Meredith Baxter on Abuse, Alcoholism and Coming Out

Filed under: Celeb News & Interviews

Meredith Baxter

Meredith Baxter writes of her struggles in her new memoir, "Untied." Credit: Angela Weiss, WireImage

In the '80s, Meredith Baxter starred as Elyse Keaton, the supermom on "Family Ties," one of the decade's most successful sitcoms.

But her personal life was a far cry from the one she acted out on TV. A mother of five, Baxter, 63, says she was trapped in a verbally and physically abusive marriage to actor David Birney (father to her three youngest kids). Birney denies the charges.

In the years that followed, Baxter eventually divorced Birney, conquered a drinking problem, had another lousy marriage, successfully battled breast cancer and came to realize she was gay.

In a happy relationship with Nancy Locke for the last five years, Baxter has penned the memoir "Untied." She recently spoke to ParentDish about her struggles -- holding nothing back. An edited version of the interview follows.

ParentDish: Your childhood was really dysfunctional.
Meredith Baxter:
Yeah, it was pretty sad. I wasn't allowed to call my mother "Mom" because she was an actress and she felt that if we called her by her first name -- her stage name, Whitney -- then maybe people would mistake her as our aunt or our sister as opposed to our mother, which would age her. That was something she really wanted to avoid.

PD: You write of battling self-esteem issues all your life. Do you think that was a cause?
MB:
Oh, no question. I interpreted -- this was not her intention -- but I interpreted it that she did not love me, she did not want to be my mother. It totally affected my sense of self, of self value and sense of lovability. Consequently, I sort of developed a belief system based on these things that dictated the trajectory of my life.

PD: You're gorgeous. How did you not see that?
MB:
I thought I was OK. I knew I had some kind of value, but it probably went all to my breasts. But I was looking at some pictures and trying to put them together for the book and I found a bunch of stuff I'd done after "Bridget Loves Bernie," and I was like, "Whoa! I didn't know I was that cute!"

PD: Don't you feel like, oh, my God, what an idiot I was?
MB:
Yeah, all that wasted time. I could have been out there; I could have been a porn star! (Laughs). When I was younger, I met a hooker who was trying to draft me and I was kind of considering it, "Um, OK. Maybe. Why not?"

PD: You were so insecure for so long.
MB:
I know. It just makes me sad for the lost time. I held on to that kind of childish perception long after most people have left it behind them. I think it's because I saw myself as a victim and, to a degree, I was comfortable in that because I didn't really know anything else. If I'm a victim, then you feel sorry for me and maybe you'll take care of me. And that's how I went into my marriage with David: ... "I don't think I'm very smart, you don't seem to think I'm very smart, so I'm in the right place."

PD: You were married for 15 years and you had the financial resources to leave. Why didn't you?
MB:
Here's the truth: It never occurred to me. It never dawned on me that I had the money. It just never occurred to me. I was so limited in what I thought. I have no excuse for it except I was just basically trying to get through the day.

PD: What was the last straw?
MB:
It's like when you put a stack of pennies and make them so tall and then, all of a sudden, you put one more penny on and it falls over. It was no different than anything else. I couldn't sustain it anymore. It was one Thanksgiving, 15 years into our marriage, when it was emotionally bruising again and I was crying and David was making some challenge, like, what are we going to do next year so it won't be as disastrous as this year? I didn't know what disaster he was talking about, but it didn't matter because he saw it that way and my oldest daughter just turned and said to me, "What are you waiting for?"

PD: You were 19 when you had your son Ted. Did you have any idea what you were doing?
MB:
Oh, God, no. And here's how my kids are so much smarter that me: First of all, they didn't go into show business and they waited to have kids much later than I did.

PD: It seems your alcoholism crept up on you.
MB:
I had periodic stuff when I was a teenager, but I didn't really get how it worked 'til later -- "Oh, there's a cause and effect here. I can feel better by doing this as opposed to 'let's party.' " It took me a while to realize that it was an effective tool to change the way I felt.

PD: You entered into another terrible marriage after you were sober.
MB:
I believed I was unloved and unlovable and had no value. So, I'm a shredded person before you put anything else on me, before you put me in any other kind of abusive relationship. I was sober for 10 years before I really started working on myself.

PD: Did your lack of self-esteem influence you as a parent?
MB:
I wasn't able to stand up for my kids. I wasn't able to get between them and their dad. All I could do was to witness it. That was the difference between me and my mother. She was in her room, she wouldn't come out, and so it all happened without her seeing it. I watched it.

PD: But you didn't have the strength to deal with it.
MB:
No, I was afraid.

PD: When did you realize you were gay?
MB:
I didn't realize when I was younger. I was so shut down. It wasn't until this young sports woman moved into my guest house and I knew she was gay and she was very attractive and I realized I wanted to know where she was all the time. Once in a while we'd go to the movies and it was like, "Whoa, I'm having a big reaction to this." Then, I was away working and a flurry of texts started back and forth between us and I thought, "OK, I'm not making this up." So, I had to go back home and address it, and I guess that's when it started.

PD: You've been with your partner, Nancy Locke, for five years.
MB:
This is the best chapter and it's very interesting because I've never had this much attention before. All this press stuff is a little heady. It messes with my ego. I don't want to get an inflated ego, with my Adonis DNA.

PD: Were you surprised how much attention you received when you came out?
MB:
Yes, and it was not until I started getting people coming up to me and saying, "Thank you for doing this -- it means a lot to the gay community," that I got it. When Nancy and I did "Oprah," our friends were saying, "This is great. People get to see a healthy, loving lesbian relationship." I hadn't thought of it that way. We get to kind of go and be of service.

PD: My favorite Lifetime movies are the ones where you play Betty Broderick.
MB:
Thank you. I have to attribute that to being so fueled by anger at David. You could feel me crackle because I was so pissed and I got to act it out.

PD: Was it strange to be so miserable at home and then play a happy mom on "Family Ties?"
MB:
It was wonderful. It gave me a place to go. I was terrified when the show was going to be over. I signed up for a seventh season and I never discussed it with David because I could not imagine my life with having no place to go. It was just so hard at home and I had no friends. I would compartmentalize. I could just be a different person there. I had someone waiting at home who had such contempt for me.

My goal is, I hope, some other people recognize this and will now know that there is a way out of this. It took me a long time of misery that probably didn't need to happen.

PD: Because of your self-esteem issues, did you have trouble disciplining your kids?
MB:
Oh, gosh yes. When one of my kids would not do as I asked, I would feel this wave of anger and humiliation and it was all about me. It was not, "Look, you need to take care of this thing, you need to do what I've asked you to do." I was feeling this well of shame of, "What's wrong with me that doesn't make you do what I want you to do?"

... When my oldest daughter was a baby, she was colicky and crying. I felt like I was an inadequate mother; I couldn't comfort her. I made it about me.

PD: Listen, nothing is harder than motherhood and you have five kids!
MB:
I know! What was I thinking? (Laughs.)

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