture us, to help us recognize our dreams and chase them. As much as she took care of her children, sheltered us, and provided for us, she’d never been given the tools young people need to foster their own potential, and so she was unable to pass them on to us. She never knew how to set us on the right path, only how to guard and hold us close. . .
I see now how much of her repressed longing and ambition was displace onto me.
Dark Side of Chivalry
“Remember who you are” describes the Southern way of life:
Contained in those four words is an entire way of life that most Southerners feel in their bones. It says that whatever the external facts of your life, your soul can remain untouchable, your character intact, if you refuse to yield to despair and vulgarity. Mama had firm beliefs about the way the world worked, and strict expectations for her children. Virtue, kindliness, and self-discipline were paramount for her. . .Mama made sure we knew how we were expected to behave.
Mrs. Ward distanced herself from children who disrespected adults and themselves. Her daughters attended dance lessons and two charm schools. Ms. Ward went to Lamar, a small private school with only 35 children in her graduating class. Ms. Ward was deeply wounded by the dark side of high school cliques and Southern chivalry:
If social cohesion is one of the good things about growing up in a small town, the downside is the unchallengeable power of cliques. . .If you don’t conform, even at the cost of sacrificing your principles and self-respect, you will be an outcast. And if you have a sensitive nature , it will mark you for life. . .
Southern manners were the defining influences of my life. . .
This culture of honor and chivalry, which defines Southern society and gives it so much of its decency and beauty, has a dark side, and that is shame.
Honor, after all, is something that can only be conferred by others. So if you’re raised in a society obsessed with personal honor, you’re likely to spend an awful lot of your life worrying about what others think of you. And more often than not you’ll be willing to contort yourself to no end in order to save face, or to keep others from losing face.
Crimson Tide Cheerleader to Model to Actress
Ms. Ward graduated from the University of Alabama and was a Crimson Tide cheerleader. These connections were helpful when she moved to New York City and Hollywood.
She had a number of long-term relationships with men who didn’t always treat her with dignity and respect. This changed when she secured the role of Teddy Reed in Sisters:
. . .something in me snapped. . .I was getting tired of subjugating my own dreams to the whims of ill-suited men, what I needed was a new outlook.
She cut her hair and changed her look:
. . .it was time for a change. My looks didn’t honestly reflect who I’d become ~ much more of a risk-taker, much less reliant on my physical appearance, and more confident about my ability as an actor. . .for the first time in my life I felt free from my looks. . .
Teddy Reed was the role that would make a real actress out of me. . .Learning to play that volatile character freed me to be more confident and expressive in my personal life. . .I started to find more humor and fun in the world around me. . .By the time Sisters ended its six-year run I’d been given an Emmy for my acting ~ but my real reward was this new stronger sense of myself. . .I’d finally matured to the point of knowing I didn’t need a man to be happy.
Howard Sherman, Anabella, Sela Ward, Austin